When she was young and possibly crazier about dance than she is today, Sonal Mansingh took up an adventure trip that was to effectively change the course of her life. With the scholarship money she obtained for a postgraduate programme in a German university, the lady left her Bombay home for Bangalore. There, her Bharatanatyam tutors were surprised, while back in the western metropolis Sonal's grandfather had launched a missing person’s complaint with the police.
The old man was eventually “so relieved when guruji called him”. So much so, “he forgot to be angry with me”, notes a recent biography of artiste-activist about the dramatic early-1960s incident. Sonal, who has been a reputed dancer for more than half a century, is now 73—and quite a few interesting facts about her eventful profile come to light again in ‘A Life Like No Other’ authored by Sujata Prasad, a civil servant.
It was in the Karnataka capital that the artiste was largely groomed as a Bharatanatyam exponent—under a couple who were sticklers for the classical dance’s Pandanallur style that emphasises on linear geometry and understated emoting. Ubhayakar Shivaram Krishna Rao and his wife Chandrabhaga Devi had imbibed the grammar of their school from legendary Meenakshisundaram Pillai (a descendant of the famed Tanjore Quartet of the early 19th century).
Sonal’s guru himself was multifaceted. A Konkani Brahmin who ventured to learn a largely Tamil dance, Prof Rao (who died in 2005 at age 92) also played for the star-studded Bangalore United Cricket Club while teaching chemistry in a college in that city. It wasn’t Sonal’s pedigree (her freedom-fighter grandfather Mangal Das Pakvasa was one of Independent India’s first five governors) that led Rao to teach the girl, but her talent she could demonstrate before him prior to the admission in the Maha Maya school. Her arangetram in 1961 at Raj Bhavan was attended by celebrities such as the Mysore Maharajah and actress Devika Rani Roerich besides Sonal’s grandfather.
Sonal left Bangalore a year later but continued to learn Bharatanatyam under Bombay gurus. After all, it was under Kumar Jayakar, another Meenakshisundaram pupil, she first learned the form at age seven. At Bombay, she had a brush with Manipuri classrooms as well.
Yet another phase of dance awaited Sonal for a year from 1968 when she lived down south in Madras to learn Bharatanatyam abhinaya under Mylapore’s revered Gowri Ammal, who had also taught the acclaimed Rumini Devi and T. Balasaraswati. Equally admirably, Sonal took Kuchipudi classes—from none less than Vempati Chinna Satyam, an icon of the dance from Andhra Pradesh.
So, how did the tryst with Odissi start? Well that twist has a bit to do with her personal history as well. Sonal married her lover, diplomat Lalit Mansigh, who was an Oriya groomed in Cuttack. Her father-in-law, poet Mayadhar Mansingh, overrode his wife’s protests and “wasted no time in taking Sonal” to Kala Bikash Kendra. The 1952-founded Odissi school had its main guru in towering Kelucharan Mahapatra, who had moulded frontline practitioners such as Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kumkum Mohanty and Meenakshi Nanda. Sonal tried her eclecticism in Odissi as well by learning under other illustrious gurus such as a Mayadhar Raut and Srinath Rout.
A couple of years later, she met poet-musicologist Jiwan Pani, a distinguished scholar of performing arts, who introduced Sonal to a range of Oriya art traditions such as Chhau, Prahlad Natak, Paala and Chariya Geeti. His scholarly insights “fired” Sonal’s imagination, which “was at its freest and most ambitious”.
In an interview with her biographer, the dancer makes quite a few interesting observations about Indian arts. “Classicism certainly does not preclude creative improvisations, neither does originality distort tradition,” she notes. Also, “Odissi music has developed as an exquisite counterpoint to the Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions, with its own distinct ragas, talas and style of rendition”.
So, “If you had to choose, what would it be—Bharatanatyam or Odissi”, asks the author. The reply goes thus: “You are making it sound like Sophie’s Choice. I share an equal passion for Bharatanatyam and Odissi. Bharatanatyam is majestic, geometrical in conception, architectural, whereas Odissi is lyrical, graceful and sculptural.”
It was a 1964 Delhi performance by Sonal at Sapru House that led Lalit Mansingh to meet her—and eventually make Sonal his wife (though they later divorced). Politician and ex-minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, who reviewed this book for Outlook the other week, himself comes as a character in this part of the story. While young Mansingh sat in the front and was “clearly mesmerised”, Aiyar (then an IFS probationer) was in the back row. “If I had been in the front row,” said Aiyar later, “I would have got you, Sonal”.
The 220-page work, published by Penguin Random House India, is priced at Rs 599.