The master, Dr Sunil Kothari, moves on

On December 23, he celebrated his 87th birthday. The only difference this year was that he had to celebrate it from the hospital bed in New Delhi.

Published: 28th December 2020 05:43 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th December 2020 05:43 AM   |  A+A-

Dr Sunil Kothari (1933 – 2020)

Dr Sunil Kothari (1933 – 2020)

Express News Service

BENGALURU : On December 23, he celebrated his 87th birthday. The only difference this year was that he had to celebrate it from the hospital bed in New Delhi. Otherwise it always used to be in the company of dancers, critics, friends and celebrities. But it was different this year for Dr Sunil Kothari, the well-known dance historian, scholar and critic. He may not have imagined that it would be his last birthday.

He tested Covid-positive in November, and spent his last days in solitude — something he hated all his life. He was in ICU for about 10 days, and was discharged last week. He suffered a cardiac arrest on Saturday evening and passed away the next morning. Incidentally, he, along with 15 others, including Birju Mahraj, was served an eviction notice by the government, and asked to vacate his flat by December-end. Now he has moved out forever.

A bachelor, his life was dedicated to dance. He was born in a Gujarati family, and followed the family diktat, becoming a chartered accountant. But he strayed into the world of dance, influenced by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Rukmini Devi Arundale and Mrinalini Sarabhai, among others. Kothari authored over 20 books, his recent one being Sattriya Dances of Assam.

He was lately working on his autobiography in Gujarati and English. Among his many awards, three stand out – Padma Shri, Life Time Achievement Award of Dance Critics Association, New York; and the recent award as Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi. I first met him in 1984 at the Khajuraho dance festival. I was there to write a feature. He tutored me on dance, culture, and even on dancers.

We struck a close rapport and travelled to many cities for dance events. He took pride in introducing himself as a dance critic, not a scholar. He did his research on the Bhagavata Mela tradition and Kuchipudi though he could not speak or understand Telugu. I used to accompany him in the ’80s and ’90s all over the then Andhra Pradesh, and act as an interpreter. What appealed to me was his attention to detail and humility. He was keen on understanding the meaning of every word in the Telugu sahityas and lyrics.

He was a master of many languages, including Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali, and fluent in Sanskrit and French. Though he had a special love for Kuchipudi, Sunil treated every dance form as asset to the country. He would even take notes after talking to the artistes. He had the patience and will to sit until the end of any programme, be it by famous dancers or kids. “Every dancer may be good or bad on stage and will try to impress you. As dancers we have to understand it,” he said. 

Being a ‘Triloka Sanchari’ as he was called, he had contacts all over the world. He used to maintain different address books, in which details of dancers and institutions were written country-wise and city-wise. He was a one-stop shop to get any contact. He also kept perfect accounts of all the expenses, like taxi fare and hotel bills, for claiming reimbursement. He never accepted a single rupee more than what he had spent. The festival organisers loved him.

Sunil relished all types of food, and wasn’t fussy about transport. I still remember our travel across Hyderabad and Secunderabad on my motorcycle in the late eighties. He quickly adapted to social media, and had thousands of followers. He kept in touch through email. A month ago, both of us were on Zoom to pay tribute to Sobha Naidu, who passed away in Hyderabad. He rued, “We used to meet every month in person but now we are forced to interact through cameras.

I don’t like it but we have no other option.” He showed respect to all human beings. Whether it was a dancer, organiser or an accompanying artiste, he spent time talking to them, and enquired about their families. He remembered the names of thousands of acquaintances, and politely interacted with waiters, drivers and security guards. “Everyone has their job cut, and we should respect that. Never argue with them or throw your weight around,” he said. He was ‘Mr Nice’ to everyone, and will remain so for all those who knew him.

G Ulaganathan
(The writer is a senior dance critic based in Bengaluru)

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