The danseuse describes how she has devoted her life to the world of dance which has no boundaries and walls. The physical and emotional discipline that comes with dance has helped her evolve a supple, nimble mind capable of creating a myriad of ideas and images in three-dimensional form onstage.
By Dr Sonal Mansingh
I have repeatedly been asked questions about my life and dance in many ways. Here are the answers to some of them.
What does success mean to you? Has your definition of it changed over the years and if so, why?
Dancing was, and is, always “work in progress”, therefore continuously striving towards attaining Perfection. Success may be an appropriate term in business but in dance as in life, it does not have a place in my dictionary. On the journey towards Perfection one crosses many peaks which could also be equated with Nirvana or Satori. Surprisingly, even in my younger years, success was not a word in my psyche! Strange, but true.
Where do you think your ‘magic’ comes from?
Indian classical dance opens up unending vistas of ideas, colour, images, situations, characters, concepts which have nourished my life. I roam and play in that open creative field which has no boundaries and no walls. That freedom is augmented by physical and emotional discipline, creating a supple, nimble mind capable of creating a myriad of ideas and images in three-dimensional form onstage. Ideas speak, images dance. Audiences too dance in that sphere of joyous harmony. And when communication is joyous and harmonious, there is magic!
What do you believe are the characteristics, actions, habits and behaviour that you have and use, that have helped you achieve what you have?
I laugh a lot, I instantly connect with people who can ‘let go’ and can laugh heartily, not just with the mouth but the whole being. I love one-liners, puns, wit, and quick repartees. So, instead of moping around, I get going. I have faced many ups and downs, sharp turns, social boycott, official (political) harassment but my belief in my Mission, my Honesty and Integrity have carried me through.
I love books, temple sculptures, nature, and the energy of the Sun. My habit of drinking a lot of water, working through an idea, a project, enjoying grinding schedules, sipping wine with friends, travelling to new places, meeting challenges… have been crucial. I cannot stand duplicity and low self-esteem. I react to bad behaviour instantly, something that has earned me respect as well as fear – “intimidating/ difficult/temperamental” are some of the adjectives I have received.
How do you ensure that you are always performing at your peak?
Dance is a demanding art form. It presupposes, first, an alluring physique which comes with good training. Second, a freshness and illusion of spontaneity onstage, and, third, a knack for instant communication with the audience. Yet, unlike classical ballet, the traditional dance forms of India (mistakenly called “classical”) have a USP of solo dancing, and technique which is detailed in ancient texts on dance, music and theatre. Sage Bharata’s Natya Shastra is unparalleled for its rich and appropriately varied tenets, techniques, graphic information and explanation of how, where, why a solo dancer should perform, where a group of dancers may be introduced, and about make-up, colours of costumes, the kind of instruments to accompany the dancer, qualification of the dancer, musicians and the Guru as well as the attributes of a civilised audience!
The technique for a solo dancer includes training in use of every major and minor limb including forming and using the famous hasta mudra i.e. hand gestures to tell a story or to embellish rhythmic movements and intricate footwork. The text in Sanskrit also has equal sections on music; types of instruments, instrument-making, musical notes, voice training, and so on.
The theatre section gives detailed instructions on construction of performance space, specific dimensions and design for different kinds of performances, back-stage facilities, training in acting which includes dance and music, and the like.
The reason for this lengthy introduction to solo dance in India which has a very old tradition, is to say that with advancing maturity and age the Indian solo dancer does not go into oblivion as a ‘has-been’, unlike a classical ballet dancer. Newer nuances and understanding of body-mind combined energy topped with ease in slipping into different variations, creates many new possibilities. As a teacher, writer, choreographer (for group productions), speaker – most importantly as a socio-cultural commentator – I have lately created and developed a form of katha in which I am a narrator, singer, dancer, offering critiques on prevalent social issues with reference to such situations in earlier times and the solutions then. Thus, I remain at a peak – perhaps on a higher scale than when I was younger!
What legacy would you like to leave?
My legacy is tangible. In my institution, Centre for Indian Classical Dances (established in 1977), in Delhi, thousands of students have learnt dance, music, yoga, Sanskrit and the cultural values of India. My legacy is also in the intangible sphere of a “hunger to know”, to experience beauty, to create an almost tangible world of ideas and to build strong, supple, graceful minds. I must add that many of my students still remember comic, funny, crazy situations or my remarks and comments which they say have saved them in difficult times.
One last point which is superimposed on everything I think and do: daily prayers of gratitude, saying ‘thank you’ to my divine mother, the Great Cosmic Energy.
(The author is a Padma Vibhushan and a Member of Parliament.)