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Sujata Prasad’s biography of Sonal Mansingh is a celebration of the multifaceted dancer, and can afford a peek into this otherwise reticent woman’s life.
Dr. Sonal Mansingh is a celebrated Indian dancer. She has received multiple awards from both national and international organisations. She was awarded both the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan by the government of India.
There are very few dancers like Sonal who have explored not just the breadth and depth of multiple Indian classical art forms, but also have the capability to make connections between different disciplines. She is an exponent of Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Chhau. She has learnt Kuchipudi, carnatic vocal music, undergone extensive abhinaya training with notable Bharatanatyam gurus, and dance theory training. Since her first arangetram at the age of 17, she has given hundreds of performances in more than 87 countries. Even if the reader is unqualified to see the connection and/or contrast between different dance forms, when Sonal speaks about dance as a metaphysical dimension that pulls the audience in through the story it tells, it makes one long to be a part of this magic.
The book has 12 chapters, each clearly marking a major phase in Sonal’s life. The chapters themselves are formatted in such a way that it starts with the author’s write up interspersed with quotes from Sonal herself or from newspapers, ending with a Q&A with Sonal. Considering that the whole interaction must have been a series of questions and answers, the decision to keep a few Q&A at the end of every chapter is interesting and it works.
Right from chapter 2, where you read that she walked out of her house to go to Bangalore to pursue dance training, against her mother’s wishes, it clearly comes through that Sonal has lived an unconventional life. However the book does not focus much on the personal details about Sonal’s life, but only the parts that have been instrumental in her creative process. She has put aside every set back and heart break and applied herself to her art reinventing herself many times over.
Chapter 8, rightly named as Born Again, talks about her car accident, the worst nightmare of any dancer. This chapter also showcases her determination and discipline. For it might be blind luck that the body heals after an accident, but to bear the pain, go through gruelling hours of physiotherapy, stay positive through out the experience and to start dancing again is no small feat.
Sonal’s spin on feminism is very interesting. She does not look at the gender or the form but at the feminine energy Prakriti, the life force, without which our earth would be barren. While talking about Draupadi and feminism, she says,
“[…]Born from the agnigarbha, a womb of fire, she is Prakriti, the powerful cosmic principle of creation and dissolution […] We have not internalised what Vyasa was trying to communicate. Violence against women and sexualization of that violence continues. That violence eventually destroyed Hastinapur. It is destroying the fabric of our society. At another level, by denuding earth-nature-prakriti, we are inviting holocaust of unimaginable proportions.”
As you finish the last couple of chapters that talk about Sonal’s natyakathas that have feminism and social change as the central theme, one can’t but help search for videos of her Panchkanya or Draupadi!
The author is a fan of the artist and her work. But the degree of admiration irked me.
“Sensuous beauty, exquisite beauty, sensuality dripping, charming, dazzling, dizzying beauty, breathtaking beauty, heart wrenching beauty, extraordinary beauty, luscious, incredible beauty, sizzling beauty, lissome, svelte…”
These are few of the many adjectives and phrases used by the author to describe Sonal. Yes, we are talking about an extraordinary woman with incredible talent, but the frequency of adulation was excessive in about two thirds of the book. The glorification kind of tones down only in the last two chapters.
A biographer’s role is to present a person’s life to the reader. A biography that I have immensely enjoyed is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. All facets of Job’s life, good AND the bad were presented without any opinions and it was for the reader to form the opinion. When a biographer is so profligate with her praises, the reader starts doubting if what we read is a skewed perspective.
The target audience. As I read through, I wasn’t sure about the intended target audience. The author herself being a classical dancer must have immensely enjoyed Sonal’s performances and the opportunity to write about this dancer extraordinaire. But there are many parts where the writing gets too technical. There is elaborate description of the posture, hand gestures, sequence in which the pieces are rendered and foot work. There are also descriptions of the pieces Sonal revived from old texts. So the reader must have (full disclosure: I do have a working knowledge of these) a fair amount of initial knowledge of Indian classical dance forms. But on the other hand, the notes carry explanations for terms and phrases like Gajendra Moksham, asura, Kaurava court, etc., like it would explain to an audience with no knowledge of Hindu mythology.
Last but not the least, I would have liked to read more anecdotes from Sonal about her performances. There are few about Sonal dancing with her Bharatanatyam costume on top of her Odissi costume because she had back to back performances and did not have any time to change. Or the instance where she practices in Kabul and broke the tiles in her apartment. Or the time when one of her lovestruck students forgot his part as an asura and started dancing towards the lady dancing as Rambha on stage. Small incidents like this, humanises the subject and connects with the reader. Instead we get a lot of names. Lists and lists of names. Names of people and places. So many names that at one point it feels like a roster of all the important people in Sonal’s life in order to emphasise the importance of her as an artist.
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Top image via Pixabay and book cover via Amazon