Dr Kanak Rele, a renowned Mohiniyattam dancer and recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shree, died a few days ago at the age of 86. She was honored with a state funeral at Vile Parle Crematorium in Mumbai. The consummate artist had a six-decade career and was the founder and director of Mumbai’s Nalanda Dance Institute Center.
Born in Gujarat June 1, 1937 Rele spent her formative years in Shanti Niketan, West Bengal, she began her journey in dance at a young age and went on to break the glass ceiling by her interest in the male dominated field of Kathakali. Mohiniyattam became the calling card subsequently, her performances were marked by graceful movement, intricate footwork and highly emotive expressions. In 1973 she founded Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidhyala which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Padma Bhushan, Dr. Kanak Ben Rele, a creative luminary and revolutionary artist; she had illuminated the path of artists with her unparalleled contribution and led a life completely dedicated to Indian art, truly a huge loss for the world of Indian art, Om Shanti,” said Ms Sandhya Purecha, Chairperson, Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Shri Ramesh Bais, Governor of Maharashtra, paid tribute to her and referred to her as ‘Nriyta Tapasvani.’ I find myself fortunate and totally blessed that she gave her last interview to me in regards to her long due book “Me and My Mohiniyattam” just a few days before her death. Excerpts from her interview:
How did the idea of writing a book about your life come about?
People always kept asking me about my initial days of dancing and dance training. So I thought of telling the story through a book, which my niece Radha Khambhati wrote for me. My father died when I was 9 months old, and I grew up in Shanti Niketan. My heart and soul grew to like music, dance, art, and all things having to do with culture and tradition during my formative years. Later, my uncle Madhukar made us move to Mumbai; this is where I met Raghavan Nair ji, a Kathakali artist and singer, who on our first meeting sang Kummi, a folk song in Kathakali style. Honestly, I got into Kathakali by default, as my family did not know that Kathakali was a man’s art. The book has it all in detail.
How long did it take for you to write the book?
It took me about a year to put it all together, because I had to put my life in chronological order right from my first step, my first stage show, setting up Nalanda, travelling the world and also my personal life. Years and order were a bit messed up initially and slowly it all came together.
Which has been the most emotional chapter?
While I was still learning to dance, I had a small attack of Polio and in those days Polio was deadly and would leave a child crippled for life, even today I have a limp in my leg, but my mother and my Guru gave me the confidence and taught be how to enhance and good points and hide the flaw of the limp. My mother got widowed when I was a few months old, but my family was very Gandhian in approach, when I turned 11 she remarried and post that I had a very difficult childhood. The only way out for me was to immerse myself into my dance to get away from the personal turmoil. Also I longed to hear a direct word of appreciation from my Guru Panchali Karunakar Panikar. He never ever appreciated me on my face, he kept telling everyone around me how good I was and how I will make him and the world of art proud but, to me he never uttered a word. Guess that was his way to bring perfection, hard work and focus into my dance.
Most favorite chapter in the book?
When I met the love of my life, my husband Yatin (laughs uncontrollably). I was all of 17, we met because of our common interest in horses and horse riding. He invited me over for a riding session and we both lost our hearts at that very moment.
You are still dancing and performing, so how does the book end?
All my star and accomplished students were upset with me that I did not make them a part of the book, so they all decided to write an homage, talking about their experiences of dancing and learning with me, that is how the book ends with love from all my dancing family.
Which student has given you credit as a teacher?
This is the most difficult question you have asked me, all my students are dear to me and each of them are an apple of my eye. Deepak Majumdar and Vaibhav Arekar have been very close to me. Sunanda Nair is one of my prime students who understands my way of teaching very well. I also love Madhuri Deshmukh and her dance. My list is endless Sandip (she smiles and signs off).
Remembering the strong personality who was a stickler for discipline and decorum Member of Parliament, Padmashree awardee, classical dancer, and actress Hema Malini said, “I am shocked to hear that Padma Bhushan Kanak Rele ji passed away.” A dutiful family person, she was a true visionary, academician, and Mohiniyattam performer par excellence. It is a difficult day for the Rele family, the Naland Parivaar, and the classical dance community. I personally shared a beautiful bond with her, and our relationship was one of mutual admiration and respect. It was a matter of great good fortune for me to honour this veteran of the arts through Jaya Smriti, my art endeavor to support and encourage the artists of our country, I was truly honoured to unveil the authored book on the numerous incidents and events in the life of Kanak Ji, “Me and My Mohiniyattam.” Kanak Ji the artist may have gone, but her immense contribution to the field of classical dance will live forever.
Dr Rele received several awards including the Gaurav Puraskar, Kalidas Samman, Sangeet Natak Akademi and MS Subbulakshmi Award and many more. She is survived by Yatindra Rele, 89, her husband of 67 years, son Rahul Rele, daughter in law Uma Rele, who is the current principal of Nalanda, granddaughter Vaidehi Rele Lal and grandson Nikunj.
Mohiniyattam is the enchantress’ dance, the dance that Mohini, the Apsara from heaven, performed, and now Dr Kanak Rele, the Mohini of the earth, is dancing alongside her. Let us all come together and pray for her departed dancing soul.