There were other monumental issues that coloured Sonal’s life at this point and made it look almost soap-operatic. To begin with, the small, cramped Curzon Road apartment (D 707) where she had sought temporary refuge was turned into a brothel by the caretaker during one of her European tours. Horror-struck, she left the place and lived for a while at the India International Centre, moving to different temporary shelters before taking refuge at John Lall’s house in Jorbagh.
She had claimed no alimony, so she had to scrimp and save every paisa of her earnings from recitals to clear huge penal rent bills of the Curzon Road apartment and to meet her personal expenses. She remembers taking overdrafts from her bank, selling off gold bangles gifted by her mother and borrowing money from well-wishers like OP Jain and AJ Jaspal to pay her musicians.
Sonal continued to spend many homeless nights in the city with most of her possessions in Muhammad Yunus’s garage, taking shelter even in the nondescript little Lakshmibai Nagar flat of her Bharatanatyam vocalist, Kamakshi Kuppuswamy. Finally, her friends, Rajgopal and his wife Maithili, invited her to share their Shahjahan Road flat and she stayed there off and on for nearly three years. After her gilded earlier life, this was austere business.
The quiet struggle against daunting odds was carried out without a trace of bitterness, and what appeared as awful loose ends and ambiguities ended up becoming Sonal’s strengths. No longer entombed in a dead relationship, she began revving up her personal life and expanding her circle of friends. She had a coterie of dazzled, starry-eyed admirers and dozens of playful relationships. She began building some meaningful relationships as well, spending a good deal of time with cultural icons like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. This set the artistic and emotional tone of a new period of her life.
“Kamaladevi was my inspiration. I called her ‘Amma’. Her home in Canning Lane, which I used to visit frequently, was an adda for writers, craftspersons and activists from the cooperative, socialist and feminist movements. The intellectual, artistic churning that went on at Amma’s place helped me regain my innate cool and confidence.”
Sonal was invited back to the stage. She performed with dizzying frequency and remained in the news for brilliant, hugely acclaimed, rousing performances that few of her contemporaries could equal. She looked gorgeous, and her down-to-earth, unstarry style quotient continued to draw the attention of fashion columnists. Her hair pulled back in a topknot or cascading down her back, her turtleneck sweaters, handwoven sarees, kumkum-dotted forehead, her full lips, dark berry or red with the reddest of lipsticks, and kohl-lined eyes set off a trend.
It was around this time that Georg Lechner, whom she teasingly called “Snoopy”, waltzed into Sonal’s life. Georg was the director of Max Mueller Bhawan in New Delhi. One of Sonal’s favourite anecdotes is about their first meeting.
“Preparations for the 1972 Olympics in Munich were on in full swing. I received a call from the Max Mueller Bhawan to do a photo session with a famous German photographer for the non-German cultural shows to be presented during the Olympiad. I remember reaching slightly late because Kelu sir [Kelucharan Mahapatra] would not leave until my eyes and eyebrows were painted by him with just the right arch and every hair was in place. And there was Dr Lechner, arms folded on chest, looking like a lion about to roar. However, by the time the shoot ended, he made it abundantly clear that he couldn’t wait to see me again.”
Kumkum corroborates. “Sonal was a ravishing beauty. We saw Georg’s attraction turn into obsession.” What followed was a season of uncontrollable longing. Georg was married with two children, but that did not stop them from beginning an affair that was the talk of the town. Neither of them tried to quell the swirling gossip. It was an open liaison that played out in public spaces.
It was not long before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi got a whiff of the brewing scandal and, according to Sonal, managed to use her influence to get Georg posted to the Goethe-Institut Montreal.
This was the summertime of Sonal’s performances, a period when she travelled to different parts of Europe with or without Georg, but always with her Bharatanatyam and Odissi musicians, through vast stretches of green vineyards and forest-cloaked hills to cities with rich cultural histories and stunning architecture. Georg arranged for her to dance at interesting festivals such as the Europaische Wochen in Passau and the Bayreuth Youth Festival, the Mecca of German opera which draws Wagner enthusiasts from around the world.
Bayreuth stretched her in ways she had not anticipated.
“I learnt to appreciate the beauty of the libretto, enjoy the verve of jazz. I feasted on Wagner’s operas, sitting for hours on a wooden seat in the Festspielhaus, awestruck by Der Ring des Nibelungen, scores featuring Der Fliegende Holländer, the hugely moving Tristan and Isolde and Wagner’s swan song, Parsifal—letting the music wash over me, not getting out of the opera house in much under five hours. I turned into a complete Wagnerphile.”
The couple was caught in the sunshine of creative, happy days, stopping at tourist-thronged city centres to eat warm slices of apple strudel and buttered pretzels bought from roadside vendors. If they as much as stepped into a fancy restaurant and were lucky to secure a table, Sonal’s vegetarianism would end up causing a great deal of mirth. Georg would try and explain in chaste German, “Please, no fish, no meat, no pig, no game, only salad!” The friendly and attentive waiters would nod in comprehension and reappear with different kinds of greens.
“My suspicious fork had however learnt to ferret out tiny bits of bacon and sausages hidden in salad leaves. When summoned to explain, the staff would smilingly exclaim, ‘Oh, that tiny piece!’ I would end up munching their delicious buttered loaves and strudels and mounds of ice cream.”
In an alien land, no longer ambushed by rumours of improprieties, Sonal experienced the joy and feverish excitement that had eluded her for a long time.
Georg and she were compatible, had similar interests. “I must confess,” she said in a letter to Kumkum, “I am so happy and fulfilled with Georg that sometimes I don’t wish to think about the difficulties I face in Delhi.”
In another letter written during the same time, she wrote, “You must realise how much I miss India, my dance, the atmosphere, although I have gained something terribly important here, Georg’s love and many valuable friendships.”
It was evident that Georg was doing his best to help her fall in love with Germans and Germany. Conversations revolved around German dance, music, poetry and philosophy, the similarity between the ideas of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and the Indian philosophers. Travelling through the heritage cities of Nuremberg, Wurzburg, Kulmbach and German villages nestling in lovely forests and hills, he took her to quaint little wine bars and country cellars for walk-in tastings of the best of their vintage wines. There was a playful eclecticism in Georg’s choice of theatre performances, of movies, of concerts. Sonal was hooked.
Lalit and Sonal filed for divorce by mutual consent in 1973. In a sense, the final breakup wasn’t tumultuous or contentious. Sonal did not seek spousal support. In 1974, when the Tis Hazari Court granted them divorce, she decided to ring in her new life in style.
“Lalit and I took a taxi and went to Connaught Place. I first went into a saree shop and bought myself a bright pink silk saree with a quaint purple-blue design and an orange border. After that I took Lalit to the Standard Restaurant for lunch. The restaurant was packed but we managed to secure a table and were for some time our old, happy selves. The fact that we weren’t going to be at loggerheads any more needed to be celebrated.”
Excerpted with permission from Sonal Mansingh: A Life Like No Other, Sujata Prasad, Penguin Viking.