Legendary dancer Amala Shankar has reinvented herself as a painter. NITA VIDYARTHI

Amala Shankar is an ardent admirer of beauty and a worshipper of Nature; not as translated into abstract terms, but as Nature is. At 95, the eloquence of step, pose, poise and serenity has not dimmed but sublimely headed towards interpreting the depth of her inner self through her nail and finger paintings. Amala Shankar, the legendary dancer-turned-self-taught painter, has started life anew.

Most of her paintings bear the imagery of caves, life of the Buddha, Utopian landscapes and Jesus Christ. Portraying the state of mind, the essence of her work is spirituality. The feted dancer, talks about how she turned to painting.

On her beginning as a painter

In my childhood, I used to draw ‘Alopna’ (elaborate designs with rice paste using fingers), which were done in villages, very well. But I never imagined that one day I would draw or paint. I used to sketch often but never painted or learnt the art. My husband Uday Shankar was a painter, trained at the Royal College of Arts. Romain Rolland and William Rothenstein used to admire his work.

In 1956, to celebrate the 2500 birth anniversary of Lord Buddha, my husband was commissioned to stage a shadow play by Bidhan Chandra Roy and subsequently by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Shankar asked several slide makers to prepare slides which when projected would cover an area of 40ft by 35ft. Several thousands of rupees were spent to prepare slides of palaces, landscapes and architecture. But when projected, the film filaments were visible and the shadow appeared muddy. He was at a loss as that would not produce a shadow effect. At that point, I took some black and white liquid watercolour casually and started painting trees and paths through them, with my fingers. Now, when this was projected on the screen, the shadow looked beautiful. It had a three-dimension effect, increasing and decreasing in size. The path through the trees appeared as if one could walk through them. I made Siddhartha hold a branch of a tree and Shankar was very happy to see it after this slide was projected. I got started and drew 82 slides of matchbox size and these were projected with the help of a special camera and lights to produce heavenly effects. From then on, whatever paper I could lay my hands on — advertisement papers, souvenir covers or ivory paper — I would just paint and draw. Even then I did not imagine that I would ever be able to paint so well. Shankar used to stand behind me while I painted and would remark, “My goodness! When we learnt painting we would check the perspectives, light source and other attributes but you are painting freely.” I had never ever thought of the subject. It just came automatically while painting. I would paint our daughter Mamo (Mamata Shankar) while she was asleep. I had also painted the slides used for the production “Samanya Kshati”, we staged on Tagore’s Centenary.

On her exhibitions… Rekha Mody of Stree Shakti had organised one in 1992 perhaps in Kolkata and Delhi with a few of my works. And I could not believe it when some works were sold for Rs.7,000 and Rs. 9,000. I thought they would not be worth more than Rs. 250 or 300. Sonia Gandhi and Khushwant Singh have seen my paintings in Delhi. I am thankful to Rekha because she was the one to initiate me into the world of painting. It is very fulfilling to draw a picture which reflects my philosophy. For instance, there is one that has a stone Buddha in the backdrop with lovely architecture, pillars and caves. He is human, not god. There sits a scantily dressed, poor woman with her child. A strong beam of light falls on her, highlighting an eternal relationship blessed by supreme light.

On her style… Sometimes I have drawn on paper lying on the table and would often add something-if I felt like while moving around. For colours, I use anything on which I could lay my hands on. While eating paan, I even used the chuna (slaked lime) to paint on the walls.

On dancing and painting… In this world, I am like a grain of sand. I don’t think of that. I don’t think whether I shall live like a dancer, painter or a mother. The flower is for God’s ‘Puja’. Dance is the flower and spirituality is its fragrance. The emotion — ‘bhav’ in the painting, which attracts people, is the ‘Pran’ — life of the painting. I did not instil it but the Almighty has. If through these paintings I can convey these thoughts to people, then that is my message.