Sunil Kothari, the ever-smiling dance scholar, an unusual epithet for a person dedicated to dance in different ways, in terms of innovation, conception, performance, dance history and scholarship, passed away in Mumbai last week of Covid-related issues. He was 87.

He authored several scholarly books on Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kathak, Kuchipudi and Chhau dances of India. He also edited volumes on Rasa and Danaru. New Directions in Indian Dance, brought out by Marg Publications in 2003, was edited by Dr. Kothari. He was invited to the US in 2005 as Resident Professor of Dance at the University of Georgia, Atlanta and at the University of Chicago, Illinois under the Fulbright Scheme for three months.

A keen observer of the dance scene for the past 40 years, Dr. Kothari has received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award as well as the Padma Shri from the President of India. A former professor and head, Department of Dance, Rabindra Bharati University, Dr. Kothari was also Visiting Professor (Dance), School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. Interestingly, he was a qualified chartered accountant before he switched channels to dance.

In Kolkata just before flying away to the US to make an audio-visual presentation on new directions in dance, Dr. Kothari held the audience enthralled with his talk. “Is there no modern dance in India? Don’t Indian dances choreograph in the contemporary idiom? Does Indian dance only depict stories of Gods and Goddesses or Indian mythology? Are there no innovations taking place in Indian dance? Don’t dancers depict contemporary issues? Is there a new kinetic language of Indian dance?

The answer to all these questions is – yes. Indian dance does find contemporary experience as well. One could therefore term it Modern Indian Dance. Not as an imitation of a term from the West, but indigenous and essentially Indian,” Dr. Kothari he elaborated.

Dr. Kothari did his Ph.D on Dance, Drama Tradition of South India with reference to Rasa Theory in Natya Shastra under the guidance of Anjali Medh of Kala Kshetra. When asked to pick out the best in Indian classical dance in the country, Dr. Kothari mentioned the names of Chandralekha, Bala Saraswati, Malvika Sarukkai, Surupa Sen, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Guru Bipin Singh, the Jhaveri sisters, Protima Bedi, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Yamini Krishnamoorthy, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kumudini Lakhia, Alarmel Valli, Leela Samson, Mrinalini Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika Sarabhai. A Sangeet Natak Akademi fellow, Kothari blazed a new trail in documenting Indian classical dance forms.

Till his Eighties, before he fell ill, Dr. Kothari bubbled with life and an electric energy that was not only infectious but could also be the envy of people half his age. He did his post-doctoral research on Dance Sculptures of Medieval Sculptures of North Gujarat, a hitherto unexplored territory in dance research. He greatly admired Rukmini Devi’s vision and the way in which the Jhaveri sisters intertwined life and art to blend and become one. “I love colours, textures and love anything and everything to do with beauty in every aspect of life,” he said.

“Today, Indian dance is facing many challenges and problems. Advanced technology, the proscenium stage, ever-increasing and changing audiences, electronic media, globalization, easy access to information and exposure to various art forms are bound to affect dance traditions. Indian dance is poised at a most interesting turning point,” he would insist.

He was also happy about the fact that dancers and choreographers are consistently trying to extend the horizons of Indian dance and seeking new directions. “Their works have received an enthusiastic response, creating a climate of innovation. And those who prefer and continue to be creative within traditional forms, coexist with the new directions,” he added.

“One sees a definite shift in the thematic content and the search for a new kinetic language. Even within traditional forms like Bharata Natyam, the kinetic language has changed. By building up the linkages with martial arts like Kalaripayattu and yoga, one notices that the character of the movement of the dance has altered. Innovations within traditional forms are equally important. Despite lack of scholarship and theoretical discourse, a dialogue has begun among practitioners and those who observe the dance scene that has helped new directions in Indian dance grow in terms of innovative work, experimentation and contemporary Indian dance to portray contemporary issues,” he added in a long interview with his critic in 2005.

Dr. Kothari underscored the way in which dancer-choreographer the late Chandralekha raised questions through her article in his book on new directions in Indian dance. “Her questions are – why have classical Indian dances become insular and unresponsive to the dramatic, social, historical, scientific and human changes that have taken place in the world during the past 30 years?

What makes them resistant to contemporary, progressive values? Why have attempts to explore the power and strength of the forms and their links with martial arts not been encouraged?” She tried to seek answers to these questions.

The book is enriched by the contributions of every gifted dancer who defines the history of classical Indian dance in India. “Kapila Vatsyayan for instance, records Uday Shankar’s twin concerns, trying to revive old myths through beautiful lenses, and repudiate techno-age mechanizations.

The late Manjusri Chaki Sircar described the dance culture inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, starting with dance as an embellishment to the song, before acquiring an identity of its own. Her daughter, the late Ranjabati Sircar analysed the steps she took to first deconstruct the medium, and then re-combine the components with an understanding of what the human body can do and express.

Kumudini Lakdhia’s lament is that she could not relate to the values, thought processes and attitudes of her gurus in spite of holding them in great reverence. The conflict began to get resolved when she asked herself – ‘atah kim? What now?’

Mrinalini Sarabhai warned that themes and their treatment should be relevant to the times, the forms must develop further and should not remain fossilized.

Pioneering exponent of Modern Dance, Uttara Asha Coorlawala confessed that in Europe her dance was appreciated for being ‘transcendent,’ ‘sensual’, ‘hypnotic – qualities that the West associates with Indian dance, ‘rather than as contemporary statements.’

“Today, innovative Indian dance, described variously as experimental, contemporary, modern, has come to be recognized within India as well as across the world. To an extent, it has made it possible for the audience to recognize the existence of Modern Indian dance,” sums up Dr. Kothari.

“Ninety per cent of Indian dance scholars do not know dance like I do. I try to make my presentations interesting through deconstruction, breaking it up into units or blocks. It consists in contextualizing of movements, mudras, the expressions, the dance, in fact the entire performance,” Dr. Kothari summed up.