The Arts

Sunil Kothari: Dance Scholar, Wandering Gypsy, who was Animated by Faith in the Arts and Humanity

In a world which seeks to put us in silos, vying for space and vilifying for survival, Sunil Kothari was a bridge-builder between people across nations, generations and genres of art, writes dancer-activist Mallika Sarabhai.

I honestly cannot think of a time when Sunil was not part of our household and Darpana. As a child, I remember his long conversations with Amma [Mrinalini Sarabhai], often with a photographer in tow, sitting usually at her feet, leaning on her knees. As I grew into teen age, he used to irritate me, this small man, with his strange voice, who never stopped laughing and talking. His voice rang in my ears long after I left the room, escaping his questions about when I was going to take dance seriously.

Sunil Kothari with Mallika Sarabhai. Photo: Facebook/Sunil Kothari

As I turned 16 and joined the film industry in Bombay, he took me to Dhiraj Chawda, insisting that I had to be photographed as a Lux girl. I remember the blue velvet knickerbocker suit and sexy off-the-shoulder dress I wore for that shoot. And he made sure I made the cover of Femina.

The first time I think I had a dance conversation with him, was at a young dancers’ conference in Delhi, organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The show had gone well and Sunil was at the India International Centre with Amma and me, waiting to take us for a press conference. I wanted to wear a leather mini skirt and boots. Amma thought it was a lousy idea. Sunil joked with Amma and convinced her that I had to be me, not a version of what was to be expected of dancers. Ah, I thought, a possible ally.

As my career progressed, he turned up all over the place. In Brussels and London, where he introduced me as I presented my first solo at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In Rome and in Paris, where he insisted that I meet the critics who had reviewed Amma over the years. Later, at Avignon – when I started off on the Mahabharata – where he entered into long conversations with the playwright Jean Claude Carriere; at the festivals of Konark, and Khajuraho. And he would always turn up, once every couple of months, to spend an evening with Amma, while he visited his family and friends Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar in Baroda.

He lived at a feverish pace, always jumping up and down, taking an early morning flight to be elsewhere, bringing in the news about other dancers, young and old, from other spheres of dance, always bubbly, energised, wanting to know about our work.

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Sunil Kothari posing in front of a painting by Atul Dodiya, ‘Bhupen in Xavier’s Villa, Khandala
(Yesu Giri)’, made in 2013.

Slowly, over the decades he became not what I had inherited from Amma, but a cherished friend whose company I looked forward to. His ability to be constantly researching and writing, his discipline in doing this even as he travelled the world, was a quality I envied. And he always kept in touch, not just with us but with everybody. A postcard from Manipur, a sudden phone call, a letter from Peru – much before keeping in touch was made easy by social media, Sunil had mastered the game.

What was I creating? Why? Where did the inspiration come from? Did I know of x, y and z? Should he put me in touch with a, b or c? Could I give him a small write-up that he would use for a review, on why I had created the new piece?

He went to every performance he could go to, every festival, every dance event, gave at least a hundred lectures a year on Uday Shankar, Amma, Chandralekha, Rukmini Devi, the new directions of India dance, Sattriya and everything else related to dance that you could imagine. Till the end, his memory was sharp and he remembered and recounted meetings with Anna Pavlova and Martha Graham, with Muthukumar Pillai and Ram Gopal.

And he was a dapper dresser. With Himachali caps and angarkhas made from kalamkari, to Indonesian shirts and Philippine pineapple fabric bandhgalas, he was as aware of the impression he made sartorially, as any fashionista that I know.

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Over the last 20 years, however tight his schedule was when he was in Ahmedabad, he made it a point to spend the evening with us, even if the evening began at 10 pm. And he would be as curious as a child and as full of stories as a raconteur – the hours passing till he would say, “I have a deadline for a review tomorrow. I had better get to bed. But please see that I get tea at 7.”

Last month he got a government notification of eviction from the Asiad Village house in Delhi that he had lived in for close to 40 years. He was heartbroken, humiliated and concerned. At 87, where was he to find a new place to stay? He filmed an appeal to the prime minister, wrote a letter. To no avail. It brought out his frailty. Perhaps the coronavirus that struck him, and his cardiac arrest yesterday, would not have been fatal, but for that indecent blow.

In a world which seeks to divide and put us in silos, vying for space, vilifying just to survive, Sunil was the celestial bridge-builder, joining people of different nations, many generations and different genres of artists; speaking to each of us of the others also creating art, he made people into friends even before they met, making them feel that they knew each other through the love and good offices of this wandering gypsy, so full of love, laughter, knowledge, erudition and the ultimate faith in the arts and humanity.

You will always be a part of so many of us, Sunil. We will always love you and smile with fondness at your memory.