Dance of freedom
A chat with the 94-year-old dancer Amala Shankar reveal her memories that provide a connect to the pre-Independence generation, which contributed in...
A chat with the 94-year-old dancer Amala Shankar reveal her memories that provide a connect to the pre-Independence generation, which contributed in many ways to bring India her freedom, and then helped to build a uniquely Indian political and cultural space
At 94, the famous dancer Amala Shankar has a remarkable memory. Lines of poems, songs and events from various vantage points of the past come easily to her as she reminisces about the years left behind. This famous dancer teamed up with Uday Shankar, brilliant dancer and choreographer – incidentally, the elder brother of the late sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar – and mesmerised audiences at home and abroad with expositions of Indian dance. A film, ‘Kalpana’ (1948), featuring both of them dancing together has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. It has been restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. Amala Shankar was an honoured guest at that screening and was treated to a standing ovation.
Born in 1919 in the small village of Batajor in Jessore district – now a part of Bangladesh – Shankar can clearly recall the passion and excitement of the Independence movement. “My father, Akshay Kumar Nandy, my jethu (elder uncle), and, in fact, all the elders in our extended family were staunch ‘swadeshis’ (nationalists),” she says. So the young girl, too, quickly got familiarised with the word, ‘swadeshi’ and the ideals it represented. “My father was also a staunch supporter of Rishi Aurobindo, freedom fighter turned social reformer and spiritual guru. We lived a simple life based on the ideals of our elders,” Shankar recalls.
An early introduction to the implications of the freedom movement came home to her when she saw her father exhorting women to break the glass bangles they were wearing. Since married Bengali woman were not supposed to leave their wrists bare, he then presented them with bangles made of German silver. “Since the glass bangles were made in England, my father did not want anyone to sport them and thus encourage trade in British goods,” says Shankar. Those were the days when Mahatma Gandhi had given his call to discard anything manufactured in England, including clothes made in Manchester, in the fight for self-rule.
Among the material proscribed was imported salt. In 1930, Gandhi initiated the Dandi Salt March in Gujarat, a civil disobedience action against the British as a mark of protest against their imposition of a salt tax on Indians. So, even as Gandhi and his followers marched to Dandi to extricate indigenous salt from the sea, Shankar’s father found an ingenious way to join in. She reminisces, “Father made us collect old bricks from dilapidated houses, bricks that were already disintegrated because of the moisture caused by our humid climate. These were then broken down. Using alum, the salt was strained out the bricks and used in the house. We children participated in all this with enthusiasm.”
Similarly, on days when Gandhi began one of his many fasts in protest against British subjugation, the kitchen stoves at home would not be lit. As a man of staunch principles, Nandy inspired his children, and his ideas of freedom percolated to them. Remarks Shankar proudly, “Today, whatever I am I owe to my father, and his teachings and ideals.”
In 1916, her father had opened a small jewellery shop in north Calcutta. To make gold jewellery more affordable for women who were not wealthy, he devised trinkets with copper topped with gold. In 1924, the British government was organising an international exhibition at Wembley and wished to showcase the handicrafts of its many colonies. Shankar’s father was invited by the British government - all expenses paid - to demonstrate the highly developed art of jewellery making in Bengal. But he refused to partake of the government’s hospitality. Instead, he used his resources and participated in the exhibition as an individual. To pack his exhibits for the event, he also discovered an ingenuous way. He cushioned them with khoi – puffed rice! It worked as well as today’s thermocol packing. “In those days, he made Rs 35,000 selling all the things he had carried along. And the ‘khoi’ served as elephant food!” Shankar recalls with a twinkle in her eyes.
Shankar’s father was a man of many parts. He propagated women’s education and had even arranged the remarriage of a widow in his village. A magazine called ‘Matri Mandir’, which he edited, provided women of the time, who aspired to write, a rare opportunity to get published. “Many litterateurs in Bengal who later became well-known, like Radharani Devi and others, told me that it was this exposure that encouraged them to become writers,” Shankar elaborates.
Nandy also opened a school in the village called Srimonto Vidyapith in his father’s memory. But in keeping with the times, it was not a coeducational institution. However, Nandy made up for this gap by ensuring that the girls in the family received a good education at home. “We girls were taught at home by accomplished teachers and did not lack in developing a world view under excellent tutelage,” reveals Shankar.
The liberal views expounded by Nandy extended to other religions, too. “While we were still living in the village, my father would take us all to Calcutta on festive occasions. During Christmas, for instance, the city was at its best! We would also have a Christmas tree in our house and pray when Christmas arrived before partaking of breakfast. On the occasion of Eid, we would all be bundled into the first tram in the morning to reach a venue near the Victoria Memorial. The maidan adjacent to it would host a huge Eid prayer congregation. I still remember the rows of devotees in their fresh white clothes and caps bowing simultaneously,” recalls Shankar.
All these experiences helped the family to be open to other cultures. “We were never taught to look on people from other cultural or religious backgrounds with disdain or hatred,” Shankar emphasises. She regrets the intolerance and lack of idealism that marks contemporary times and lays the blame for this firmly on the lack of good political leadership and the strong inculcation of values within the home. A proper balance between the aspiration for a good life and proper values is not in evidence these days, she feels, while looking back on the times she grew up in.
Later, in 1931, Shankar’s father went to participate in an international exhibition being held at Paris, France, where the colonies of various European countries showcased their indigenous expertise and diversity. Twelve-year-old Shankar was taken along. It was in Paris that she saw Uday Shankar dance for the first time. “It was a divine experience. I was so proud to be an Indian!” she exclaims.
That fateful meeting led her to join Uday Shankar’s dance troupe and later she was to become his wife. Together they opened a dance academy in Almora in the Garhwal hills. Their productions became famous and attracted a distinguished audience. She even remembers Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose attending one of her performances. The unique personal and cultural partnership forged by Uday and Amala Shankar –and other like-minded artistes - helped to lay the cultural foundations of a post-Independent India.