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'I could not lobby for a Padma Shri'

Noted danseuse Sonal Man Singh talks about awards, Bollywood and more in a chat fest with Roshmila Bhattacharya.
Hindustan Times | By Roshmila Bhattacharya, Mumbai
UPDATED ON MAR 18, 2008 04:47 PM IST

Veteran danseuse Sonal Man Singh vents her views on reality shows, Bollywood and awards in a chat fest with Roshmila Bhattacharya.

It's not easy getting the nod from you for a performance. So what got the ‘yes' for last evening's open-air, free-for-all recital on the lawns of the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangralaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum)?

I may not perform too often in Mumbai my last show was in November at the Nehru Centre - but otherwise I'm on stage 15 days a month. I've just given six performances down south.

This was a special occasion because it's the 86th anniversary of the museum and they let me use their collection of miniatures for a performance inspired by Jaydeva's Gita Govinda,which is my specialty.

What makes the Gita Govind so special?
I read Jayadeva's 12th century Sanskrit poems for the first time when I was 17. They're like an ocean. With every reading you discover new pearls.

Radha, Krishna and the sakhis celebrating life... on the surface it's a simple situation but on a deeper level the reality pertains to everyone's life because without love there is no life.

Jayadeva's poetry talks about yearning, imagination, separation, reunion and that's not just a cosmic leela but the leela that's so much a part of our everyday life.

How different are the feelings when you're portraying Radha as compared to when you're playing the nine manifestations of Durga during a performance of Navadurga?
Navadurga was premiered in Kolkata last October during Mahalaya and it was almost like an offering.. a puja. I could see the grandeur of the mother goddess settling upon the audience till they became one with her.

Radha is a grand image too but she's a personification of love without which there is no creation. In our male-dominated mythology the image of Krishna at the feet of Radha, begging for her love, is most unusual. Gita Govind invokes deep spiritual thoughts, packaged in beautifully written verses.

Why did you single out Kasturba for a performance last year?
Gandhiji's granddaughter Taraben, with tears in her eyes, had requested me to weave a performance around Ba who no one remembers today even though Gandhiji himself had said that, without her he'd never have become a Mahatma. February 22, 2007, was her 67th death anniversary and Kasturba was premiered on this day.

My 95-year-old mother, Poornima Pakvasa, came all the way from her gurukul in Dang where she trains tribal girls, to see the performance. The daughter of a freedom fighter, Mangaldas Pakwasa, she was imprisoned when still under age, so Ba shared her cell with her.

Since my nana was very close to Gandhiji and came from Saurashtra, my mother had a personal relationship with Ba and helped me get her look and attitude right. I wrote the script myself in Hindi and set it to music.

Wouldn't TV help showcase such performances to a wider audience?
I had performed for the new channels earlier but in the last 10 years TV has skyrocketed. Now there's a feeling of deja vu. Everything looks the same, even the award shows.

What's your take on TV reality shows?
It's a good trend and the middle-class is getting into the act even if it's for the fat cheque being dangled before them. Of course, there's a huge difference between the dances you see on TV and our dance.

Still, I wouldn't mind being on the jury of such shows. But while music gurus like Pandit Jasraj and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia have served as judges, dance gurus are never invited.

What about films?

Surely there have been offers from Bollywood to choreograph a song?

Yes, but I wasn't happy with what I was being asked to do. However, I have choreographed a

Nimbooda Nimbooda

for my students and it's far superior to what you've seen on screen.

I've also used Hindi films songs to bring out the navrasas in the Ramayan. I've always reinterpreted and relocated dance to reflect the existing milieu and offer my audience a new window.

You have your own dance school in Delhi, the Centre for Indian Classical Dances, where you've been training batches of 12 students for the last 30 years. Don't you plan to open more branches?
I don't think so. I train solo dancers. Group dancing is a sign of the times and easy money but it results in half-baked dancers.

So a few fools like me stay true to the traditional art of gurukul even if it means losing a few lakhs.

The government could help with land and funds.
Governments come and go without making any difference whatsoever to the infrastructure that's as good as non-existent. We only have a Department of Culture not even a Ministry.

Fellowships and scholarships are but a drop in the ocean. Forget land and grants, I haven't even been given government accommodation in Delhi.

But you've won the Padma Shri..
Not the Padma Shri. That never came my way even though my colleagues were decorated back in the '70s, because I didn't know how to lobby for it.

Eventually, I was given the Padma Bhushan in '92 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2003. But while a police medal at least gets you free second class travel in an airconditioned coaches, I don't even get a free railway pass.

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