A rare dance treasure

A rare dance treasure

Despite dance enjoying a revered status in India, there is still no museum dedicated to this old tradition of ours, except for the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, writes Purnima Sharma

Dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai

The wait is finally over. Twenty years after being stashed away in a Palavakkam-by-the-beach neighbourhood home in Chennai, surviving not just the floods but even the tsunami in its wait for a ‘forever home’, there’s good news for the mammoth Mohan Khokar Dance Collection (MKDC). The prestigious institution of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi will be giving it the honour it deserves, thanks to its dancer trustees, Dr Sonal Mansingh, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, and a truly cultured head Dr Sachidanand Joshi, working under the presidentship of veteran editor Ram Bahadur Rai.

Precious dance heritage

Its caretaker all these years, reputed art historian and author, Ashish Khokar, a former director with INTACH, who had explored possibilities in institutions closer home in South India, including Nrityagram in Bengaluru, Kalashetra in Chennai, and Gopinath Museum in Thiruvananthapuram, is certainly a relieved man. “I can now rest in peace as this huge responsibility left to me by my father now has a home. The future generations will not be bereft of our precious dance heritage.”

“Every year, almost 2-3% of the collection that should have been treated like a national treasure had been getting lost to storage realities of the coastal climate,” says the dance curator who has had a “sentimental connect” with the collection having seen it being painstakingly built up over the years.

He smiles remembering those times “when there were precious glass negatives and slides in the fridge (since they had to be kept safely in very cool conditions), instead of food. We would sleep on the floor as rare books and manuscripts got our beds. And between us three brothers, we had one winter coat as our father would rather buy books from his salary.”

Ask Ashish what took the collection so long to get help and he says, “Beats me. Could be that despite being a Sahitya Kala Parishad awardee for his contributions to the field of dance, my father’s collection was being looked at as too recent? In a country with 2,000 years of a continuing history, 200 years of dance history looks small to most.”

But there were many who knew better — dance scholars, researchers, including young PhD students, besides Mohan Khokar’s colleagues from the dance world who often recall visiting his apartment in Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar area that would be bursting at the seams with dance objet d’art and memorabilia, including paintings, puppets, masks, postage stamps, textiles, match boxes, playing cards, greeting cards, calendars, dolls, magazines and pamphlets, brochures of performances going back to the 1940s.

Mohan Khokar’s tryst with dance started — as he had once told me — when, as a young man, he got infatuated with a girl who was learning kathak in undivided Punjab. To impress her, he also enrolled himself for the same class, much to the horror of his Sikh family. Even though the youngster lost interest in the girl, his fascination with dance continued, especially after he met dance stalwarts like Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar. He went on to learn dance from the latter’s student, Zohra Segal, in Bombay, and later, landed up in Madras to enroll at Kalakshetra where he was Rukminidevi Arundale’s first male student from North India.

Dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale
Dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan

Passionate collector

One could say that it was in Madras that the collection inadvertently took off — when he started acquiring material on different aspects of Indian dance for his own reference and study. Much later, it dawned on Mohan Khokar that the notes he had scribbled and the books and the other material he was picking up constituted a collection that would be immensely beneficial to dance enthusiasts in the years to come.

In his travels across the country, and even as the founder head of the MSU department of dance in Baroda in the 1950s, Khokar Sr. would remain busy photographing and taking notes to try to understand the nuances of even the lesser-known forms like bhagavata mela nataka and theyyam, among others. “Such was his passion for cataloguing that we, his family, felt we were several rungs below dance in his list of priorities. But the truth is that Mohanji’s vision was far ahead of his times,” says the proud son.

And it’s amazing that despite lack of funds, he managed to pick up some rare and unusual stuff — because unlike most collectors, he was not selective. Everything was significant for him — be it matchboxes costing 10 paise with dance motifs (like the ones with Leela Samson or Begum Jaan made in Sweden), a dancing doll in plastic or in clay that cost him 50 paise...

“So, on the one hand, while the collection has precious bronze Natarajas, on the other, are these ‘inexpensive’ but precious objects, including first-day covers featuring Rukmini Devi and Uday Shankar, lottery tickets of states that no longer exist, etc. Everything with dance motifs was important for him, for each item has its own relevance and validity in the historical context,” says Ashish who, at the behest of his father, also started bringing out attenDance, a yearbook/magazine dedicated to dance.

Ashish Khokar with his father, Mohan Khokar
Ashish Khokar with his father, Mohan Khokar

There was a time in the 1970s when New York’s Lincoln Centre had evinced interest in procuring it. The founder-curator of its dance section, Genevieve Oswald, had it valued at $75,000, but faced with a lot of bureaucratic resistance, was forced to write to Khokar: “We have no wish to take such a fine collection out of India. It would be a tragedy if it left your country.” Even the Dansemuseet in Stockholm had an alluring offer, but red-tapism put an end to all that.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Mohan Khokar shifted to Chennai to spend time with his wife — the eminent dancer MK Saroja Devi, now 89 — taking his precious collection along. After his death in 1999, additions to it have continued to be made regardless, with DVDs, videos, books, brochures and magazines to keep track of global trends, etc, in dance.

And now, with IGNCA having stepped in, Ashish Khokar knows that it is in good hands. “There’s nothing like a great facility where students, researchers, critics, writers, filmmakers, and of course, dancers can benefit from it,” he adds.

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