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Remembering Sunilji
- Jai Govinda
e-mail: govindajai@yahoo.com

January 12, 2021

Right from the moment I heard the sad news of his passing away I started to miss dear Sunilji. He was an institution into himself, an intimate witness of 60 years of the history, development and evolution of the many Indian classical dance forms. There will never be another one like him. With his legacy of at least 20 books on dance, his contribution to the performing arts of India is unsurpassed. His book 'Bharatanatyam,' a Marg publication, remains the go to book for an overall look at the dance form. A beautiful coffee table book with pictures of the dancers and masters of then and now, it covers all the many facets and components of the dance form. It is a precious jewel in any Bharatanatyam dancer's library. I remember when the second edition came out. I met Sunil in Delhi with the book in hand at a homage to Uday Shankar. Uday Shankar's daughter Mamata's troupe was performing. He said to me, "It has made a few people unhappy, but I am laughing all the way to the bank." This was a typical Sunil statement. Remember that his first job was as a chartered accountant....


With Sunil Kothari and choreographer Santhosh Nair at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for the Canada Dance Festival, 2010

Not surprisingly, Sunilji created a job for himself. He came from very humble beginnings but made a life which included travelling all over the world, living in luxury hotels and homes, and eating in the best of restaurants. He was a man of the world. Everyone wanted him seated front row for their events, as it brought credibility and notoriety to the presentations. I told him he was the Narada muni of dance, the trickster, one who makes things happen by sometimes creating a little bit of havoc. He was famous for that, and at times could have a sharp tongue. But his warmth, enthusiasm and curiosity were infectious. His love for all forms of dance brought him in the presence of legendary dance artistes such as Rudolph Nureyev, Pina Bausch, Maurice Bejart, and of course all the royalty of the Indian classical dance forms. He first wrote for the 'Times of India', and was at times correspondent for the 'Dance Magazine' USA, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dance Critics association in New York in 2011.

I first met Sunilji in Montreal in the early 80's. He watched me rehearse a thillana of the U.S. Krishna Rao couple in a downtown dance studio. I had just completed my arangetram a few months before. I took him to the National Film Board to see the 2 dance movies by Norman Mclaren; 'Pas de deux' and 'Narcisse.' I also took him to my alma matter ballet school Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, where he watched a morning ballet company class and was introduced to ex-premier danseur Vincent Warren, and the founder of the company Ludmilla Chiriaeff who was at that time slowly walking away from her directing function from the company and school.


With Sunil Kothari and Ram Gopal at the first Kalanidhi Fine Arts Festival in Toronto, 1985

I met Sunilji again a year later at the Kalanidhi Fine Arts presentation of one of Canada's first symposium on Indian classical dance held in Toronto where illustrious dancers, teachers and scholars were present. Amongst them were Ram Gopal, Guru Kitappa Pillai, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Hema Rajagopalan, Rajika Puri, Menaka Thakkar etc. Because we often met at dance events, which spanned a few days, there was always time for intimate sharing over many cups of tea and coffee, lunch, dinners etc. Sunil was always very gracious towards me, and we treated each other with respect.

When I met Sunilji again, my career had taken a few steps forward, and I had just completed 2 tours of Canada with a live orchestra. I was in Delhi and heard that Rohinton Cama was performing at the Khajuraho festival. He was at that time one of the very rare male Bharatanatyam artistes, and I immediately flew there to attend the festival. To my great misfortune, his name had been taken off the line up of the performing artists and his teacher Vyjayantimala Bali performed instead. Sunil was present and insisted I sat with him in the front row for all the evening performances. As Bali was then a member of parliament, the whole city went on strike to protest her presence as a political leader. Sunil took me to all early morning filming, interviews and photo sessions by Delhi Doordarshan, and took me to see the famous movie actress, dancer and now Member of Parliament, to her hotel room past heavy armed security. Later on in Delhi when I met him at a performance at Kamani Auditorium (I was searching for a place to stay during my studies with Jamuna Krishnan) he introduced me to Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen. She was most gracious and guided me to a place where I would continue to stay in subsequent years, and she became a dear friend.


In Khajuraho with Vyjayantimala Bali and the crew from Delhi Doordarshan, 1989

I again met Sunil in Toronto at 2 events presented by Sampradaya Dance Creations, one at which I was performing, and another where my students were participating. It was always lovely to catch up and laugh with Sunilji. To witness his affection for his guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai was heartwarming. In Vancouver, Sunil was the chief guest at Mandala Arts and Culture's sold out presentations of Sampradaya Dance Creations' 'Vivartha.' For the occasion, he gave a lecture at the Scotiabank Dance Centre talking about his most recent book, 'New Directions in Indian Dance.' I took him to our beautiful University Campus, the Asian Study department, and for a lovely dinner at the home of Sanskrit scholar and dance writer Dr. Mandakranta Bose. While at home, we went through programs, pictures, souvenirs and reminisced. I had been telling Sunil to write his bio for more than 20 years. I am glad he finally did. Since the advent of the internet we kept in touch, with occasional emails, Facebook messages etc. Funnily enough, in the last email he sent me on Nov. 8 2020, he urged me to write my own autobiography...

Another special meeting with Sunil was again in Delhi when Chandralekha and legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch were touring India with a series of lectures and performances. Sunil was a great friend of Chandralekha, who was at the time at the forefront of the new wave of dance exploration. We met each other again in 2010 at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa where 2 of my students were performing.

Last year I was invited to speak at the Natya Kala Conference in Chennai. Of course one of the first persons I met was Sunilji, sitting front row centre. For one of the Music Academy performances, he asked me to sit and watch with him as we had done so many times in the old days. I enquired about his health and state of mind, and for a man who seemed at times very agitated, he told me he was happy and at peace. I put my hand on his heart and told him I was happy for him, and that I was also longing for that state. On the last day of the festival, I saw him taking pictures with his adoring fans and friends, amongst promises to all to meet again soon. By the time I met Sunil last, we had known each others for 40 years.


With Sridhar Shanmugham, Sunil Kothari and Rajika Puri at the Natya Kala Conference in Chennai, 2019

A few weeks before his demise, we heard that he and a few Delhi senior artists had received a letter of evacuation from their Asiad Village homes. At 87, Sunil must have been insulted, infuriated, and greatly disturbed by the news. As the court jester that he was, Sunil did a little pirouette and exited his home of many years a few days before the final date of his evacuation notice. He passed away on Dec. 27, 2020. Sunil had just completed a biography written in Gujarati and yet to be translated in English. In his lifetime he has received many honours and awards, amongst them the prestigious Padma Shri award, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. We lost a jewel in the crown of Indian dance. You are greatly missed, dear Sunil.

With affection. Pranams. RIP.
Your dance friend
Jai Govinda


Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher Jai Govinda is the Artistic Director of Mandala Arts and Culture, Vancouver, Canada.


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