Artists lead tributes to Indian dance scholar Sunil Kothari
TRIBUTES have poured in for dance historian and critic Sunil Kothari, who passed away on December 27 at a Delhi hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest. He was 87.
Leading artists from India, UK and the US are mourning the loss of Kothari, a respected authority on dance forms who was loved by artists around the world.
“He had tested positive for Covid-19 almost a month back and was not in a good condition,” Vidha Lal, a family friend and herself a dancer, said last week.
British Asian dancer Akram Khan said, “Sunilbhai was a deep lover of art, but more avidly he was a deep listerner to those who spoke through their bodies. There are not many listeners left in the world who could record and contextualise so profoundly the dancing body. He was a rare being and he will be sorely missed.”
Renowned Indian artist Mallika Sarabhai described Kothari as “the bridge between many worlds, of dance and academia, nationally and internationally”.
Born on December 20, 1933 in Mumbai, Kothari qualified as a chartered accountant before turning to the study of Indian dance forms. He authored more than 20 books on the subject of Indian dance, including Sattriya Dances of Assam, New Directions in Indian Dance, and also wrote about Bharatanatayam, Odissi, Chhau, Kathak and Kuchipudi, as well as photo biographies of Uday Shankar and Rukmini Devi Arundale.
He held the Uday Shankar chair at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, and taught in the dance department of New York University as a Fulbright professor.
Kothari received several honours for his contribution to Indian dance forms including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1995); the Gaurav Puraskar conferred by the Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi (2000); the Padma Shri from the Indian government (2001); and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Dance Critics Association, New York (2011). He was also an elected Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi for his contribution to Indian dance as a scholar.
Dancer and long-time associate Anita Ratnam remembered the late critic for his “infectious enthusiasm”. Kothari first met her at a dance recital in 1970 in Chennai when she was a teenager.
“After the performance, he rushed backstage and looked at me and said apsara! apsara! (fairy) in his normal enthusiastic voice. He was not somebody who would just come for the dance, he would even come for the rehearsals, he would talk to everybody present, he wanted to know the whole process. He was part of a very important dance movement,” Ratnam said.
A virtual memorial service held on Zoom last Sunday (3) was attended by prominent artists, including Mavin Khoo (UK); Uttara Asha Coorlawala (US) and Gauri Sharma Tripathi (India).
By Mallika Sarabhai
IT IS said that the fluttering of a butterfly at one end of the world can cause a tsunami at the other – that is how the world is connected.
But a butterfly does more than create tsunamis. It flutters with energy from flower to flower, colourful in itself, carrying new life for the flowers by pollinating them.
For me, Sunil was the quintessential butterfly. Always energetic, never staying long in a single place, always going to see every performance, every dancer, and taking word of their work to others.
He was the bridge between many worlds, of dance and academia, nationally and internationally. Through him, the dance community of the world came close. Many of us who had never met before, met as friends because Sunil had spoken so much to us of the other person and their work.
Sunil used to joke to people that I had no choice in making him a friend, as I inherited him from my mother. It is true. I cannot remember a time when Sunil was not around. And how he talked – non-stop, and in his funny voice, breaking from Gujarati to English and reciting Sanskrit and showing mudras, all in the same breath.
When I was growing up, he used to irritate me – I wanted Amma’s sole attention, but he would not stop and they would not stop giggling like children. But as the years passed, and I became a professional performer, I began to value him for the rarity he was – a person so drunk with the beauty of dance that little else, except the savouring and enjoyment of it, mattered.
Over the past two decades, our home became his when he was in Ahmedabad. In 2011, while making a film about Amma’s seminal work in choreography and using the arts to talk of social issues that mattered to her, we invited him as someone who had followed her work since the mid-1950s. And he graciously accepted. “Mallika, bol, hun aa paheru ke aa?” was his question each day of the shoot. With his unique and dandy wardrobe, he could have worn anything – a pleated Bengali starched dhoti or a Manipuri shawl turned into a waistcoat, and Indonesian batik shirt or a dapper bandh gala – he would have sparkled anyway.
As I grew older, and got disappointed or cynical about people and their nature, I would wonder at his vigour and never-failing enthusiasm and zest. Always on the go, always ready to see new dance, new dancers, meet new people, travel, pack and travel again. Looking at his itinerary was sometimes exhausting in itself. Yet not until Covid-19 struck him down, did he ever falter, did his frenetic lifestyle pause.
And the lonely end – looked after by one friend who was his doctor, while all of us had news only of his recovery and looked forward to having the whirlwind in our midst again, filling our sagging sails with wind to set sail once more.
He has touched so many lives. I am sure he will continue being in the front row watching all of us as we pick up the strains of our dance and arts careers again. And we will hear the peal of laughter that always followed his greeting.
Mallika Sarabhai is a celebrated Indian classical dancer.
By Mira Misra Kaushik OBE
I MET Sunil bhai 30 years ago at Akademi, which was then known as Academy of Indian Dance. He was already an established historian, critic, guru, lobbyist and an established global impresario of Indian performing arts.
As a non-dancer, I was delighted to discover that he had cross art form connections (from Bhupen Khaker to the Jhaveri sisters) and he was passionately involved with a wide range of creators without any conservative bias.
Sunil bhai was a mobile encyclopaedia of Indian performing arts. Very soon I got engaged with his unparalleled and gregarious sense of humour, which led me to call him rishiraj meaning Narada, a sage from Hindu mythology.
Like Narada, he was the first dance journalist who almost encircled the performing arts universe (Brahamand) and also had the blessings of the goddess of creativity (Saraswati). He had an unprecedented following in the global arts communities and played the role of a modern-day influencer.
Sunil bhai inspired many artists (junior and senior) to create as well as perform, and played the role of an initiator as Narada did to Valmiki while writing the Ramayana.
He was a single-minded honest conduit for many creative developments, between all parties.
Like Narada, he also accompanied many artists (manifestations of Vishnu) including Sonal Mansingh, Neelam Mansingh and Ratan Thiam on their global tours.
Sunil bhai was the ultimate champion of all possible shades and methods of communication in the world of arts and technology. He conquered the world with his laptop.
I have many hilarious memories of special moments of my interactions with this high-spirited rambler which I will cherish as long as I live.
His devotion to the world of art will make him immortal (Chiranjeevi), like sage Narada.
Mira Misra Kaushik is an independent artist, producer and consultant.
By Kalpesh Solanki and Shailesh Solanki
DR SUNIL KOTHARI was as one of India’s truly great scholars. An eminent historian and critic, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indian dance form, was conversant in Sanskrit and several languages, and counted some of the greatest Indian dancers among his friends.
But to our sisters Sadhana, Smita and us, he was simply Sunil kaka. A loving, wise uncle, full of energy and vigour, who had a sparkling zest for life.
He was a close friend and confidante of our parents, Ramniklal and Parvatiben Solanki. He first came to London in the 1960s bearing a letter from the legendary editor of Kumar magazine, Bachubhai Rawat.
Bachu kaka, as we called him, was our father’s mentor and he asked our parents to take care of Sunil bhai on his first trip to London.
Sunil kaka stayed with us for a few months and it was the start of an enduring and loving friendship that spanned over five decades and three generations. His visits to London became more frequent and our home became his and the base from where he conducted his work, lecturing and writing about Indian dance.
His authority on the subject remains unsurpassed – he authored more than 20 books and took up professorships at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata and at New York University.
In those early days when our parents started Garavi Gujarat, Sunil kaka was a wise counsellor who often advised on the editorial line of the paper and its coverage of literature and the arts.
He frequently wrote for the paper, bringing his expansive knowledge to the small but aspiring Indian community in the UK at the time. As a qualified chartered accountant, he even helped our parents with the book-keeping and accounts for their fledging enterprise.
Our father and Sunil kaka shared a love of literature and the arts. It was a relationship based on mutual admiration and respect. They enjoyed being in each other’s company and revelled in the presence of other great poets who would gather at our home to recite poetry and discuss literature, politics and the arts.
Such was his youthful persona that he took a keen interest in all our children, especially the girls, who learnt Bharatanatyam. He loved to talk, laugh and play silly games. He was a much-loved member of our family and it’s hard to imagine a world without his contagious giggle and bohemian dress sense.
Perhaps his biggest legacy will be the countless young dancers he helped and nurtured. He was a prime mover in promoting nascent talent, connecting the world of dance around the globe, sharing ideas and details of their work. Sunil kaka was a force of nature who will be sorely missed.
Kalpesh Solanki and Shailesh Solanki are AMG’s group managing editor and executive editor, respectively.
By Anusha Subramanyam
I STILL remember the first day I met Sunil bhai. It was in 1983, at the Kalakshetra December festival.
He was a scholar whose work took him to meet artists across India, from the remotest village to those in the city, who also travelled abroad to perform. Sunil bhai’s scholarship was one that came from a deep personal engagement with the arts and the artist.
In 1996, Dorling Kindersley asked me to be on the cover of their DK Eyewitness Guides: Dance, an edition authored by Andree Grau.
Sunil bhai visited London in 1997 and when he saw the book, he hunted me down and found me. He told me how moved and touched he was by the beauty of the line and emotional quality of the stance.
By then I was married to Vipul Sangoi, a well-known performance photographer and graphic designer. Soon Sunil bhai became one of our family members. When he came to London, he would spend time with us and, occasionally, stay with us.
He would enthral us with tales of his travels, meeting artists, new classical work happening around the world and making all that he saw come alive for us.
We were always amazed at the energy and the love he had for the arts. He meticulously wrote every day about all that he saw and experienced.
I remember one time when he spent about two weeks with us and without fail every day, he wrote. Some days he hardly slept for an hour or so. He seemed always so energised and so thrilled and full of life about what he had seen about the performing arts.
His energy to write, to absolutely love performing arts, to remember everyone he had ever met and specific details of when, where, how, were all quite remarkable.
He loved dance; he loved the performing arts. I can’t imagine a world without Sunil bhai – he was always present, always renewing himself in thinking about and experiencing new forms, new work and writing about them and sharing it with the world.
With the passing away of Sunil bhai, the lived experience of dance history across the genres of south Asia seems to disappear. But his love, his energy and all that he contributed to so many of us artists shall live on.
The best way to celebrate Sunil bhai is to continue to keep this energy, the zest of knowing, of curiosity, of sharing the performing arts alive in each one of us with the world.
Anusha Subramanyam is a London-based dance artist.
By Rajika Puri
I FIRST met Dr Sunil Kothari in New Delhi in 1966, way before he became a stellar dance critic.
He was friends with painter Vivan Sundaram’s family, and often jumped locked gates and chatted with us late into the night in his high-pitched, exuberant voice. A welcome interruption to our late-night studies for BA examinations, he regaled Vivan’s sister and myself with no-doubt inconsequential, but beautifully recounted, anecdotes that had us giggling – a welcome respite to serious work.
Over the years, sharing as I did his passion for performing arts of all kinds, we developed both a personal and a professional relationship.
In 1999, when I was living in Mumbai, he encouraged me to write about the arts and got me invited me to seminars and festivals – as a member of the press corps! By the time I went back to the US, we had begun sitting together at performing arts events – in Delhi, New York, Chennai – which continued up to just a year ago, during the Madras Music festival, which was the last time I saw him since, within a month, we were all in lockdown.
Dr Kothari and I together watched performing arts from all over the world: Japanese Butoh theatre, Martha Graham’s American modern dance, Britain’s Akram Khan and Aakash Odedra. I remember insisting he come from Canada in 2014 for the relatively unknown Aakash’s performance at the stellar Fall for Dance festival which presents some 20 extraordinary performers in 10 days. The very next day, Aakash received a NY Dance and Performance award (known as a ‘Bessie’) – and Sunil was there as my guest.
Sunil was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dance Critics Association, New York. Yet he rarely wrote for any publication not from India which, I believe, is their loss. An observant, discerning, ‘polyglot’ when it came to movement languages, there are things I began to notice only because I was recipient of his low-voiced remarks during the many shows we attended together.
There are things I will forever look for in any performance – Indian or otherwise – because he helped open my eyes. I believe he opened all his reader’s eyes. Thus, he’ll be with me in every show I henceforth attend – and I hope we’ll be back in the theatres soon – with him whispering deliciously in my ears.
Trained in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, New York-based Rajika Puri is best known as a presenter, pre-performance slide lecturer, and writer on Indian dance-theatre.
By Professor Ann R David
DR SUNIL KOTHARI’S contribution to the dissemination of knowledge on Indian classical dance was unsurpassed.
His many published books on the subject are hugely informative and accessible to both connoisseurs and lay readers. He was a fount of information on current trends in Indian dance, on the new young talent emerging as well as established professional performers.
His indefatigable energy, shown by his attendance at performances in India and all over the world, his personal engagement with artists and his knowledgeable talks given regularly to packed audiences was the mark of the man.
Intellectually, culturally and personally, he was loved and respected by everyone in the world of dance and performance, and his work had a profound effect globally on the understanding of Indian classical dance forms.
I was in touch with Sunil recently (in November 2020) on social media and by email, when we were discussing again the work of Indian dancer Ram Gopal, so this news came as a great shock.
We shared a deep love of Gopal’s work and often conversed about his early dance performances and our respective meetings with him.
The last time I saw Sunil was in Birmingham, UK, for the large dance conference, Navadisha. His cheery manner, vast knowledge on dance and dear friendship were things I valued so much and feel their lack so poignantly now he is gone.
I have fond memories of dear Sunil, Hari Krishnan, Rex and Sadanand sitting drinking whiskey and wine illegally in my hotel bedroom at the Woodlands Hotel, Chennai, while having the most fabulous dance conversations and sharing hilarious jokes. Those were the days!
Dear Sunil, your presence at dance performances, your friendship, generous sharing of your knowledge, your published writing and regular written updates in the world of Indian dance were treasured by us all. May you rest in deep peace.
Ann R David is professor of dance and cultural engagement at the University of Roehampton, London. She specialises in dance anthropology and south Asian classical and popular dance, and is currently working on a monograph of Indian dancer Ram Gopal.
By Tara Rajkumar Oam
DR SUNIL KOTHARI’S legendary passion and commitment to Indian dance and the allied arts are an inspiration.
Artistic isolation with sporadic bubbles of creativity have been the general prescriptive norm for Indian performing artists. Into this world of boxed living, communicator extraordinaire Sunil bhai introduced a labyrinth of connections – criss-crossing timelines, cultures, and continents between dancers, debutants, gurus and rasikas.
We first met in Delhi in the 1960s when I was a young dancer aspiring to develop a solo Mohiniattam performance repertoire. Sunil bhai, who was already a noted dance critic and writer by then, offered me great advice and support.
It was in London in the 1970s that I really came to know, respect and be amazed by this extraordinary man who sped you along with his generosity of spirit. I was by then adviser for dance at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and on my way to setting up the National Academy of Indian Dance (now the Akademi) in London.
Sunil bhai and I presented lecture demonstrations and performances across the UK, which crucially helped to increase the interest of Western and Indian rasikas.
We continued our connection into the next three decades in Australia. On my invitation he came to Melbourne and presented his popular and well-researched lectures at prestigious universities and cultural centres.
Still ringing in my years are his laugh and friendly banter during intense discussions and exchange of ideas about dance. We will seriously miss him and his regular, widely read, and admired columns and articles on dance.
Goodbye my friend, you will be remembered with respect, affection and gratitude by so many. May your soul rest in peace at the feet of the lord of dance.
Tara Rajkumar, director of the Natya Sudha Dance Company and School that she established in 1986 in Melbourne, Australia, is a performer, choreographer, artistic director and a teacher of the Indian classical dance forms of of Mohiniattam and Kathakali.
By Pushkala Gopalmbe
“I AM a bania with no family connection to any of the arts, but I just love dance” – this was how Sunil bhai introduced himself to me when I met him for the first time in 1971.
The event was Navagraha, staged by Chandralekha with Kamadev. Sunil was a wiry man, with flowing hair, and unmistakable energy as he bounded here and there taking photographs. I actually assumed that he was the official photographer for the event!
Our next prolonged encounter was when he lived at a neighbour’s cottage in Nariman Point [in Mumbai] and dropped in every day for a chat and a casual meal. I realised the bania had morphed completely into a passionate Sahridaya, follower of dance, dance events and artists. He had set aside his job as a lecturer of commerce studies to become a freelance writer, covering dance for magazines and newspapers. He always found a way of being wherever the most exciting dance event was to be found, and national trails were soon replaced by global ones.
From the advent of Chennai’s dance festival, we inevitably met in the city in December and January most years. The special thing about Sunil bhai was that many members of our fraternity had the experience of a unique bond with him. Facebook was full of joyous messages when he wrote to say that he was recovering from coronavirus a few weeks ago. The news that this dear soul had gone into the beyond was an incredible shock.
Sunil bhai was ageless in his enthusiasm and energy, and new findings that were dance related, all the time. My last fond memory of him in the UK was at the Sampad Navadisha event in 2016 in Birmingham. He had on a splendid, handcrafted jacket, and when I oohed and aahed over it, he promised to show me the other ones he had designed for his wardrobe in India.
Pushkala Gopal is a ‘holistic Natya artiste’.