The forgotten Pavlova of Punjab

Leela Bhaskarayya, Tara Chaudhri and Shevanti during their days in Ram Gopal's company, 1946.Tara Chaudhri was one of those pioneering dancers who went unsung. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Among India’s first generation dancers of the 20 century, whose names registered globally, one can easily recall Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal and Shanta Rao. They belonged to the league of those who dared to not just experiment but also eventually came to define what the world was to comprehend of Indian classical dance. While history remembers them, a few others eventually faded from public memory. One such name is Tara Chaudhri.

According to Ram Gopal’s autobiography, Tara hailed from a Muslim family in Punjab and came to South India in 1943. Beyond this little detail in the book which was rwritten long after they had split, Ram Gopal doesn’t mention her. Before 1943, Tara and her sister Rani took training in Kathak from Pt. Pyare Lal of the lesser-known Punjab Gharana, in Lahore and further trained in Manipuri.

Tara continued her training under Ustad Aashiq Hussain Khan. However, an old pamphlet from 1942 announces that she ran a dance school and taught ‘Bharata Natya’ in Lahore, the cultural capital of North India before Independence. The mystery remains whether she learnt the dance form prior to visiting the South in 1943. In which case, it would make her one of the pioneers of Bharatanatyam in the north.

‘Bharata Natya’ was also a generic term used for ‘Indian dance’ in that era. In 1943, Tara moved to Bangalore along with her brother A.R. Chaudhri, himself an established scholar and a critic, and became Ram Gopal’s principal dance partner. It might have been during those years that she also frequented Kerala Kalamandalam to train in Kathakali. The doyen Govindan Kutty briefly mentions dancing with her in his autobiography.

In 1946, Ram Gopal and Tara did an extensive tour of India and Ceylon. Their fame spread so far that the magazine ‘Film India’ (now defunct) edited by the notorious Baburao Patel from Bombay, that only covered cinema, carried an impressive feature on their tour in the December 1946 issue. Later, other dancers such as Leela Bhaskarayya and Shevanti joined Ram Gopal’s company in Bangalore.

For a few years, Tara made Madras her home and learnt Bharatanatyam under the grand old nattuvanar Meenakshisundaram Pillai. While in Madras, Tara ran a school and even danced in two Tamil movies. In AVM’s ‘Vedhala Ulagam’ in 1948, she danced to the choreography of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. In ‘Paarijatham,’ directed by K.S. Gopalakrishnan in 1950, Tara was seen in the dance sequences. In both the films, she shared the screen with the famous Travancore sisters, Padmini and Ragini.

Tara continued her performance life actively, travelling and teaching. A review written in The Straits Times on July 17, 1949, reads: “’Tara Chaudhri is, perhaps, even greater than Russia’s Anna Pavlova. Her sense of time and rhythm is perfect and her wonderful mastery of the various styles of Indian dancing puts her in a class by herself;’ So observed the poet Vallathol’.” Tara’s earlier training in Kathakali at Kalamandalam could justify why the great poet seemed highly impressed with her.

The Indian Cultural Delegation of musicians and dancers sponsored by the Government of India who visited and performed in the erstwhile USSR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in 1954, included Pt. Ravi Shankar and Pt. Kishan Maharaj among musicians, and Guru Gopinath and Tara Chaudhri among dancers. In a rare footage, one sees Tara getting off the flight and being welcomed with a leaping embrace from Maya Plisetskaya, one of 20 century’s greatest ballerinas.

The 1959 special issue of ‘Marg’ that covered Kathak claims Tara ran a dance school in Ceylon for sometime.

Veteran Kathak diva Maya Rao from Bangalore remembers Tara’s dance, “She was a wonderful dancer and a beautiful looker. She was Ram Gopal’s principal dance partner till she broke off to form her own company. This angered him endlessly. I met her in Ceylon in 1961. That was the last I remember of her. Seetaram, the owner of the famous Vandyke Studios in old Bangalore, was a great fan and her dance image that he shot was on permanent display in his shop.”

As times changed, neither the studio nor Seetaram exists and with that Tara’s images vanished forever. An image of Ram Gopal and Tara makes for the jacket of the now out-of-print book ‘Tandava Lakshanam’, published in 1971. Neither the publishers nor the editors credit the names of the dancers. That was the last the world heard of Tara.

She completely vanished from public memory in the last four decades. Her dream for a dance university in India remains unfulfilled. Nothing is known of her migration and settling down in Pakistan. She continued teaching there as well. She passed away, an anonymous death, last September in Karachi where she spent the last years of her life. The news of her demise reached everyone much later.

In a life that witnessed fame, fortune, success and strife, Tara’s is a story waiting to be grabbed by the silver screen. What remains of Tara are a few scattered images and vague anecdotes told by her contemporaries, based on their ageing memories. Having worked among some of India’s greatest names in the world of arts, Tara’s legacy is lost in negligent documentation and lack of archiving. For now, she remains a shining star on the far-stretched horizons of Indian classical dance history.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 8:24:08 AM |

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