Kashmiri Poetess-Saint From Obscurity
by Sourish Bhattacharyya
Unlike many people we
know, Sonal Mansingh isn't coy about revealing her age. She'll happily tell you
she's turning 60, yet she manages to pack a powerhouse into her athletic frame
fine-tuned by a daily dose of yoga. Which explains why it's impossible to find
her resting on her laurels.
She ended 2002 being feted with
top award by Chennai's prestigious Music Academy-a recognition that doesn't come
easily to an Odissi dancer. She performed to a capacity audience at HT Powai (Mumbai)
and was surprised to find young people responding so enthusiastically to a
classical dance recital that stretched for an hour. Unlike what many of us would
like to believe, Generation Now has its heart in the right place. They rock to
Shakira and Kylie Minogue with the vigour and the sense of fun with which they
imbibe our classical culture.
Of course, Chennai and Powai
already are distant memories for Sonal Mansingh,for she managed to get President
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam to dance along with her at an Assamese village barely 20 km
from the Myanmar border. That's the kind of effect she has on her friends. And
even in the middle of this frenetic dancing routine, she doesn't stop being a
trivia collector. "There's even a village called Margherita in that part of
Assam. It was a token of gratitude from the British authorities for two Italian
engineers who completed a rather difficult bridge," Mansingh said, her eye
dancing with the joy of discovery. "And do you know Digboi owes its name to
the constant shouts of 'dig boys, dig' from Scottish oil prospectors who came to
explore the virgin oilfields." That has her in splits.
After an exacting routine, you'd
expect a dancer to put up her feet and let her hair down, but Mansingh, who
averages 6-8 outstation performances a month got into her dancing gear as soon
as she landed in the city. Every year, she celebrates Republic Day with a dance
performance on January 24 ("because most of my friends have to be at the
President's At Home on January 26"). This year's no exception, but what
makes it special is the theme Mansingh has chosen for her ballet scripted by the
famous Hindi poet Ashok Chakradhar.
The ballet is about Lal Ded, or
Lalleshwari, Kashmir's Shaivite poetess-saint born in the 16th century in the
saffron-enriched Pampor and revered equally by the Pandits and the Muslims, who
know her as Lalla Arifah celebrated by the legendary saint, Nooruddin. Mansingh,
with help from Virendra Qazi, a Lal Ded scholar who works with the Steel
Authority of India Limited, has rescued the life of the poetess-saint
from her childhood spiritual experiences to her miserable marriage destroyed by
a suspicious mother-in-law, to her emancipation (she even gave up wearing
clothes) with the blessings of Siddha Srikanth.
Such a remarkable life, which
uncannily mirrors that Mira, didn't deserve the obscurity it had been pushed
into. In Kashmir's fractured society Lal Ded stands out like the eternal beacon
of hope. By bringing the light of Lal Ded's wisdom to our city Mansingh proves
that all is not lost in the long night of sectarian strife.
Times, January 24, 2003