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Away from performance arena
Photos courtesy: Mamata Shankar

December 19, 2016

Captivated as one is by the razzmatazz of glaring footlights and glamour of the sinuous bodies of live dancers on the proscenium stages, how does one visualize the long lost legacy of a past master performer? Can one reconfigure -- from the mere paraphernalia left behind -- the magic of the dazzling shows that have vanished into oblivion?  One wonders.

Uday Shankar, whose 116th birth anniversary was celebrated recently by Udayan Kala Kendra from Kolkata, was such a luminary - both as a performer and as a showman – best remembered by all those who had witnessed even his late flowerings: either in the magnificent shadow play on the Buddha, or in the scintillating dance-drama on Tagore’s Samanya Kshati (The Negligible Loss), or in the superbly-imagined Shankarscope that amalgamated dance, drama and cinema,  all rolled into one seamless whole.

In the exhibition mounted by Udayan, the effort was not only to present the photographs, musical instruments and props used by the maestro, but also to enlighten people about the immense contribution of Uday Shankar in the field of performing arts in general and dance in particular. He not only showed one a path in the world of choreography, having its unique nature of presenting the deepest thoughts in the most simple manner -- initiating a universal language of dance -- but also brought out the wealth of the  centuries old classical dance forms from the confines of our temples and courts of the princely states in India.


Here was a man who choreographed, painted, designed and executed costumes and head-dresses, scripted, produced and directed a unique film Kalpana that was literally a dancer’s dream in a bygone century. Here was a visionary who began an exemplary training institution in Almora - Uday Shankar India Culture Centre - producing future dancers and choreographers such as, Narendra Sharma, Sachin Shankar, Shanti Bardhan, Prabhat Ganguly, Padmini, Zohra Sehgal, Uzra Segal and Ushakiran, who went ahead to achieve glory in greener pastures, apart from Simkie, Amala Shankar, Kanaklata, et al., who remained rooted in his own troupe till the very last. And here was an intuitive genius - dancing then in salons of Paris - who would glance at the portraits in the book Mirror of Gestures gifted to him by its celebrated author Ananda Coomaraswamy and vividly imagine how the dancing icons of Kartikeya or Nataraja or other  deities would have performed before they arrived at their current stances or how each one of them would have performed  hereafter. His imagination ran riot and he would orchestrate some of his best known choreographies, using his own ideas.

Sadly, the exhibition lacked to present – despite the best of efforts – the wealth of musical instruments bestowed to the abode of Shirdi Sai Baba, or, for that matter, the melodious compositions of Baba Allauddin Khan’s instrumentation or the great Timir Baran’s orchestration. One also missed the valuable gifts that Shankar made in his last years to a close associate of his, who never parted with them, perhaps to the point of total loss. Nor was there any photographic recapitulation available from the memorabilia of the Buddha shadow play or Samanya Kshati dance-drama or Shankarscope experimentation mentioned above.

One only came to know that Uday Shankar’s consort, Amala Shankar, was still very much alive at the ripe age of 98. From her sick bed and at the cost of a losing memory, she apparently keeps composing and choreographing dances and dance dramas – with her moving fingers – in her vivid, lurid imagination. After Zohra Sehgal and now Mrinalini Sarabhai, she is the last of the Mohicans and one wishes her failing strength all the chutzpa and stamina, even now!

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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