I recently discovered the life's work of the late Mohan Khokar and its continuation by his son Ashish Mohan Khokar after his passing. These two men, without question, must be the biggest classical/historical Indian dance nerds in the history of dance nerds. I say this with the utmost admiration, respect, and kudos as a dance nerdesse myself! I am simply blown away by what these folks have accomplished, how important the work is, and how touched it makes me feel.
Here is why, from the official website of the "Mohan Khokar Dance Archives of India":
"In his lifetime Prof. Mohan Khokar collected every book written on dance, every journal, prospectus, brochure, poster, postage stamp, rpm disc, doll, sculpture, including Chola bronzes, painting, textile, print, postcard – just about everything on dance. Today, this material, called The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, is the single largest holding on dance, comprising over 1,00,000 photos, 50,00,000 press clips, 5,000 books and more. [...] Also in the holding are recordings of all national giants and gurus, dancers and divas which all the national bodies and Academies put together do not possess because they did not know the word documentation, till recently."
Oh YES. I've been reading every article I can find about the Khokar's and the collection and it is breathtaking. It has rare dancer biographies and photos, dance program brochures, costumes gifted from dancers, "78 rpm discs of dance of tawaifs and devadasis," VIDEO TAPES and FILMS ON DANCE, Kalakshetra's first prospectuses, news clippings, sculptures, dolls, artwork.. in the hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands...back 100 years...the list goes on an on. "Ashish particularly highlights his father's extensive documentation of the devadasi culture and also the rare photographs he clicked of ace dancers Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar, from whom Mohan Khokar learnt dance and also was his biographer" (The Hindu).
I can't even imagine the wonders this collection must hold. I bet the elusive Kalpana is floating in there somewhere not only in video but also in precious photos, sketches and reviews. The clippings from news items and reviews would be particularly fascinating given how classical dances like Bharatanatyam have had a very rocky journey as they evolved from disrepute to art forms of respectable admiration; I imagine there are items from the press from back in the 20s and 30s about the banning of certain dance forms and how they were received by the public and those who fought for their survival. Wouldn't it be fascinating to read! I shutter to think that these things might have been lost to history without Mohan's work. I nearly wet my pants when I saw the picture I've posted to the left of some of the programs and artwork of the collection. My god! Ram Gopal! Baby Kamala! Kalpana! Ragini Devi! Uday Shankar! Film dances from The Court Dancer and The River! Overload!!!
But besides being a spectacular visual historical record, Mohan Khokar's passion for dance documentation was not simply passive; he apparently had direct effects on the dance forms he so tirelessly documented. An article at livemint.com discusses how a back issue at the exhibit of the magazine Marg dedicated to Odissi was published at "...a time when Mohan Khokar and others were lobbying for it to be recognized as a leading dance form of India by the Sangeet Natak Akademi." The pictures at the end of this post also reveal some fascinating facts regarding the effects of Mohan's activism.
What makes this collection all the more endearing is how eccentrically woven its creation was into the fabric of Mohan Khokar's life. In the Khokar home "...the fridge was stashed with film rolls, and the beds and tables with stacks of photographs, posters and press clippings; brochures hung from fans, the kitchen was full of knick-knacks — and all the memorabilia represented dance. [...] 'There was a time when we slept in a sitting position because there was no place at home,' says Ashish" (Indian Express). Each morning after a beverage, Mohan "...would then carefully go through all the newspapers marking neatly — articles, reviews and stories that revolved around the Indian dance scene and artistes [...] Khokar would then call out to one of his children [...] to cut the marked pieces of writing with a pair of scissors" (Daily Pioneer). And best of all, "five years ago when that killer tsunami hit the Chennai coast, Ashish admits to being “guilty of not being so worried about my old mother living in a house just two kms from the sea as about the safety of the collection, which was stored in it” (The Hindu). THIS is passion! THESE are my people! :)
Besides being a prolific archivist, Mohan Khokar was Rukmini Devi's first male student at Kalakshetra, the secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and the husband of Bharatanatyam dancer M.K. Saroja among other things.
So after making this amazing discovery I resigned myself to a life of simply reading about the Khokars and looking at token photographs from the collection online and wishing I could whisk myself away to India to serve as Ashish's assistant archivist. :)
Then, I found THIS: "Now, Ashish, in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, is displaying his father’s collection in an exhibition titled, ‘A Century of Indian Dance: 1901-2000’ at India Habitat Centre. [...] It will travel to the US, Italy and the UK later this year" (Indian Express).
Guess what my friends, IT IS TOURING THE US RIGHT NOW, August 21 through September 11, hitting the cities of San Antonio, Charleston, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix (at least as confirmed to me by one of the facilitators, which is a bit different than the official schedule below or the one here so I would recommend you email the contacts for more info). It's interesting that the exhibit isn't hitting the customary biggies like NYC and LA (or what about Salt Lake City hmmmmm?!!). According to Narthaki.com, the exhibition begins with the foyer display of the collections, then follows with an introduction by Ashish, showing of "Century of Indian Dance" which is a film he created on 100 years of archived dance films, and last solo and group dance performances by top male classical dancers followed by a Q&A. Did you catch the part about how Khokar will be showing selections from "rare dance films"!! That's it, I'm booking at ticket to the Phoenix show!! :)
But perhaps most happy-dance inducing of all is that someone TOOK PICTURES of the exhibit's opening in Delhi. Here they are, pictures from the flickr account of vm2827, whom I now also consider one of the coolest people on earth for finally providing more light into this tantalizing collection. I was hoping someone would photograph the event and by golly my wish has been fulfilled. ENJOY.
There's even more over at vm2827's Flickr page.
So suffice it to say I'm extremely excited about all this and there's so much more that could be said! But I'll let it rest there. Here are some great links about the Khokar's and the exhibit with things I found interesting noted in parentheses:
History Begins at Home (Discussion on politics surrounding the refusal of some organizations to take the collection)
When Uday Shankar Was a Nautch Girl (Mohan's dance background, collection details)
Celebrating a Century of Indian Dance (Picture of father and son)
Mohan Khokar's Collection Brings Alive Century of Indian Dance (Thought on modern dancer reactions)
Attendance The Dance Annual of India (Ashish's yearly publication's official website)
History over Canapes (Mealtime discussion with Ashish)
ICCR Exhibit Page (Pictures of the Delhi opening)
Mohan Khokar Dance Collection An Exhibition (GREAT pictures of documents)