In 1923, Anna Pavlova, one of the most feted ballerinas of all time, called upon Uday Shankar, then a student of painting at London’s Royal School of Art and a dance enthusiast, to understand Indian dance. The meeting led to a performance, known as Oriental Expressions, at London’s Royal Opera House a few months later. It was a partnership between Pavlova and Shankar, comprising two dance pieces, one of which featured Pavlova and Uday playing Radha and Krishna, respectively, while the other was titled A Hindu Wedding. The experiment gave Londoners a glimpse into Indian dance and led to a year-long association between Pavlova and Uday, who was so taken by the experience that he quit painting and became a full-time dancer. He toured with Pavlova’s company and became a pioneer in modern Indian dance, establishing his dance school in Almora, in present-day Uttarakhand.
“It was the idea of cross-fertilisation, a dialogue between different cultures and forms of dance. But it was unheard of in the 1920s. At that time, it was pretty much about the pure forms of dance,” says dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, in London-based dancer and writer Protima Chatterjee’s documentary, A Meeting of Two Cultures.
It’s no exaggeration that if it hadn’t been for Pavlova’s curiosity, the world would likely have remained unaware of Uday’s talents. At the time, Uday was only interested in dance by way of the folk dances in his hometown of Jhalawar, and the rest of India. He wasn’t dancing himself. Chatterjee made her documentary to raise British awareness about Uday Shankar’s life and explain how the seeds of modern Indian dance were sown in London.
Chatterjee, 42, at a very early age, began to learn the Uday Shankar style of dance in Kolkata, first at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre, where his wife Amala Shankar taught. She later studied under Uday’s daughter-in-law, Tanushree Shankar, travelled the world with her dance company, taught in it and in 2003, moved to the UK. In 2016, she began researching Uday’s life and in 2018, won the Heritage Lottery Fund award to support the project.
“The challenge began when I came to the UK. There was no information here about his collaboration with Pavlova. People would applaud my dance but were clueless about the artiste who had created it. I had to begin with Ravi Shankar (Uday’s brother) and, sometimes, even Anoushka Shankar (Uday’s niece) to explain,” says Chatterjee, in a telephone conversation from London. In this, Chatterjee was also supported by Trinity Laban, Roehampton University and Sampad Arts and Heritage.
The 48-minute documentary, written and directed by Chatterjee and edited by Roger Kitchen, comprises interviews with Uday’s daughter Mamata Shankar, Tanushree Shankar, Akram Khan, Ann David, Head of Dance, Roehampton University, dancer Bisakha Sarkar, Colin Bourne Collins, Head of Dance and Programming at Trinity Laban, and filmmaker Sangeeta Datta, among others.
The project also resulted in Tanushree teaching at Trinity Laban as part of its formal dance curriculum. This led to the presentation of one of Uday’s favourite ballets, Kartikeya, which is also in his magnum opus, Kalpana. This was co-incidental, as Chatterjee was only trying to get information from their library. “Trinity has a section where they have to recreate the work of a 20th-century icon. Uday fit in. This was a first in the history of Indian dance in the UK,” says Chatterjee
The project’s completion was marked by a student performance of the Uday Shankar style. “It is significant to understand the current relevance of Uday Shankar. This film is a tribute to his dance and his life,” says Chatterjee, who recently screened the film at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts.