Amala Shankar’s world of Kalpana

Amala Shankar  

Born in Jessore, now in Bangladesh, on June 27, 1919, Amala went to Paris as a 11-year-old with her father Akshay Nandy, a jeweller who was participating in the International Colonial Exhibition. In Paris, they met Uday Shankar, along with his mother Hemangini Devi and his brothers, including Ravi Shankar. Hemangini Devi took a liking to the young girl and so Amala’s father left her in Hemangini’s care.

One day, Uday Shankar asked Amala to perform a little piece, and so impressed was he with her skill that he choreographed ‘Kaliya Daman’ for her, which Amala performed in Belgium in 1931, thus launching her dance career and her long association with Uday Shankar as dancer and later, wife.

In the early 1920s, Uday Shankar had already met and performed with Anna Pavlova a series of ballets based on Indian themes with a distinct Oriental feel in costume and narrative. In the early 1930s, the dance troupe he created, ‘Uday Shankar and his Hindu Ballet’, expanded on this language as they toured the world.

Pan-Indian dance

In 1938, the dancer returned to India to establish the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre in Almora in order to create a new pan-Indian dance form that used European theatrical aesthetics with elements derived from various Indian dances.

Amala, by now 20, joined the Centre. Here, her contemporaries were French dancer Simkie, the legendary Zohra Sehgal and her sister Uzra Butt, Narendra Sharma, Guru Dutt and Gul Bardhan. But Amala was the one to grasp Uday Shankar’s style best and, till the age of 93, she kept this legacy alive, passing it on to a legion of students.

By 1942, the centre shut down. Uday Shankar now dreamt of making a film to capture the dances of India. He wrote a script about a dancer’s dream to establish a centre, a disguised autobiography. The same year, he married Amala, and the couple moved to Chennai to make the film.

Amala Shankar with Uday Shankar in ‘Kalpana’

Amala Shankar with Uday Shankar in ‘Kalpana’   | Photo Credit: arranged

Uday Shankar wanted to name the film Imagination but Amala suggested the Indian word, Kalpana. Uday and Amala played the lead roles, with their Siva-Parvati dance considered spellbinding. The 80 dances Uday Shankar choreographed for the film covered many social issues, including ideas such as man and machine, the role of education etc. The film, shot in Gemini Studios, was released in 1948. But it was far ahead of its times and crashed at the box office. Today, it is seen as an invaluable archive of dance.

After the film’s failure, the disappointed couple moved to Calcutta with their two children, Mamata and Anand. After a world tour in 1965, Uday Shankar established Kala Kendra in Kolkata and appointed Amala as its director. For 50 years, Amala worked here, teaching, performing, choreographing and mentoring three generations of dancers.

Devoted to dance

She possessed a strong will, was a disciplinarian albeit affectionate, and offered excellent training. She bore her son Anand Shankar’s death with fortitude, turning even more to dance. A great support to Uday Shankar, she was a pillar of both his choreography and administrative work.

When ‘Life of Gautam Buddha’ was staged as a shadow play, she not only did the lead role and choreographed it, but also designed costumes and painted colour slides for projection, so versatile was she.

Being the wife of a showman like Uday Shankar, she knew how best to project and direct dances. Daughter Mamata and daughter-in-law Tanushree followed in her footsteps and carried on the Uday Shankar style with innovative productions. An elegant and nimble-footed Amala performed with exquisite grace even at an advanced age.

The legacy

When I joined as the head of Rabindra Bharati’s Dance Department in 1980, I came in close contact with the dancer. For Uday Shankar’s 80th birthday, we planned to mount an exhibition of photographs of his works and name the dance hall in Jorasanko campus after him.

That exhibition later became the nucleus for the Centenary Exhibition I curated in New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in 2000-01.

Amala lent many valuable photographs and shared amazing stories of her life. We were invited to mount a small exhibition at UNESCO in Paris and another at Nehru Centre in London.

At UNESCO, Amala demonstrated Uday Shankar’s technique. In London, Amala spoke of their duets and of Anna Pavlova’s influence on Uday Shankar. In 2012, thanks to Pt Ravi Shankar telling film director Martin Scorsese about the film Kalpana, the latter was restored from a duplicate print preserved in Pune’s National Film Archives, and was screened at Cannes. Amala, at 93, walked the red carpet and said those famous words about being the youngest actor ever in Cannes.

As a dancer, Amala kept alive the elusive and faintly Oriental style her partner had created. With her demise, an era comes to an end. The last representative of a certain kind of imagination in dance choreography has passed on.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 2:07:07 PM |

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