Sonal Mansingh: A Life Like No Other by Sujata Prasad ; Published by Penguin Viking ; Pages 272; Price Rs. 599/-
The author of the book under review Sujata Prasad studied History at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, and Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She also learnt classical music and dance. She has to her credit a volume on health security and a novella-like memoir for children.
Prasad has been a vigorous commentator on the performing arts and gender related issues. This book captures the life and times of this classical dancer Sonal Mansingh and highlights many well known tales of the dancer’s life. Sonal’s “early life had all the ingredients of a fairy tale.” The drama, however, starts in the second half of the book describing a spate of events that proved to be the turning point in her story.
Sonal was born in Mumbai to Arvind and Poornima Pakvasa, a noted social worker from Gujarat and Padma Vibhushan winner in 2004. Her grandfather was Mangal Das Pakvasa, a freedom fighter, and one of the first five Governors of India. We are taken on a delectable journey of Bharatanatyam and Odissi of Sonal. She started learning Manipuri at age four, from a teacher in Nagpur. At seven, she started learning Bharatanatyam from various gurus belonging to the Pandanallur school.
Sonal got married to former Indian diplomat Lalit Mansingh, which did not turn out to be a very happy experience. “… there was an underlying disquiet, a feeling that something was not quite right….. My friends tried to warn me about a bevy of young women in Lalit’s life, but I continued to live in anaesthetised haze, keeping myself insulated from the steamy details, managing somehow a Zen-like forbearance.” The phase after the divorce was, in her own words, humiliating, banal and low. The cruellest whiplash, according to the author, 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 feet,”
Sonal’s incandescent energy flows into her art and she has a very real and distinctive aura — sharp, outspoken, irreverent, and witty. She is beyond belief candid and outspoken.
Sonal’s earliest memories are of music programmes at the Raj Bhavans, where she grew up. We have accounts of performances of Siddheshwari Devi, . Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Hussain Khan, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, M. S. Subbulakshmi and the senior Dagar brothers.
Sonal herself went through a very distinct Socialist phase and a direct engagement with the politics of dissent during the Emergency. In the 1990s, she was deeply involved with a group of performing artistes, writers and poets, collectively known as ‘Artists against Communalism’.
She recalls the tumult in her life in the mid-1970s when she accepted an invitation to perform at different venues in Brazil. To begin with, there were three performances lined up for her at Sao Paulo. At the end of the recital, the audience erupted. The applause was deafening.
In 1979, Sonal went on an ICCR-supported performance tour of around seventy days to countries across different continents. One of the highlights of this tour was a new choreography based on a famous Malayalam poem, 'Magdalena Mariam', written by Vallathol Narayana Menon (a leading early-twentieth-century Malayalam poet, popularly known as Mahakavi Vallathol). 'Maria Magdalena' was part of her repertory 1975 onwards. Strung to Carnatic ragas and danced in Bharatanatyam, it was a rage in different religious and social contexts. The composition extolled the exquisite beauty of Mary, the nayika (or the female protagonist), preparing to meet her lover, her change of heart at the sight of Jesus and her absolute surrender at his feet.
Sonal's own life was entering into a difficult phase. Her second husband Georg's sexual liaisons were beginning to trouble her.
Most of the chapters are written in a question-answer mode. Prasad asks Mansingh about a host of topics, including her music tastes, which vary from Bob Dylan to Kishori Amonkar.
Sonal had the horrible experience of her Curzon Road apartment being turned into a brothel by the caretaker during one of her European tours. Her quiet struggle against daunting odds was carried out without a trace of bitterness. She began building some meaningful relationships with cultural icons like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. “Kamaladevi was my inspiration. I called her ‘Amma’. Her home in Canning Lane, which I used to visit frequently, was an adda for writers, craftspersons and activists from the cooperative, socialist and feminist movements. The intellectual, artistic churning that went on at Amma’s place helped me regain my innate cool and confidence.”
Preparations for the 1972 Olympics in Munich were on in full swing. Sonal took part in festivals such as the Europaische Wochen in Passau and the Bayreuth Youth Festival, In Bayreuth she ”…learnt to appreciate the beauty of the libretto, enjoy the verve of jazz. I feasted on Wagner’s operas, awestruck by Der Ring des Nibelungen, scores featuring Der Fliegende Holländer, the hugely moving Tristan and Isolde and Wagner’s swan song, Parsifal—letting the music wash over me, not getting out of the opera house in much under five hours. I turned into a complete Wagnerphile.”
Sonal Mansingh established in 1977 the Centre for Indian Classical Dances (CICD).She is an exemplary choreographer, teacher, composer, scholar with immense knowledge of the classical arts, recipient of several national and international awards and state honours including the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Prakash Jha made a Documentary on her entitled “Sonal “ which bagged the National Film Award for Best Non-Feature Film Award for 2002.
The book has some wonderful photographs that act as a preview into an incredible life. This is an extremely captivating biography of an unusual artist who fought for her rightful place and succeeded.
23 / 07 / 2017.