His irrepressible laughter, his endless storytelling of dancers from the beginning of time, his unharmful gossipy chatter, his messages, his long emails, his high-pitched voice on the phone or when one met him will be painfully missed.
Bengaluru: It was in 1981 that I first met Dr Sunil Kothari. He was visiting my Gurus, Prof and Smt U.S. Krishna Rao and I was asked to show him a dance piece. I remember him wearing a long black Nehru coat on white churidars. He was skinny, bespectacled, with slightly long, wavy hair. But more, he wore his attitude on his sleeve, seemed terribly arrogant, nonchalant, and indifferent to me and my dance. This of course changed when my stars started shining and he became eagerly proud to be seen and photographed with me.
He was a famous dance critic, I was informed then, and therefore much solicited and coveted by dancers, young and old, performers and teachers. That did not change over the decades that he strode the dance world with his powerful presence, making and breaking dance careers, cussedly opinionated, omnipresent, and omniscient.
The chink in that armour I discovered later, when I got to know the man and his amazing journey in the ambivalent world of the arts.
Sunil Kothari was born into a middle-class Gujarati family and was the youngest of 10 siblings. “As with most Gujaratis, I was told to earn money,” he told me once. But Mumbai changed his life. When he joined Wilson College for undergraduate studies, he was emboldened to seek out Guru Kalyan Sundaram Pillai to learn Bharatanatyam, after being bowled over on watching a performance of the Travancore sisters. Later, he did a short stint of Kathak training and started reading dance related writings and articles, especially that of scholar Mohan Khokhar’s in the Marg. The Marg publication was also instrumental in forging his deep relationship with Mulk Raj Anand, a great writer in English and founder of Marg, who encouraged Sunil to write articles on dance. Dr Mulk Raj Anand’s influence on young Sunil was life changing. Art, culture and civilisational history absorbed him and he sought out the likes of Navin Khandwalla, the Jhaveri sisters and through them got introduced to Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, who nurtured him.
The family would not hear of his “queer” interest in dance and ordered him to complete his chartered accountancy and take up a job, which he did. He gave up his day job as a CA when he joined Kamala Devi’s inner circle as Assistant Director, Dance of Sangeet Natak Akademi. This opportunity gave him tremendous fillip and he travelled everywhere with Kamala Devi and blossomed under her mentorship. He called her his second mother. Sunil regretted until recently that he did not take up the offer of joining Kalakshetra which Rukmini Devi offered him because his mother disapproved. But he always credited his work for his PhD thesis, exposure to other dance styles, exposure to traditional Gurus, abiding sense for aesthetics in stagecraft and costuming, literature, mythology, choreography, and dance denouement to Rukmini Devi.
Sunil Kothari admired Kapila Vatsyayan and like her wrote many coffee table books on different dance styles, mostly introductory in content with beautifully shot photographs of dancers by Avinash Pasricha.
The dance odyssey took him all over the world—international festivals, conferences, performances, high powered committees, and such like. He became an integral part of the dance world. From professor at Rabindra Bharati University to a short stint at JNU arts faculty, he was everywhere. Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1995), PadmaShri (2001), SNA Fellowship (2020) were only few of the encomiums he received. He was a colossus of the dance world, much respected and much feared.
For all his obsession with power, position, celebrity status and style, Sunil Kothari was at heart a child. He was as quick to apologise for his misdoings as he was to take umbrage on small issues and act sore and vindictive.
He and I had had one of our “dance fights”, as I call it and I deliberately did not invite him to a special, highly publicised colloquium and festival of Bharatanatyam that I hosted in Bangalore in 1996 tilted, “Bharatanatyam, a tradition in transition”.
The whole Bharatanatyam world was present at the event, and Sunil was furious that he was excluded. On the inaugural day, my doorbell rang at 8.30 am and there was Sunil Kothari carrying some clothes in some makeshift bag. Without waiting for any welcomes or niceties, he walked right into my home, threw his luggage on the floor, and started shouting at me for not inviting him. Shooting straight, I told him that this was exactly how dancers who were excluded from festival performances felt and that because he sat on so many committees that decided the fate of career dancers, I wanted him to have a taste of it.
He dared me to throw him out and said in no uncertain voice, “wherever there is dance, there will be Sunil Kothari.” This was quintessential Sunil, and I truly believe that this was what made him successful. By this I mean, his passionate obsession for dance, his belief in his relevance to the dance world and his single-minded pursuit of what he thought was his right without paying heed to what others thought of it.
In recent years, Sunil Kothari had considerably mellowed and many who knew him in his heydays saw this visible change in him. He had become a travelling dance mendicant, more of a godfather to dancers of all ages, all styles, all abilities, all hierarchies and geographically all over the world. He was quick to make amends if he thought it was needed and wanted to erase all ill feeling, insecurity and unease that envelops the dance world otherwise. He had begun showering praise on everyone, almost indiscriminately. One saw his Facebook posts almost daily, a technology that he was quick to learn and which delighted him, on which part of the world he was in, with whom he was and how superlative their skill sets of performance or organising was.
To those who knew, he explained that he was so grateful to dance and for the wonderful magic that it had created in his life and that this was his way of saying “thank you”.
His irrepressible laughter, his endless storytelling of dancers from the beginning of time, his unharmful gossipy chatter, his messages, his long emails, his high-pitched voice on the phone or when one met him will be painfully missed. Most of all, that “seat” in the auditorium, in the second row, where one always spotted him from the stage, will now be woefully vacant.
An era has passed. His oeuvre remains.
In addition to a mentally stressful year that saw him locked up in his Delhi home, something he had never done in his entire life, a notice was issued by the Culture Ministry to vacate his allotted house by 31 December. Ironic then that Sunil Kothari, the whimsical dance voyager, left on his final journey on 27 December 2020. He leaves behind hordes of friends, young and old, all over the world, whose lives he has touched in his own unique way.
Au revoir, Sunil Kothari.
Prathibha Prahlad is a pre-eminent danseuse, choreographer, educator, author, speaker, arts administrator, and a cultural visionary. With more than 5,000 performances in India and in over 80 countries, Prathibha Prahlad has carved a niche for herself as artiste extraordinaire. A revered name, she is a PadmaShri and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee.