“Like all South Africans (SA) I too feel like the roof has been taken off our heads with the death of Tata Madiba (Father Madiba as Mandela is lovingly referred to in SA),” wept Dr Vinod Hasal, 46. The SA kathak guru of Indian descent who was off to Jaipur said, “This programme has been planned months ahead and cancelling it will mean a lot of inconvenience and losses to all the organisers otherwise I’d just take the first flight to South Africa.”
Hasal whose Kandivali flat is adorned with South African masks, shields, spears and animal-print upholstery that evoke the dark continent. Following this reporter’s gaze he remarks, “I feel as SA as Indian after the years I’ve spent there.”
This 20th generation Jaipur gharana kathak dancer runs nine kathak schools across South Africa (SA), and among his 5,000 students is Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindziswa. “Madiba (Mandela’s Xhosa clan name by which he’s referred to in SA) attended a 1993 performance of mine as part of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISCKON)’s annual April Jagannath rathayatra. He came up on stage and hugged me. He was very moved with the ballet I’d choreographed: Blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites danced together to ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baaro’ by Colonial Cousins. In the audience, people across religions were holding hands and weeping. It will always be one of my favourite performances, especially since Madiba himself praised it,” remembers an overwhelmed Hasal. “On stage he tousled my hair and in his signature humourous style said, ‘So you are the graceful girl who had everyone up and dancing.’ I touched his feet seeking his blessing and for me this is the highest point in my life.”
As his daughter’s dance teacher Dr Hasal who along with his wife has been a regular at Mandela family dos, get-togethers and birthday parties remembers him as “a humble down-to-earth man with no airs whatsoever despite everyone dancing attention around him.”
In fact he remembers what Mandela once said in a lighter vein about Gandhiji who he had great respect for. “India should thank South Africa. He came here as Mohandas and his experience in fighting apartheid and injustice led him to go back as the Mahatma,” he reminisces and adds, “For me Mandela’s exemplary sacrifice of spending 27 years in prison makes him a bigger leader than any other.”
But how did this Rajput from Mumbai land in SA in the first place? An ISCKON invitation in 1990, to conduct lec-dem sessions on Indian classical dance in Cape Town saw him go there. But after two, his heart yearned for India and his Bohra college sweetheart Aliya, so he returned to Mumbai. Much against his family’s wishes and the growing communal cauldron of the times, they secretly married her and eloped to Mauritius in March 1993. Since India’s strong anti-apartheid policies made a direct visa to SA impossible, the couple had a prolonged ‘honeymoon’ on the island nation. “While we were awaiting our visa, money was running out. The visa finally came through after two months, and when I landed in SA with Aliya, all I had was 50 rand (Rs 500),” he remembers.
Today his work in helping strengthen India-SA ties culturally through kathak, is lauded even by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. His schools in Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Alexandra, Tembisa and Soweto are largely managed by 29 graduates trained by him. A give-and-take with local styles is encouraged and this has led to many fusion pieces with ballet, Zulu, gumboot dancing, Pantsula, tap dance and Flamenco.
“There is already such a rich socio-cultural resonance with the Indian subcontinent that South Africans find it easy to relate to the emotions being portrayed in a performance. Once I narrate an episode from the legend, they take to it immediately.”
The Father of the South African nation used to particularly proud of one of Hasal’s local students, the Tswana-speaking Brain Sekoko, 25, who has not only mastered the art from his guru but was also given a scholarship to train under kathak maestros in India. “Today, he is a name to reckon with in the kathak fraternity,” says a proud Hasal, “I spoke to him soon as I heard of Madiba’s passing away. Sekoko too is deeply saddened by this loss. All my schools will have a period of mourning for the man who I can only call our patron saint.”