Will real Sonal Mansingh stand up, please?
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@gmail.com
Photo: Avinash Pasricha

March 7, 2011

The Kamani Auditorium was full to the capacity on 22nd February 2011 at 7 pm. Under the aegis of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Dr.Sonal Mansingh was to present her latest work Krishna Ranga Rachee Naatya-Katha using vocal singing and recitation accompanied by six musicians, sometimes mixing it with hastas (hand gestures), sometimes getting up and dancing, and basically sitting on an asan (throne) on which devotees usually find a kathakaar (story teller) as seen in a temple giving a religious discourse.

Dressed in a yellow silk saree, Sonal appeared with six musicians, three on either side of her, she in the centre, and did pranam, folding her two palms, to the audience and after they were seated, chanted shlokas in Sanskrit and started her Naatya Katha.

At 67, Sonal looked very attractive and dignified with a commanding stage presence. I am reproducing a photograph of hers in Odissi dance taken by Avinash Pasricha which shows her radiant personality. When she performs classical Odissi dance, she reminds audiences of her artistic assets. Dr Karan Singh, scholar diplomat and a connoisseur, has heralded her paying her tribute for her performances in Odissi saying when he saw Odissi dance form he felt it was created for Sonal Mansingh. I endorse it.

Articulate, gifted with a praiseworthy command over languages, love for Sanskrit, trained in classical Hindustani vocal music, she has many plus points in her favour with a beautiful personality to attract the crowds. In her new avatar (incarnation) as 'a story teller' she had on that evening the audience eating out of her hands.

Even the invitation card with miniature painting showing four armed Sheshashayee Vishnu reclining on multi-headed serpent, Lakshmi pressing his feet and another miniature painting showing dark Krishna playing with the Gopis, with her note on what she was to present as a story teller-singer, she succeeded in meeting the expectations of the 'devotees.' I make distinction of the connoisseurs who come to see a dance performance in the audience, explaining in her note "even the often heard and repeated stories of characters like Shri Krishna acquire fresh meaning to a Kathakaar dealing with them." One cannot disagree with her claim that "to hear a seasoned Kathakaar is to fall in love with the characters, more so if it is Krishna, the perfect man-God!"

Her seating arrangements were perfect for a sadhvi, a female religious story teller. The religious discourse she gave ending with a climax in frenzied excitement arousing audiences to chant along with her non-stop 'Radhe bol Radhe bol' inviting audiences to join her clapping and chanting, she turned the Kamani hall into a religious katha hall of a temple and she aroused at least one 'vulnerable' in the audience to even declare loudly that Sonal had 'revealed the true devotion through her discourse.' The lady, an Indian diaspora from Canada, almost wanted to run and touch Sonal's feet, so overwhelmed was she with the discourse by Sonal Mansingh!

I felt that it is now right time for Sonal to renounce the world of dance, even the social world - sansar, and move like Meerabai in search of her Krishna, from village to village with her Naatya Katha and find her Krishna, somewhere among the true devotees and not among the urban city dwellers at the Kamani Hall. She does not need ICCR to sponsor her any more. On her own steam with her devotees she can enthrall audiences, essentially religious devotees all over the world and settle down in Vrindavan and declare herself as 'Ritambhara Sonal'!

I was reminded of female Harikatha singers of the South. Take for instance Uma Maheshwari, wife of Andhra Natyam female impersonator Kala Krishna from Hyderabad. Uma excels in singing and rendering Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam in Sanskrit in an array of classical ragas taking her audiences to a plane where even when they are not religious devotees, they relish the aesthetic rasa, the melodious music. So strong is the form of Harikatha kalakshepams, a traditional form that mesmerizes the listeners. I have listened to late Swami Haridas at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha rendering Radha Kalyanam during December season few years ago, till he moved to Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai. I had experienced rasasamadhi! Bliss! For it was so genuine and did not smack of fake religiosity. I was embarrassed to watch Sonal asking audience at the end of her performance at the Kamani Hall to sing along with her and say "Bol Radhe Bol!" turning the Kamani Hall into a place where devotees I thought would get up and place gifts at her feet, go and touch her feet and seek her blessings!

If the audience that evening felt that they experienced 'a great spiritual devotional experience,' I could see what clever strategies Sonal had employed to exploit in her storytelling. That she is a diva, no one would deny. That she has courage to go on the stage and sing even if she does not have a melodious voice, cultivated over years as do classical singers, no one would deny. It was quite clear that she is intelligent to imitate the religious heads, the professional religious story tellers. She, for effect, and to generate laughter, laced her discourse with few comments to tickle the 'gullible' in the audience by commenting upon the ministers. Obviously a ploy bringing her Naatya Katha form to win popularity.

It is a thousand pity that such a gifted dancer finds a need to resort to 'reinventing herself as a storyteller' claiming' to create a form' which already exists in our traditions in the form of Harikatha and Kathakalakshepams.

If one watches Birju Maharaj, the living legend, one at once feels what a genuine 'Kathakaar' he is. He invests his art of storytelling with newness each time he performs. Kalidasa has said: 'Kshane kshane yam navatamupeta, tadeva rupa ramaniyataha.' With each moment the artist invests the form with newness and that form is pleasing. Sonal's storytelling has no depth, it does not touch the hearts, it has temporary appeal, and does not leave a lasting impact.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author, and a renowned dance critic. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari received the Senior Critic award last year from Dance Critics Association, NYC.