Saturday, June 15, 2013

When penance pays off

Dance historian Sunil Kothari on putting together his volume on Sattriya

Well known writers, even in this age of audio-visual technology, are often better recognised by their widely read words than by face. Sunil Kothari, though, is an exception. Among the community of dancers, dance audiences and writers, his is an easily recognised visage. With a younger author, one might have attributed this familiarity to a skill at manipulating the public relations industry. But with this septuagenarian dance historian and critic, the reason is much simpler. Over the decades, a boundless energy has propelled him to just about every dance event of significance, be it across the country or the world. Presenting a paper in Kolkata, introducing a group in Chennai, interviewing great dancers in Orissa, collecting material for his books that number over a dozen — besides editing memorable editions of Marg dedicated to various art forms — lecturing at institutions in the U.S. — a casual observation of his trajectory would make one believe the laws of time and space willingly dissolved before him.

Kothari’s career has straddled a century, right from the early days of India’s classical dance renaissance when Bharatanatyam was first prised out of its cultural isolation in the thatched cottages of devadasis and nattuvanars of South India, to the present, an era in which professionals of the dance form jet across the globe performing for eager audiences. If Bharatanatyam is no longer new on the cultural firmament, Sattriya, the umbrella term for the Vaishnavite dances associated with the monasteries (sattras) of Assam, is lesser known, and given formal recognition as a ‘classical’ dance of India by the Sangeet Natak Akademi only in 2000. Stands to reason then, that the latest book edited by this dance scholar who has been there, done that (Marg’s “Bharata Natyam”, which he edited, was first published in 1979 and has seen two editions and five prints), is “Sattriya: Classical Dance of Assam”. The book, with photographs by Avinash Pasricha, is due to be released this Sunday in New Delhi by Sangeet Natak Akademi Vice Chair Shanta Serbjeet Singh.
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