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No home for dance collectibles


Scholar Mohan Khokhar had put together a remarkable collection of dance memorabilia. For over four decades he tried to find a home for the collectibles and today his son continues with the mission.

The latest issue of Attendance, India's only dance magazine, is dedicated to Mohan Khokhar. It is not a name that many will recognise, but dance lovers know him as the man who worked for more than 50 years to create a mammoth collection related to Indian dance. And all that the recluse, who lived a quiet life in New Delhi's Rajinder Nagar barsaati, wanted in return was a place to house it.

When Khokhar was conferred the Sangeet Natak Academy award for his contribution to dance in 1997, he hoped that he would finally find a home for his collection. But an embittered Khokhar, fighting a losing battle with cancer, had to abandon his dream and move to Chennai to be looked after by his wife, the eminent dancer and actress MK Saroja Devi.

As the inheritor of this collection and a dance historian himself, son Ashish Khokhar says that he has not lost hope yet. "I've tried everything, knocked on several doors, but nothing works. The truth is no one cares and the government least of all. I'm truly at my wits' end, " he says.

The Khokhar family is now settled in Chennai and unable to lobby for space or patronage. "It's sad but true that the rest of India does not exist for the cultural bureaucracy of Delhi. But my mother, who'll soon turn 80, and I will still not lose hope. I've stuck to Attendance, now in its 12th year, with not a rupee of support from anyone, to keep Mohanji's vision alive, " says Ashish.

Visitors to his father's Delhi home crammed with dance objets d'art and memorabilia would often be startled by the range of collectibles: masks, shadow puppets, newspaper cuttings, magazines and pamphlets dating back to the 1940s, match boxes, coasters, paintings, textiles, photographs, just about anything connected to choreography. But Khokhar, as he'd once told this writer, didn't consciously set out to build a collection. It started inadvertently when he started taking notes for his research work.

Being a dancer helped. A Sikh by birth, Khokhar became interested in dance when the girl he was infatuated with, Rani, started learning Kathak. Much to his family's chagrin, he too enrolled in the same dance school as her. In time, he lost interest in Rani, but not in dance. Having seen legendary dancers such as Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar perform on stage, Khokhar was hooked. He first enrolled in Zohra Sehgal's school in Mumbai and then went to Madras where he joined Kalakshetra and graduated as Rukmini Devi Arundale's first male North Indian student.

It was here, while trying to understand the nuances of Bharatnatyam, that Khokhar started reading up and copying chapters for his own reference from books at the famous Adayar Library. In the '50s, on his travels across the country as a scholar and head of the dance department of Baroda University, Khokhar did extensive research on diverse Indian dance forms such as Kuchipudi, Bhagavata Mela Nataka and Theyyam.

These travels also gave him ample opportunity to pick up some rare and unusual objects - even kitsch, as long as they carried dance motifs. "Nothing is unimportant for me. Thus if I find a hideous plastic piece of a Nataraja costing less than a rupee, I would grab it, for in the historical context, each item has its own relevance, " he had said of his passion.

It was this collection that stunned Genevieve Oswald, the curator of the dance section at the Lincoln Centre, New York, who'd been travelling across Asia in the mid- '70s in search of material for the museum. Khokhar had offered her his collection, distressed by the apathy he faced: "You take it, it is yours. This country of mine has no value for it. "

Oswald replied that she would have liked to take the collection valued then at $75, 000 home, but it belonged in India. "It would be a tragedy if it left your country. If it were here, it would rank among the most distinguished and important we own. Certainly this would be the foundation of a truly superb Asian archive. Since Indian dance is the basis of all Asian dance, it is essential that the representation of India be prodigious. Your collection is superb. It is complete, it deserves proper cataloguing, proper housing and the dissemination of knowledge about it throughout the world, " Oswald said.

That was in the '70s, and even now, 40 years later, Khokhar's collection still awaits a home.

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