If you are a Sonal Mansingh fan, you will agree that her portraiture of Ardhanarishvara (the depiction of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati), as half-masculine and half-feminine is among the most awe-inspiring moments in Indian classical dance. According to Hindu philosophy, she says, the preservation of life lies in the harmony between the two.
Divine dance: Odissi exponent Sonal Mansingh performed at the Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on 24 January.
Mansingh connects this thought to the current grim condition of ecological imbalance and portrays it through dance. The Padma Vibhushan recipient (2003) performs new choreographies around Republic and Independence Day every year. This year, she presents Eco-Puran. “I am fiercely proud of my country and feel a very strong connection to my soil. Conservation of its natural resources is something very close to my heart.”
Eco-Puran comprises three popular legends. In the first, Mansingh plays a greedy crow eager to eat a ripe bitter gourd. The second, Kaliya Mardan, talks about Yamuna river and the poison in it; and the third, visually the most exciting, is about the imbalance in Himalayan ecology.
“It’s a very Western thought to understand myths as fairy tales,” she says. “For us, it implies stories and episodes from history, which become part of the collective memory of a culture. So I have taken up three episodes from our Puranas and shown how they are relevant even today.”
The 67-year-old performs the 90-minute recital without any trace of fatigue. “It’s not just physical practice that keeps me going,” she says. “It’s mental, emotional and metaphysical. Spirituality emotes itself in many ways. Dance is yoga.” She wants young dancers to make a greater effort to understand the underlying ethos of classical dance forms, to go beyond the literal reading of the scriptures and to explore contemporary issues through dance.
“Haven’t you heard the elders say Prakriti tandav karr rahi hai (nature is doing a dance of destruction)? The connection is very obvious.”
She says tandav (Shiva’s dance of destruction) is masculine, volatile, aggressive and powerful. Which is why Nataraj is seen as the highest form of Shiva. Lasya (the dance of goddess Parvati) is feminine, graceful and nurturing. A fine balance between the two principles—tandav and lasya; Shiva and Shakti—is vital for the survival of the cosmos.
Ecology concerned: Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh pose for a group photograph with dancer Sonal Mansingh and other artistes.
Mansingh believes hurricanes, tornados and flash floods are manifestations of tandav. “When things are gentle, the seasons are appropriate, monsoon has enough rain, crops have enough moisture, winter has its peak cold and gradually, spring blooms on trees; it’s all in harmony,” she says. “We city dwellers live a life very removed from this. In our air-conditioned malls, cars and homes, we are disconnected from nature and that’s why we take it for granted.”
No fan of international conferences, Mansingh says, “Glaciers melt and blackened whales die of oiling of the oceans. And we keep doing Kyoto and Cancun, and enjoy the hospitality of seven-star hotels. International specialists hop from seminar to seminar, sit with a serious demeanour, discuss and then go back to living their lives. It’s all a shabby drama.”
Born and brought up in Mumbai, Mansingh has lived in New Delhi since the 1960s, and feels strongly about the Yamuna. “There have been many clean-up drives. I have been part of them but honestly, they are an insult to my intelligence,” she says. “Giving caps and T-shirts, and distributing hundreds of brooms, you think you can clean the Yamuna? A big show is set up, people have tea, litter some more, and we have cleaned the Yamuna, the river that daily takes in so much of Delhi’s industrial and sewage waste.”
Expressing dismay at the pollution in the river Ganga at Varanasi, and the rapid ongoing construction at Kailash Mansarovar, she hopes her attempt to involve the cultural community in the cause of environmental preservation will generate greater awareness and sensitivity.
Eco-Puran will be performed at Sant Gadge Ji Maharaj Auditorium, Lucknow, on 31 January at 7pm; at the sesquicentennial celebrations at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, on 1 February at 2pm; and at the Spic Macay festival at Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi, on 2 February at 4pm.