Pioneering moves: Uday Shanka was the father of modern choreography

Uday Shankar was the first to bring the concept of modern dance to India with his novel approach and works

December 07, 2017 04:28 pm | Updated December 09, 2017 12:38 pm IST

Stills from the 1948 film Kalpana, directed by Uday Shankar, to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival

Stills from the 1948 film Kalpana, directed by Uday Shankar, to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival


Today (December 8) is Uday Shankar’s birth anniversary. That a man is still remembered in the transient dance world, 40 years after he passed away (Sept 26, 1977), shows the impact he has made. What he did to make such a mark is what keeps him in people’s memory. But what about his legacy today?

Dada (or ‘elder brother’ as he is fondly called in the Indian dance world) was not born to dance. Infact, in the aristocratic household of Shyam Shankar and Hemangini Devi no one danced. The couple had four boys — Devendra, Rajindra, Uday and Ravindra. And each contributed to the art world, with two attaining stardom — Uday Shankar in dance and Ravi Shankar in music.

A young Uday Shankar also had a natural talent for painting, so he was sent to the London School of Arts, to learn under master William Rothenstein. But Uday's heart was not in painting and his tutor soon realised that.

His encounter with ballerina Anna Pavlova happened by chance. He had an opportunity to perform in a piece with an Indian theme, courtesy his musically-gifted cousin Coomalata Banerjee, who was also helping Anna mount a small show in London.

Rothenstein instructed the young Uday to return home and study his own culture, instead of aping the west. So he returned to India and went on a tour of discovery, which covered the Ajanta-Ellora cave paintings; the architecture of South Indian temples; the Madras art scene, apart from finding out about the Bengal masters, Odisha crafts and more.

Uday Shankar began to seriously explore the art when he realised there was acceptance and interest for Indian dance and music in the West. In India, such arts lay submerged under a long, colonial rule and no dancing was to be seen, except for Nautch, as the British dubbed all Indian dancing. Uday Shankar formed a company that would travel to the West (1930s-40s), until World War II put a stop , and then he focussed his energies on India, creating in Almora hills, (now Uttarakhand) India's first modern dance studio, named after him.

At Almora

It was here that the seeds of his legacy were sown. It drew a lot of students. His partners on stage Zohra Segal and Simkie taught at Almora. Cousin Sachin Shankar and gurus such as Kandappa Pillai, Sankaran Namboodri, Amobi Singh and maestro Allaudin Khan Sahib were also there. Students like Narendra Sharma, Shanti Bardhan and Prabhat Ganguli, all stayed in Almora to learn.

The Almora experience was short-lived for personal and professional reasons. It was here that Uday married Amala and Ravi Shankar married Annapurna Devi. The events were recorded in the school’s register (which is now a part of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, gifted by Dada).

From Almora in 1942, Uday Shankar went to Madras to mount his next big idea, the film, Kalpana . It took four years to make it. When it released, it ran only for a few weeks. India had just won Independence and such a film found few takers especially in the terrible aftermath of the Partition.

Uday Shankar then moved to Calcutta, focussed on the Shadow Ramayan and other huge ballet productions such as Samanya Kshati. His last mega work was Shankarscope, where the screen and stage merged, dance and theatre combined. In 1969, Anupama and N.K.Sivasankaran played key roles in this work, which was unique.

Uday Shankar was far ahead of his times. In that, he was both a genius and a visionary. His last years were sad. He died in 1977, a broken man, as his unconventional ways did not find the kind of acceptance he had hoped for. He was the first Indian dancer-choreographer on whom the postal department released a stamp.

Uday Shankar’s legacy is both rich and varied. A whole new approach to dance, which was Indian without being based on any one classical style. A rare achievement at a time when most works were based on classical dances. He also gave mega productions a huge platform, on the lines of Bolshoi or Broadway. Today, his daughter Mamata Shankar continues his mission. His musician-composer son Ananda with wife Tanushree also mounted ballet works . Dada has left his stamp on our times. Happy birthday.

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

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