Watch dance, it will give you joy: Dr. Sunil Kothari’s life in dance

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari received the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship from the President in January this year, but his is a name that has been associated with dance since the 1950s. This intellectual personage, frail, with long greying hair, is a very well-known figure in dance circles, and yet extremely approachable. With a very affable smile and an easy, familiar manner, he puts even strangers totally at ease.

Dr. Kothari is a great dance scholar, critic and author, who has worked to support dance and, in the process, also many dancers. He has travelled extensively in India and abroad for his work and penned many books. His achievements and awards are listed below, with a list of books he has written.

Padma Shri – 2001
Sangeet Natak Akademi award - 1995
Kumar Chandrak - 1961
Ranjitram Suvarna Chandrak – 2012
Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship – 2018

Bharata Natyam: Indian Classical Dance Art
Odissi: Indian Classical Dance Art
Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last 25 Years
Kuchipudi: Indian Classical Dance Art
Photo Biography of Rukmini Devi
Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art
New Directions In Indian Dance
Chhau Dances of India
Damaru: Essays on Classical Dance, Music, Performing Arts, Folk Dances, Rituals, Crafts
and others

However, even more interesting than his achievements is the story of how he came to be associated with dance, and the people who have enabled him on this journey. A few of them – and not all dancers – have been instrumental in his career of chronicling dance. This story is told in most part by Sunilbhai himself, and some taken from others who have chronicled it.

Sunilbhai, as many in the dance community call him, was born on 20 December, 1933, in Mumbai in a “middle-class bania Gujarati family” (in his own words) to Dahiben and Manilal Kothari. He was the youngest boy among 10 siblings - 7 boys and 3 girls. The family were Vaishnavs, and that is how he ended up spending ten months of his childhood living in Nathdwara, where there is a major temple dedicated to Shrinathji and Yamuna Maharani.
When I was four years old, my parents took me with them to Shri Nathdwara near Udaipur, Rajasthan, where we stayed for some ten months in a dharamshala near the big temple. My mother taught me the Yamunashtakam in Sanskrit by giving me one copper paisa with a hole per shloka (that was recited correctly), and I thought I was richer by 8 paisa! Mother used to laugh and say, 'Being a bania, he thinks of money, but does not know that Sanskrit will stand by him for life,'” Sunilbhai recounts.
With my parents, I saw all the rituals – the Ashta Ayam Darshan in the temple, the celebrations of hindola, palana, Annakuta, rath – and learnt the seasonal songs by Ashtachaap Sakha poet Surdas and others in Brajbhasha. Besides, I learnt by heart more Sanskrit shlokas and developed a love for Sanskrit language and literature.
Mother used to dress me up and I used to dance, throwing around my limbs in every direction. I responded to the pakhavaj played in the temple and loved the Brajbhasha kirtanas rendered there. I think these early responses led me to learning dance later, when my eldest brother engaged a Kathak teacher to teach me dance,” Sunilbhai says.
Till date, he can recite the entire Yamunashtakam, and his way of describing how, for every shloka, “tak karke” an anna was given to him, is endearing.

After SSC, the young Sunil completed his matriculation in 1950. He joined Wilson College in then-Bombay for a BA in Arts. His dance education continued alongside, and in college, he would perform Kathak on stage. But his cultural interests were wide-ranging and went beyond dance – he was very fond of Gujarati and English literature. Kalidasa would attract him particularly. Clearly, a literary bent was apparent right from the beginning. He did his MA in Gujarati and Sanskrit, and then completed his CA, which was what he chose as his profession – or so he thought.

The journey in dance
His first brush with dance was in his childhood, at the Nathdwara temple, where he gravitated to music and sahitya both. Later, as a college-going student, he studied classical dance. When I saw Bharatanatyam dancers Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini – otherwise known as the Travancore Sisters – I fell for it and decided to learn it from traditional Guru Kalyansundaram Pillai, son of Kuppaiah Pillai, whose institution, Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir at Matunga, was well-known,” Sunilbhai recounts about his college years.
His interest in Kathak was aroused after seeing Smt Sitara Devi dance, and he learnt it at Deodhar’s music and dance classes at Opera House. This also exposed him to the fact that a solo dancer can play multiple roles.
His interest in dance only grew during the time he was doing his CA. It was through his reading of Marg magazine and Mohan Khokhar’s articles that he learnt of other dance forms.
In her article ‘Bridging the gap between artists and the common man’ (Asian Age, April 3, 2018), Odissi guru Sharon Lowen writes, “The ethereal vision of Manipuri Ras on Kartik Purnima seen in Imphal made Sunil resolve to give up what felt like a useless life as a Nariman Point chartered accountant. The 1959 or 1960 scholarship to travel to the Northeast to document Manipuri, Sattriya and other forms was the beginning of his full-time commitment to his life as a dance critic and scholar.”
He has met many stalwarts of dance in his long career, making him a living encyclopaedia of their styles and stature, but a few of them stand out.

Mulk Raj Anand
The eminent writer Mulk Raj Anand became one of Sunilbhai’s greatest influences. He was among the first and most prominent Indian writers writing in English, chronicling the lives of Indians in a new way accessible to the west. However, he was also the founder of Marg magazine, and encouraged the young Sunil in his writing on dance.
The Marg magazine was founded in 1946, with a focus on the arts and civilizations. Sunilbhai called Anand ‘Mulk Uncle’, and did features on classical dances for his magazine. Anand was a great source of encouragement to Sunilbhai, even as his family insisted that he pursue a career in chartered accountancy and earn a handsome living (as Sunilbhai recounted it, “Bania ka beta kuch aur kaise kar sakta hai?”).
Recounting these details in her article (quoted above), Lowen writes that it became a part of the young man’s routine to read everything on dance that he could find at the Bombay Library before going to work. “In Beryl D. Zoete’s 1953 book ‘The Other Mind: A Study of Dance in South India’, he came across the analogy in a Buddhist story of the joy of watching a fish jump in the water, making the philosophical comparison that writing about dance can approach the joy of having seen it for readers,” she writes. He had a part-time job as an accounting lecturer/professor, so he could devote more time to dance (in this article, she chronicles many more aspects of his professional journey in dance).

Rukmini Devi Arundale
The first time I met Rukmini Devi in Mumbai was at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1957, and seeing her Sita Swayamvaram, I was bowled over,” Sunilbhai recounts. “I had never seen such an aesthetic dance production, classical Carnatic music, wonderful costumes and young Dhananjayan, Bala Gopal, Adyar K. Lakshmana and others from Kalakshetra.
I met her personally in 1958 at the All-India Dance Seminar in Delhi, and visited Kalakshetra in 1959 on behalf of Sur Singar Samsad to bring their dance dramas to Mumbai. She used to visit Mumbai and stay with Maganbhai Vyas, principal of the New Era School, as Maganbhai was a Theosophist, like Rukmini Devi. She invited me to join Kalakshetra also, but I was to complete my CA (in Lowen’s article, it is suggested that Sunilbhai’s mother disapproved of his decision to go, and he still regrets not taking that opportunity).
She corresponded with me, writing letters in her own beautiful handwriting. I read a lot about her and whenever I could, I met her and if she was free, spent time with her watching rehearsals at Kalakshetra. Over the years, I won her confidence. She helped me with my PhD in dance, inviting me to stay in Kalakshetra. Interacting with her, I learnt a lot about Indian aesthetics, good taste, and the quality of dance literature and mythology. She was like a mother and took to me kindly. She liked my books on Bharatanatyam, Chhau, Kathak and other dances. She encouraged me to do my field work and meet great gurus. Besides my biological mother, she was another mother, as was Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya.”

Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya
The Jhaveri Sisters introduced me to Kamala Devi when I attended the All-India Dance Seminar in1958. We often met in Mumbai, with Navin Khandwalla of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for Natya Sangh,” Sunilbhai recounts about Kamala Devi. “Her life was amazing and I was most impressed knowing that she did not want any ministerial position when Nehru offered her one. She encouraged me to write more research books and admired my passion for dance. She took me into her inner circle and I used to look after her. She was Chairman of SNA, and I had joined as Assistant Director for Dance. During her tenure, I travelled with her a lot. Her care and worry about puppeteers and artists was touching. Her understanding of handicrafts was phenomenal. When I travelled with her to Masulipattanam, she showed me how kalamkari and block printing are done. Through an association with her, one came to know the textiles of our country, handwoven saris and what have you. She treated me like a son and spoke often about the women who in Andhra were not allowed to put on chappals. She wrote to Mahatma Gandhi about this injustice and saw to it that the upper caste did not harass women. She too had high aesthetic taste and dressed well; she always put a red rose or a flower in her hair. Her conversations were more about social evils, even then, and today, it is fashionable to speak about feminism. She was a feminist without waving a flag. I have been lucky in my life to have two such mothers.”

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan
In a talk given at the Chandrans’ World Dance Day celebrations a few years ago, Sunilbhai said that he was very fortunate that at the age of 22-23, as a clapper boy for Mohan Khokhar, he got to meet Kapilaji. He said he still feels thankful to Mohan Khokhar and Mulk Raj Anand to have taken him along to the festival where he met her. It was a great time, he said, and in the night, they would sit to watch Odissi, Sattriya, Mohiniattam and other dance forms.
Kapilaji had done a wonderful article in Bharatnatyam in a magazine called Two Worlds, and he had translated her work from English to Gujarati. When he met her, her personality impressed him a lot. She wore a white sari and was talking very vivaciously to Mrinalini Sarabhai in Gujarati. Kapilaji was doing a paper on dance and sculpture at the time. Eventually, he says, she became like a mother to him, as did Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay.
They saw the potential in me and felt ki usko chatka lag gaya hai,” he said. “All my borrowed books were from them, and they blessed me for my good work. Kapilaji and Kamalaji adopted me like a son. Kapilaji used to work so much at that time that it was amazing, and I would feel very small. Now that she praises my work, it is a great blessing. She had a great bond with Bala Saraswati and Rukminiji. They all shared intimacy, love and respect for each other. Insights for many of the books that I wrote came from Kapilaji. She would take my paper for PhD and throw it away. She would even make corrections and make cross-references, like Ladli was corrected to Ladli Sharan, who is a famous rasdhari. You can’t make a mistake about references, she told me.”

Bala Saraswati
Balamma was a rare human being and a great dancer,” Sunilbhai recounts. “It was Chandralekha who introduced me to her. They were great friends as their nattuvangam was done by Ellappa Pillaii. Balamma was kind and indulged me. She allowed Dasharath Patel to take several photos for me for my book on Bharatanatyam. I had written articles on her which she had liked. When I learnt that she liked dolls, I always brought them from many countries I visited, and she carefully kept them in a cupboard, which we can see in Satyajit Ray's Film ‘Bala’.
There’s a very interesting anecdote that he relates about her. At a festival, he was roaming around with Mohan Khokhar as a clapper boy, and in the evening, Bala Saraswati was supposed to perform. But Bala was adamant that she did not want a picture of hers taken. In fact, she stopped and told them to go away, since she wanted to concentrate on her work. He narrates her fierce insistence on practising her art without the distractions of modern dance presentations. He was totally taken in by Bala doing the sanchari bhava in Krishna Ne Begane Baro, and Shambhu Maharaj’s solo, at this festival.
(Many years later) She readily agreed to sing for my paper presentation on ‘Dance of Shiva’ when her daughter Lakshmi danced at the International Dance Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii,” he narrates. “I consider that as one of the most memorable moments in my life. International scholar Joseph Campbell, who has translated Zimmer's volumes on Indian art and sculptures, was there, as were others like Faubion Bowers, Kapilaji and Mohan Khokhar. I have felt grateful to Balamma for agreeing to sing for me. Whenever I visited Chennai, I used to call on her, and request her to sing, and she would readily sing. What more can one ask for in life? She always explained the subtle nuances of abhinaya whenever I asked her. These are memories one can never forget. To win the affection of such legendary artists is great luck and one has learnt a lot from them.”

Avinash Pasricha
For the Kuchipudi, Odissi and Kathak books on dance, Avinash Pasricha partnered with him for the photography. “Avinash would travel and click pictures for me. Initially, we would fight over what the best picture would be – Avinash would want a good picture, and I would want a picture appropriate for the dance. Gradually, however, as we worked together, we began to admire each other’s profession,” is what Sunilbhai said at the World Dance Day talk about the fellow SNA awardee and an old friend. They have collaborated on many books.
Sunilbhai has already created a legacy of scholarship and discovery in dance, and of formidable knowledge and impartial criticism in dance criticism. He is one of the most respected non-performing participants in classical dance today, since truly, he has participated immeasurably in the field of dance. When asked what about his work has given him the most satisfaction, and what message he would like to give young dancers, writers and critics, he says:
If you are fortunate to identify what interests you most and will give you satisfaction in your work, go and pursue it. Whatever difficulties you face, you will get the energy to overcome them. Your friends and well-wishers will support you. Put your best into what you want to do. There are no shortcuts to excellence. Aim high and you will, with perseverance, reach the goal.
But after reaching the goal, do not be complacent. Continue your work and interest like a musician or a dancer would do riyaz. Remain in company with artists, writers, scholars, and as a dance critic, continue to watch dance, as it will give you joy. If there is no space in print media, write for online portals on dance, create our own blog, share with like-minded persons. Do not ever be vindictive or settle scores with dancers through your criticism. Cultivate a healthy attitude.
I have received so much affection and love from artists, and honours came my way without seeking them, as good work is noticed by the powers that be. You must have abiding faith in what you do. Whatever they might say, moksha is in your work, and you can achieve nirvana. Be happy, avoid jealousy. Be happy that you are doing your job as sincerely as possible. People around you understand it and admire it. Through your books and writings, serve the cause of your chosen art field.”

Pics: Anoop Arora


  1. Sunil Kothari Death: Padma Shri dance historian Sunil Kothari has passed away at Delhi hospital after suffering cardiac arrest on Sunday. Red full article visit here: Sunil Kothari Death

  2. Sunil Kothari Death: Padma Shri dance historian Sunil Kothari has passed away at Delhi hospital after suffering cardiac arrest on Sunday. Read full article visit here: Sunil Kothari Death


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