This Thing Called Culture Dance

A new direction to dance

Amala Shankar  

Amala Shankar turned 100 just two days ago on June 27 and Nala Najan born on June 28 would have been 90 had he lived. Both important personages of a glorious past.

Amala Shankar needs little introduction to dance lovers. As dancer Uma in the iconic film Kalpana, with her sweet diction and beautifully etched dancing, she won hearts of many including Uday Shankar. Amala married Uday Shankar at Almora. Their two children are extremely gifted — Ananda Shankar in music and Mamata Shankar, a star in dance and later, films. That one family could have so much talent was God’s gift. Add, Uday Shankar’s illustrious brother Ravi Shankar, the sitar maestro, and two more — Rajendra and Devendra — choreographers and dancer — and you get the complete picture.

As with all artistic families, success brings its own responsibilities and baggage. So was with the Shankars but let’s focus only on the legacy. Over hundreds trained in dada Uday Shankar style, Amala being the main link, followed by Mamata and Tanushree who married Ananda. To keep afloat in these changing times the memory of a dance style is a major feat and Amala and family need to be credited for that. She along with dada made Indian dance reach the West in a big way and thus won for it acceptance at home too.

To mark this milestone in her life, her admirers and family have organised a three-day event from June 28 to June 30. Eminent personalities, including Sankarlal Bhattacharya, Goutam Ghosh, Nabanita Deb Sen, Jogesh Dutta, Debjani Chaliha, Thankamani Kutty, Kalabati Devi, Tejendra Narayan Majumdar and Alokananda Roy are expected to grace the event and be a part of Amala’s inspiring journey that is far from over. Her paintings and rare photographs will be on display at Udayan Kala Kendra, Kolkata. India salutes her.

In reverse gear almost, West to East, is the story of Nala Najan. On June 28, 1932, Roberto Theodore Rivero was born in Pennsylvania, U.S. As a child, he was exposed to the violin, piano and ballet but Bharatanatyam became his life. For this, he left America on a boat, going to Istanbul and from there, reached Malabar (Kerala) in 1947. Imagine! From Malabar, he took a train to Madras and arrived at the doorstep of Mohan Khokar, to whom he had been connected by the father of Modern American Dance, Ted Shawn, who told him, ‘In India, if anyone knows in-depth about all dances, not just southern or eastern forms, it is Mohan Khokar.’ Mohan Khokar, then also in Madras, was sharing one room with vadyar Dandayuthapani Pillai in Adyar, and that was home for Nala too. Mohan Khokar advised him to learn from one of the finest masters of the form, Guru Muthukumaran Pillai of Kattumannarkoil, Chidambaram.

Roberto Theodore Rivero was called Nala Najan

Roberto Theodore Rivero was called Nala Najan  

Good boy

This spry lad from America immersed himself totally into the art, dressing and talking like the locals, so much so that because he was such a good boy, the locals named him ‘nala’ (good in Tamil). But Mohan Khokar and vadyar Dandayuthapani felt the ‘nala’ was too short so they suggested he add ‘Raja’. It got corrupted to Rajam. Which Nala hated, so he stuck to Najan, to strike resemblance to Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam. Thus, Nala Najan was born.

His training in ballet gave him immense balance and his sprightly frame was a big help in controlling each limb. His Bharatanatyam was exquisite and his costume, regal. His many years spent in India, gave him knowledge and authority that he later used, when he turned a critic in New York. He first helped “Papa” Ted Shawn at Jacobs Pillow by introducing many Indian talents and some even got to perform there thanks to Nala Najan. His stay in Madras coincided with the revival of Indian dance. The 1940s were tumultuous; new talents and trends were appearing on stage. Rukmini Devi had just debutted in a big way; Bala held sway. He came in contact with all great dancers of the time: Bala, Ram, MK Saroja, Kamala Laxman, Kausalya, Raji. He grew especially fond of Saroja and her family. He followed Saroja-Mohan Khokar to Baroda in 1950, where the couple were at the MS University. E Krishna Iyer came to Baroda to visit the Khokars (on the invitation of Prof. Khokar, Head of Dance Department) carrying a stone grinder, weighing 30 kg, sent by Saroja’s mother. Such was the greatness and affection of scholars those days.

Nala Najan belonged to the Indian soil. His soul blossomed here. Back in New York, he did not succeed as a dancer. First, men dancing those days were an oddity, even in New York of the 1950s. Secondly, opportunities for “Hindu” dances were few. He survived in the Sixties, helping Papa Shawn and Sol Hurok organise tours of visiting Indian artistes. Engagements in university circuits kept him busy through 1954-62.

By 1962, Nala Najan was ready for another trip to India. This he did to learn Chhau. His dexterity made him learn an unknown form then, the Seraikella Chhau. He went to the village of Seraikella, where the Maharaja welcomed him and he was a State guest staying at the palace. Many years later, Nala Najan was instrumental in the Seraikella Chhau dancers touring the U.S. He was the first promoter of the form and enlisted Sol Hurok as impresario to help the form reach many in the West. His introductions and commentary on each dance form was useful because Indian dances then were not well known and clubbed with Oriental or Hindu dances, the snake-charmer types. Nala Najan put India on the world dance map academically, it can be said without hesitation.

The writer, a critic and historian, is the author of several books and edits attenDance, a yearbook


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