Sonal Mansingh needs no introduction. She is a renowned classical dancer and Guru of classical dance forms. She is one of the finest exponents of Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancing styles. In a career spanning over 50 years, she has performed on the most prestigious platforms. She has dedicated her life to the learning and promotion of classical dances.
She learnt her craft from classical dance maestro Kelucharan Mahapatra. She has also been teaching classical dance in the true spirit of ‘guru-shishya parampara’. She has won several awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1987), the Padma Bhushan (1992) and Padma Vibhushan (2003).
To promote classical dances, Sonal started the Center for Indian Classical Dances in Delhi. Thereafter, she began an annual cultural festival ‘Kala Yatra.’ It gives a platform to several upcoming artists and also showcases the work of established artists. She is also a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. Sonal talked to Gyaneshwar Dayal about her journey as an artiste and the role she sees for artistes today.
Q. How did the concept of ‘Kala Yatra’ materialise and what has been the audience’s reaction?
A: Centre for Indian Classical Dances was established on 30 April 1977. The name Kamakhya Vidhyapeeth was adopted later when the goddess bestowed her blessings on me. In 1977 itself, we started the annual festivals. The first festival was held at Mavalankar Hall, New Delhi for two days. During the first festival itself, many great artistes participated and performed. They included Kishori Amonkar, Urmila Nagar, and Hari Prasad Chaurasia. I was also one of the performers.
Thereafter in 1978 when there was a Janata party government, I invited Morarji Desai to inaugurate it. It was again a grand three-day event at Ashoka convention hall, Delhi. ‘Krishna’ was the theme. Again many great artistes participated in it. Those were the early years and it has gone on since then without a break.
Q. Has the Corona pandemic affected your work?
A: We did not stop the event in the two years of Corona. We did it online as auditoriums were closed. The online version also was well received and we had a great response from abroad as well.
In 2020 we had booked the Kamayani auditorium but the festival could not take place and we did a two-day programme on Ramayan and Mahabharata. Several scholars spoke on the occasion and many troupes from various streams participated in it. We had three groups in each category like Draupadi by me, Ramayan from Thailand, Kuchipudi from Kerala and so on. A good number of dance troupes participated and made it a great cultural event.
Last year, we organised ‘’Dance of India at 75’’. In the programme, eight classical dances were performed by over 150 troupes from across the country. There were only a few conditions to take part – no Bollywood music and only classic costumes. The participants had to choose from three themes. The three themes were ‘’Vishwa Guru Bharat’’, “Atmanirbhar Bharat’’ and ”Unknown Heroes”.
Artistes were awarded in various categories. We had luminaries like Amjad Ali Khan, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Manoj Joshi as the super jury. It was a great experience. Prime Minister Modi sent us a long message appreciating our work. It became such a rage that people were spellbound. It has become a model now that the ICCR and other institutions are replicating.
Q. Could you tell us about this year’s Kala Yatra and why did you choose Ramotsav as this year’s theme?
A: This year on 29-30 April, we will have a mega show in Kamani Auditorium, Delhi as things have opened up now. The theme is, of course, Ramotsav. Such a magnificent temple is coming up in Ayodhya, it is our tribute. Apart from this, the concept of Ram Rajya is now becoming a reality. Ram Rajya needs a just and honest leader and people see such a leader in Modi ji. Look at the schemes that have been launched for the people. Schemes like Ujjwala, Mudra, road construction, nal se jal, distribution of food etc. are all aimed to improve the lives of the masses. No one is asking if he is a Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, this caste or that caste. That is actualizing the dream of Ram Rajya where everyone is treated equal and gets his due. That is living maxim – Bahujana sukhaya bahujana hitaya.
Q. You once said that artistes do not live in isolation, they are part of society. How do you think artistes can make a difference in society?
A: I am very sorry to say that not all artistes are the same. What film artistes do has a different impact and invokes different emotions. If the artiste is sincere, honest and committed to his country, his soil, and his society, he would have a different take on social issues. There are so many issues to take up. For instance river pollution is a very big issue.
You can see the condition of Yamuna today – it looks black. In Bhagwat, there is the story of Kaliya Nag that came to Vrindavan and polluted the river which looked as black as it is today. Then Lord Krishna drove it away and cleansed the river.
Now I ask who is going to be present-day Krishna – the government, the Supreme Court or the citizen of this country. There are so many messages in our scriptures. We need to take clues from there. The artiste must be intelligent and sincere enough to understand them. He or she should bring about changes in the life of the nation, else it is not worth it. Just enacting such stories is meaningless. Our ‘Natya Shastra’ is a complete philosophy and artistes must understand its true essence and translate it into action.
Q. How do you see the art and culture in the country today? Is it on the right path or going downwards?
A: Bollywood doesn’t care about anything. They do whatever they feel like. In earlier days even in Hindi cinema if there was a dance sequence, they would call ustad Gopi Krishan for guidance. Now everybody is a dancer. Now everything goes. That is why I say I am not a dancer. I can’t be part of this.
Look no one can decide the direction and flow of art and culture. It is the mirror of society. But art forms have their responsibility. Every artiste must understand his duty toward society. He should propagate the right message through whatever his art form is. Wherever he sees wrong, he must speak against it. He must convey his message and make a difference.
Q. Do you think our education system is responsible for complacency in the youth?
A: Our education has changed drastically. What children are learning these days is rubbish. Our education system teaches them no moral values. We have to make an intervention there. We have to tell the young generation that there is life beyond enjoyment, partying, going to malls etc.
I tell children this is a country of 130 million people, what is your identity? You have to excel and make your identity and become something to make a difference. Look at APJ Abdul Kalam. He came from the fishermen’s community. But he had a fire in his heart for the country and today everyone respects him. Nowadays children from well-to-do families say why bother about anything, our life is going well. I have a serious problem with this attitude. It must change.
Q. There are a plethora of art forms in India and many of them are dying a slow death. What can be done about it?
A: Yes, indeed there are folk arts, tribal arts and classical arts and so on and so forth. With the changing times, these art forms become vulnerable. We need to preserve them but some would still die a natural death and nothing can be done about it. The art form thrives when the civil society is aware and proactive. The government alone cannot do much. It is giving scholarships, grants etc. The state governments should get involved and propagate the same.
Q. Your term as a Member of Parliament comes to an end in 2024 and that is the time when general elections would be held? Do you have plans to enter politics and fight elections?
A: No, that is not my temperament. I like to do my work and make a difference. I have reached where I am with sheer hard work and perseverance. I had no patronage. In fact, I opposed emergency and paid the price. During the ten years of the UPA government, I was thrown out of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. I was just teaching dance all those years. I don’t want to get into politics.
Q. How have you helped the cause of art and artists in Parliament?
A: I did my bit in Parliament raising questions during Zero Hour and Question Hour and putting my point of view in the Standing Committees. That is my contribution to the art and culture at the policy level.
Q. What do you have to say to the new artists who are trying to find a place for themselves?
A: I would say it is much easier for them. There are hundreds of avenues and platforms for them. They can showcase their work anywhere. But in the end, it is the quality that matters. The quality of your work must be top-notch that would keep you in the reckoning else social media fame fizzles out fast.