Book: Sonal Mansingh: A Life Like No Other
Author: Sujata Prasad
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Accompanying the release of Sujata Prasad’s biography of danseuse Sonal Mansingh was a solo performance of Paanch Kanya, Mansingh’s rendition of five women from the Vedas, and photographs: Ahilya, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari and Draupadi — icons for global feminist struggles. The previous night, I had stayed up reading the book, and the performance continues to haunt me. So, for two days, I lived in this book. Sujata Prasad, a woman with a strong pen and fine intellect, has produced a classic biography which could become a template for people who want to work in this genre.
All my life, I have been a ringside admirer of Sonal Mansingh. I knew very little about her except the story of her indomitable courage when she was crushed by a terrible accident. As a mother, I had shared happy moments of her dance classes with my little daughter, who was Mansingh’s student for a short time. But the book took me to her world, opened layer by layer by Prasad.
Golden girl Mansingh was the much-loved child of the large Pakvasa family, her grandfather’s favourite, who would indulge her every wish. I look at photographs of her feisty mother Poornima, her quietly handsome father Arvind, as Prasad describes her childhood in a large household. Dada, Mangaldas Pakvasa, a confidante of Gandhi, joined him during the salt satyagraha and remained with him forever. Poornima was one of thousands who “waded into the edge of the ocean with Gandhi and scooped up a handful of salt”. Mansingh’s childhood tantrums were treated with Dada’s four sweet words, “Natak shoon kare chhe?” With love she was subdued.
The Pakvasa home was the hub for top leaders of freedom movement, poets, artists and intellectuals. Besides Nehru and his political companions, there were Siddheshwari Devi, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Hussain Khan, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, the senior Dagars, Moinuddin and Aminuddin, and the beautiful MS Subbulakshmi. Ustad Vilayat Khan’s flat on Napean Sea Road was open house for her, as open as the heart of Pandit Jasraj who performed on her 21st birthday. I read this part of Prasad’s rendering of Mansingh’s life while listening to Pandit Chhannulal Mishra, whose music blends with the text. Mansingh and I belong to a generation where religion was never factored into art and aesthetics (It is only now that I feel my Muslim identity even though I love Mishra’s Krishna bhajans).
Mansingh has lived on her terms and by her code. There are her first “drippy, romantic moments” leading to marriage. She walks into a traditional household in Cuttack, where the “heft and charisma” of her poet father-in-law leads her to Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Prasad intersperses her narrative with chunks of conversations where the two sit in cafes just “shooting the breeze”. Sometimes, when her subject clams up, Prasad retreats into silence or creates distance. Then comes a moment when her guard is down and confidences flow. One moving conversation occurs when Mansingh’s marriage breaks: “How did you cope with the downpour of so much vitriol?” Prasad asks.
“I can still feel that catch in the throat, that tightness of lungs when I pleaded with my guru to restore our relationship, but it was pointless. Even his silence had a corrosive quality… People were treating my separation as carte blanche to mock me, to question my values, even to question the authenticity of my dance.” Having gone through this ordeal, Mansingh is ready for the world.
Life with her second husband Georg is brief but intense. From “stopping at roadsides to eat warm slices of Apfelstrudel and buttered pretzels”, to performing at the Bayreuth Youth Fest, the Mecca of German opera, it was a happy spin until the moment when her world crashed. The accident between Nuremberg and Bayreuth left her with four ribs badly damaged, 12 vertebrae smashed and both collarbones broken. Leave alone dance, she would never walk again, was the verdict. “Newspapers, magazines, radios carried obituaries of her career in dance.”
One year of intense physiotherapy in Montreal gave movement to her broken body. Prasad expresses it with the right touch: “Extreme pain used to tear through her body each time she tried to lift a limb. But she persevered, and six months into the accident began to take baby steps. Even getting her legs to bend for dance seemed difficult initially, but as Paulo Coelho said in The Alchemist, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” she writes.
The book is a must for experts for its exposition of dance and arts. But, it also speaks for me, as a woman, an activist and a writer. In Mansingh’s story, rendered with fine sensibility by Prasad, I read my own. To both of them, I can do no better than quote a verse of Ghalib: Dekhiye tahrir ki lazzat ke jo usne kaha/ Maine ye jaana ke gaya ye bhi mere dil mein hai (See the beauty of her word; what she wrote/ It seemed to come straight from my heart).