Shoonya to Shatabdi

 Shoonya to Shatabdi

While most things start humbly, some grow to become a banyan tree. “Sitting under a banyan tree, you’d find a Bharatanatyam teacher” my father was told in 1940s, when he asked Ram Gopal group members Mrinalini Sarabhai and MK Saroja where to learn Bharatanatyam from. They said so because their teacher Vidwan Muthukumaran Pillai had taught Rukmini Devi, the lady under the banyan tree, aeons ago, when she started out in 1936 with her Indian institution, the Kalakshetra. He was the first guru there. So the style is as much Kattumunarkoil, Chidambaram as ascribed to later guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur. History is only as much as we know! What’s not revealed, doesn’t get established but doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

So when the idea was mooted by the IGNCA where to start Mohan Khokar’s centenary on December 30, then Kalakshetra was the natural choice. It would be very cold in North India. South was the best season to enjoy outdoors and art activity and Madras is where all Siberian cranes – read the NRIs – come when they wish to soak some culture. Add all North Indians trying to escape winter and get some culture.

Father-Figure of Indian Dance History – that’s the title of the book published by the IGNCA for Mohan Khokar’s centenary. It started on almost the penultimate day of last December and will continue all through the year. That’s because like Kulapati Munshi, the founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan movement and institutions, Mohan Khokar was born on December 30. He didn’t establish any institution as he was himself an institution: first male student of Kalakshetra in 1945; Founder-Head of the Dance Department of MSU Baroda and then with the SNA, NSD, KK and founder of AttenDance.

“Centenaries should be celebrated if the person has contributed to the nation in some lasting and significant manner,” said Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, in her keynote address. She is a brilliant mind in art field, full of knowledge and learning. Dr Sonal Mansingh, who came all the from Delhi to Chennai to be present on the occasion, said, “this man and his mission needs celebration. Nowhere, just nowhere in the world, such a vast collection of dance materials exist, as in the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, now gifted to the nation at IGNCA”.

Mohan Khokar Centenary start at Kalakshetra  

Mohan Khokar did contribute significantly. He created India’s largest library of dance books; biggest dance photo bank; huge pool resource worldwide. Mammoth memorabilia of artefacts, costumes, RPM, posters on dance. Lakhs of letters written by the A to Z of the dance greats. Films, voices, spools and recordings.

All at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Delhi.

So what’s the point of focusing on a centenary? Stock taking. Other than a cause celebre to be celebrated, it is celebrating a cause without a pause. Like, where do dance studies stand today? Where are our dance students headed? Are they employable? Is dance even a profession? Anyone learning anything anywhere can be called a dancer? Why only some succeed and others don’t? What are the eco systems? Who or what makes a career?

Such issues were not tabled at the conference. The conference I said. Natya Kala, that huge five-day conference in Chennai that’s gone on for decades.

The revised one was restarted 40 years ago by one sabha called the Krishna Gana Sabha. A purely local affair, it was dance academic Padma Subrahmanyam’s idea to convene it in Chennai at this Sabha and it gave the Sabha an identity. It was far flung in commercial part of Madras and except for its name Thyagaraja Nagar, there were famous Sari shops and gold shops in this colony of Thyagaraja! Today it has five-star hotels and more.

Krishna Gana Sabha was a sleepy Sabha in thatched roof and all just 10 years ago. Nalli Kuppuswami the sari czar equipped it with monies to upgrade the hall and today it is a happening Sabha with swanky seats and all. Here, for the 41st year, a five-day Conference was held, hosted by Delhi’s star BN dancer Rama Vaidyanathan. She made it eclectic this year by including all and sundry. The rags and drags of the dance scene. All who feel left out of normal festival circuit or fanfare. She made it inclusive and many responded whole heartedly.

Chennai has branded their music dance season whole heartedly. What was basically a holy month of Margazhi when the lord slept so only satsangs and the like performed, no weddings or auspicious, important functions took place, the Tamilian mind has used a dull month and made it a very happening month. Everyone gets business. The hotels are full. Eatries in boom. Sari sellers are patrons of art wanting attention and acclaim by sitting in front row and rubbing shoulders with all those who really matter. In Madras, the real powerful are dressed simply. Only their cars will tell their clout and houses, their wealth.

Sanjay Arya of Shubhi publications

Wealth of knowledge these Lit. festivals are, though there are so many now that one can’t tell which one is worthy. Each one sounds grander than the other and more inclusive. Some have star names and some none, still the brand sells. One-book-old manage to get in and talk as though they are veterans. The real big names stay away; they don’t need to sell even. They get pre sold.

Offstage is the title of the book on Dhananjayans and a better visual treat has not been seen in recent years in dance books. Lavish, grand-sized and well-designed and written, it is a homage to these active gurus in dance that have touched many lives. Shanta Dhananjayan is on the cover (by veteran Raghavendra Rao) and VP Dhananjayan back cover. The insides open with grand family photos. Elegant and beautiful, there’s enough material for the connoisseur and the critic. The team of Poonam Ganglani, Satwik and Manasa Gade with Anupama Satyajit have created a work of art. Section Lines and Curves are full of beautiful charcoal and ink sketches, taking one back to the days of Ambassador cars. Comic books rolled with serious material, is the section Tour de Force, where performing to empty halls, flying standing position as there are goats in seats! and sumptuous saapaad in end makes for happy reading. This is a must-buy dance book this season. There’s no ISBN or price? Maybe then for private circulation. That it is printed in Chennai is itself an achievement. For years, I looked for a printer in Chennai and Bangalore for our annual folly, attenDance. Wonder why dance is so marginalised that even dance books don’t make it to lit fests? There again, the Krishna Gana Sabha letting a stall be put up by Shubhi of Delhi meant many dance books could be seen and savoured. The owner Sanjay Arya himself sat there and interacted with all who came to the stall. Many stars and students did. The year ended with grand centenary celebrations at Kalakshetra for Mohan Khokar. 500 dance lovers in attenDance, some who rarely come out like octogenarian Janardhan sir. Or Gowri Ramnarayan the playwright author and more. She had contributed to the book on Mohan Khokar which has 50 rare articles by him written from 1940s to 1990s and 50 tributes from the A to Z in dance world. 300 pages, 200 photos.

Cover of Offstage book

The New Year began with a zero that ends in a hero. Annette Leday, that French Kathakali dancer from Paris, held a most interesting session on the process of inter-cultural learning. Alas! The organisers called Shoonya proved to be a zero in mustering audience. But, the show must go on and Annette Leday did just that with the assembled audience of crafts queen of Bangalore Geetha Bhatt, star of Bharatanatyam Aishwarya Nityanand, Kuchipudi queen Deepa Sashindran and upcoming dancers like Bianca Radhakrishnan and youngsters like the twin talents Archana -Chetana made up for numbers. Add a 14-year-old Shaivi Gururaj in pavadai, that traditional South Indian dress for children no one wears, was nice to see. And so it goes…Shoonya to Shatabdi. 

Annette Leday group


Gold standard of art writing, documentation and dance history comes from sustained work in the field for almost 50 years; 47 books, 5000 articles, 3 monthly columns for decades and one yearbook -attenDance. Add cultural administration from 1980s onwards; teaching at universities dance modules, 85 such for UGC E-PATHSHALA and advisor to NEEMRANA group and IGNCA. On board of several institutions, organisations and NGOs make him a truly cultural icon of young India that bridges tradition with old Bharat. Ashish Khokar truly loves and serves Indian arts and culture selflessly.


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  • Wonderful article

  • Absolutely fantastic 🤩

  • Thanks for such a lively article where can see the scenes and happening infront of you. Also so informative about past present and future….need to be documented. Congratulations to Ashish Khokar ji for his single mind devotion and dedication for the preservation of the history of dance journey…a must read for all the art connosieurs…..

  • Reading this article is like making a wisdom tour.. It covers so many aspects not just limited to art and culture.. It covers all related happenings of past presence and perhaps future too.. While the main coverage focused on the events it also touched upon the various personas who organised the program, patronised the program and those who attended the program. It touched upon uniqueness of celebrity personalities who are related to the event or attended the event.. The impact of the venue, city and performers also was covered in detail. There were references to the past, references of achievers what makes them what they are, quality of audience.. So on so forth.. In short the whole article made me feel I was there in the program virtually and experienced every part of the celebration myself.. Loved the mention about attenDance… Title phrase of shoonya to shatabdhi and above all the best line that is going to remain in me forever and will keep reminding me every minute…. ” Cause should be celebrated without pause”….. Wonderfully crafted line by Ashish sir…. So relevant so remarkable and so memorable quote.. I will rember this forever as much as I remember rest of the article about dance culture, dance history, dance books, forms, gurus and audience and dance book sellers, Chennai city, it’s climate and it’s relevance to our culture.. Etc all these aspects are memorable ones just like the phrases Ashish sir mentioned through out the article…. After reading it.. I keep humming the famous Telugu song line…..”Endiro mahanubhavalu andiriki naaa vandanamulu”

  • Exhilarating experience.. Read through the document.. insightful .. so much to learn, read , engross..the narration brings so much clear thoughts and one can visualize the journey of Shri Mohan sir, Bharatnatyam, the AS IS of the art form, the event held in Chennai during the dhanurmaasa.. the inclusive thought of BN Rama Vaidhyanathan.. the final para covering the inter cultural learning gave a glimpse of the sincere efforts done by 🙏🏻Annette Leday was priceless and finally a special mention of the young talents was itself so much encouragement to parents like us 🙏🏻🙏🏻.. thanks again Sir

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