Zhang Jun, a Chinese dancer who brought Bharatanatyam and Kathak to Mao’s China in the 1950s and inspired thousands to follow her passion for classical Indian culture over a celebrated, five decade-long teaching career, passed away following a long battle with cancer. She was 79.
Zhang first visited India as a curious 19-year-old in the early 1950s, when she was encouraged by former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to study Indian dance and culture and serve as a bridge between the two newly founded young nations.
She later helped found one of China’s most celebrated dance troupes, the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble, which still continues to travel across China and Asia performing classical dance forms, and is famed in this country for the high technical skill of its elite members.
For Zhang, India became a life-long, all-consuming passion to which she dedicated her life. She became a window into India for two generations of young Chinese, who would flock to her modest first-floor apartment in north Beijing to learn Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi.
“She was a bridge between two people, and she thought it was her life’s mission to bring the two countries closer through her teaching,” Han Xiao Xia, her only son, told The Hindu in an interview.
Zhang first travelled to India in 1954, the first of her eight visits to the country. She was 19 then, and an aspiring dancer who was studying Russian ballet in Shanghai, at a time when Soviet influence dominated Chinese arts.
She was sent to India as part of a group of young students after the then Premier Zhou Enlai decided to set up professional troupes that would perform Asian dance forms, which he saw as a way to bring China closer to its neighbours.
“She was very interested in ballet, so she was, at first, not at all keen about going to India,” recalled her husband, Wei Jun, who is 79.
“But after that first visit, she became very interested,” he said. “She decided that this was what she wanted to do. That experience changed her life”.
In India, Zhang met Uday Shankar, regarded as the father of modern Indian dance, and visited Indian schools.
On her return, she became an integral part of Zhou Enlai’s project, which had gathered momentum after the 1955 Bandung Conference, and helped found the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble in 1961.
Zhang became proficient in a range of dance forms, from Myanmar and Cambodia to Vietnam and India, performing for visiting heads of states and becoming one of China’s most talented dancers.
Indian dance, though, was her biggest passion. She returned to India on eight occasions, studying with Birju Maharaj and travelling to Kalakshetra in Chennai.
The only time Zhang stopped dancing was during the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when she was sent to the villages of northern Hebei along with her husband and forced to do farming work, like many in her generation. Classical dance was reviled as a bourgeois habit in those times.
The experience would have a deep impact on her life. Her son Han was born in 1969, and grew up away from her in Beijing. She was not allowed to return to the city to be with her son for much of the first seven years of his life.
“After the Cultural Revolution, she told me, do anything with your life but don’t do the arts,” he recalled.
Zhang went back to teaching in the more open 1980s, and would patiently educate young Chinese girls about the intricacies of Bharatanatyam and Kathak.
She performed for Indian heads of state when they toured China, meeting former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and former President R. Venkataraman in 1992 during their historic visits to China.
She had to stop teaching in 1996 when she began battling breast cancer. Despite being weakened by chemotherapy and three surgeries, she resumed her classes and fought her way back into good health.
“Even when she was ill, she was always thinking about dance, and about her students,” said Han.
When cancer returned in 2006, she would have to finally give up her great passion.
“Even until her last day, she was always thinking about the arts and dance,” said Jin Shanshan, a student of Zhang’s who went on to set up her own school in Beijing to teach classical Indian dance and is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.
“Even the last conversation we had was about dance,” Jin said. “She dreamt she could be healed and come back and do more, and continue transferring her knowledge to more people around her”.
Zhang was born in the town of Qichuan in central Hubei province in 1933 to a family of intellectuals. Her mother was a university teacher. She met her husband, Wei Jun, when they were both studying the arts – he later became a conductor of classical Chinese orchestras.
Wei said he always knew his wife had a special talent. “In our university days, she would wake up at 2 am to practice – before everyone else,” he recalled. “As a musician myself, and a lover of art, I was happy to do the housework to support her! I felt she worked really hard for the Indian arts, which was her life’s mission”.
Jin Shanshan said she plans to hold a memorial service in Beijing to celebrate Zhang’s life, and she hopes the Indian Government will also do its part to commemorate her contribution to the relationship between the two countries.
Her funeral was held in Beijing on January 8. Zhang had asked to be cremated with an anklet wrapped around her leg.
“Zhang told me that she wanted me to take her mission forward and introduce Indian arts to more Chinese,” said Jin. “She said, ‘I may not be there with you in person, but I will always be there in spirit’”.