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A life like no other

June 10, 2017

Giving title to books is not easy. Especially biographical ones. How to come up with something original and nice? How to convey and CONTEXTUALISE life in dance in a few words? How to relate to these times while recapturing old, bygone days? How to be truthful, yet not state all? How to avoid controversies while getting eyeballs? How to reach out differently? How to, how to...

Having written / produced/ edited more than 40 books out of which 7 are biographies, I can say with some authority that it is ultimately a gift. Saraswati truly has to bless, else it's not doable. A Life like No, not mine but title and teeth (substance) of Sonal Mansingh's biography written by a civil servant named Sujata Prasad is an unputdownable read. Sujata not knowing much about the dance field is actually a plus: Few biases, fewer prejudices. No camps or camouflaging. It's an AS TOLD TO type of bio.

And what a bio! Dancers act shy, coy, wishy-washy on surface. Under the surface, most are survivors, often cunning and occasionally smart. Some are truly talented too! But bold (and beautiful), not many. Sonal Mansingh is.

Sonal Mansingh is also an enigma. A super smart survivor of many battles and bouts - with love and life - she minces no words about her life. In CinemaScope. Larger than grand; bigger than life. She is honest, true to her being and very astutely covers the spectrum of her life in early childhood at her grandfather, the Governor of Mysore's house in Bangalore "where guru U.S. Krishna Rao did not get impressed by her background but was as strict in teaching as he was with anyone else." Then a life in Bombay of the sixties, carefree college days. Then Delhi, the city of sins, oops... djinns and falling for a suave, rather smart Lalit Mansingh, whose being in the Indian foreign service might have helped her career lots. Her second marriage - to yet another quasi foreign service culture diplomat - albeit a German named Lechner too led her to many of his postings. She went to 90 countries in her dancing career.

If titles of books are difficult, then chapterisations are more so. This book has very easy ones. Born to dance; the Bharatanatyam years; the journey to Odissi; in Geneva. One address - A 45 Pandara Road - becomes a chapter (where the Mansinghs lived for a while as most top babus get housing in Lutyens, Delhi) and has historical evidence in MKDC (Mohan Khokar Dance Collection) in hand written New Year cards the couple sent to those who mattered or were close. Alas, this address was last in Delhi because soon she separated from Lalit Mansingh (next chapter, Scenes from a Marriage) and fell for a German babu posted in Delhi, called Georg Lechner (New beginnings). They lived in Delhi, Geneva, Montreal, due to his postings. Her accident in Germany through which Lechner nursed her (Born again), her life with him until she returned home one afternoon to "find Georg in bed with a Swedish girl, with enormous breasts..." Such lines make the biography seem real. No one speaks of such things in polite Indian society, much less in a married life. Sonal is not afraid of anyone.

Courtesy: Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

A person from Sweden is called a Swede. The language is called Swedish. One correction. Another: Twice in the book Swarna Saraswati is stated to be a cousin or relative of Balasaraswati. No two family members or dance writers or historians agree on this connection conclusively.

Sonal is also not an ingrate. She mentions only 3 critics in entire book as those who helped her career or created a buzz about her work: Mohan Khokar, yours truly and Leela Venkataraman. She is she when she describes Kelubabu who "kicked her in the head" when she did pranam to him and he did so because she had separated from the fellow Odia, Lalit Mansingh. She remembers all and has come through much. Such a life also explains her personality and mental make-up.

I've known her for almost 40 years now, have seen her various shades and avatars, in Delhi. Lots of missing links in her traits come through this book. Hence, the book is very useful to psychologists, dance historians and analysts. Actually, the book is a must read for all dancers, feminists, assorted NGOs operating in interest of women's empowerment, gender equality etc. Because Sonal Mansingh is a living proof and example of it all. She met men on her own terms and turf. And made them eat turd. Ttt! She made mincemeat of Delhi babus and one cultural czarina, though she makes no mention in the book.

The book has footnotes and real, historical data. Thank God, she also says GEET Govinda, not Geeta! This is a common mistake. Like even singers and dancers recite many words in ashtapadis wrongly, "Sakhi he keshi mathana mudaram." It is udaram. She, as one who knows Sanskrit somewhat and mythology much, uses the right words. Sonal has always been pucca.

An absence of an index mars the book's academic credentials and the publisher's or author's qualifications. Serious book purveyors normally start a book from back with a peep in index to know real content. Who is mentioned, which place figures etc. Dance is essentially a visual medium. This handbook format does not permit much, so photos are just bunged in. A bigger format book would have brought her dance out. But it's a biography, not a dance book. Few in current generation may know that before taking to Odissi (because she met and married an Odia) she was one of India's top Bharatanatyam stars. Her Bharatanatyam shone like a polished gem.

At 70 plus, Sonal can do lots for art field. Maybe then she can do a sequel: My art, like no other. Penguin rarely publishes dance books so this one is a welcome addition. Each college, university, library, dance institution ought to have a copy. This is a trend setter book, a perfect summer read, hence trending!

Ashish Mohan Khokar wears many hats - that of a critic, historian, scholar, editor, curator and mentor. He serves the country and its culture.

As always, another very well written review by Ashish sir. Just ordered the book from Amazon after reading the review!
- Masoom Parmar (June 10, 2017)

This review makes me want to buy the book and that I shall do.
- Nisha Chandwani (June 11, 2017)

The review itself is very interesting and makes one want to read the book. Sonalji's dance and personality is dynamic and sets as an example for present day women empowerment as Ashishji rightly said.
- Gayathri Keshavan (June 16, 2017)

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