Art is a powerful tool to carry social messages: Dr Sonal Mansingh

New Delhi, Nov 16: Art cannot just be for art's sake, it has to raise noble thoughts and ideas and be an instrument in effecting social change, according to renowned dancer and cultural icon Padma Vibhushan Dr. Sonal Mansingh.


In a lively, candid conversation with music and dance critic Manjari Sinha last evening, marking the 50th edition of the Raza Foundation’s Art Matters dialogue series, Dr Mansingh talked about her art, her mission, personal and professional challenges, inspirations, and addressed the barbs and criticisms that have come her way.


One of these last has been the accusation that her works are overly religious; Dr Mansingh countered it by saying she draws inspiration from the belief that “Shaastra”, the scriptures, are the “Shastra”, the weapons or instruments to pierce the darkness of ignorance.


“However, this knowledge has to be supplemented with original thinking and internalize it, or it becomes meaningless,” she added.

Manjari pointed out that Dr Mansingh demonstrates exactly that in her seminal work ‘Divyalok — Abode of Divinity’, a three-part performance that elevates a mundane subject such as cleanliness in everyday life to the level of purity in thought, action and behavior through stories from the Puranas.

For Dr Mansingh it is an important message to disseminate in her capacity as one of the “Navaratnas” nominated for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, campaigning for “Swachha, Swastha and Shreshtha Bharat”.

“I never found the need to pick up a broom and pose for a photo op. It is through my art, I have to send out the message,” she said.

Her choice of stories for “Divyalok” is ingenious; the first part is the “story of creation” where Sage Ved Vyas sees verses of the Shri Devi Bhagvat embedded on the soles of the feet of the Devi, who symbolizes the formless feminine principle from which the universe originated. "He could read the verses because the Devi's feet were clean.”

 “Mohini Bhasmasura”, the second-part of the performance piece, carries the message that “if your thoughts, words and behaviour are clean, balanced and positive, it does good; if not it can destroy you”.

The third, Krishna’s slaying of the demon Kaliya, is a metaphor of pollution of the Yamuna river, said Dr Mansingh.

“When I perform this piece for children in schools and colleges I ask them: Did you see when Krishna destroyed Kaliya the river was cleansed? Who is the Krishna of today, is it the government or the courts? And it is so heartening to see young people, especially girls, stand up and say ‘it is I’,” she said. “I see from it how powerful art is in being able to carry that message. Art is important to entertain and make other's happy, and but it has to raise noble thoughts and ideas.”

Social messaging has always been at the centre of Dr Mansingh’s work, especially her campaign to bring issues such as gender bias, women’s empowerment and the education of girls to the fore.

Her depiction of Draupadi, a piece created in 1994, is still timeless in its messaging, noted Manjari.

“Draupadi is a symbol; the story of her ‘transaction’ and her humiliation reminds us that women and children are the first victims of war,” said Dr Mansingh. “The woman always becomes a pawn in these machinations, no matter how intelligent and accomplished she may be.”

Manjari also drew the dancer out on her pioneering use of Chariya Geeti, adaptation of mystical poems from the Buddhist tantric tradition, and folk Pala Sangeet; her intense spiritual experience dancing in view of the sacred and mighty Mt. Kailash; her unusual classical choreography to Bollywood music and her work with prisoners in Tihar jail.

True to her journalistic style, Manjari questioned the artist on how she dealt with personal slurs and criticisms; and true to her forthright nature, Dr Mansingh responded with the admission of her challenges as a woman living alone, her professional setbacks because of adherence to principles in dance and in navigating through biased political environments.

She also dwelt on the most inspirational moments of her life: the encouragement from her grandfather the late freedom fighter Mangaldas Pakvasa; and her recovery from a motor accident that left her paralysed and nearly destroyed her career as a dancer — life experiences that have made her, over the years, an exemplary teacher and motivational speaker.

The Raza Foundation’s Art Matters programme, hosted by the India International Centre in Lodhi Estate, has been a running series for the past five years. It has witnessed conversations with eminent personalities and expert practitioners drawn from the world of ideas, literature, visual arts, performing arts, among other disciplines and traditions.








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