When Ashish Khokar, son of the late dance scholar,critic and historian Mohan Khokar,was growing up in New Rajendra Nagar,their small two bedroom house in West Delhi was always bursting with archival material. The fridge was stashed with film rolls,and the beds and tables with stacks of photographs,posters and press clippings; brochures hung from fans,the kitchen was full of knick-knacks and all the memorabilia represented dance. Together,Mohans collection offers a glimpse into the history of the performing arts in India,its struggles and triumphs.
There was a time when we slept in a sitting position because there was no place at home, says Ashish,who estimates that his father,a very private person,had taken 2.5 lakh photographs and documented press clippings about dance from every newspaper and magazine that he could. Now,Ashish,in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations,is displaying his fathers collection in an exhibition titled,A Century of Indian Dance: 1901-2000 at India Habitat Centre. The exhibition,comprising photographs,costumes,letters,brochures,concert invitations,and even matchboxes carrying dance pictures among others,has been billed as Indias single largest dance collection by the Lincoln Centre,New York,The Dance Museum,Stockholm and Unescos dance council in Paris. It will travel to the US,Italy and the UK later this year.
One of the photographs depicts devdasis learning Bharatanatyam in a Madurai courtyard,while another shows Rukmini Devi teaching at Kalakshetra,while a third has Bharatanatyam and kathak guru Ram Gopal posing like Lord Vishnu,dressed in an elaborate costume and headgear. One also comes across kathak exponent Uday Shankar dressed as a nautch girl in a dance piece as well as of Balasaraswati posing with a seven-year-old Hema Malini,and actress Zohra Sehgal teaching at her dance school,Zoresh,in Lahore. Many of the photographs date to the pre-Independence era,when no national institution was documenting the arts.
Life was all about dance for my father. He was the first male student of Rukmini Devi and shared lifelong friendships with many dancers, says Ashish,who added several dance films to the archival collection after Mohan passed away in 1999. The last few decades have been represented through photographs of Sonal Mansingh,Sitara Devi and contemporary dancers like Aditi Mangaldas as well as various folk forms.
The exhibition also displays correspondence by dancers like Mrilani Sarabhai and Indrani Rehman to Mohan,sharing their struggles and triumphs. The collection of letters span 50 years and are mostly hand-written,including the one from Indira Gandhi regretting her absence from a concert. Depictions of dance were also found on items of everyday use matchboxes showing a Bharatanatayam dancer,butter and milk packets with images of folk dancers from Punjab,Nataraja crayons,firecracker packets showing a man playing a mridangam.
Though the exhibition packs the Visual Arts Gallery,Ashish says that this is only five percent of what you see. There are trunks and trunks of my father’s collectibles,but it is getting difficult to handle and transport everything. We should have a museum dedicated to this archival documentation since this is national property. But years of asking the government to do something about it has fallen on deaf years, he says,adding that despite the plethora continued…