How Amala Shankar witnessed the evolution of modern Indian dance and shaped it with her enthusiasm for life
The dance troupe led by Amala Shankar and her husband Uday Shankar was the central force of the cultural movement that introduced new dimensions in Indian dance and choreography
Imagine living a life that spanned the entire modern history of dance in India, traversing the transitions from nautch to oriental dance, to 'art-dance', witnessing the creation of a new dance language and the institutionalisation of training. Imagine being witness to the heaving of an entire system of dance, that too in a nation that was unshackling itself from colonial rule and trying to find an identity. What a gift to have been a part of the time when dance became cross-cultural, pan-cultural, borrowed, adapted, and transformed, at rates unparalleled in the past, and with consequences that were phenomenal. To anyone who has ever danced or played an instrument, or has seen a dance performance or listened to music, encountering the name 'Shankar' is inevitable. Uday Shankar and Ravi Shankar are names that are part of India's cultural history. But what about the women in their lives? They too created history by being a part of the same legacy.
Amala Shankar’s life (1919 – 2020) was in itself a study in the transition from the poetic lifestyle of erstwhile Bengal aristocracy, to the communist legacy; she had seen it all within her lifetime.
The danseuse — who breathed her last at the age of 101 on Friday in Kolkata — connected the north, south, east and west of the country to each other through her art. Her father took her to Paris at the tender age of 11 (a story she delightedly retold over and over again) to view the international colonial exhibition in the city. She remembered wearing saris when she was a little girl and pretended to fetch water, feeling like a dancer, as she lifted the pot and put it on her hip and swayed while walking. However, she recalled wearing a frock while in Paris, which is where she met the Shankar family for the first time.
“Oh! How handsome he looked!” she remarked heartily about her late husband, Uday Shankar, to a hooked audience that included me, when she was 97 years old. Her story left me with gooseflesh. The 11-year-old was invited to the Shankar household to play with the youngest in the family — Ravi Shankar. They wore marvellous clothes like Indian princes, and their mother gave young Amala a sari to don. And so began her fairytale in the world of music, dance, fashion, parties, agony and ecstasy.
Her husband was 19 years older to her, and women were wooing him by the dozens. The statuesque beauty of Amala was admired on stage, even though, momentarily, she did lose Uday Shankar to another woman. However, in his final moments, it was Amala who cared for him. Her journey in the world of dance with and after Uday Shankar is well documented.
Amala Shankar had a special bond with South India. Dr Jagadeeshan of KJ Hospitals, and his wife Meera, hosted her frequently at their home. Their son Keshav was particularly dear to her. She enjoyed visiting Chennai also because she had lived in the city for quite some time. Meera recalls how in the early '80s they were hoping to invite her son Anand Shankar for an event, but got connected to her instead. Amala offered to bring her troupe and did so, marking the beginning of a long friendship with the family. “Amala ji has a strong connection with Chennai, as she used to reside at Boag Road in Thyagaraja Nagar. When she relocated to Kolkata, she gave their residence to be used by the Communist Party," Meera tells me.
Theatre artiste Pralayan Chandrasekaran adds that Uday Shankar had given the house away to CPI at a throwaway price, even though many film producers and others were offering huge sums for the property that was close to actor Shivaji Ganesan's house. The building witnessed landmark productions and conversations that went on to define the history of performing arts in India. Uday Shankar was one of the founders of IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association), which has groomed stalwarts of Indian art. The dance troupe led by the couple was the central force of the movement where new dimensions in Indian dance and choreography were introduced by them.
Meera goes on to add how every time Amala Shankar visited them, "which was at least once a year, she would make it a point to visit her house, as she had a lot of remembrances there, including the footprints of her and her family on a plaque that was embedded there." "In fact, one of her most cherished visits was when my son took her to see her land and her old house, so that she could relive all her memories. She was extremely disappointed when she saw that the entire house had been demolished, but with great fondness, retrieved her plaques, brought them home, and repainted them. She also visited her tailor, as she felt that only he knew how to stitch her perfect blouses," she says.
Meera tells me how, on one of their trips to Darjeeling, they made a stop at Kolkata. Amala Shankar was ecstatic about their visit, and ensured that they met her entire family. "It was at this time that we also got to see the famous Uday Shankar Dance School with a first-hand narrative from her about its history and conception," Meera says.
She reminisces how Amala ji loved singing and dancing during her visits, and fondly recalls her showing them the shadow dance movements she had conceptualised, besides teaching rhythm to the boys. "Such was her closeness to our family, that I recollect when I was visiting Bangladesh, she was so worried for me that she ensured I connected with the Vice Chancellor of the Dhaka University so that I had somebody I could fall back upon.”
The danseuse loved Kerala food, especially jackfruit. "In fact, she had a combination of jackfruit, rice and milk, that, if presented to her, would make her light up. Another interesting food combination she enjoyed was rice, fish and mango," Meera says.
The artiste was extremely meticulous about her appearance as well. There would never be a crease on her saris, and the shawl was always draped to perfection. If she folded a sari, it would seem like it had been ironed.
Shyamala Surendran, a Mohiniattam dancer and teacher in Kochi, also fondly remembers her time with Amala Shankar. “I remember the workshop she did for us in 2003,” she says. “She invited young people to come up on stage in their everyday clothing, and told them dance is nothing but lifting of one's hands and swaying to music. She made us move in circles to the count of four, with a clap at one, and with our right hands stretched out and left hands swinging. The count changed as we moved, and before long, everyone was intoxicated with the flavour of dance!”
She is a proud owner of some paintings by Amala Shankar, which she had made with her fingers dipped in paint; she never used a brush.
“She was a terrific lady with a zest and enthusiasm for life that is unmatched,” Meera remarks. “Music and dance were in her being, and her talks greatly revolved around this, even in her anecdotes on life with her husband, as they would take their troupe around the world.”
A couple of years ago, I took her to a Kuravanji production by Bharatanatyam dancer Padma Subrahmanyam in Chennai, when she told me: “Dynamics of dance are as close to the dynamics of life as any art I can imagine. Dance changes with every body, with time, with country, with weather, and does not have one history but many," — a rather succinct summary of her life's profound trajectory.
All images procured by the author, except where indicated otherwise
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