Dr Sunil Kothari and Smt Leela Venkataraman are two of the most noted dance critics of India. On the occasion of the 100th birth anniversary of late Manipuri dance guru Bipin Singh, they recently visited Dhaka. They elaborated about the scenario of dance criticism and the field of Manipuri dance in Bangladesh, in a recent interview with The Daily Star.
Dr Sunil Kothari is a noted Indian dance historian, scholar and critic. He is also the former Uday Shankar Professor at Ravindra Bharti University, Kolkata. A great writer in India, Dr Mulk Raj Anand inspired him to start writing on dance. A scholar of dance, Indian philosophy and Sanskrit, Dr Kothari eventually started writing for the Times of India. Awarded the Padma Shri in 2001, he also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1995.
Leela Ventakaraman is a scholar, historian, commentator on the Indian dance and a brilliant orator. She has been involved in dance critiquing for thirty years, writing for several journals. Her writings were a regular feature for over three years in the Hindu, where she has been since 1985. She has also served on the Board of Kalakshetraat Adyar Chennai for a full term of five years.
“The institution of criticism has been killed!” says Dr Kothari.“There used to be 9 English newspapers who would publish reviews but they don't publish them anymore, other than the Hindu. We both regret the fact that people don't read; instead they search for information online. I think that if you read a book, you become more knowledgeable and your sensibility improves.”
Leela Venkataraman also believes that the platform for dance criticism is shrinking.“Food, fashion and films have become more important now,” she says.“The space that is given, by the print media today, is limited. Being a dance critic alone cannot earn you a livelihood today.”
Both Dr Kothari and Smt Venkataraman make it a habit to watch dance performances till the end. “If we need more information or we want to understand the ideas portrayed on stage, we go backstage and talk to the team,” says Dr Kothari. “This way, our writing also gets better.”
Despite the fact that there is no known methodology to critiquing a piece of art form for both Dr Kothari and Smt Venkataraman, there are certain techniques that one develops over the years. “There are some dancers who, over time develop a feeling that they can't be critiqued,” says Leela Venkataraman. “Thus, the art of saying what you have to say without offending the person needs to be developed. I am very particular about that fact that you can't keep on praising for the sake of praising, because that is the worst thing you can do to the art form. Your assessment should be such that you are looking at the person's art and not the person.”She also stresses on the fact that one must watch and experience the art form thoroughly before assessing and forming an opinion.
In the Manipuri dance festival, which took place last week, the young boys and girls used a rhythm called the 'pungcholam'. “The version of the rhythm was simple and not complicated,” says Leela Venkataraman. “However, they were on the right track. The dancers showcased the right technique and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and grace.”
The conversation went on for much longer. The legendary writers were very happy with the trip to Dhaka as it had also given them an opportunity to spend time together and talk about dance.“This is my third visit to Bangladesh and it has always been rewarding for me,” adds Dr Kothari.“We are both spellbound by the sensitivity of the Bangladeshi people for art and culture.”
Getting ready for the photo shoot, the ever-ready Leelaji posed while Sunilji ran upstairs to grab his favourite chaddar to put on his shoulders.
For an artiste to develop their skills and techniques, there is definitely a need for critics who are passionate for the art. “As I always say,” says Smt Venkataraman. “Artistes have the license to fail sometimes. They can learn from it and move on.”