Dr Sunil Kothari (1933-2020): A Dancer Turned Art Critic

Culture historian and author Sunil Kothari was a living encyclopedia in the field of Indian dance.

India lost one of its greatest dance scholars and cultural historians today when Sunil Kothari died, marking the end of a writing career of six decades that generated no less than 20 books and innumerable articles on the subcontinent’s heritage. Dr Kothari, 87, breathed his last on Sunday morning, following a cardiac arrest that came a month after he tested for Covid-19.

From Kathak to Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Chhau to Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi, Dr Kothari touched upon every stream of Indian dance. A winner of the Padma Shri (2001) for his contribution to the field, he was the professor and dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. He also taught at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata and New York University, USA. 

Born in Mumbai on December 20, 1933, Kothari was very passionate about dance in his early childhood days. At the age of 10, he started learning Kathak at Prof Deodhar’s School of Indian Music at Opera House in the metro. Boys pursuing dance were rare those days, and they were not really encouraged. Professionally, Kothari went on to become a chartered accountant. But that was not his destiny. His deep interest in dance soon took him to the world of Bharatanatyam adavus, Kathak chakkars and Odissi bhangis.

Meeting luminaries

Kothari took Bharatanatyam training under greats such as T Kuppaiah Pillai and Kalyanasundaram Pillai. He later studied Kathak under Badri Prasad of Jaipur gharana. Soon he started serious research and learning of various dance forms. Interactions with eminent artistes and art scholars including Mulk Raj Anand, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kapila Vatsyayan, Chandralekha, T Balasaraswati, Mrinalini Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika, Kumudini Lakhia, Aditi Mangaldas, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, Mohan Khokar helped him learn more about dance.

The knowledge so gained was deep and wide. Kothari mastered in the nuances of various Indian dance forms.  He meticulously learned different styles and techniques of several artists. His association with Mulk Raj Anand as the founding editor of art magazine Marg started in 1946.

That channelled Kothari’s journey towards transforming into a serious dance critic. He travelled across India visiting villages of Tamil Nadu and Kerala down the country, the Northeast states and the Hindi belt to study dance forms in depth. Kothari wrote regular columns on many prominent newspapers and magazines on art and culture for more than 40 years.  

Sublime career

Kothari received a doctorate from MS University in Baroda. That was in 1977 for his research in Bhagavata Mela, Kuchipudi and Kuravanji. In 1986, he earned a DLitt from the Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta — for the explorations in the dance sculptures of medieval temples of North Gujarat.

Kothari won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1995 and was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Dance Critic Association, New York, in 2011. He has also served as a member of the International Dance Council of Unesco and World Dance Alliance Asia-Pacific and has received the Emeritus Fellowship of the Department of Culture, Government of India. 

The scholar’s books have been widely discussed and continued to be read well. They include Sattriya Dances of Assam, New Directions in Indian Dance, Odissi: Indian Classical Dance Art, Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last 25 Years, Kuchipudi: Indian Classical Dance Art, Photo Biography of Rukmini Devi and Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art.

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