Who Remembers Uday Shankar?

Joan L. Erdman


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Pic:  Uday Shankar and Simkie as Shiva and Parvati.

(The picture was taken taken during a season at the Gaiety Theatre in London in 1937.  It shows the expressive use of the face, especially the eyes, and the stylised hand movements called 'mudras', which are used to express the action and emotion of the dance.)


Famous in his epoch but no longer widely celebrated, Uday Shankar was India�s first modern choreographer and dancer. In August 1975, while I was exploring places for dissertation research on patrons and performers in Rajasthan, India, I met Devilal Samar, founder-director of a folk-theatre museum, the Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal in Udaipur.

Middle-aged, relaxed, and so knowledgeable in his field that he had written several books (in Hindi) about Rajasthani theatre and puppetry, Devilal Samar leaned back in his desk chair as I interviewed him. Wondering how he had come to found his unique institution, I asked him whether anyone in his family had an interest in the arts. He said, �No, they are all businessmen.�

�Then how,� I asked, �did you come to take performing arts as your profession?�

�Well, I studied music from age 16 or 17, but when I was at Almora, Dada taught me to be creative.�

�Who is Dada?� I asked innocently. For though I had spent three years of the last thirteen living in India, I didn�t know who he was talking about.

�Dada!! Uday Shankar, of course,� he replied.

Devilal Samar then told me about Uday Shankar�s career, beginning with his birth in Udaipur, dancing with Pavlova, years in Europe with his dance company, and Simkie, his French partner. Eventually Samar came to tell me of the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre at Almora, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he had studied. Referring to Uday Shankar�s company he said, �It was the first troupe.� Through this company �Uday Shankar has given a new horizon to Indian dance. His technique is a form in itself.� I found out that Uday Shankar was living in Calcutta, and Samar described him as old and paralyzed (a false rumor, as it turned out). During my dissertation research in Jaipur in 1977, I learned that he had died in Calcutta.

When I returned to Chicago, I searched for a biography or memoir of Shankar, so I could find out more about his career in dance. But there was none. Eventually I reached original materials in the Indian arts journal, Roopa-Lekha, and other publications about Uday Shankar during the peak of his career in the 1930s. And I was amazed at what I read.

UDAY SHANKAR was a big name, a star! He had received rave reviews in Paris and New York, London and Calcutta. His photos showed a stage presence and an aesthetic which was still appealing, and his dance repertoire was extensive and progressive. Why, I asked myself, did no one talk of Shankar in India today? Wasn�t he the forerunner of India�s great dance renaissance in the 1930s? Why did one of Delhi�s major presenters claim that her ballets owed nothing to Shankar, when it was clear to me that they did? Why did people say that Shankar didn�t know dance, that he had never been trained in dance? How could he have been so successful and so untrained at the same time?

When I completed my Ph.D. in 1980, I decided to take up the questions which had been provoking me about Uday Shankar. My research has since then spanned twenty years. During this time I have considered some major aspects of Shankar�s life and career in work I presented and published, such as his �translation� of dance for western audiences, the women in his life�his major patrons, his authenticity, and his impact on audiences in India and the west. Each issue contributes to the making of Shankar�s biography.

But a biography needs more than issues, it needs the continuity of a narrative, which may not follow a strict chronology if the material suggests otherwise. My recently completed memoir of Zohra Segal, now an acclaimed actress but formerly a leading dancer in Uday Shankar�s company, had led me to think about how life journeys have critical turning points, such as leaving one�s homeland, or rebelling against expectations. For Shankar one turning point that changed his life was setting out from India as a 20-year-old art student in 1920. Unlike the Segal book, however, which is a co-written memoir, the book on Shankar is my own account: a critical view of what he wrought and the contexts in which he succeeded and failed, and his impact on contemporary as well as continuing dance in India. So two major considerations in writing of Uday Shankar are the impact of this Indian choreographer and dancer on his times, and the significance of his life and works for our times.

When I started researching Shankar�s life and art in the early 1980s, he had recently died and was known mainly to those in India who had seen or heard of his splendid dance, as well as those notable artists out of India who encountered him in his prime years, 1931-1938. Many people, however, were unaware of his importance. They didn�t know that he was the initiator of India�s modern dance traditions, a key impetus for the reclaiming or renaissance of Indian classical dance forms, a founder of cultural centers for the study of dance and other arts, and the first Indian to perform in significant venues for Indian dance in Europe and North America. Nor did many people understand that western perceptions of Indian stage dance were shaped by the world tours of the Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Dancers and Musicians in the 1930s. And practically no one except Indian experts and a few western devotees knew that Uday Shankar was not only the elder brother of famed sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, but that it was because of him that Ravi Shankar had become a musician and artist of the world.

Of course the audience for a biography of Shankar extends beyond those knowledgeable few (whose numbers diminish with the passing years) to those who will know of his beauty, his genius, and his contributions only through books, occasional re-creations of his works, and his single film, Kalpana (Imagination). So in writing Uday�s biography I keep in mind an audience of readers from several generations, as well as from multiple cultures.

In addition, there is the importance of situating Shankar historically. His major contributions came during the period preceding Indian independence, during the last years of colonial rule, when Gandhi was meeting the British in his dhoti in London, and Indians were actively nationalistic, provoked and affirmed by the Congress Party. Uday Shankar�s father was his mentor and advisor; he inhabited a world of Sanskrit scholarship and Indian princely states, living comfortably both in India and in England. Uday Shankar, a Bengali Brahmin, was raised in a village near Benaras and in the princely state of Jhalawar, where his father held a series of official posts in this small Rajasthani kingdom. His education continued in Bombay and in London, where he went to join his father in 1920. So when he sailed back to India at age 30, after ten consecutive years in Europe and America, he had to rediscover his land. After a year he left India again, taking his family to Paris, the base for his first dance company of Indian artists, co-founded with Swiss sculptress Alice Boner.

So Uday Shankar was an expatriate, a Europeanized Indian, a self-made artiste, a non-observant Hindu Brahmin, and a handsome presence who loved women. His personal and professional life are an intertwined whole, so trying to separate private events from public ones is contra-indicated, although the whole is not without controversy. Still it is to India�s dance art that he made his most impressive contributions. He practically reinvented Indian dance single-handedly. He placed it on stage in technically up-to-date settings, realizing an aesthetic which affirmed the spirituality expected by western audiences and the Indianness claimed by Indian ones, as discussed in my 1987 article, �Performance as Translation: Uday Shankar in the West.� So why is it, in the 1980s and 1990s that few in India want to acknowledge his influence on their works?

The renaissance in Indian dance, which began in the late 1920s, and flowered in the 1930s, is irretrievably part of Uday Shankar�s story. In my article, �Dance Discourses: Rethinking the History of the �Oriental Dance�� I have addressed this interrelationship. Shankar found Balasaraswati in Madras during his 1933 tour, and invited her to join his company for a visit in Calcutta in 1934. He presented his repertoire to Indian audiences during this tour, and enthralled spectators who had seen no other stage dance in India except foreign visitors such as Denishawn, who toured in 1926. He took as his guru the Kathakali dance-drama master, Shankaran Namboodiri, and worked with him on successive visits to India. And he promoted classical dance in his Almora Culture Centre, with four gurus presiding over Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, and Hindustani Sangeet (North Indian classical music). But by 1935 during his second tour in India, a few Indians had seen the devadasi dance renamed as Bharatanatyam. They questioned whether Shankar�s dance was Indian, was authentic, was classical, and should be called �ballet�.

Three years after Indian independence in 1947, when the national academy of performing arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, reconceptualized India�s arts, the few classical dance styles and the myriad Indian folk dances became their focus. Uday Shankar�s creative dance was not in the picture, though he had made India his permanent base since 1938. For the new nation, unity in diversity (a kind of echo of the American e pluribus unum), infused cultural policy as well as politics. Dance was to be either classical or folk, and there was no room for new traditions, such as that of Shankarstyle dance.

Where was Uday Shankar and his dance in this 1950s scheme? His Almora Culture Centre was disbanded in 1942, with several of his artists moving on to form their own companies. Shankar went to Madras to make his only film, Kalpana, which he showed in India and abroad in 1948-49. Praised for its dance filming, critics and audiences found Kalpana�s story troubling. It was a pre-independence narrative, and contained reminders of what was alleged to tarnish Uday�s reputation. In brilliantly creative dance scenes and less scintillating dramatic ones, Kalpana satirized Indians who tried to retain lost power after independence and showed women in competition for his favors. When Uday Shankar looked for backing for his next dance company, he found it only in Bengal, his family homeland, where he and his wife Amala eventually settled in 1956.

Pre-independence nationalism was transmuted, in the new nation, into affirmation of its ancient heritage. Despite this preference, Shankar�s new company, continuing his inventive choreographies and modernist presentations, toured in China, the United States, and Europe, straining financially in the post-war epoch. The last decades of Shankar�s life were a complex journey of success and struggle, his fame eclipsed by national promotion of classical dance as evidence of an ancient heritage and thus a place for India among the civilized nations of the world. The Uday Shankar Company persists today, based in Calcutta and led by his partner and widow, Amala Shankar.

But strikingly, in the 1980s and l990s, there has been a sea change, and it neither obliterates nor replaces the suspicion and smug dismissal of Uday Shankar which characterized his latter years and the difficult decades which followed. What has changed? How can this social history be integrated into the bio-history of Uday Shankar? This context is as much a part of his genius as is his choreography, his costumes and lights, his timing and rhythmic sense, his stage presence, and his reputation. There are, it turns out, not one, not two, not even three, but four or five twists in the Uday Shankar pathway, and they are integral to any analysis of his works, as well as to his continuing presence in the world of Indian dance and modern ideas of choreography in India.

For instance, a Bombay critic, writing of Shankar�s new ballets, Rhythm of Life and Labour and Machinery, recognized that the choreographer had enlarged his thematic reach to include Gandhi�s social philosophy of unity and castelessness. The pieces thus proffered a new nationalistic energy for progress, following a decade of religio-mythological ballets and light folk-based divertissements. After independence Shankar took the Buddha as a theme, and later he experimented in his Shankarscope production with mixed media of film and dance. Well aware that dance was for its own times and for particular audiences, Shankar wanted to try new ideas, explore new media, and consider contemporary themes. This evolutionary perspective is continued today as Indian dancers and choreographers turn to new dance, and as some recognize Shankar�s contribution to their modern art.

�New directions in Indian dance� has become the guiding text for the current turn, which dates from the 1980s. It includes the creation of techniques, grammars and styles for a truly Indian modern dance (sometimes referred to as �new dance�). It is manifest in reconfiguration of ballets based on Bharatanatyam, in explorations merging Indian forms such as yoga and chhau and the martial art of kalaripayyatt, and in experimental fusions of western and Indian dance, mainly outside of India in the United States and Canada, England, Germany, France as well as Japan and Australia. So choreographers, dancers, critics and presenters of new dance are also potential readers of Uday Shankar�s biography, and need to have a sense of how Shankar created and choreographed his �new dance for the 30s�, which was seen then as �authentic Indian dance� by Europeans, and many Indians, at least at first.

Thus the history of European and Indian knowledge of India�s dance forms becomes a site of controversy in the biography of Uday Shankar. That is, European experience of �oriental dance�, from the often-seen ballets of the Romantic era, present the oriental dancer as a bayadere, related to the odalisque of eastern harems: a veiled, mysterious, sexually unexplored figure, rather more like the sylphs than the tawaifs and devadasis they were. �Orientalism� wasn�t based on subtle or sharp distinctions between the cultures of the East; rather these cultures were grouped together as �other�, and seen as dark, mysterious, spiritual, exotic, erotic and altogether enticing. Male dancers from the East were few and far between. As recent writings have suggested, such masculine presences did not fulfill the orientalist strategy of using females as symbols for submission to patriarchy and colonialism, a theme which preoccupied, consciously and subconsciously, much of European arts in the l9th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1930s the advent of a Male Oriental Dancer was quite a revelation. Suddenly there was an exotic oriental dark (but not too dark) dancer, who appealed to women. In the 1930s, while touring Uday Shankar and his company in the United States, Russian impresario Sol Hurok noted that Shankar�s audiences were filled with women, who adored him. And, in turn, Uday adored women, who offered themselves to him frequently and openly. Shankar�s major patrons were women, not surprisingly. His company, until 1935, had no other male dancers with his impact, until he brought in Madhavan, trained in the south Indian dance-drama form of Kathakali, to create and present his own solos as a tribal or warrior. But Shankar remained the sole male form of the divine, the god, on stage, in his productions.

In the realm of European and American images of the exotic oriental, Shankar�s appearance on the Paris dance scene in the 1930s, and his huge success in France and Germany, as well as America, paralleled a fascination with Eastern spirituality and philosophy. The Theosophical Society was gaining followers in India and abroad. During the time that Uday Shankar�s father, Shyam Shankar Chaudhury, was a Sanskrit scholar in Benares at the turn of the century, he became a follower of Theosophical Society leader Annie Besant. Uday�s main partner in his first company was Simkie, whose mother was a member of the Paris branch of the Theosophical Society. In addition, a number of European women, of various descent and experience though none of them Indian, had promoted themselves to the Paris public as Indian dancers. Probably the most famous�and later notorious�was Mata Hari, who presented herself as a devotee of Shiva at the Musee Guimet in 1905. So when Uday Shankar appeared as an authentic Indian, but an accessible one, able to enter the demi-monde and other Paris society as a Brahmin, son of an Indian princely state�s Foreign Minister, and a former partner of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, this was an entirely different presence, with legitimizing credentials in place. The fact that he found high class patronage, sponsorship, and venues for his programs were a function of both his genius and talent, as well as his connections. One of the issues which I have been researching is the fact that Uday Shankar, in 1924, couldn�t succeed in London, despite these connections, but did find support and avenues for this dance in Paris. Why?

This leads to arguments about the nature of success and fame in the life of a dancer and choreographer. Is talent enough? I doubt it. Are social and political connections sufficient? It seems not to be the case, though they provide some avenues for the competent. But both talent and connections, situated in a place and time when what is offered is appreciated, even catches fire, that is a magical formula. And to understand how the contexts, historical and geographical, provide such a welcoming venue, one must explore and understand them as well.

As a biographer I must also consider the history of India�s cultural presence in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. Who were the other dancers and dances which were seen by the same audiences as saw Shankar? What were the aesthetic bases for dance criticism in the period, and what was the infrastructure for dance in Europe? How can I compare that system with the venues and sponsors of dance in India during Shankar�s dance career? Nationalism and colonialism are not mere external contexts for Shankar�s dance and success; they are the context in the midst of which he performed, was reviewed, met his patrons, and created his repertoire.

Finally, there is the repertoire itself�a sine qua non� and audience and critical response to Shankar�s productions. In evaluating and analyzing Shankar�s opus, the same complexities of time are involved. What was modern in the 1930s is historical today. Was his legacy to be in touch with his times? In that case his son Ananda and wife Tanushree Shankar are carrying on his father�s new tradition in their Calcutta company. Or was his choreography so far ahead of its time as to be only understood now? Recently, viewing Uday Shankar�s Kalpana in Madras (now called Chennai), I sat amongst a dance audience from the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, which presents an annual dance conference every December. An Italian practitioner of Bharatanatyam and scholar of Indian culture exclaimed while watching Shankar�s dances, �This is new, it�s post-modern, it�s Indian! Everyone needs to see this now.� I am writing of Uday Shankar in the expectation that these questions are for our times as well as his own.


Dr. Joan L. Erdman is an anthropologist and writer who teaches at Columbia College Chicago and researches at the University of Chicago. She has conducted research in India over the last 35 years. This paper is a revised version, and was originally presented at the annual conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars, Barnard College, New York, on June 21, 1997. Originally published in Interchange, a publication of Dance Alloy.

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