Interview with Sonal Mansingh
Among the great dancers of India, Sonal Mansingh is special, as she had to overcome the sequels of a severe car accident to be able to resume her career as a top performer, displaying rare courage and determination. As she herself says, this experience "was much more than just an accident and the courage to come back." It brought among other things "a qualitative difference " to her way of dancing.
It is while travelling in Germany in the summer of 1974 that Sonal Mansingh had this fateful car accident. As a result, her twelfth vertebra, four ribs and a collarbone were fractured. She had to be put in a four-kilo cast from neck to hip.
Doctors were afraid that Sonal would not be able to dance again. Walk normally, yes, but dance as a top performer?
Dance was the main thing in her life. She had sacrificed a lot to become a dancer. She had done it against the will of her family. Life without dance seemed impossible.
She had to wait nearly five months in her cast till she could start re-education with a well-known chiropractor. At the beginning, every time Sonal moved, her muscles, inert from so many months of disuse, screamed in protest. The pain was sometimes so intense that she was close to fainting. Several times, she felt like giving up. But years of dancing had given her tremendous inner discipline. She persevered, lured by the dream of dancing again.
Six months after the accident, she was only back to the fist basic dance steps which she had learned as a child. She was in pain and feeling helpless ever so often, but she went on and on. Gradually, she was able to increase the number of hours of daily practice.
On April 20 1975, nine months after her accident, she gave her first performance in Bombay's Rang Bhavan. There was an atmosphere of great anticipation as everyone present in the
audience knew what had happened. According to eyewitnesses, it was perhaps her greatest performance, as she had deliberately chosen the most difficult compositions. She danced for two and half hours and, at the end of it, she stood before a public in raptures, tears in her eyes, delighted to have been able to find her self again.
We felt very happy and privileged to meet Sonal Mansingh and ask her to share with us her deep thoughts about dance and the human body. Sonal Mansingh received the Padmavibhusan Award in 2003.
Q: What is your relationship with Indian dance ?
Sonal: The answer would have been different at different times of my life. My first memories are when I was about 3 years old. We I were into dance even then, as children are with parents who are interested in arts. The children develop that interest, teachers are engaged, there are special occasions where dance, music are part of the festivities. All that is in my memory. The formal training began when I was 7 years old. I am told by my teachers and parents that I had always shown a great inclination towards dance. We were also taught classical vocal music and sitar. My sister was born for music. I found reasons not to be present at all the tutorials of music — maybe a stomach ache or a faint.... But for dance, I was more than ready before time and always practising a lot. My interest grew into a passion — what people now call "passion". At that time I did not know it was a passion because, in India especially, we do not verbalize too much. Giving names to every shade of feeling is a very recent phenomenon. It didn't happen when I was young. I only knew that dance would give me such intense joy — it just burst out from me. So, at different stages of my life, dance acquired a different importance with different hues and shades.
As of now, asking what dance means to me, or what is my inner relationship to dance — it's like asking what breathing means to me.
Q: What are the qualities of body, heart and mind an Indian dancer should have ?
S: I think that the qualities of heart and mind are the same for every dancer. Open mind, deep humility, and determination to work hard. Also an attitude of learning at all times, and toughness of spirit. Those qualities and perhaps many more must belong to the aspirant dancer.
Q: Could you say something about the relationship between dance and the body, your body?
S: Dance is such a physical art, and the first layer of that art is the body. The first tenet or principle in India has always been that body is the temple, and body is beautiful, and body has to be cherished and therefore nourished, body is to be worshipped. And as a result you see all these sculptures. So body is beautiful, body is the instrument through which I realize dance.
The space within the body is sacred like the sanctum of a temple from which emanates the dance. But to realize that emanation, the body is the instrument. And the dimensions of space can be shown by nothing else than the body. Here is the space, all this empty area around is space, and if I decorate it, I design it, otherwise there is nothing. So to define space you need the body, that's what the dancer is doing.
Q: How are the grace and lightness of the dance reflected in life?
S: I read somewhere that the queens of England were taught the regal walk by placing the Encyclopaedia Britannica on their heads! And if you have seen the countryside in India, in Rajasthan and Orissa particularly, the women still wear heavy silver jewellery and carry water pots, and you see the freedom of their movements and the grace. So what I mean to say is that in life the more there are obstacles in your path, the greater becomes the determination to overcome them. I think the interrelationship of heaviness and lightness,
light and shadow, is very real — unless you have known one you can't know the other. In Odissi dance, for example, the silver jewellery alone weights three or four kilos, and of course there are also the bells.... and then, nevertheless, for two hours or more, we are really like butterflies and birds.
Q: Yes, in the Indian village you feel you see both the queen and the servant together.
S: Absolutely. The queen and servant all rolled into one. But as they say, if you have not seen the valley you cannot see the mountain. It is so true, so true.
Q: What about a dancer's training ?
S: It begins with the body, with an understanding of the body, of the power of the body, what it is capable of. So training is really about stretching the body like elastic, always doing a little more, as far as you want it to go.
Q: Should students train in many forms of Indian dance, or only one or a few?
S: Actually all forms of Indian dance have an inner connection I because they are based on the same aesthetic values and the same Indian sensitivity, legends, mythology and philosophical concepts. But there are some forms, like Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi for example, or Odissi, which have a kind of family resemblance and which may be learned together. I think it would be inadvisable to learn together forms as diverse as Manipuri and Bharatnatyam, Kathak and Bharatnatyam, or Kathak and Kuchipudi. They bring into focus different techniques of using the body, different understandings of dance and its relationship to music. One has to consider the kind of music that is used, the kind of costumes, the kind of local culture, the streams that sustain each form of dance. Because I've danced them both, I know that Odissi and Bharatnatyam are different but they are like two sisters, so they are complementary to each other. They both started as temple dances and have similar histories, come from parallel streams. I wouldn't dare touch
Kathak or Manipuri because that would create a conflict in the body.
To take another example, now women are also learning Kathakali. The physical discipline is different, the demands made on the body are different from those from Bharatnatyam. The Kerala customs which are woven into Kathakali are different. The language is Malayalam. The costumes are part and parcel of Kerala.
The most different dance is Manipuri : indigenous Manipuri is so alien to us. The Manipuri language is not understood by most of us because it belongs to the Mongoloid languages. Their ancestral worship, worship of natural phenomena, the divination of the spirits, are all woven into the indigenous Manipuri dance. It is nowhere existent in Bharatnatyam or Odissi. Our gods Krishna or Devi or Ganesh or our legends about the mainland history are not known to them. The music sounds more like Chinese to our ears. Even if they would be singing the Gita Govinda in Sanskrit I might not understand.
Q: What about attempts to synthesize Western and Indian dance?
S: The way Western terms such as experimentation and innovation are used does not apply to Indian arts, because our understanding of it is very different. The word "amateur" does not exist in Indian art systems. There is no place for an amateur. Either you are a student or you are artist and the guru has said: Now go out. And then you are performing. There is no in-between. Either you are good or you are bad. You have quality or you are not there — there is nothing in-between, and there cannot be, because art is all about excellence. Knowledge is all about excellence.
About mixing Indian and Western forms, it's fine, as far as human relations are concerned, it's all right. But in art, particularly for an art form that has evolved from a particular soil and from a particular understanding of life, a particular philosophy of life, an art form that has taken centuries to come into being in a particular way, if you take a little bit out of this, and something out of that, and try to mix it — synthesize as they say — to me, it is a bit laughable. I personally do not enjoy that. I would like to see each form in its intensity and all its possibilities, depth, breadth, rather than trying to fuse. Try the depths, rather. That is entirely my personal choice. What people are trying to do is up to them, everybody has to do what they feel is right for them.
Q: In Western dance, sometimes the body is almost distorted. Is that so in Indian dance ?
S: No. Indian dance is very different. I think we are two opposing poles aesthetically. You see, if the body is beautiful and you worship the body, then the body must retain its form and, within that form, stretch and do the necessary things. And then we work with space and with gravity, we don't try to defy it. Therefore our low stances. Of course there are also tall stances, dancing on toes is also there, but the basic understanding is with the earth. We are not Aries, we are Taurus. And the stretch is not trying to cover the whole space — the outermost stretch of the two arms plus a little more. With a good Indian dancer you see it happen, the inner space spilling out, not the other way around. The outer space becomes simply a small extension of the inner space. You can see that happen. Indian dance is like the filigree, and ballet is the framework and outer. Ours is framework and inner. So the whole understanding of the body changes. My chiropractor in Montreal who brought me back to dance has treated a number of ballet dancers, and he started telling them to learn Indian dance to understand what body was all about. Distortion is not natural. But again, there is no value judgement, it is what you want out of it. And what ballet dancers do with the body is breathtaking.
Q: What about facilities in India for students of dance?
S: We definitely need more facilities. We don't have facilities in the Western sense. We usually work out of our own homes, or even our garages as in my case. Infrastructure in the Western sense doesn't exist here because we don't have an impresario system; that has never been built into our system. It is usually the family which takes care. In my case, I'm alone. But you make a name, through hard work, by word-of mouth. Now we are at strange crossroads. India has opened so much to the outside world, dancers have come, our dancers have gone, festivals of various countries are being held here, ours being held there. We do think some of the good things of the West should be introduced here — a little bit more cohesion and organization would be useful.
Q: The feeling of Bhakti is an integral part of Indian dance.
The Natya Saraswati, Halebid, Karnataka (photo; Olivier Barot)
How is this part of a dancer's training?
S: Bhakti is interwoven into the fabric of Indian dance. The guru shishya relationship, the way we learn dance is one aspect of Bhakti. Then the content of the dance usually involves stories with incidents and themes which express bhakti. Bhakti in its truest sense is interwoven in our daily lives. It is not just a folding of hands and rolling of eyes or prostrating or showing reverence. Bhakti means a deep reverence for all things. In my interaction with my servants, in the way I pick up a flower, the way I sit down to think — a deep reverence for every activity connected to living, to life. Translated into dance, that is why we first come and touch the stage and beg forgiveness from it. The stage is an inanimate thing as far as everybody else is concerned — it may be cement, it may be wood or stone. What's then the point of begging forgiveness? It is because there is an inner relationship with the area and e stage which provides the bhumi, which provides the vibrations and support from which dance springs; that is Bhakti, in the truest sense. Of course there are different levels of Bhakti, spiritual, philosophical, but
it's all interwoven in one process of understanding. Shiva or Ganesh or Devi, all become aspects of that Bhakti. When we bow to the audience, this is also a manifestation of Bhakti.
Q: What can you tell us about this relationship of student and guru in Indian dance which is so different from the relationship of a Western dancer to the teacher?
S: The word "guru" has been so misunderstood and misused. A guru really means, in the literal sense, somebody vast, deep, magnanimous, all encompassing. The opposite is "laghu": narrow, small, confining, constricting. This word guru has to be understood if you want to really understand the word shishya: to learn, to seek knowledge. It is truly like somebody wanting to drink from a great big vessel or from a great big ocean or lake. So I, who want to drink, is shishya and that, from which I want to drink, is guru. As now we have a lot of teachers who are not gurus, the word cannot be applied to everybody. The ideal guru fulfills all the needs, I mean like parental care and affection, and also friend and guide, and he does it with perfection, love and concern but also with due punishment — it's all interwoven. You seldom hear a word of praise from the guru, you seldom hear long instructions, it's just done through the eyes, through facial expressions... It is immediately understood. The attributes of the guru are described in our old texts, as well as the attributes of the shishya. Not everybody used to be accepted as a disciple. In ancient times, of course, money wasn't accepted. I will quote a sloka for you that gives the attributes of a seeker, a disciple :
Shwaananidra tathaiva cha,
ityeva vidyaarthi pancha-lakshanam.
A crow's bath is quick dip in the puddle of water. Likewise, an ideal knowledge-seeker (disciple) does not spend unduly long time in bathing or beautifying himself. His concentration is total, just like an egret looking for a fish while standing on one leg in water. A dog, even while seemingly asleep, is nevertheless alert and quick to respond
to slightest happening. Such should be the quick-silver state of consciousness of the student who is alert to every inflection in voice, every gesture of the guru.
Q: It is said that all the basic motives of Indian culture are designed to express and manifest immortality. Can you comment?
S: I would word it in a slightly different way: it is about transcending mortality. But you are absolutely right, that is what we call ambrosia, amrita: that which does not die is ananda, the primal joy, the elixir of immortality that we drink from the cup of dance. Dance or such activities provide us with that elixir, even if momentarily, which makes you feel that for the time being you have transcended your immediate surroundings, your mundane preoccupations, your concern with being in this human body. That happens I think in Western dance too — the leaps and jumps are all designed to defy what a normal human being can do, in other words, that is trying to transcend the mortal effort, isn't it? All arts have somewhere this seed of immortality.
Dance in India has one great advantage — dance and music are inseparable. And to be a really good dancer I have to know music, preferably I must be able to sing and know the whole science of music
Nataraj, Gangaikondacholapuram (photo: Olivier Barot)
— the structures, the various ragas and what they signify, the moods they create, so many things. I have learned music for fourteen years and it helps. In India particularly there is dance music. And the music has of course echoes, you can sit with your eyes shut and absorb the music. But in dance the eyes have to be wide open, and the ears. With music it's not even necessary to exercise your mind, while in dance all your faculties, even the on-lookers' faculties have to be alive, other wise you don't get the essence of dance. Therefore, it is called the highest yoga; the highest form of yoga in India is Indian dance, not the yogi's, the Indian dancers' yoga. Shiva in his Nataraja form is the supreme yogi. All my faculties have to be focused totally like a laser beam. And that laser beam slices through your indifference, your moods, your mundane existence.
Q: You had a terrible accident, which could have jeopardized your career. Can you tell us something about this experience?
S: Yes, I can try to say. What it did to me. I wouldn't wish that everybody should have to go through such an experience, but it's like... you blow the dust off your being, and then things begin to shine. It did that to me. The realization that really life is nothing was very stark and very cruel and very upsetting at that time, life is nothing in the sense that it is there, and then it's not there the next moment. We read about it, but when it happens... life is really like a bubble... gone! You're dancing, this, that, and the next second you are there like a little worm, a crushed worm. That was something! When you come back to life and dance, Bhakti has got to be there whether I consciously put it or not. Then the great questions arise: why did it happen to me, why me, and how do I come back and is it worth it? People said you'll never walk again, or you may walk again in two years but not properly... Is life worth living without dance? Is dance all that life is about? So many new dimensions to yourself! And then that same dance becomes the mount Meru, the axis that stabilizes your life, your psyche; it's the crutch on which you get up, it's the life force. It was much more than just an accident and the courage to come back.
Q: There must have been a difference between your dance before and after.
S: Oh, a qualitative difference! It was obvious to even the least sensitive person. People even commented on that, that at first you were young and beautiful and talented, afterwards you were committed, warm, giving, generous, all the time communicating and pulsating. But as I said, I wouldn't wish it to every dancer! It was like a risk, an involuntary risk. But then there are the risks you take voluntarily, not knowing what will happen. And for that we have a beautiful saying:
Jin khoja tin paiyan gahare pani
paith. Mein bauri dooban dari,
rahi kinaare baith
The ancestors have said that if you want to get something you have to jump into deep waters. Those who seek, they get, and for that you have to get into deep waters, and I the foolish one was afraid of drowning and all my life I just kept sitting on the banks.
So the element of risk, even consciously, has to be there. When I opted for dance and dance alone, it was a real life situation. My family said (way back in the 60's), "You'll regret it. You'll never make any thing good out of your life. You'll give the family a bad name. You'll have no money. Nobody will marry you!" this, that. Alright, the social circumstances were not the best. Even today not many families want their children to become dancers. Dance plus computer, dance plus job, dance plus marriage, dance plus, yes! But dance alone! No!
I feel that, if you would have to sum up in one word Indian aesthetics, Indian art forms, and the Indian concept of life, this word is ananda. Ananda is the key to understanding India. And that is why so many people don't understand: with so much poverty, how come people are smiling?
I wanted to say something about a certain attitude in life which I call: "Cerebral". One of my ex-husbands is German, one of the leading lights of German culture... He is one of the great votaries for this fusion of East and West, experimentations, new themes, etc. He kept saying, at is this, all the time, gods and goddesses! Evolve something new!" Once he said to me in an open seminar, "Where in your Indian dance can you reflect the nuclear holocaust? Or the agonies we are going through in our times. You are still in your own little world of kings and queens and gods and goddesses." I could only tell him that
such a cerebral approach is not at the centre of the Indian understanding of life. This life transcends all such different labels; life is a much greater force. And in understanding life, let's not try to only understand mishaps or sad events. Life is also happiness. So why only catch hold of the darker side and try to celebrate that only and try to emphasize that only, and reflect it in your art? Why not look at life in its totality? (that is, if you can, because for that you need a very great understanding). To illustrate what I meant, I told him about a real life incident that happened to me in Kampuchea (Cambodia). In 1983 I was on a south-east Asian tour and my last stop was Kampuchea. At that time Kampuchea was not open really. I believe mine was the first foreign troupe to be received in Kampuchea since 1978. It happened because I had put a condition to the Indian Government that I would accept the tour in the other countries only if Kampuchea was also included. I was four days in Cambodia. We gave three performances. A visit to Angkor Wat was also thrown in. Angkor Wat had been closed to the world and a special plane had to be arranged for me and my troupe and an army convoy... Bullet marks on the temple, Buddha heads severed... It was just... those apsaras, oh my god, breathtaking! The next day we were leaving and before that, in the morning, we were invited to see the new Kampuchean national ballet which had been put together just a few months before. It was by the river Mekong and in the old palace, on an open verandah. A huge verandah, chandeliers, mosaic floor, carved pillars... About eighty children from the ages of 5 to about 20, boys and girls. They showed us their basic exercises, postures, like we do, stances... I think it's all translated from Sanskrit, the eyes and eyebrows and hand gestures. And then the older ones danced, the teenage girls. They had very coarse clothes, very coarse, you could see the texture. And tin ornaments, as if one of those tin boxes had been hammered into belts. And little blouses. They danced the apsara dance, about ten of them. And those upturned mouths, which we had seen the previous day at Angkor Wat, and the postures, the fluidity... I was absolutely entranced! And the boys did the Hanuman dance. They had torn sleeves, frayed collars, some were in shorts, some in tattered lungis. It went on for about two hours and we were in tears; it was so beautiful, so intense! At the end of it they brought flowers, and then the director, a little man, said, "Now we would like to introduce you to our teachers." There were two women and one man, all elderly. He said, "We'd like to introduce
you to our teachers, three out of the hundred that we had..." And I said, "The children are just wonderful!" Then he says without moving a muscle, "They're all orphans, Madam." And immediately I under stood... The first day in Phnom Pen we had visited the famous muse um, the interrogation centre. So you could imagine that each of these children must have seen the parents being tortured and murdered and killed and whatever... But when they danced, tears of joy would flow. They looked like apsaras. I told this story to the participants of the seminar, and I said to my husband, "They should have really danced for us the dance of death and torture, according to your views."
The tragic vision actually destroys your deep sensitivity, and the human power of transformation. Take a child, you give him a toy, a wooden elephant, and the child imagines it to be a real thing and plays with it happily. This is what imagination does, what the power of trans formation does. That power is given to artists and we should use it to transform the audience's sorrow, or the audience's mood, and uplift them, take them to a higher plane. But if that is lost within me, what can I give?
Interview with Sonal Mansingh
May 10, 1993