Sonal Mansingh needs no introduction. She is a renowned classical dancer and a guru of classical dance forms. She is one of the best representatives of Bharatanatyam and Odissi dance styles. In a career spanning over 50 years, she has performed on the most prestigious platforms. She dedicated her life to learning and promoting classical dances.
She learned her craft from classical dance maestro Kelucharan Mahapatra. She also taught classical dance in the true spirit of “guru-shishya parampara”. She has won several awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1987), Padma Bhushan (1992) and Padma Vibhushan (2003).
To promote classical dances, Sonal established the Indian Classical Dance Center in Delhi. Thereafter, she started an annual cultural festival “Kala Yatra”. It gives a platform to several upcoming artists and also showcases the work of established artists. She is also an appointed member of the Rajya Sabha. Sonal spoke to Gyaneshwar Dayal about her journey as an artist and the role she sees for artists today.
Q. How did the concept of “Kala Yatra” come to fruition and what was the reaction from the public?
A: Indian Classical Dance Center was established on April 30, 1977. The name Kamakhya Vidhyapeeth was later adopted when the Goddess bestowed her blessings on me. In 1977 itself, we started the annual festivals. The first festival was held at Mavalankar Hall in New Delhi for two days. During the first festival itself, many great artists participated and performed. They included Kishori Amonkar, Urmila Nagar and Hari Prasad Chaurasia. I was also one of the performers.
Later in 1978 when there was a Janata party government, I invited Morarji Desai to inaugurate it. It was again a big three-day event at the Ashoka Convention Center in Delhi. “Krishna” was the theme. Again, many great artists participated. Those were the early years and it’s been going on ever since.
Q. Has the Corona pandemic affected your work?
A: We haven’t stopped the event in the two years of Corona. We did it online as the auditoriums were closed. The online version was also well received and we also had a great response from abroad.
In 2020 we had reserved the Kamayani auditorium but the festival could not take place and we did a two-day program on Ramayan and Mahabharata. Several scholars spoke on this occasion and many troupes from various currents took part. We had three groups in each category like Draupadi by me, Ramayan from Thailand, Kuchipudi from Kerala and so on. Many dance groups took part and made it a great cultural event.
Last year we organized ”Dance of India at 75”. On the program, eight classical dances were performed by more than 150 troupes from across the country. There were only a few requirements to participate – no Bollywood music and only classical costumes. Participants had to choose from three themes. The three themes were ‘Vishwa Guru Bharat’, ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Unknown Heroes’.
Artists were awarded in different categories. We had luminaries like Amjad Ali Khan, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Manoj Joshi as super judges. It was an awesome experience. Prime Minister Modi sent us a long message appreciating our work. It became such a rage that people were fascinated. It has become a model now that the ICCR and other institutions are replicating.
Q. Could you tell us about the Kala Yatra this year and why did you choose Ramotsav as this year’s theme?
A: This year on 29th and 30th April we will have a mega show at Kamani Auditorium, Delhi as things have opened up now. The theme is, of course, Ramotsav. Such a magnificent temple stands in Ayodhya, this is our tribute. Other than that, Ram Rajya’s concept is becoming a reality. Ram Rajya needs a fair and honest leader and people see such a leader in Modi ji. Look at the programs that have been started for the people. Programs like Ujjwala, Mudra, road building, nal se jal, food distribution etc. all aim to improve the lives of the masses. Nobody asks if he is Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, this caste or this caste. It is the realization of Ram Rajya’s dream where everyone is treated equally and gets their due. This is the living maxim – Bahujana sukhaya bahujana hitaya.
Q. You once said that artists do not live in isolation, they are part of society. How do you think artists can make a difference in society?
A: I’m really sorry to say that not all artists are the same. What film artists do has a different impact and arouses different emotions. If the artist is sincere, honest and committed to his country, his land and his society, he will have a different perspective on social issues. There are so many issues to address. For example, river pollution is a very big problem.
You can see the state of Yamuna today – it looks black. In Bhagwat there is the story of Kaliya Nag who came to Vrindavan and polluted the river which looked as black as it is today. Then Lord Krishna chased him away and cleaned the river.
Now I ask who is going to be Krishna today – the government, the Supreme Court or the citizen of this country. There are so many messages in our scriptures. We have to take clues from there. The artist must be intelligent and sincere enough to understand them. He or she should bring changes in the life of the nation, otherwise it is not worth it. Simply staging such stories does not make sense. Our “Natya Shastra” is a complete philosophy and artists must understand its true essence and translate it into action.
Q. How do you see art and culture in the country today? Is it on the right track or is it going downhill?
A: Bollywood doesn’t care. They do what they want. In the old days, even in Hindi cinema, if there was a dance sequence, they would call Ustad Gopi Krishan for advice. Now everyone is a dancer. Now everything is fine. That’s why I say I’m not a dancer. I can’t be part of this.
Look, no one can decide the direction and flow of art and culture. It is the mirror of society. But art forms have their responsibility. Every artist must understand his duty to society. It should spread the right message through whatever its art form. Wherever he sees evil, he must speak against it. It must convey its message and make a difference.
Q. Do you think our education system is responsible for complacency among young people?
A: Our education has changed dramatically. What kids are learning these days is rubbish. Our educational system teaches them no moral values. We have to intervene there. We have to tell the younger generation that there is life beyond fun, party, malls, etc.
I tell the children that it is a country of 130 million inhabitants, what is your identity? You have to excel and make your identity and become something to make a difference. Look at APJ Abdul Kalam. He came from the fishing community. But he had a fire in his heart for the country and today everyone respects him. Nowadays, children from wealthy families say why worry about anything, our life is fine. I have a serious problem with this attitude. This must change.
Q. There is a plethora of art forms in India and many of them are slowly dying. What can we do there?
A: Yes, indeed there are folk arts, tribal arts and classical arts and so on. With changing times, these art forms become vulnerable. We have to preserve them, but some would still die a natural death and nothing can be done about that. The art form thrives when civil society is aware and proactive. Government alone cannot do much. It awards scholarships, grants, etc. State governments should get involved and propagate the same.
Q. Your mandate as an MP ends in 2024 and that is when the general elections would be held? Do you intend to enter politics and fight against the elections?
A: No, it’s not my temperament. I love doing my job and making a difference. I got to where I am through hard work and perseverance. I had no sponsorship. In fact, I opposed the urgency and paid the price. During the ten years of UPA rule, I was expelled from the Sangeet Natak Akademi. I was just teaching dance all those years. I don’t want to get into politics.
Q. How have you helped the cause of art and artists in Parliament?
A: I have done my part in Parliament by raising issues during Zero Hour and Question Time and by making my point in standing committees. This is my contribution to art and culture at the political level.
Q. What do you have to say to new artists who are trying to find a place?
A: I would say it’s much easier for them. There are hundreds of avenues and platforms for them. They can showcase their work anywhere. But in the end, it’s the quality that counts. The quality of your work must be top-notch, which would keep you in the account, otherwise the social media fame is quickly depleting.