“Artistes must wet and whip that appetite again”

The legendary danseuse Sonal Mansingh says that an artiste must burn with a tremendous desire to grow higher and grow internally

With piercing vibrant eyes, decked with a deep back kohl, her hair spread out like the dark clouds and her strong face shimmering with substance, Padmavibhushan Dr. Sonal Mansingh, the legendary classical dancer who was in Bengaluru for a workshop on Ashtapadis, welcomed me into her chamber with unmatched grace and elegance. Her outspoken and powerful personality can positively intimidate any onlooker easily and her oratory is bejewelled with knowledge and deep insight.

Excerpts from an interview:

As a practitioner of art, what is it that you observe and notice in the classical dance scene of today?

My arangetram happened in Rajabhavan, Bengaluru, in 1961. Post that, I completed my graduation and ran away from home because I refused to be bound by the rules that were thrust on me. Dance was my be all and end all and I had to embark on my own journey. Ever since, I have literally watched the dance and culture “scene” evolve and change in many ways.

I do not want to touch upon any negative aspects because as far as Arts are concerned, nothing can really be negative in terms of how it evolves and blossoms.

Arts gives us the freedom to express and think on our own terms. More so in India, I strongly believe that the arts are extremely liberal. We are inheritors of a strong tradition that allows us to interpret one particular piece in umpteen number of ways. Each individual can derive their own story and find their own personal catharsis through art and no one will dare to stop you.

But the corollary to this theorem of liberty is that we have to adhere to certain responsibilities. In this regard, there are certain terms that immediately come to mind. Aesthetics, Auchitya, Maryada and Samskara. If we observe through the lens of these parameters, we can clearly understand where our art stands today.

Could you please elaborate on these parameters please?

Aesthetics is subject to perception, but broadly our philosophy always has reiterated the popular doctrine, “Satyam Shivam Sundaram”. The most beautiful entity is also the most truthful entity. There is beauty in nature as it is, and we must learn to absorb and internalise that beauty. We often compare ourselves with the west and that is absurd at many levels. The west went through two world wars and the impact of those wars changed their perception of everything completely. The rise of Existentialism, Cubism etc in art, literature and theatre saw a drastic transformation. Indian art has not been subject to such a strong impetus and hence we have been successful in preserving its pristine quality. We have a strand of living, vibrant steam of arts that has survived the onslaught of time and history. It is pivotal that we keep our culture alive in its natural form and not waste away in comparing ourselves to the west.

The sense of aesthetic is very different across world cultures. If we focus on the physicality in classical dance alone, we can study this difference. The Indian female body, by and large (except for a few regional variations), is very uniquely structured. The female body is usually voluptuous and the bone structure is unique. It is structured to embody gracefulness and curviness with elegance and not be subjected to the athletic stiffness that we see as a trend today. The visual aesthetics of dance demands that we celebrate our bodies the way they were meant to be and we must take care to not condone it to a different measure of aesthetic. Such little things make a very big impact on the larger canvas of our presentation format. Our uniqueness and “oriental form” (as the west calls it) is what sets us apart from the rest and we must strive to keep this alive.

Aesthetics off stage is also equally important. Artistees today seem carefree and less bothered about how they look off stage and flaunt shabiness. It’s a matter of personal choice I totally concede, but an artistee’s persona must reflect his Sadhana, Tapasya and art.

What is “Auchitya?” And how does it change the idiom of art in general?

It is the understanding of what is appropriate and what is not. We have come a long way from the guidelines of the Natyashastra and do not accede to many of its rules. However, we must respect the thought process around it. The flow of movements and ideation must have sense and sensibility. To develop this sense one must be thorough about their personal and cultural identity, tradition and the reason for their “being” itself. We must spell out clearly what is that we want to say, convey or communicate through our work.

“Artistes must wet and whip that appetite again”

The German composer Paul Hindemith ushered in a new musical era with his approach to Neo classicism. He wrote music using the free non diatonic music system and gathered adulation. It suited his musical genre. But attempting such things in our raga system just takes away its soul and identity. The essence of our music lies in the quality of its tonality. “Karnamaduram” is the essence of our music. If you take this away from it. What is left? This is where Auchitya pitches in and signals you to stop.

In dance too, the one minute goosebumps inducing acrobatics and gymnastics might garner you a momentary applause, but it never sustains through time and eventually becomes forgettable. Our aesthetic structure requires a balance and never an overdose of anything. This gimmickry is born from the need to be appropriated into a societal system that celebrates one minute wonders on reality shows etc. This must preferably stop and pave way for the sustainable long lasting, deep impact that our art can create, if presented with its presentation systems and structures intact.

The classical dance space today suffers from the problem of homogeneity. All dancers have begin to look alike, talk alike and this is the era of clones. How does one overcome this syndrome?

It is extremely difficult because of the proliferation of the TV, mobile and social media culture at large. There is literally no escape from this virtual mayhem. When a formula has already been received with adulation, artistes today do not feel the need to work hard in finding their own means and meanings. Younger artistes do not want to invest time in delving deeply into anything. I read a joke somewhere that if mind is made into an ‘app’ probably then, the millennia will start using it more often. It might be the truth too.

Unless artistes are ready for the long haul of struggle and Tapasya, unless they take time to sit and read and immerse themselves in chintana and manthana (contemplation and churning of thoughts), make the effort to ask questions and seek answers they will never find an individualistic voice. The readymade culture is doomed to die.

So much emphasis is given today towards the physical training of the dancers, so much attention to fitness and agility etc. that the inner journey is lost. How does a young dancer who is keen to make a mark today and is reading this conversation, embark upon this journey?

First of all, I am very apprehensive about how many young artistes will have the patience and time to read. An artiste must burn with a tremendous desire to grow higher and grow internally. They must try finding meanings and in the process stumble, fumble, but must not give up. They have to enrich themselves with every resource at their behest. It has to be a personal struggle towards excellence and a never-ending journey of learning. They must forgo their habit of acquiring everything instantly and finding gratification instantly too.

In an era of short-lived attention spans and shrinking audiences, how can one survive as a soloist?

This is a very important question that all artistes must meditate upon. The road to a solo performing career does not begin and end with the performer. A solo art form cannot survive without an audience.

The onus is on the artiste to create a good audience that can appreciate and understand the solo dance format. An artiste must wet and whip that appetite again. The soloist must engage in sadhana and tapasya and gather that power to hold the audience with his art.

More importantly, artistes must speak up and talk about their art. We have to build bridges with literature and media. Address smaller groups and gatherings and engage them with insightful conversations about art. A soloist’s journey is not just about big opportunities and grants.

It is their responsibility to build small and meaningful forums where they can constantly communicate, explain and involve their audiences.

How does a classical artiste today communicate with a generation that is cut off from our mythology and stories? What does our art have for the non-believer?

I want to use this medium to clear this generic misconception that our art is only mythological and retelling the same stories. Have you heard of the third century text, “Gatha Saptashati?” Or “Amarushatakam” and works by poets like Kalidasa? Why do not artistes explore and work on such secular texts? Why must we always hang on to the same old stories and narratives? Even if you are narrating the same old story what is your input in it? What is the message? Just replicating old narratives make them jaded. One must extensively read and find out why some stories have survived the test of time and find diamonds amidst all the coals to make a valuable statement through their art.

Decking themselves with glittering Aharya and posing as Rama or Shiva is of no meaning if there is no valuable message to convey. Millions have done it in the past and will continue to do it meaninglessly in the future. Artistes must work with the treasure house of poetry and texts we have, and find a meaningful way to express these values.

I do not believe in the concept of non-believers. Even intellectuals like Charvaka cannot be a non-believer according to me. To be a non-believer, you must validate a belief system first.

Could you share with us a glimpse of your work in this direction?

I have performed umpteen such pieces. One such production instantly comes to my mind. It was the amalgamation of Jayadeva’s Geetha Govinda and the Prakrit text “Gatha Saptashati.” While Geeta Govinda is a well-known text, Gatha Sapthashati had taken the audience by surprise. This early subhashita like Prakrit poetry documents stories of love, passion, longing and pain, as narrated by feminine voices predominantly with an openness which is unmatched.

The Gatha Saptashati was set in the Tungabhadra, Godavari delta. Featuring stories from travellers seeking shelter in small village homes. In one such story, a woman welcomes a strange man into her house, with a lantern held against her face in the night. She points out to the room her in-laws reside in and then takes the stranger to the guest room and asks him to rest there. While taking leave from his room she just briefly points to the direction of her bedroom and informs him that it is where she sleeps and walks away. The rest is left to the imagination of the reader. The possibilities for Abhinaya and interpretations in such works are enormous. If artistes search for such secular texts and present them with beautiful craftsmanship, wonders can happen.

What is the deference you notice in the way audiences watch classical dance here and abroad?

I have performed in more than 90 odd countries and the gnawing difference that I notice is the way the audience respect the arts. The audience here arrive late, use phones during performances and do not even maintain silence many a times during performances. I think the root cause for all this is the bad tradition of free programs. When audiences get art for free, they stop valuing it. Even a nominal ticket price will bring in more discipline and order in the art houses. You never encounter such things in other countries. All shows are ticketed and the audience never interrupt a performance.

I have an image of being very harsh, difficult and arrogant. I must tell you that I happily concede that I am all that! I am so because, I respect my art, I respect the tradition I am an inheritor of, I respect my guru parampara and most importantly I respect my Rangamancha (stage) and myself! What is an artiste without self respect? I do not grant any person the status or right to insult me or my art! Artistes must never demean or cheapen themselves for a cheque or an opportunity. If your craft is good and your Tapasya strong, opportunities will come your way one day or the other. Every artiste must make a beginning and reject any apathy or exploitation of the arts. Lone warriors bring big changes in the society. No artiste must be cowed down by who they are. The society must know who an artiste is and must learn to respect them; the onus though is on the artistes, to garner such respect.

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