London Diary
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore

April 29, 2010

Returning to London after 25 years was happy-making! The Brits are definitely more polite and less racist than before and on the whole, the city is smiling, stress-free and simply astounding. Cultural activities are seeing a boom, and I'm not just talking about how much funding is available to the Asian community for art activity, managed by a smart Mira Kaushik of The Akademi, but generally, also in non-Asian art activity. Below reads how.

A visit to V & A (Victoria and Albert Museum) in the fine and intelligent company of Neesha Radia, an ace student of Guru Pratap Pawar, who is settled in London for the last 3 decades, showed how museums ought to be. For the past 5 years, I've been working on finishing my book on Ram Gopal, so tried to look up facts and had gone in search of Ram Gopal's costumes (having heard it was donated to V & A by his trustees) and but for a crown, found nothing on display. Maybe it is all in some deep storage, as most museums cannot display all they possess but just about 10% of what they have. This aspect of museumology I learnt way back, when I worked with India's ace museum-designer Martand Singh. We did 5 museums and I worked as an associate of India's giant talent, Mapu, as he is fondly called. The 5 were: The Mehrangarh Museum in Jodhpur; Mathura Heritage; Bhubaneswar; Goa and Ahmedabad.

Dhananjayan's donation
Ram's crown
Photos: Neesha Radia
In the same V & A Costume Gallery were two crowns from Dhananjayans' The Return of Spring production. The V & A is simply a historians' delight and I loved my few hours spent there. Neesha is smart, sensible and sensitive artiste-academician in the making and took me next to what my wife Elisabeth Hall Khokar, had asked me to see - a butterfly exhibition at the huge Natural History Museum. A sweet though small exhibition, on butterflies from the world over were assembled, oops, flying freely and visitors were shrieking and shouting as though they were bats! Some were the size of bats but then most things from America are big!

Bangalore's fine singer Manasi Prasad is helping the Brigade Group create India's first Music Museum called The Indian Music Experience in Bangalore and as an advisor-helper, I wanted to update on all museums, especially music ones, thus I went to O2, where in the Bubble (a dome, the size of Nehru stadium) stands this latest feat of technological-savvy Brits, a complete history of world music, with special focus on Britain, great or otherwise. It was an awesome sight to be there....first-rate professionalism and what an eye to detail. One could hear and even download (on the 15 pound tic) all one wished to, including snippets of some very bad dancing done by yours truly! In a kiosk, one can select any tune from categories offered and play-act to a video image of how to and then follow it...while you do all this, it records all this and you can then see it! Instant coffee takes longer. The most fascinating object for me was a miniature radio which was 2 inches only, encased in a velvet box!

Ashish Khokar at the Music Museum Experience O2
The Bubble
Photos: Neesha Radia
Amongst objects were more costumes of music legends like Mick Jagger, The Beatles and even Boy George. Sitars, guitars, tablas, drums, octopads...why you can sit and make your own tune....we tried to and ended up singing one song...karaoke badly that the original singer must have died, if not turned turtle in his grave.

Nehru Centre with its high walls and lavish building plays host to all. The day we visited, the DG of ICCR's wife was singing ghazals; next day there was to be film on Dr. Karan Singh, the scholar-savant, who was to speak on Vedanta the next day at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where I went the next day to meet and greet Dr. MN Nanda Kumar, fellow Bangalorean, and Sanskrit scholar. As an alumni of Bhavans, I take special delight in visiting its centers all over the world, be it Baroda or Boston. At the Nehru Centre, Astad Deboo was spotted as he was in London for Alchemy festival, put together by Kathakaar Gauri Sharma.

A lunch hosted by Mira Kaushik of The Akademi, had few younger dancers and writers flocking. One has heard of Gauri Sharma, now Tripathi, and seen her in practically each issue of Pulse! She was there with her elegant mother Guru Padma Sharma, who recalled how my father had been her examiner when she learnt Kathak under Guru Mohan Rao Kalyanpurkar. Young Kuchipudi dancer Anurima Kumar has recently settled in London and trying to make Kuchipudi popular. I found the solo Orissi dancer in London, sitting in an art gallery at the Bhavans. Writer Sushma exchanged notes on my Guru Maya Rao book (Madhu had given her a copy and Sushma said the spine was coming undone!). The lunch took long in coming and when we asked the waiter what took so long to get us even water, he said, he was making it!

One day, walking down the South Banks, one could see sixties block-type architecture looking grey and depressing, despite the nice riverside setting. I have read too many mystery and murder novels so I was looking for some dead, floating body in the river but found nothing except cold winds blowing our way. Big and small halls, galleries and cafeteria, make this place the most happening for art activity. Mira Kaushik, OBE no less! In fact has done many an art-for-the-masses mela-type spectacles in London, using Indian dances and this South Banks setting, often gets to see many such events. A tacky exhibition on South Hall (and racist riots of 1979) was on, doing no justice to an already marginalized people. Having heard of fresh jalebis being made in South Hall, on the roadside, bit like on Punjab, I went there personally to see the real South Hall, to see my fellow Punjabi brethren not only making jalebis but jobs and space for new immigrants, especially the Afghanis.

Guru Pratap Pawar
Guru Pratap Pawar and students
Guruji's students in London: Neesha and Alpana, extreme left
Dancers anywhere have to work hard to survive. Some are lucky. Some are not. Guru Pratap Pawar settled in London some 30 years ago and has contributed significantly to the understanding and appreciation of Kathak in that land. With over 80 students, he has made a mark like his guru Birju Maharaj. Guru Pratap Pawar is gentle, decent and hardworking. Most love him for his dedication and sincerity and he is a beacon of light in that volcano ash- washed, fog-bound city! Alpana (the Roshan Kumari look-alike), Riyaz (Islamic theologist and handsomest Kathak dancer, worldwide), Neesha (intelligent, committed, yoga-Kathak doer), Deepa (Lost-looking, both in art and in London, away from her Karnataka) and Balbir (sardar turned kathakaar) are his senior students, each capable of taking the style forward. His style has the old world charm and nazaqat (delicateness). None of the angularity one sees in last 20 years, all assembly clones! His son Prashant is a delightful character, charming and smart and his wife Swati, a perfect home maker. The result - their daughter Pragun Dhanashree, is a darling 3-year old, and I've never come across a more sweet-tempered, intelligent child. That she dances with joy and never stops going in circles, shows Guru Pratap's art is safe!

Meeting Akram Khan was to get an update of how this wonder boy has become the toast of contemporary dance. He is global now, working with Taiwan and Timbuktu. He told me his tale of growing up in London and how he made an entry to dance. As Guru Pratap Pawar's calling card, he is also the best rep of the school and style. Pawar has done much for Kathak, quietly in 4 continents: Trinidad- Guyana; Canada: USA and UK.

Pushkala Gopal is a name familiar from our Delhi days and growing up in the 70s. As she could not make it to Mira Kaushik's lunch hosted for me, she came all the way to Osterley, where I was staying, to see and connect and meeting and eating with her was like being in Mylapore with its maami, right in London! Of course, 15 years ago, I had been to her Mylapore home, which also housed the Sampradaya Music archives (in her father's house in Mylapore and now shifted to Kalakshetra campus). Pushkala is doing for Bharatanatyam what Pratap ji is doing for Kathak, though he is her senior and she (as do others), treat him with respect a senior commands.

London was very enjoyable, until Icelandic ashes did it in. All airports across Europe being affected, we were all grounded for 5 days and couldn't leave. Who wanted to? London is truly a happy-making cultural experience. So much to see and do. On the last day, as I was free, Prashant drove us all to see the sights and possibly see the Queen, but she was busy.

After a week in London, I was to go to Sweden, taking a young group of Kathakaars from Delhi, to perform for the Queen of Sweden, but with all flights cancelled and Europe closed, we had to postpone.

Reputed critic-scholar-historian, editor-publisher of attendance, occasionally writes fun stuff as a diarist. ;