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Yog Sunder Desai – A Century of Life and Dance

Yog Sunder receiving Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from president of India

Yog Sunder Desai, a pioneer who ventured into the world of Indian Dance in the pre-independence era, was born on July 16, 1921 in Limbdi, Gujarat into a princely family of Gujarat. His Nana Jhaverbhai Amin was the Diwan of Limbdi state and his paternal grandfather Ambaidas Jeevabhai’s ancestors were the administrators of the Mughals and the Gaekwads. Yog Sunder was born to illustrious parents Bhaktiba, a freedom fighter and Darbar Gopal Das, the ruler of Dhasa State in Gujarat who gave up his throne to join the freedom movement with Gandhiji. Darbar Saheb went on to become one of the 1st members of the Constituent Assembly of India. The constitution of India bears his signature.

Yog Sunder founded his dance ensemble, the Indian Revival Group in 1948 in Kolkata which has completed over 70 years of unbroken chain of existence, dedicated to the cause of furthering the rich multi-cultural heritage, mythology, philosophy and glory of India.

Yog Sunder Desai

In his 100th year of life in 2020, he was the senior most living artiste and choreographer of the pre-independence era.

Yog Sunder devoted his life to the preservation & propagation of India’s rich cultural heritage – its folk and classical dance forms, regional music & costume, mythology & literature. He researched, revived and showcased a rich variety of dance forms of India since the post-independence era, when little was known about these forms and paid rich tributes to the multi-cultural heritage of India.

Yog Sunder wth President of India Dr. Radhakrishnan at Rashtrapati Bhawan
Yog Sunder wth President of India Dr. Radhakrishnan at Rashtrapati Bhawan

Yog Sunder was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puruskar for his lifetime contribution to the field of Dance. He is the only Gujarati male dancer to have received this award.

A product of national institutions (Rashtriya Shaalas) like Dakshinamurthy, Gujarat Vidyapeeth and Tagore’s Shantiniketan, Yog Sunder had a privileged upbringing spent under the guidance of Gandhiji, Sardar Patel and Rabindranath Tagore, due to his father, Darbar Gopaldas Desai, who was the first Prince of India to abdicate his throne to join the freedom movement. Darbar Saheb was a member of the 1st Constituent Assembly of India and the constitution of India bears his signature. He went to Bardoli ashram at the age of 5 during the Bardoli Satyagraha & participated in the freedom movement as a member of Vanar Sena in Borsadchhaoni, participating in the Satyagrahas, distributing satyagraha patrikas and joined Rajkot Satyagraha as a student of Dakshinamurthy and the 1942 Quit India movement.

In Shantiniketan he learnt Painting under the legendary Nand Lal Bose in Kala Bhawan and Manipuri dance from Guru H Atomba Singh, Rabindra Sangeet from Santidev Ghose.

Yog Sunder trained in Kathakali under Guru Kelu Nair in Shantiniketan and under Padmashri Guru Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair in Kerala. He learnt Krishnattam from Shri Krishna Kartav and Mohiniattam from Smt. Kochumalu Ammain Kerala. He was the first non malayali to have undergone full rigorous training in Kathakali.

Yogendra Sunder as he was known then, debuted on the Bombay stage as Raja Bhim Dev in K M Munshi’s ‘Jai Somnath’ in 1945 with Nayana Jhaveri as Chauladevi. During this period Yog Sunder performed in several productions of the Indian National Theatre and Gujarati adaptations of Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’ and ‘Tasher Desh.’

The legendary Ram Gopal of Bangalore invited him to join his troupe which toured united India including Lahore and Karachi in 1946. He learnt Kathak from Pt. Bhore Lal.

He started the Indian Progressive Ballet Group in Calcutta in 1947 and ran the Group on a cooperative basis successfully and produced well reputed programmes. The first show in Kalika theatre was a house full show. The brochure was designed by Satyajit Ray.

Yog Sunder partnered the renowned Sadhona Bose in ‘Abhisar’ (or Vasavdatta), based on Tagore’s poem. Yog played the roles of Rama in Ramayana and Krishna In Geet Govind with a group called ‘Mystic Dancers of India’.

In 1948, he founded the Indian Revival Group in Calcutta. The Group produced ‘Birth of Freedom’, ‘Ajanta,’ ‘Freedom Festival’. ‘Mahabharata’ in silhouette and shadow was presented in Purna Kumbh Mela, Hardwar in 1950. Yog Sunder was the producer-director and Arjuna.

Yog Sunder took art to the masses, following Gandhiji’s ideals, performing before countless villagers who had never witnessed such a performance before. He gave them their first performance space by erecting permanent stages which still stand today! Their performances were highly sought after and villagers would greet them with drums and shehnai! He organised over 500 tours reaching every corner of India and performed before masses, including peasants, workers, labourers, Jawans, students and even before T.B. patients and prisoners in jails.

Yog Sunder has represented India to the world with Indian Revival Group as an official cultural delegation and participated in numerous Festivals, receiving rave reviews in the foreign Press with front-page news and photographs.

In 1954 IRG went to Egypt through INT of Bombay to perform on a chartered cruise ship ‘SS Independence’. The shows were a raving success. In 1955, Yog Sunder produced ‘Rhythms of India,’ a spectacle of India’s rich and varied dance heritage that has stood the test of time and remained ever popular, evolving in the last 70 years. The show went on an all-India tour, which lasted for ten months. In 1957, he visited the Soviet Union. It meant ultimate official approval and recognition of work. It was one of the three groups selected by the Government of India to represent India at the sixth World Youth Festival in Moscow and was presented six times on Russian Television.

IRG performed at the First Command Performance at Rashtrapati Bhawan before the 1st President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and 1st Prime Minister, Pt. Nehru in 1957. Subsequently, IRG performed for Dr. Radha Krishnan, Lal Bhadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and many international leaders such as Mrs. Kennedy at Rashtrapati Bhavan and abroad.

IRG recorded the first dance program for Doordarshan.

In 1959-1960, Yog Sunder undertook the most adventurous tour of the Middle East by land route via Afghanistan, performing 100 shows in 7 countries in 7 months – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Kuwait. This was the first time any Indian dance troupe had gone to these countries. The tour was fuelled by the adventurous and enterprising spirit of Yog Sunder, without any prior booking in any country, and on a cooperative basis where all were equal partners. In Gaza, they performed for UN forces.

In 1963 Yog toured India and Europe in 1964. The Group was sent by the govt. to participate in the International Folk Dance Festival in Istanbul. His Group won awards at the International Dance Festivals in Iraq and Turkey. A two and a half month tour took them to perform in East Europe, Turkey, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Morocco and Cairo.

Yog Sunder directed the ‘Ram Lila’ for Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in 1966 and the Lore of Ind for ITDC in 1967.

His magnum opus titled ‘The Man Divine’ based on Tagore’s poem The Child, his one and only original English poem which was later translated in Bengali as ‘Shishu Tirtha’. It is a tribute to both Gandhi and Tagore, the 2 men who influenced him in life, produced in 1969 for Gandhiji’s birth centenary at the behest of the then congress President UN Dhebar. The production was produced at a colossal scale bringing together masters like Jyotindra Maitra (Batukda) and Satish Bhatia of AIR for music score, Goverdhan Panchal of NSD for designing the sets, Malti Mehta for costumes and NSD’s Ram Gopal Bajaj who wrote and gave voice to the Hindi commentary.

Yog Sunder has crossed many important milestones and has many tales of adventure undertaken to take art to the masses, for army jawans in frontier areas, prisoners in jails, industrial workers, farmers in remote interiors.

He took art to the army jawans, performing for the Indian Army under the patronage of General Maneckshaw several times. Endowed with an incredible spirit and enthusiasm, he undertook highly adventurous and strenuous tours to border areas in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. He and his group performed in inhospitable conditions using oxygen masks and wearing army boots and jackets, performing on stages created by joining trucks while headlights of the trucks provided stage lights!

In 1975 Yog Sunder directed “Shyama” in Hindi which received rave reviews in Calcutta and toured the UK for the Tagore Festival in 1986. He was invited to participate in the 1st and 2nd Ballet Festival of Sangeet Natak Akademi and presented productions on contemporary themes – “The Journey” in 1976 and “Darkness at Noon” in 1979.

In the eighties he created ‘Ram Katha’ assimilating the folk theatre traditions and storytelling techniques of India where Nat and Nati narrate the story employing the technique of Rangla and Rangli of ‘Bhawai’ the folk theatre of Gujarat.

Yog led the Group to Tanzania, Kenya, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain and Iraq for ICCR in 1980 and to the Festival of India Semaine De l’ Inde held in the Island of Reunion in 1992.

He designed Cultural Festivals of India in London and USA for Akshardham Sanstha in 1985 and 1991.

He has produced and directed many well reputed dance productions.

Prominent are Birth of Freedom, Freedom Festival, Mahabharata, Voice from beyond, Dances of India, Rhythms of India, Chandalika, Call of the Country, Rhythms and Melody, Ramlila, The Lore of India, The Man Divine, Paridhan, Shyama, The Journey, Darkness at Noon, Ram Katha, Festivals of India, Shakuntala, Ekoham Bhahusyam, Yama Parajay, Harmony , etc.

Sangeet Natak Akademi Archives has documented many of his productions.

Yog Sunder has also written widely on Indian Art. His series of articles on Natya Shastra in Gujarati Art magazine ‘Kumar’ from 1946 to 1950 won him a lot of appreciation for its authenticity.

Influenced by Gandhian principles, Yog Sunder has carried on his work all these years selflessly without chasing wealth and fame. He has led the Group in over 5000 shows and more than 500 tours through the length and the breadth of the country. He ran the troupe self-supported, without grants and donations for the major part of its career of 7 decades.

Indian Revival Group has completed over 7 decades of unbroken chain of existence.

Yog has enriched the cultural landscape of India, at home and abroad.

Yog Sunder served the cause of Indian dance and for that he stands celebrated.

A rich canvas of Life. A Life in Dance.

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