Uday Shankar's Contribution before Independence era
Uday Shankar's major contributions arrived during the epoch preceding Indian independence at the fag end of Colonial supremacy, when Gandhi was in a congregation with the British, and Indians were vigorously nationalistic, provoked and avowed by the Congress Party. The renaissance phase in Indian dance, which began in the late 1920s, and flowered in the 1930s, irretrievably adds to his career graph.
Shankar presented his repertoire to Indian audiences during this tour, and captivated spectators who had seen no other stage dance in India. He took as his guru the Kathakali dance-drama master, Shankaran Namboodiri, he promoted classical dance in his Almora Culture Centre, with four gurus presiding over Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, and Hindustani Sangeet (North Indian Classical Music). But by 1935 during his second tour in India, a few Indians had seen the devadasi dance renamed as Bharatnatyam. They questioned whether Shankar's dance was Indian, were authentic, were classical, and should be called 'ballet.' Nationalism and colonialism are not mere external contexts for Shankar's dance and success; they are the context in the midst of which he performed, was reviewed, met his patrons, and created his repertoire
Uday Shankar's Contribution after Independence
Three years after Indian independence in 1947, when the national academy of performing arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, reconceptualized India's arts, the few classical dance styles and the myriad Indian folk dances became their focus. Uday Shankar's creative dance was not in the picture, though he had made India his permanent base since 1938. In the new nation that echoed unity in diversity infused cultural policy as well as politics. Dance was to be either classical or folk, and there was no room for new traditions, such as that of Shankar style dance. Pre-independence nationalism was transmuted, in the new nation, into affirmation of its ancient heritage.
Despite this preference, Shankar's new company, continuing his inventive choreographies and modernist presentations, toured in China, the United States, and Europe, straining financially in the post-war epoch The Uday Shankar Company persists today, based in Calcutta and led by his partner and widow, Amala Shankar. He even included Gandhi's social philosophy of unity and de casteism. The pieces thus proffered a new nationalistic energy for progress, following a decade of religio-mythological ballets and light folk-based divertissements. After independence Shankar took the Buddha as a theme, and later he experimented in his Shankarscope production with mixed media of film and dance. Well aware that dance was for its own times and for particular audiences, Shankar wanted to try new ideas, explore new media, and consider contemporary themes. This evolutionary perspective is continued today as Indian dancers and choreographers turn to new dance, and as some recognize Shankar's contribution to their modern art.
But strikingly, in the 1980s and l990s, there has been a sea change, and it neither obliterates nor replaces the suspicion and smug dismissal of Uday Shankar which characterized his latter years and the difficult decades which followed. This context is as much a part of his genius as is his choreography, his costumes and lights, his timing and rhythmic sense, his stage presence, and his reputation. There are, it turns out, not one, not two, not even three, but four or five twists in the Uday Shankar pathway, and they are integral to any analysis of his works, as well as to his continuing presence in the world of Indian dance and modern ideas of choreography in India.
'New directions in Indian dance' has become the guiding text for the current turn, which dates from the 1980s. Bharatanatyam, in explorations merging Indian forms such as yoga and chhau and the martial art of kalaripayyatt, and in experimental fusions of western and Indian dance, mainly outside of India in the United States and Canada, England, Germany, France as well as Japan and Australia. So choreographers, dancers, critics and presenters of new dance are also potential readers of Uday Shankar's biography, and need to have a sense of how Shankar created and choreographed his 'new dance for the 30s', which was seen then as 'authentic Indian dance' by Europeans, and many Indians, at least at first.
Uday Shankar's Contribution in breaking the concept of male is not for dancing
Thus, the history of European and Indian knowledge of India's dance forms becomes a site of controversy in the biography of Uday Shankar. That is, European experiences of 'oriental dance', from the often-seen ballets of the Romantic era, present the oriental dancer as a bayadere, related to the odalisque of eastern harems: a veiled, mysterious, sexually unexplored figure, rather more like the sylphs than the tawaifs and devadasis they were. 'Orientalism' wasn't based on subtle or sharp distinctions between the cultures of the East; rather these cultures were grouped together as 'other', and seen as dark, mysterious, spiritual, exotic, erotic and altogether enticing. Male dancers from the East were few and far between. As recent writings have suggested, such masculine presences did not fulfill the Orientals strategy of using females as symbols for submission to patriarchy and colonialism, a theme which preoccupied, consciously and subconsciously, much of European arts in the l9th and early 20th centuries.
In the 1930s the advent of a Male Oriental Dancer was quite a revelation. Suddenly there was an exotic oriental dark (but not too dark) dancer, who appealed to women. In the 1930s, while touring Uday Shankar and his company in the United States, Russian impresario Sol Hurok noted that Shankar's audiences were filled with women, who adored him. Shankar's major patrons were women, not surprisingly. His company, until 1935, had no other male dancers with his impact, until he brought in Madhavan, trained in the south Indian dance-drama form of Kathakali, to create and present his own solos as a tribal or warrior. But Shankar remained the sole male form of the divine, the god, on stage, in his productions.
In the realm of European and American images of the exotic oriental, Shankar's appearance on the Paris dance scene in the 1930s, and his huge success in France and Germany, as well as America, paralleled a fascination with Eastern spirituality and philosophy. The Theosophical Society was gaining followers in India and abroad. During the time that Uday Shankar's father, Shyam Shankar Chaudhury, was a Sanskrit scholar in Varanasi at the turn of the century, he became a follower of Theosophical Society leader Annie Besant. Uday's main partner in his first company was Simkie, whose mother was a member of the Paris branch of the Theosophical Society. In addition, a number of European women, of various descent and experience though none of them Indian, had promoted themselves to the Paris public as Indian dancers. Probably the most famous-and later notorious-was Mata Hari, who presented herself as a devotee of Shiva at the Musee Guimet in 1905. So when Uday Shankar appeared as an authentic Indian, but an accessible one, able to enter the demi-monde and other Paris society as a Brahmin, son of an Indian princely state's Foreign Minister, and a former partner of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, this was an entirely different presence, with legitimizing credentials in place. One of the issues which I have been researching is the fact that Uday Shankar, in 1924, could not succeed in London, despite these connections, but did find support and avenues for this dance in Paris.
Other Contributions of Pandit Uday Shankar
Uday Shankar, along with Slice Boner (Swiss sculptor), in 1931, created the first Indian dance company in Paris and subsequently embarked on an international tour lasting almost for seven years. Apart from that he worked with many other notable people as well in sync with Vishnudass Shirali and Tami Baran to find original ways of using music to accompany his new language of movement. His love, fascination and curiosity about movement, dance, music, costumes of various folk, classical and marital forms of various parts of India actually helped him in setting up 'Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre' near Almora in Uttarakhand.
He invited Thottam Shankaran Namboodiri for Kathakali, Ustad Allaudin Khan for music, Ambi Singh for Manipuri and Kandappa Pillai for Bharatanatyam. He actually formulated an extensive training program that incorporated the learning of numerous physical and performance traditions, creativeness, sensitisation exercises, visual art, music, group activities and even psychology. The centre unfortunately closed down within four years due to unavailability of finances.
His solo performances on Lord Shiva, Lord Indra and Karthikeya were well acclaimed works. He also produced an important film called Kalpana which has influenced film in India.