Pavlova and her India links 
Based on materials from the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection 

Click on images for enlarged version
February 26, 2009  

As we just passed January, digging into my father's archives, I came up with two dates in January. Rarely has it happened that a great dance name is born and dies in the same month: Anna Pavlova is one; Rukmini Devi was another (covered in last column). And both were also connected to one another by dance. 

Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina was born on January 3, 1881. A sickly child, she had more than her fair share of enervating illnesses, which included measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria. Notwithstanding her deterring frailty she was, at the age of ten, accepted as a pupil at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg. From the very start, she demonstrated an exceptional facility for dancing, which enthused her teachers to give her more than the usual attention. On graduation, she was immediately absorbed as a group dancer in the School's theatre, the Marinsky. Within five years, she rose to become a prima ballerina, a stage which most dancers do not reach in a lifetime. 

 On the tenth anniversary of her joining the Marinsky, Pavlova appeared as the lead dancer in a new ballet La Bayadere. This is based on the life of a devadasi who is loved by a Hindu priest but she loves a gallant in the local raja's service. Pavlova’s involvement with India started from this time. 
Pavlova left Russia in 1913 and made London her home. She formed her own Company with which she toured the world more than once and until her last days. Everywhere she had enormous success and was heartily hailed and feted. More than any other single dancer, it is because of Pavlova that the art of ballet came to be known for the first time in many countries. Wherever she went she made it a point to mix with the local people, to understand their customs and habits and to see their dances. The countries, Japan and India, appealed to her most. And this is what led her to mount one of her most ambitious presentations Oriental Impressions, a compilation of short ballets interpreting the dance of these countries. 

On her very first visit to India in 1922, though she travelled a good deal, all that she could see by way of dancing was some crude and clumsy nautch in Calcutta. This is what provoked her husband and manager of the company, Victor Dandre, to lament, "There are no schools of dancing in India and it is an art in which nobody is interested." Imagine just under 90 years ago, this was the state of dance in India. How things have changed. 

The lasting impressions Pavlova carried of her visit was of the Ajanta frescoes. On return to her house in London, she deputed her staff choreographer Ivan Clustine to create for her, a ballet on the theme. Simply called Ajanta Frescoes, the effort remained amateurish, for Clustine had never seen the frescoes nor had any idea of Indian dancing. It was received varyingly. While the Daily Mail opined that it was "worked out with brilliance, with a colour of its own," the Saturday Review ticked it off with "Frankly, a tedious spectacle copied with a wealth of superfluous accuracy from the dreary Buddhist art of India." 

In India, Pavlova had occasion to attend a wedding, and now her attention turned to producing a ballet on this. A leading dancer with her, Harcourt Algeranoff was directed to pore over books and visuals thus to cull ideas for the wedding ceremonies and for the costumes and setting. Next began the search for a music composer. Right then Dandre discovered than an Indian, Commalata Bannerjee, was giving concerts in London. The audition clinched and she was commissioned to devise the music for the ballet which was given the straightforward name A Hindu Wedding. But she made a greater contribution than this. She was advised of a young Indian boy who was in London studying painting who also dabbled in dance and who might prove of help to Pavlova in designing the ballet. The boy: Uday Shankar! 

Thus Anna Pavlova discovered Uday Shankar, as a dancer, for he not only designed but choreographed A Hindu Wedding. He also choreographed another ballet for her, Krishna and Radha, in which Pavlova invited him to partner her on stage. Thus, India's greatest genius in dance was born. The two Indian ballets became part of Oriental Impressions and Uday Shankar, purely by accident, was launched on his dance career. 
Four years later, in 1927, another fortuitous development took place. A personable young Indian lady in London, Leila Sokhey, met Pavlova and bemoaned that though she had been very keen on learning dancing in India she could not make any headway. Pavlova immediately assigned Algeranoff to teach Leila Sokhey. Leila Sokhey was none other than Madame Menaka, a name she assumed when she returned to India and took to dance full time and created a school in Bombay and Damayanti Joshi was part of her household. 

So much dance history is here that it is a delight! When Pavlova visited India the second time in 1928-29, Menaka persuaded Algeranoff to work with her for a while. Together they choreographed and staged three dances, of which the most notable was Naga Kanya Nritya. 

Though she had reservations earlier, on her second visit Pavlova made bold to present her Oriental Impressions. In Krishna and Radha, the role of Krishna was taken by Algeranoff. Both this and A Hindu Wedding were received extremely well. When in Calcutta, Pavlova wrote to Tagore if he could suggest any of his poems on which she could make a ballet. He sent her one such poem and urged her to visit him so he may discuss how this translated into dance. Travelling to Santiniketan being far from easy, Pavlova could not make it and so the dance never materialised. 

In 1929 transpired another far reaching event. Pavlova and her Company had embarked from a port in Java en route to Australia and it so happened that the same ship was carrying, right opposite her cabin in fact, a young Indian bride Rukmini Devi and her husband George Arundale. The encounter clicked and on reaching Australia, on Rukmini's insistence, Pavlova entrusted one of her principles Cleo Nordi to teach the rudiments of ballet to Rukmini Devi. This made Rukmini Devi become yet another one to enter the world of dance because of Pavlova. Nor is that all. There are many other ways, too, in which Pavlova became a catalyst for Indian dance, then re-merging, to jell. That will constitute a study by itself!  

Indian dance owes a lot to Anna Pavlova who died on January 23, 1931. Maybe someday, the Indian postal authorities could think of honouring this dance great who moulded two great dancers of India by making a stamp on this great catalyst of Indian dance? 

Ashish Mohan Khokar remains devoted to dance history and heritage. With 32 books and scores of articles for magazines, newspapers, the net, he is actively helping further dance education and knowledge. A trained classical dancer, he was dance critic of the Times of India in Delhi and Bangalore, besides contributing special dance related columns to  India Today. He edits and publishes India’s only yearbook on dance called attendance, ( hailed by UNESCO as a model dance journal. His inheritance in theory and practice of dance from his parents, Prof. Mohan Khokar and Guru MK Saroja has vested in him authority and honesty; commitment and compassion to dance art. He is now keen on organising India's biggest dance archives created by his father ( and seeks support from all dance lovers.