Uday Shankar, the father of Indian contemporary dance who made his mark on the global stage, has a beautiful quote which in many ways encapsulates his life’s work. “I take the help of the modern to make others understand the ancient. I take the West to the East. I take the modern art of presentation to show the spirit of India. I am a selector of truth, of beauty. Whatever is beautiful to me is real art,” he once said.
(Image above: Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar in this 1948 classic film, Kalpana. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A Padma Vibhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, Uday Shankar, the elder brother of famed sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, played a pivotal role in fusing Indian and Western culture with his unique style characterised by Indian non-classical dance forms.
These performances incorporated musical “sound images” for effect from legendary musicians like Vishnu Das Shirali and Alauddin Khan Sahab. This went much beyond the standard relationship between dance and musical accompaniment.
Hugely popular in the West through the first half of the 20th century, he was a legendary figure who forged his own path without undergoing any classical training.
Today, we celebrate his 120th birth anniversary.
Early Life, Influences
Born on 8 December 1900 in Udaipur, Rajasthan, Uday’s father, Shyamashankar Choudhury, worked for the erstwhile princely state of Jhalawar. But Uday and his three younger brothers grew up in their maternal home in Nazratpur village near Varanasi.
One of his earliest memories of dancing was thanks to his mother. Speaking to Sombhu Mitra on a Kolkata-based TV network, he recalls, “My mother used to dress me as a girl, as she did not have a daughter — and would ask me to dance. I used to perform any movements that came to me. I did not know how to dance but I did, and I am thankful to my mother for that.”
Influences also came from watching members of the Chamar caste community, who were predominantly leather workers, perform during Holi festivals, besides other folk dances. However, his talents at the time predominantly lay in painting. Such was Uday’s talent that the Maharaja of Jhalawar convinced his father to enroll him into the Sir JJ School of Art.
After finishing his diploma course there, he left for London in August 1920 to enroll into the Royal College of Art for his higher studies. Thanks to his prodigious talent in painting, he finished the five-year course in three. It was his college principal, Sir William Rothstein, who convinced Uday to immerse himself into Indian culture.
It was those innumerable hours spent at the British Museum reading about Indian painting and sculptures that finally brought him back to dancing. He was particularly fascinated by the pictures of sculptures depicting Indian gods and goddesses in a series of dance poses.
“Thus began his fascination with pictures of Indian sculptures—gods and goddesses in various dancing poses. Noting their communicative powers, he began imitating the poses. Although not a trained dancer, he did not hold himself back, as for him the images were inspiration enough to translate them into movements,” notes Ashish Mohan Khokar, a well-known art historian, biographer, art critic and scholar for Sahapedia.
When he was in college, he presented his first dance performance on 20 June 1922 organised by the League of Mercy, a British foundation founded by the Royal Charter of Queen Victoria. Titled ‘Sword Dance’, it even evoked adulation from King George V. More importantly, the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova was also in the audience.
In search of composers and choreographers for miniature ballets she was planning on producing based on Indian themes, she found Uday. After further impressing her during a private audience where Uday reproduced poses from Indian sculpture he had seen, Pavlova took him in despite not undergoing any classical training in ballet.
As Uday told Sombhu Mitra, “I did not know ballet. Anna Pavlova saw me dancing and liked my style. She later gave me the responsibility to create something Indian — and I gave her ‘Radha Krishna’ and ‘Hindu Marriage’ which she really liked.” Both these ballets became hugely popular in the West since people there had never seen anything like this before.
Dancing with Anna and helping her choreograph multiple pieces for a year changed Uday’s life forever. It was Anna who pushed Uday into improving his Indian technique and style even though he was quite fascinated by western dance forms.
In another interview, he said, “Anna opened my eyes when she told me not to imitate the Western style as people in the West would much like to see all that was Indian in dances, characteristically connected with the Indian art.”
After a one-year stint with Anna, Uday started his own dance troupe in 1924 in Paris. But the transition away from Pavlova’s patronage proved difficult.
“Whereas the success and public acclaim during his association with Pavlova had provided assured financial and professional stability, his departure from her company left him unemployed. Without patronage for the first time in his life, Shankar was in extreme circumstances. The freedom to create was no longer a given, but a scarcely affordable luxury as the daily needs of survival encroached on his productive time,” notes scholar Ruth K. Abrahams in the journal Dance Chronicle. To make ends meet, Ruth notes that Uday danced wherever he could including the “small, noisy” and smokey cabarets.
But these are the spaces where he established a raw connect with the audience. After the early struggles, things began to turn around for him in 1926. After working with two sisters, Adelaide and Sokie, former members of Pavlova’s troupe, he teamed up with Simonoe Bardier, a Paris-based pianist, who took up dance taking the stage name of ‘Simkie’.
“With Simkie, a new era began. Uday started choreographing newer dance pieces, both solos and duets. The partnership of Uday and Simkie soon became immensely popular and the duo was soon being invited to present numerous shows. In 1926, while touring Europe, he met Alice Boner, a Swiss painter and sculptress. Fascinated and deeply impressed by Uday’s dance, she did a series of clay models and drawings of Uday in various dance poses. They met again in 1929 in Paris and grew close. When he decided to travel back to India to seek out trained dancers and musicians for his troupe, she volunteered to accompany him. They set sail for India on 4 January 1930,” notes Ashish Mohan Khokar.
For months, Uday travelled across the length and breadth of India, covering “the Ajanta-Ellora cave paintings; the architecture of South Indian temples; the Madras art scene, apart from finding out about the Bengal masters, Odisha crafts and more,” notes Ashish.
Through his later performances, he would portray themes depicted on the Ajanta and Ellora caves, besides miniature paintings of the Rajputs and Mughals as well.
“His adaptation of European theatrical techniques to Indian dance made his art hugely popular both in India and abroad, and he is rightly credited for ushering in a new era for traditional Indian temple dances, which until then had been known for their strict interpretations, and which were also going through their own revival,” notes this profile.
After spending years in the West, he set up base back home in 1938, opening the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre in Almora to popularise classical Indian dance forms based on the recommendation of Rabindranath Tagore. Some of his early trainees here included the actor Zohra Sehgal, a young Guru Dutt and this is where he also met his future wife, Amala Shankar, a legendary dancer in her own right.
Sadly, due to a lack of funds, the centre had to shut down. Despite his disappointment, he would go onto work on his magnum opus and India’s first dance-centric film — Kalpana, in Chennai. Released in 1948, the film bombed commercially, but it was critically acclaimed. Kalpana became a reference point for many filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray.
After Kalpana, Uday once again toured the world with his troupe. Although some of the youthful energy had dissipated, the magic remained.
One such performance was ‘The Great Renunciation’ inspired by the story of Buddha in New York. Performed sometime in the 1950s towards the latter half of his career, here is what one journalist covering it had to say: “Frequently, when the curtain goes down on this ballet, one notices many members of the audience taking out their handkerchiefs to wipe away their tears. It may seem strange that in a country where the Buddha is little known, the story of his renunciation should produce a deep and moving effect and of course, the credit for the emotional expression goes to Mr. Shankar.”
The following decades saw him settle in Kolkata, training his own children Ananda and Mamata, alongside other dancers as well. He passed away on 26 September 1977, leaving behind a remarkable legacy.
“Uday Shankar’s legacy is both rich and varied. A whole new approach to dance, which was Indian without being based on any one classical style. A rare achievement at a time when most works were based on classical dances. He also gave mega productions a huge platform, on the lines of Bolshoi or Broadway,” notes Ashish Mohan Khokar for The Hindu.
As Uday once said, “More than anything else, art has no boundaries of nationality, race or creed. To create more understanding through dance as an art is the whole basis of my international performances.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)