"We need discipline..." - Sonal Mansingh



Renowned Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh took over as Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the apex body for arts in India, in December 2003. The appointment was made by the President of India, and is for a term of five years.

The Delhi based dancer was in Chennai in mid-May to release a book and she performed on the occasion too. In an interview with Aruna. S of KutcheriBuzz, she talks about the Akademi, its activities and her plans for the Akademi.

sonalconferWhat does it mean to be appointed as the Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi?
I have been having my NGO, Centre for Indian Classical Dances, for 30 years now and I really see this as an extension of my mission in life. I've always invited artistes from outside, I've tried to link up with artistes and go out of the immediate environment, to perform in jails, for soldiers, schools... and the Akademi is a natural extension of that.

What is your role as the Chairperson of SNA?
Vision direction, control and I'm the final authority.Everybody is answerable to me. It is the Secretary of SNA who administers and it is not the day-to-day administration that comes to me.

SNA plays a key role in formulating the cultural policy of the country. What are your thoughts on this?
At the moment I would not like to say anything about this. The Akademi works with the Department of Culture of the Government of India. We now have a new government and I think we have to wait.

What are your plans for the S.N.A? What do you see it like in five years from now?
SNA has given away a lot of its territory to various other organisations, which came later. And SNA's work has increased manifold despite that, because of the complexity and richness of Indian culture and tradition. Which I'm afraid are in danger now. The times are such. With very judicious thinking and planning, SNA should put into place a whole mechanism, by which endangered art traditions are resurrected and also be synergising the local NGOs more and more, or by setting up projects as we did for Koodiyattam and Chau.

Also we are thinking of newer ways suitable to our times. Just today, somebody was talking about Therukoothu, how it is a dying art now. What we should concentrate upon is to see that the continuation of the tradition and training is done, right there on their soil, on that spot and that the conditions are made so attractive that youngsters also come and join. Groups can be formed and they can start floating around.

These traditions have to contend with films from Bollywood and Hollywood.

Yet, there are ways to flourish. Take the case of the jatra in Bengal which had become a dying tradition. Today it is so vibrant, that tickets are even priced at Rs. 1000 and are sold out. You don't get tickets for two months. These artistes have brought in all the modern technologies and they have adapted a little bit, so it becomes very, very attractive to people. So there are ways to flourish and SNA has to think about all these. I see SNA playing a much bigger role in keeping alive the Indian performing arts traditions. Not just keeping them alive, but propagating them, provide outreach information and also in project connections, collaborations abroad, which SNA has very rarely done.

When we hear of SNA, we only think of its awards and fellowships. Does it link up with arts organisations in India for hosting festivals and other activities?
SNA has been very coy about its work and has not propagated it. Recently, SNA has added a project to train dance musicians. And we did a whole project on the late Bharatnatyam guru Kittappa Pillai, in recording and documenting Kittapa and his dance style. We have also been working on a pyramid of festivals and seminars, to take stock of classical dance in India. The Kuchipudi project has been happening for three years now and we've come to the final stage. The documentation of the entire exercise itself becomes a very valuable addition, to take stock of what has happened in fifty years, plus throwing up new dancers, plus linking up old gurus with new dancers, plus exhibiting the newer aspects like Andhra Natyam and Vilasini Natyam which were not there when Kuchipudi became known. We have started work on Odissi and now we're thinking of Bharatanatyam. The Akademi does everything very slow because of its standing and one cannot hurry up the process. Thinking, planning, sifting, asking for advice, suggestions, and then putting the whole thing through. There is a whole project on Bharatanatyam as well.

Some people feel SNA is Delhi-centric. Artistes in the south feel SNA should do more for them . . .
I think Madras dancers seem to be getting an extraordinary big share of programmes and projection - in India and abroad. You name them and they have gone abroad, or they keep going every year and they've travelled all over India. At the Akademi, I don't think they've tried to keep away such dancers, but the Akademi looks after dance, music, puppetry and theatre - of all India, of every genre - tribal, folk, classical, martial, semi-classical, traditional - in that dance forms one part and people forget that, because their expectations are so great, which is a compliment to the Akademi. And the Akademi has limited resources and we're fighting to get additional resources and fighting for more space. Its like when children grow, they need more space. Its been 51 years now and we're at a point of transition. God willing in two years, I think people will see a very concrete development.

Do you think we need a formal system for Indian arts and artistes?
The point about Indian arts is that it is multi-faceted. This is its strength and its weakness. Take the tradition of Kathak which has developed in a very different way. Manipuri has developed differently - it is still very localised, still every household will join in certain ceremonies and rituals which are part of the Manipuri dance, every year, season after season. It is not like Bharatanatyam today, which is seen only on stage. It is not like that with Manipuri at all. It still remains with the society and the people. So, its needs, requirements and complexities are different.

For example, Kathakali is dance theatre or the Kuchipudi dance theatre, which is to be performed out in the open. But today, it is a bridge between the old and the new and Kathakali is performed on the stage. Everything falls between so many schools. It is difficult to develop one set of policies for the entire scene, for all the traditions. Every situation or case has to be individually sifted and seen. Therefore, the Akademi or the Government can only give certain broad outlines, can make certain suggestions or show certain directions.

Abroad, take the case of Ballet. Pan Europe, America, Australia, New Zealand, even in Japan or Korea, Ballet is Ballet. But here, Kathak is Kathak, Kuchipudi is Kuchipudi, Odissi is Odissi, Manipuri is Manipuri, Bharatanatyam is Bharatanatyam. And with contemporary anything goes, but it is difficult to put contemporary in the same basket. So everything has to be done with great thought. You don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, create any controversies, you don't want to make anybody feel they're left out...

What about funding for arts in India?
Dance is a very shortlived artform, being so physical. Abroad, we hear that the government does so much for arts, and that's when I would like to remind ourselves that when we talk of the foreign that means we refer to America or Europe. Unfortunately, we never want to know how Indonesia funds the arts or how Brazil or Mexico do it.

We only talk about America, Canada and the U.K. Even there, where the Government sets up the arts council, the proposals from dancers / institutions have to be written professionally. Not a one page or two page handwritten letter will do. Juries sit over these applications and mull and discuss and if the proposal is accepted, you have to provide more information, and all this is done at least a year in advance. And then when the funding is given there is a whole list of conditions.

I remember one of the conditions is that you have to join an outreach programme, do 'x' number of programmes every year, in the ethnic group areas which includes for the deprived, old-age homes, hospitals. Then you have to do 'x' number of fusion or collaborative projects. I've seen Indian dancers in their costumes perform at the Trafalgar Square in London, or on the Golden Bridge with African dancers. Like this, there a so many conditions because they are trying to build up a multi-cultural society.

But, ours is already a multi-cultural society cooked and simmered over centuries. Therefore, their point of view, attitudes and mindset is very different. Even if written as an old democracy, their ethnic mingling is very new. They used to be White-White countries. Whereas here, it is a melting pot. Here, when the funding is given like scholarships or grants, there are hardly any conditions. And many a time, people fail to fulfill those. We don't have reports or anything. We are not used to certain discipline. We want the money, we want the opportunities, but we're not ready for a disciplined approach. That's a very big lacuna here.

So what have you been doing at the Akademi now?
I've been telling artistes that they should feel free to come and visit the SNA to talk, express, convey or communicate ideas, questions, demands, arguments - it should be there.

We have our monthly meetings and last month, I suggested we celebrate World Dance Day. And we can also have world music day, theatre day and puppetry day as well. We had a meeting for dancers, and about 30 turned up and we decided that the young students could perform.

And on the World Dance Day, I sought an appointment with the President of India, about 32 of us went to Rashtrapathi Bhavan, we exchanged ideas, had tea, took photographs. And in the evening, the Akademi opened its doors, the lawns were all lit up, Birju Maharaj was chief guest and 26 groups representing various styles, performed. It was such a nice atmosphere of comradeship and such joy. about 2000 people came for the event.

You can write to The Sangeet Natak Akademi at Rabindra Bhawan, New Delhi - 110 001,Ph: 91-11-338 2060

You can contact Sonal Mansingh at E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NEWS : May 26 - After the new Congress-led government took charge in India, there have been a few changes in the official postings.


The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust has made a representation to the new Union Minister for Culture, S. Jaipal Reddy, to postpone a meeting of the SNA scheduled for May 28, 2004. The meeting was to be held to co-opt members into the General Council of the Akademi which is constituted for a term of five years. These members were 'appointed' by the previous BJP-led government.