“Just as for every taa, there is a thai, for every debit, there is credit,” Sunil Kothari said, while teaching us accountancy at Sydenham College in Bombay.
Kothari was a polymath. At the college (which liked to describe itself as the best commerce college this side of Suez), Kothari, who was a chartered accountant by training, taught us the elements of book-keeping and accountancy. But his heart was always elsewhere, in dance. He taught accountancy because he knew how to do it; he celebrated dance because that’s what he wanted to do.
At the annual college day, during the hazing ritual known as “fish pond”, he had created one for himself, which may fail the test of political correctness, but punning was second nature to him.- Why does an accountant care for dance?- Both deal with figures. He said this to us at the canteen table and then giggled like a schoolboy.
Always clad in a kurta and the churidar (though never too tight), and a cloth slingbag, he walked swiftly, leaving our college at Churchgate for the British Council at Nariman Point, or Alliance Francaise or American Center across the railtracks, and even to the House of Soviet Culture on Pedder Road, either watching films or speaking about dance.
He was a familiar figure at lunch daily on the last table on the left as you entered Samovar, the restaurant at Jehangir Art Gallery, sitting with Rasik Shah and Haridas Patel, and whenever he came visiting, the artist Bhupen Khakhar.
During our time at college Sunilbhai, as we called him, became a member of the Central Board of Film Certification. He opposed the idea of censorship, and I edited a students’ magazine called Rapport, and I asked him to write a piece on how he reconciled that with being on what was popularly called the Censor Board. Sunilbhai wrote a fine piece, showing examples of grotesque obscenities and gratuitous violence which would otherwise pass. That would be ugly, he said, and Sunilbhai was an aesthete.
He could leave you enthralled describing the cinema of the great masters of Bengal and of the new wave, and his polymath brain would come up with examples from philosophy – western and eastern – to make a point, and no conversation was too esoteric for him.
My first year in journalism was in Bombay, where I worked with Shobhaa De, at Celebrity magazine, and of course he knew her well, and he would drop by our office, full of anecdotes, stories, and even gossip, giving me a ring-side view of the art world.
He was a dance theoretician of course, and greater than any India has known, but his enthusiasm for dance was that of a child marvelling at the celestial grace unfolding in front of his eyes. When he described what he saw, sometimes you could see tears glistening in his eyes, his face always smiling, not the smile you show the photographer taking your portrait, but the smile of one who had glimpsed divinity.
He wrote and wrote – about Balasaraswathy’s poise, Sonal Mansingh’s posture, Protima Bedi’s passion, Sanjukta Panigrahi’s fluidity, Mallika Sarabhai’s innovativeness, Alarmel Valli’s expressiveness, Malavika Sarukkai’s eyes, Yamini Krishnamurthy’s transformations, Astaad Deboo’s seamlessness, Rohinton Cama’s gestures, Birju Maharaj’s devotion, and Chandralekha’s creativity. I could go on – the breadth of knowledge he shared, liberally, was astonishing.
Conversations with him were always rewarding. He was touched by the Greek muse Terpsichore, he understood what Shiva’s tandava nritya meant.
And the pace at which he travelled! Just reading his itinerary would leave you exhausted. After I left India, he made sure of keeping track of where I lived, sending me letters, and later emails, with detailed programme of all he would do on his visit to the city I lived in.
He knew everyone interesting there was to know: artists, writers, dancers, poets, musicians, in almost every city he visited, and he was generous in sharing those contacts with his friends. And the intrepid traveler that he was, he visited me everywhere I have lived in the 40 years I had known him – New York in the 1980s, Singapore in the 1990s, Geneva in 1985, Hong Kong in 1997, and London over the past two decades.
I had told him about the view from Manhattan from my apartment in Brooklyn; he said once the Covid-19 clouds lift, he would visit me. I knew he would have.I look back at those letters – detailed in their descriptions of the talks he would give, the cities he would visit, the artists he would meet, the insights he would gain, the impatience he had to share all that knowledge.
I last met him in Vadodara, at the home of our mutual friend, the poet and painter Gulammohammed Sheikh. I had gone to meet Gulambhai to talk about his art; once Sunilbhai came, the topic veered off in different directions, floating on a canvas.
When he heard I hadn’t met Malika Amin, his friend who was a few years my senior at school and whose cousins had been my classmates, he phoned her and took me to meet her, uninvited, and we had a pleasant afternoon at their home, continuing our conversation on art.
In early December we heard that the cruel virus had broken through Sunilbhai’s defences. Indefatigable as ever, he sent us an update, telling us not to worry; he was making recovery. He would return.He won’t now. He is freed of his earthly bonds; may heavenly apsaras welcome him with a dance that sparks in his eyes what Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya called অচেনার আনন্দ, (achenar anand), the delight of the unknown.
Salil Tripathi, a writer based in New York, was born in Mumbai, where Sunil Kothari taught him accountancy at college, and shared his passion for the arts in the years that followed.