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Uday Shankar in Almora
- Bharat Sharma
Photos courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives

May 23, 2024

(Some thoughts on antecedents of new dance pedagogy in the 20th century as part of Liberal Education... written in 2022)

I will begin with a quote from a brochure brought out for a festival organized in 1984 in New Delhi by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, commemorating 60 years of dance debut of Uday Shankar in London. The festival - Uday Utsav - brought together a full gamut of artists emanating from the legacy of Uday Shankar. Performances and workshops were organized in Siri Fort Auditorium and National School of Drama. In this brochure there was a significant summing up of Uday Shankar's legacy titled 'Almora- a creative peak', written by Professor Joan Erdman, an eminent Anthropologist from University of Chicago, who had by then done extensive research on life and art of Uday Shankar. I quote:

'Uday Shankar's Cultural Centre in the Himalayan foothills at Almora offered to performing artists in India an opportunity never available before: to come to the mountains, away from the demands of home and family, to work from morning until evening developing the mind and body as a creative artist, to join a group of experts in music and dance who wanted to work together for the traditions of India's authentic arts, and to believe, as they did, in the worthiness and necessity of creative artistic work. No more was dance a despised profession for these artists. Instead, it was the chance to recreate with their whole selves the aesthetic designs and actions which made up ballets and performances.'

For Uday, the Centre at Almora was also an opportunity - to test ideas about body movement, about creativity, about the relationship between India's dance traditions and his inventive choreography, and about the conjuncture of the arts of painting, poetry, music and dance. While the discipline of daily classes, drill, traditional study, and slow progress was not Uday's background or his own direction, he recognized the need for students to have order in their study of the arts, as well as variety, and bracketed each day with an opening class and an evening one in which students presented to him their created choreographies. Between these two classes with Uday, students and troupe members worked with the famous Guru Shankar Namboodripad, Uday's own guru, whose Kathakali expertise had earlier been recognized by the famous founder of the Kerala Kalamandalam, the poet Vallathol; with guru Kandappa Pillai of Tanjore, teacher of Lakshmi and of Balasaraswati in South India; with Guru Amobi Singh, whose gentle Manipuri was blended with Kathakali in so many of Uday's dance creations; and with Ustad Allauddin Khan, master of music made more famous by his splendid students Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Zohra Mumtaz, trained in the Mary Wigman school of dance pedagogy, Vishnudass Shirali, trained under the music reformer Vishnu Digambar Paluskar at his Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Bombay, helped formulate the syllabus for the five-year course. Not only was Uday creative in everything he did, he was also able to attract to his Centre these great teachers, who came together to legitimize and substantiate the first attempt to develop a new tradition of Indian dance.

It is from the students and troupe members at this school and Centre, that today's most creative dance in India flows. If you talk with them about their experiences learning from Uday and the great gurus of Almora, you will find that they say Uday knew how to teach creativity. It is an astounding thought - one always assumed that creativity is inborn and can only be cultivated. Only in a free, permissive, and aesthetically special environment could the creative impulses, which existed in all human beings, be released. What Uday taught was how to release creativity, through disciplined thinking and movement and the feeling of freedom.'

In this Uday Utsav in 1984, Narendra Sharma's dance company Bhoomika presented 'The Flying Crane' - a fresh version of a group choreography that was first performed as a student choreography at Almora in 1941, and continues to be in Bhoomika's repertory. I was one of the dancers in the group. Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre was set up by Narendra Sharma in 1972, and this year is the 50th year of its founding. Narendra Sharma happened to be my father, and I took up the mantle of becoming the Director of Bhoomika after his sudden demise in 2008.

This January in 2022, I moved on, and took up the position of Artistic Director of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi. Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra is celebrating 70 years of its founding this year. Incidentally, their Kendra Dance Company was initiated by my father in 1957, when their founder-director, Sumitra Charatram invited Narendra Sharma to choreograph a ballet on Tulsidas's Ramayana - a two and half hour spectacle. This Ramlila continues to run in Delhi during festive season around Dussehra days. Interestingly, this Ramlila has certain features which can be tracked back to another Ramlila that Uday Shankar had presented and choreographed on the slopes of a hill in Almora - in the form of a giant shadow play. In that Ramlila, Narendra Sharma played the role of Jatayu, amongst many cameos, as a student.

These round-about linkages were necessary to make to take forward my submission here. Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora from 1939 till 43, was no doubt an extraordinary 'creative peak' of the artist in every sense of the term. Narendra Sharma joined in March 1940 at the age of 14. Born in an orthodox Brahmin family in Bulandshehar, he was brought up in village Akarabad near Aligarh. Dance was a despised profession then, and he had to fight lot of prejudice at home. There is a fascinating story about the process by which he got admission at Almora centre, which I do not plan to dwell here. What is important is how Narendra Sharma saw this novel experiment first hand, in his teens. He has left behind a set of papers, notes and diaries which he maintained during his days as student, which gives insights of the pedagogical process. The impact of these years were everlasting on him. In the last long video interview I conducted with him - a week before his demise in Delhi - he owed his entire life and artistic journey to this unique experience. He died with Almora on his lips!

I again quote: 'Dance is in you, and we only try to help you bring it out. Technique and practice can make the movements and expressions perfect, but they can never give you what you do not possess, and sometimes your talent remains latent awaiting only the right inspiration and inducement to come out and function. We will try and give you the proper outlook and understanding, so that even if you do not become dancers, you will be able to use this method in any other walk of life and will help maintain the rich heritage of art and culture in India.'

Above quote was by Uday Shankar from a brochure that was printed to attract students as well as raise funds for the upcoming institution, and I found that nicely tucked away, preserved in an envelope in Narendra's memorabilia he left behind.

These thoughts, formulated around 1938, were pretty path-breaking, even by international standards. Core to this was an institutional support for artistic processes of dance education, as each student began to unfold his or her own true potential, and possibly a style of self-expression. This brochure has other details. United Province government had provided 94 acres of land in Simtola Forest. Initially several houses and facilities were rented at Ranidhara, between Almora and Simtola, to begin work before the new campus came up. A central Forest Studio was first set up, first of its kind in India - all wooden, with green rooms, lighting grid and capacity to accommodate up to 300 for performances.

A five-year course was offered in dance that included inputs in technique; improvisation and composition; traditional Indian forms; Indian and Western aesthetic theory; lighting design; stage-craft and costume design; drawing and sketching; music composition and orchestration; and participation in center's productions. Plans were afoot to set up full-fledged departments in music, theatre and cinema. In short, the vision was grand, and quite unprecedented for the times. The cultural center was set up as a 'Non-Profit Trust' and envisioned as a 'National Institution' encompassing all aspects of performing arts with a focus on dance.

Before going further, it will be pertinent to briefly look into genesis of Dartington Hall, where the idea of Almora center was seeded. In 1925, Leonard Elmhirst and his wife, Dorothy Whitney Straight, a British-American wealthy couple, had bought a crumbling 1200-acre estate having ancient castles in south Devon, near Dartington, England. Leonard, an agricultural scientist, earlier had worked with Rabindranath Tagore in his Shantiniketan, near Bolpur, Kolkata, on developing innovative ways of agriculture that led to developing Sriniketan. This experience helped him to envision Dartington Hall as a hub of liberal education and rural reconstruction. Over the years, they invited artists, scientists, philosophers to work on innovative solutions to human problems.

This happened between the two World Wars, when Imperial Europe was shaken from its foundations. While Bolshevik Revolution (1917) had taken place in Russia, reverberations were also felt in the US with the stock market crash (1929) leading to Great Depression. Mass movements had begun to stir against oppressive colonial regimes, be it India, China and South East Asia. Fascism was on the rise, shaking from foundations all kinds of political and economic models.

However, one particular performing art movement that has continued to fascinate and intrigue connoisseurs and art lovers for more than a century is the Diaghilev Era in Paris, the cultural capital of the West then. Major migration of classical dancers, choreographers, composers, painters, designers had taken place from St. Petersburg, Russia after Bolshevik Revolution. Theatre des Champs Elysees (built in 1913) in Paris became a critical site where ground-breaking works were created through collaboration between finest artists of those times, beginning from Igor Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'. These reverberations reached the US west coast too.

In the same Theatre des Champs Elysees appeared Uday Shankar's newly formed dance company in 1931, supported by Swiss sculptress Alice Boner. Very first performance was an instant hit, and the company went for path-breaking international tours for years on end in Europe, the US and India. Uday Shankar's magnetic and legendry stage presence was seen as 'godly', and he was considered the earliest ambassador of India's dance traditions in the West, and a bridge in fraught East-West relations. He became a shining star of cultural renaissance in South Asia, at a time when dance itself was searching for an identity, rising from neglect for centuries. In his creative quest he made innovative dances, with themes ranging from mythology, decadent capitalism, nationalism, social conflict and many more.

It was in 1936, that Leonard Elmhirst invited Uday Shankar and his dance company for a 6 month residency to Devon, England. By that time, Dartingon Hall was buzzing with eminent artists and intellectuals. Quite a few had come there to escape from the violent and depressed situation in mainland Europe, including German modern-dancer Kurt Jooss and theoretician Rudolph van Laban, Russian playwright Michael Chekov and others. Elmhirsts wanted the vast estate at Dartington to be a unique center for churning of minds in the arts.

Presence of Uday Shankar and his dance company at Dartington became ominous. The maestro was travelling for long. An urge to go back home became strong. That's when an educational and cultural center in India was formulated. After a scouting tour, Almora was chosen as an ideal site, given its sylvan surroundings and climate.

For administration, the map of United Province in British India was re-drawn in 1921, that encompassed current day Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Almora district was part of Kumaon division with capital at Almora. Several old Hindu temples were worshipped by locals in different parts of the district. Spectacular view of the mountains, including peaks of Nanda Devi and Trishul, made people to compare the scenery to Swiss Alps. Swami Vivekanand, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi had visited in the past for meditating and creative pursuits, and there were many sanatoriums given the conducive climate, especially for treatment of Tuberculosis. Over the years, poets, writers and pilgrims from India and abroad set up summer homes.

Narendra formally began classes on March 10, 1940 although the first batch with 21 students had begun work on 3rd March. He immediately saw that entire community in campus was in awe of Uday Shankar. And he would always be seen dressed elegantly and neatly to match his stature and image. Most of them used to address him respectfully as Dada (elder brother). For Narendra, one of the youngest in the campus, Dada also became a father figure. The campus community was diverse and multi-cultural. People came from different regions of the sub-continent, spoke different languages, practiced multiple religions and included foreign residents. Gender relations were progressive and dignified.

Main work happened in all-wood Forest Studio designed by Dada. One side wall of the studio had wooden racks that had musical instruments of all kinds - drums, string and wind instruments, trumpets and metal gongs - collected from Dada's tours in India and S E Asia. There were no Western instruments.

Classes began at 8am sharp after breakfast. First morning class was taken by Dada himself - the technique class. A ritual would then follow. Dada had forbidden everybody to touch his feet as a mark of respect, but he reserved the right for himself to touch the feet of his teacher. Dada would walk down every day to his teacher's quarter of Guru Shankaran Namboodripad, and he would kneel down to touch his feet to take his blessings. After that he would walk down to Forest Studio and present himself to the students, elegant as ever, whereupon everybody bowed down to him with a namaskar. And the technique class would begin with musicians in attendance.

Narendra often described the visual aura of these morning sessions which bordered on the mystical. From the glass window on one side, beckoned the Himalayas with morning sunshine playing hide and seek through the tall pine trees. A gentle breeze with swishing sounds from the outside, through large windows, would drift in the studio. Seldom clouds would float around in studio. Natural light filled the space. Dada was also very particular about the dress. He designed an attire - a combination of shalwar (an adaption of peshawari style) and bandi (an adaptation of kathiawari style without buttons), mostly cotton in white. This became a permanent feature as practice dress. A serene atmosphere would grip each session.

First was a series of walk exercises - to be done in a circular formation by entire class or random patterns on the entire floor area. These would begin with an analysis of the walk, a fundamental and natural unit of human locomotion. Thereafter variations of walking patterns took place on different beats. At later stage, several stylized gaits were introduced of characters that were depicted in his dance repertoire - of gods and goddesses, mythical heroes and ordinary people. Dada believed Indian dance had unique articulations of hand and arm gestures. He was aware of the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy's articulations on 'mudras' and observed several traditional forms closely in India. Yet he found it necessary to build a separate 'language' of the arms and hands, with their reflection on lines of torso, legs and standing postures, that were distinct from the traditional forms and yet retained an Indian flavor.

Another series was made around simple steps. On beats of drums, steps were taken by gentle stamping in various combinations of right and left foot. Dada was against hard stamping - he was clear that it affected the spine. With steps were added little dips in knees. And then a series of permutations would follow on different 'taala' structures. As students would get in these motions, Dada would add hand gestures, hip, shoulder and torso movements. With accompanying drums, it became difficult to stop the class at times.

Next classes after Dada's were taken by Shankaran Namboodripad (Kathakali), Amobi Singh (Manipuri) and Kandappa Pillai (Bharatanatyam) - on different days according to a time-table. All three were masters of their times, and with deepest regards Dada had invited each personally to teach students. However, there was a protocol that was adhered to. Dada had made it clear that students were not expected to become masters in their styles, but gurus were supposed to offer a deeper feel of the craft of each style in the strictest possible regimen. As such, Kandappa Pillai taught select 'adavus', Shankaran Namboodripad taught elements of 'purappad' and 'abhinaya', while Amobi Singh taught basic steps from Manipuri 'Sankeertan'.

Technique and Improvisation class at Almora
Technique and Improvisation class at Almora

In the evenings, in improvisation classes, Dada would tease out movements from students what was learnt from great masters of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri. He would then pick few elements from each, and tell students to evolve a different set of variations from those movements. Next, Dada would sit down in the center with a large drum, with live orchestra under the baton of Vishnudas Shirali, the music composer, in attendance. Students, and often Dada's troupe members, would assemble in a circle, and on drum beats Dada would give instructions to the group to move in different ways - walking, sitting, stepping on different rhythmic patterns, hand gestures and so on. He would then give themes, concepts or puzzles to solve. These sessions generally were conducted after early dinner, and as the group would warm up, improvisations would last till late in night, exhausting them all.

Right from day one, Dada had made clear that students were supposed to make new dances. This innovative approach was the core principle on which Almora was set up. And there was to be an Indian way to that process - a deep respect for the cultural heritage, and yet be forward looking in creative pursuits. All methods for improvisation and choreography were directed towards this. I will now like to discuss making of 3 dances which Narendra did as a student to explain this core idea.

Narendra Sharma in Composition class at Almora
Narendra Sharma in Composition class at Almora

Narendra's first attempt to make a dance was a disaster. Narendra made a dance that tried to emulate some movements from Dada's Shiva Tandava. After finishing his presentation in composition class, there was a deafening silence. Dada came over to Narendra and slapped him, and shouted, "You are not me. Don't try to imitate me. Find your own dance! Find your own voice..."

Next new dance came in the form of 'Divine Musicians'. This was a straight outcome of learnings from Guru Amobi Singh - the practice of 'kartaal' from Sankeertan he taught in Manipuri technique class. Narendra was very much drawn to the quiet demeanor of the master; his gentleness was contagious. Years later, Narendra explained that he was drawn to the fluidity, roundedness and suppleness of articulations of the arms, and the punctuations of 'kartaal'.

Next choreography of Narendra, in the third year, was a major breakthrough. Dada showed to students a short 8 mm black & white, silent film shot during his visit to Java and Bali, Indonesia along with Zohra Begum to see the Ramayana practiced by local community. In the clip, Javanese dancers demonstrated dance sections from their repertoire. Narendra was struck by the hand gestures and expressions of the dancers. Narendra found the film as a good take off point. He was particularly fascinated by the hand gestures, and began to improvise to explore fresh possible gestures, focusing on the wrists, knuckles, fingers, elbows and the shoulder joints. Soon he realized his arms were taking a shape of wings.

Around that time, a new student had joined the center - Anne, a British girl, who used to come in her spare time to Forest Studio to practice barre work from her training in Classical Ballet. After observing her workouts, he ventured forth to ask Anne whether she would like to join him in making his new dance. She agreed. So Naren showed her what he had worked out with his hands, and combined with her toe movements, he found a possibility of moving from one point in space to the other.

Having discovered a form, Naren had to look for a suitable storyline to fit his movement ideas. He had often seen Cranes flying across the sky across Almora and few came grazing on the campus. He began observing their gaits, behaviour patterns, head movements, the way they flapped their wings and mating rituals. A simple narrative was built - Cranes come flying across in a V-shaped formation; they descend near a pond; they walk around looking for fish; they bathe; they frolic. Then a male and a female find a corner for a romantic interlude. Soon a hunter comes in hot pursuit. While others fly off, the hunter kills the male bird. At the end, female is found crying at the death of her partner.

For the performance this time, the presentation in Forest Studio was elaborate. Gentry from town came, including scientists Boshi Sen and Gertrude Emerson. All students were geared up to show their new dances. As the show began, each presentation went out smoothly. And so did Narendra's 'Flying Cranes'. The dance was an instant hit. During discussions thereafter, Dada became emotional and declared, "Now I feel something special is emerging from Almora!!"

Thereafter, ripples of 'Flying Cranes' were to follow doggedly through Narendra's career for the rest of his life. He doggedly kept alive the dance in different versions, including the current one in Bhoomika's repertoire, as mentioned above. The last creation of Narendra at Almora was also ominous. Almora center had to be closed in 1943, in most tragic circumstances. I have long felt, had that institution survived in some form after Independence, the performing arts scenario would have looked different today in South Asia. Almora center, and its closure, is partly reflected in Uday Shankar's yet another seminal contribution - his semi-autobiographic film 'Kalpana' - a sheer magical film made by a choreographer. Nevertheless, the dancers, musicians, choreographers and designers that emerged from this Almora experiment were to spread in many directions in myriad ways, in different cities and professions. The reverberations are felt even today...

To conclude, I have tried here to draw a mosaic through a relationship of a teacher and his student - a kind of modern 'guru-shishya parampara' in an institutional format - on how ideas are transformed through an enlightened pedagogical process in an inspirational space. There is a direct connect between Almora and the creative expressions in performing arts which we are witnessing today, especially in the dance world in India. Which points to yet another fascinating mosaic where wisdoms of body, with potent energies and ingrained ideas, travel through time and space, and spread their wings far asunder. This time, I have tracked linkages through associations of male bodies. Bengal's idea of 'The Home and the World' - as a Tagorean manifest, and Shankar's quest - now has many homes, in India and abroad.

(This article by Bharat Sharma appears in 'Relevance of the Universal Mission of the Bengali Renaissance for a sustainable future for India and the world', Volume 2, edited by Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty and Sarmistha De Basu, brought out by Kolkata Society for Asian Studies)

Bharat Sharma
Bharat Sharma's career in dance spanning over five decades is marked by diversity of experiences as performer, choreographer, teacher, writer, composer, film-maker and arts administrator. He currently leads Bhoomika, New Delhi.

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