Emerging as ‘kathakar’ for first time publicly: Sonal Mansingh

February 21st, 2011 - 5:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Govinda By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, Feb 21 (IANS) Sonal Mansingh, one of India’s leading exponents of classical dance, is resurrecting the ancient cultural tradition of ‘kathaa’ or story-telling through a series of interactive ‘Natya Kathaa’ performances in the 50th year of her dance career.The performances would combine story-telling, dramatics or “abhinaya” and music, which is a deviation from the vocation.

“I am a dancer and a choreographer, but for the last one-and-a-half years, I have been performing kathaa privately at the requests of friends. But for the first time, I am coming out as a ‘kathakar’ (traditional story-teller) publicly. I sing and narrate stories from the life of Lord Krishna,” Mansingh told IANS in an interview.

“It is a coming together of several performing genres like dance, drama, literature, stories and life on the 50th year of my career as a dancer. I began as a professional dancer in Bangalore in 1961,” she said.

Mansingh, rated as one of the top Odissi performers, is also proficient in Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam and ethnic Chhau. Born in Mumbai, she studied German at Elphinstone College and has a degree in Sanskrit.

The Padma Vibushan awardee will give her first major kathaa performance here Tuesday.

Her Natya Kathaa, “Krishna Ranga Rachee”, presented by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, is made of a selection of “poetry, songs, stories and insights” into the myths of “Brajbhumi”, which grew around its resident celebrity.

“Kathaa is an ancient narrative art which was widely used across the country to pass oral literature down the generations. It literally means to ‘narrate’ in Sanskrit. But this simple word becomes a vast river of flowing story-lines with insights, discovery and immediacy of communication,” the dancer said.

Kathaa is a Hindu ritual that evolved in the later Vedic age carried across the land by a tribe of minstrels known as “kathavachak” who recited from the “Puranas”, “Ramayana” and the “Bhagwad Gita”. A traditional kathaa is usually followed by a commentary.

Mansingh said her Naatya-Kathaa - a stylised genre of kathaa - added elements from her dance to enrich and enhance the narratives.

“I become the story-teller-singer, who brings out the nuances and symbolism of the story by using dance-gestures. The stories of Lord Krishna acquire fresh meaning each time a ‘Kathakaar’ narrates them,” Mansingh said.

The danseuse, 66, draws her narratives from “Geeta Govinda”, an account of the Lord’s life and loves, composed by the 12th century Bhakti poet Jayadev, “Krishna Katha”, which are popular in Mathura and Vrindavan and “Shrimada Bhagwata”, a text used by the traditional Hindu saints and kathakaars for centuries.

“It depends on what the audience wants. I let the spirit of the Lord take over and the characters just walk in.”

Some of her popular kathaas include Lord Krishna slaying the demons, Krishna’s “raas” with the “gopis” and tales of his friendship with Uddhav.

The dancer’s natural flair for music, her mellifluous renditions of ‘bhajans’ (devotional songs) and the felicity as a linguist helps her communicate with audiences.

“I speak six languages - Gujarati, Hindi, Brij Bhasa, Oriya, Sanskrit and Bengali. I usually narrate my stories in the local dialect of the state I perform - and sprinkle it with Hindi and Braj Bhasa to make my natya kathaa more colloquial. At a performance in Chennai, I narrated a part of my kathaa in English.”

The dancer does not write a formal script for her natya kathaa. “It flows seamlessly, naturally. My musicians, who have been with me for a long time, know the score. The performances last for two hours and some times more than that,” she said.

Mansingh said: “The lores of Lord Krishna are relevant across ethnicities and cultural communities in India. In tribal folklore, Lord Krishna is revered as the ‘neel madhav’ - the blue incarnation of Krishna.”

She also includes acts from the scriptures of Lord Shiva - Shiva kathaa - and devi episodes - devi kathaa - in her repertoire.

One of her primary target audience is children. “Children are vital to my performances as a kathakaar. I have always made it a point to tell my colleagues that intelligence and responsibility of an artiste lies in engaging with the kind of the audience one has.”

“Television and Facebook have made a difference to the lives of children. They cannot sit through cultural performances for long, but they spend hours over computers. I want to reach out to them.”

Mansingh’s “Eco-Puran”, a kathaa performance designed especially for children with adaptations of folklores, connects to children with morality tales.

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