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Danseuse Dr. Sonal Mansingh’s struggles and successes

By Rimli Bhattacharya

“Tradition always changes – sometimes minimally, sometimes noticeably. Traditional Indian classical dance has changed. We are not performing dance as it was a hundred years ago. But the core, which is the collective memory, has changed” – Dr. Sonal Mansingh

A Taurus born, Dr. Sonal Mansingh is a noted Indian classical dancer, an exponent of the genres of Bharatnatyam and Odissi.

Popular for her expertise in Odissi, she is also a philosopher, activist, choreographer, and teacher. Born to an activist mother, Poornima Pakvasa, who is also a winner of Padma Vibhushan, Dr. Mansingh started her tiny steps with Manipuri Dance at the tender age of four. She comes from an elite family. Her grandfather, Sir Mangal Das Pakvasa, was a freedom fighter and also one of the governors in India.

Though her family was liberal, they were biased against her fascination for dance. During her childhood, dance was considered a rather discreditable vocation. She fought back to prove that cultural expressions need to be respected and there is nothing wrong in wanting to be a practitioner of one of the cultural forms. Dr. Mansingh ignored the initial resistance and at eighteen took her real Bhartnatyam lessons from Prof. U. S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi.

In 1962, she first performed Arangetram in Mumbai, where her grandfather was the governor.

When her dexterity got noticed by several noted personalities, her family realized that dance was her true calling. Her quest for learning dance did not stop; she further refined her steps under Guru Jayalakshmi Alva, who was based in Mumbai.

It was at an art festival, where she and Lalit Mansingh, who was from Odisha, met and got married. It was her father-in-law, the great educationist Dr. Mayadhar Mansingh, who introduced her to Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. Under her Guru’s mentorship, she started her andragogy in Odissi. In the meantime, her own relationship with Lalit worsened as there were conflicting ideologies, rumors of a new woman in Lalit’s life, and also Lalit’s posting at Geneva. She returned to Delhi to pursue her career, which ultimately led to a divorce, an end to her first marriage with Lalit.

During her stay in Odisha, she learnt more of Odiya culture and allied performing arts traditions like Chhau from Guru Anant Charansai and also Pala Sangeet.

Life was not kind on her. We all look for mentors to grow. She was no exception either. However, she was disappointed with the reaction of her mentor, once she broke the news of her divorce: “The phase after the divorce was, in Mansingh’s own words, humiliating, banal, and low. The cruelest whiplash […] came from her guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. ‘I reached out to him as soon as I got back. A guru is like a father. I expected him to empathise with me, to help me deal with the trauma of separation, but he behaved with monstrous egotism. He not only mocked me, but kicked my head when I bent down to touch his feat […].’”

In 1974, she met with an accident, which almost ended her career as a danseuse. It was because of her foolish courage, months of debilitating physiotherapies, and her madness that she again got back the strength to hit the dance floor. In her biography of Dr. Sonal Mansingh, Sujata Prasad writes:

After many faltering wobbles, her torso, hips and legs remembered what they had to do. She began training seriously to the pounding beats of taped music, sometimes not even breaking for tea or lunch […]. A letter written to Kumkum on 22 February 1975 says it all: “I am dancing again! Bless my stars and bless my doctor. He is an absolute angel […].”

Dr. Mansingh had several lows in her life. I have already mentioned her divorce and her accident. She had an interim refuge in a tiny apartment on Curzon Road. When she returned from her European dance tour, she found that it has been turned into a brothel by the concierge. She had to struggle for money, spent nights in a garage, sold off her gold bangles gifted by her mother, and borrowed from banks and also from well-wishers such as OP Jain and AJ Jaspal.

During the 70s, she performed worldwide: in Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, and New York. Despite her exasperating schedule, she had a brief brush with art films and theaters. Dr. Mansingh’s audiences stalked her making her public life difficult, as they asked her for autographs even in the open market. She was often beseeched by complete strangers, who seemed fascinated by her costumes, jewelry, and her stunning beauty.

Like most of us, she too didn’t learn a lesson from her failed marriage. While her life revolved around Odissi, she still fell in for the then director of Max Mueller Bhawan, New Delhi, Georg Lechner. Georg was married and this relationship was a talk of the town. It was a scandal which they ignored and married. It didn’t last because she caught Georg red-handed bedding a Swedish girl. In her interview with the TOI, she says “I am always open to love: After being married for long, Georg and I parted ways. But love never went out of my life. I am always open to love, I am always in love. Having a man in my life is the least of my problems […].”

Dr. Mansingh is the founder of Centre for Indian Classical Dances (CICD) in New Delhi, which trains students in Indian classical dance. Dance is a way to convey to the audience about a way of life, stories, and mythologies. Dr. Mansingh has conveyed several of stories through her dance: Indradhanush, Draupadi, Devi Durga, Aatmayan and Sabras.

She has conducted several workshops, seminars, lectures, trained young talents and later turned into a social activist. During the 1990s, she started her group, “Artists against Communalism” and worked to uphold the values of secularism and cultural pluralism by bringing together on the same platform the enormous richness through classical dance traditions. There was a sad end to this movement as the people who worked with her later accused her of being a right wing supporter.

Dr. Sonal Mansingh was the youngest recipient of the Padma Bhushan in 1992. Rewarded with Padma Vibhushan in 2003, Dr. Mansingh became the first Indian woman dancer to receive this high honor. In 2002, noted director, Prakash Jha, made a documentary on her, which won the National Film award for Best National non feature film.

I would like to conclude this essay with my personal encounter with Dr. Mansingh. I was fifteen and I was spell-bound watching her perform. I refused to leave the auditorium without meeting her, though I was told she was meditating. I stood for four hours and then I met her.

Like a child, I started weeping the moment I saw her and asked her to show me the Navarasas. With the voice of a nightingale, she answered, “You dance, don’t you? Let me see how you show me those Navarasas.”  I performed and then touched her Alta laden tender feet, which I felt like holding forever. She lifted me, wiped my tears, and said, “Believe in yourself. Just know I learnt those Navarasas from you. Respect your body, it’s a temple; so is dance, it’s a prayer. Learn meditation, train your mind, and focus on what you love. You are in my heart, little girl, and do not stop learning. Always think you can still improve and also know you need to compete with only yourself.”

So behind each success story, there is an untold story of extreme heartbreak, struggle, pain, betrayal, and failure. The universe whispers until it screams. No heartbreak is ever caused by just one thing. It’s the final blow that breaks us. Sometimes life has a cruel sense of humor, giving us the thing we always wanted at the worst possible time. Our capacity for darkness determines how we perceive light. The yin/yang of our emotions is always in balance. The truth is: heartbreak is often necessary for our growth. It can’t kill us. We only wish it did.

Rimli Bhattacharya completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. She obtained an MBA in supply chain management and is engaged in the corporate sector. Her essay on mental health was published in the anthology, Book of Light (Speaking Tiger Books, 2016). She has written for several magazines and newspapers – Times of IndiaEngineering Journals, and other blogs. Rimli has been awarded as a Star Blogger by team Bonobology for her essay, “Running a solo Marathon”. She is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76


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