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Uday Shankar: Father of modern Indian dance who never learnt how to dance

Uday Shankar, the pioneer of Indian non-classical dance forms who enthralled western audiences with his unique style, died this day in 1977.

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New Delhi: “I take the help of the modern to make others understand the ancient. I take the west to the east. I take the modern art of presentation to show the spirit of India. I am a selector of truth, of beauty. Whatever is beautiful to me is real art,” said Uday Shankar, India’s first dancer to take non-classical contemporary Indian dance forms to the West. 

Awards like the Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi and others were only a small recognition for Uday Shankar, who was devoted to propagating the Indian style of dancing fused with modern European themes. His greatest recognition was his popularity across both the West and the East, which got him many followers, including artistes like Zohra Sehgal, Simkie, and musicians Vishnu Das Shirali and Alauddin Khan Sahab of the Maihar gharana. 

“We affectionately called him Dada, not only out of respect as per the Bengali tradition, but because he was truly the ‘dada’ of Indian contemporary dance form,” dance historian Ashish Mohan Khokar recalled. “I used to bring lunch for him on sets during performances and he would encourage me to pursue art forms.”

“He said that artistes are not made, they are born… the line has stayed with me throughout,”  Khokar told ThePrint.

Also Read: Celebrating Shammi Kapoor, India’s Elvis Presley, through song and dance

The dancer’s tryst with destiny

Uday Shankar was born in a feudal family of Bengal based in Rajasthan on 8 December 1900. His family was not associated with any dance or art form whatsoever, yet two sons of the family — Uday Shankar and his younger brother Ravi, a sitarist — went on to mesmerise audiences across the world with their astonishing talents. 

As he was growing up, Uday Shankar’s father made him learn painting. Later on, he went to the Royal College of Arts in London to study painting. But his first love was dance, despite not having taken any formal training in the form. 

“My mother used to dress me as a girl as she did not have a daughter — and ask me to dance. I used to perform any movements that came to me. I did not know how to dance but I did, and I am thankful to my mother for that,” Uday Shankar said in an interview on Calcutta Television with Sombhu Mitra. 

The Indian ballet

Dancing was still looked down upon as a profession in upper-class Bengali families, and Shankar had no choice but to respect his father’s wish to learn painting. But destiny had other plans, as the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova discovered him in London in 1923. She was trying to experiment with classical Indian themes for a dance production. 

“I did not know ballet. Anna Pavlova saw me dancing and liked my style. She later gave me the responsibility to create something Indian — and I gave her ‘Radha Krishna’ and ‘Hindu Marriage’ which she really liked’,” Uday Shankar said to Mitra.

There was no Indian ballet, not in a cohesive sense, until Uday Shankar created it. Both the ballets that he created became immensely popular in the west. People had not seen anything like this before.

Shankar’s journey in dance had begun. He danced with Pavlova for a year, choreographing many pieces. During this time, he was fascinated by western dance styles, but Pavlova insisted he improve his Indian technique and style. Shankar said in 1953, “Anna opened my eyes when she told me not to imitate the western style as people of the west would much like to see all that was Indian in dances, characteristically connected with the Indian art.”

Soon, Shankar started his own dance troupe. He recreated various Indian mythological themes in his performances. For him, western dance was exhilarating for physical and emotional touches, but the Indian style was grand for its spiritual depth. 

He presented his creation, ‘The Great Renunciation’, inspired by the Buddha, in New York around the 1950s. “Frequently, when the curtain goes down on this ballet, one notices many members of the audience taking out their handkerchiefs to wipe away their tears. It may seem strange that in a country where the Buddha is little known, the story of his renunciation should produce a deep and moving effect and of course, the credit for the emotional expression goes to Mr. Shankar,” a correspondent said in an article (archived in Mohan Khokar dance collection, IGNCA)

Uday Shankar was fascinated by ancient Indian temple architecture and sculptures. The fascination grew stronger as he travelled widely across India. The painter-turned-dancer couldn’t look away from the immense beauty these Indian structures held. He tried to portray the themes of the Ajanta and Ellora caves, Rajput and Mughal miniature paintings in his performances. 

Kalpana — India’s first dance-centric film

After a successful journey in the West, he came back to India in 1938 and started the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre to popularise and propagate classical Indian dance forms.

He called on various dancers and musicians to teach Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, Kathak and other art forms. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of funds, the centre was closed down. From here, he went to south India to work on his dream project — Kalpana, India’s first dance-centric film.

The film did not do well commercially but was acclaimed by artistes. Kalpana, being one of its kind, was a historical reference point for a lot of film-makers. Shankar crystallised his dream of using both screen and stage to produce a magnificent spectacle through this film.

“I want no money, I am not after wealth, If I get enough to feed and clothe my family and myself, I could devote my entire life to spreading Indian cultural heritage,” Shankar had said in an interview in 1951.

An almost forgotten legacy

After Kalpana, Shankar again toured the world with his troupe, but people missed the presence of a youthful Uday Shankar who mesmerised everyone with his energy.

He had aged, and in the absence of his young dancing partner Simkie and musician Vishnu Das Shirali, people were not charmed as they were before. He distanced himself from his family in the last days of his life, and passed away on 26 September 1977.

On his death, he was remembered as a great pioneer of modern Indian dance, but as quoted by dance historian and scholar Mohan Khokar in Shankar’s biography ‘His Dance His Life’, “the next day, he was forgotten again”.

He lived to create a legacy of Indian cultural heritage around the world. In Uday Shankar’s words, “More than anything else, art has no boundaries of nationality, race or creed. To create more understanding through dance as an art is the whole basis of my international performances.”

Also Read: Music, folklore & passion — how BV Karanth transformed Indian theatre

Several quotes are from old, non-digitised newspaper cuttings, some of which did not have names of the newspapers.

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  1. World famous dancer Uday Shankar’s “KALPANA” Movie release date:1st January 1948 also movie duration: 2h.32m.15s., first danser of India. Uday Shankar’s wife Amala Shankar acting main role Uma.

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