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Behind the Mask
by Mital M. Shah
Book Review and Author Interview

Ranjani Saigal and Chitra Parayath

All around the Globe, dance has always been a powerful communication medium that helps people see beyond the boundaries of the written word. Mital Shah uses dance as a vehicle to take us on a journey through exotic Thailand. Written as a diary of her time as a Fulbright scholar in Thailand, it presents Thai dance against the historical, Socio-cultural and political backdrop of Thailand.

While reading "Behind the Mask," the dancer in me was captivated by the description of Thai dance whose origin is traced to Sri Lanka and Southern India. It was very interesting to read about the evolution of the style based on the political system of the times and the inclinations of the kings who ruled during various historical times. I was fascinated to read about the adaptation of western Shakespearian plays by King Rama VI (Vajiravudh) and their incorporation into Thai classical dance.

Mital Shah is an Indian classical dancer who then spent her time in Thailand learning Thai classical dance. Comparing the two art forms she says:

"I thought the movements of Bharatnatyam, southern India's premiere dance style to be quite rigid until I was exposed to the control of Thai dance. I discovered new muscles in, of all places, my fingers as I subjected them to taut positions and unfamiliar extentions. Thai classical dance may be rooted in the dances of southern India and Sri Lanka, but it has clearly transformed under indigenous influence; no bells, no curves."

Mital delves briefly into the technical details of this classical dance form. She also describes mask making, which seems to have fascinated her. Like Kathakali, masks are central to the Thai dance tradition. We also learn about the folk-dances of Thailand and are granted a brief glimpse of the current dance scene. An interview with famous dancers like Khun Patravadi gives us a feel for the life and energy of this fascinating art form.The visuals are stunning and bound to catch the attention of your guest if this book is on your coffee table.

In her introduction Mital says:

"Behind the Mask is fact laced with personal commentary and perspective. It is broad but not deep. It is neither academic nor by any means a critique. It is visual because this is how dance best tells its story. It is the initiation to Thai dance that I would have loved to have ten months ago when I set off on my adventure. Enjoy."
I did enjoy the book immensely and felt a sense of pride that Mital, a MA resident has done this important piece of work, introducing all to the world of Thai Dance tradition.

Mital Shah, Writer, Dancer, talks to Lokvani
By Chitra Parayath
At the recent Book Fair organized by Saheli and Words worth Books, I catch up with Mital Shah, dynamic author and dancer.

PC Hi Mital, I take it that you are a dancer yourself! How does it feel to be wearing the two hats, of writer and dancer?
MS Yes I am, I have a background in Kathak and Bharatnatyam. I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and the subject was how the dance forms in India were tied to the dance in Thailand. I spent ten months in Thailand, researching, learning and writing about Thai dances.
PC What made you write this book though?

MS The reason was simple , because I saw that there was no such work ever done before. There was no brief introduction to this beautiful form of dance.
I wanted to introduce folks to Thai dance, I have written this keeping in mind someone who does not know a whole lot about Thai dance or its ties to the Indian dance form. Weaved into the narrative are travel stories and personal anecdotes which, I hope will interest people and keep the read informative yet fun.

PC Was it easy to get a publisher for the "Behind the mask'?
MS (Smiles) Actually, it was. I am glad to say that this book has attracted a lot of interest and support from all quarters, it is being sold in Thailand by Asia Books, which there is the equivalent of Barnes and Noble in Thailand.

PC Where did you grow up?
MS I have been living here since my birth, I learnt dance from Ms. Jasmin Shah.
PC Are you a full time dancer now?
>MS I am currently doing a masters course in Management, the business side of Arts Management the interface between art and Management. This is not a very common field yet!

PC That is commendable in one as young as you!
MS I have an artistic, creative side which yearns to undertake such pursuits but I don't know if I can be a full time artist!
PC Tell us something more about the book.
MS This book is in three parts, the first one is about Thai history, how dance is related to the kings and Royal courts, like Kathak, n the Moghul times. The second part is about the different things that go into the dance costumes, the stories about Hanuman and Ram. She shows me some masks that adorn the table she has decorated for the book fair. The third part is about how its being preserved, by organizations. The department of Tourism is doing a great deal to keep these traditions alive.
PC Mital, It has been so good talking with you. Enlightening too. I hope you will continue writing!>
MS I intend to.( laughs)
PC Good Luck Mital and thank you for talking to us!

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