Uday Shankar

Uday Shankar


personal detail

Uday Shankar
Uday Shankar

8 December 1900
Udaipur, Rajasthan
Died26 September 1977 (aged 76)
Kolkata, West Bengal
OccupationDancer, choreographer
Spouse(s)Amala Shankar
ChildrenAnanda Shankar
Mamta Shankar


Uday Shankar was born in 1900 at Udaipur (Rajasthan). His father Shyama Shankar Chowdhary, a barrister, was educational adviser to the Maharaja of Jhalawar, a petty state in Rajasthan. Later he became the private secretary of the Maharaja and also minister of Education. The family originally came from Bengal but had settled in northern India. They had a house in Banaras and Uday’s maternal grandfather was a big landlord settled at Ghazipur, a town near Banaras. Uday spent several years of his childhood in these two places. It was a talented family. Shyama Shankar, in addition to being an educationist, was a multifaceted personality who spent several years in London trying his luck as a stage artist and a composer. He had married a British lady and settled there, resigning from the Jhalawar state job. Uday was the eldest of the four brothers. Among the three of his brothers, the youngest Ravi Shankar is a sitarist of member of international repute. The others were Rajendra and Devandra.
Uday had no interest in studies. He would play truant and would avoid going to school. He would watch Matadin, an amateur folk dancer for hours, sometime till late in the night. Matadin was a cobbler and a landless labourer in his grandfather’s zamindari in Ghazipur. Uday was fascinated by the movements of Matadin’s hands and feet and facial expressions. At Jhalawar, the court dancer Kuki Bai was another dancer who inspired the dancer in Uday. As he had no sister, Uday’s mother would often dress little Uday as a girl and he would try to imitate sometime Matadin and at other times Kuki Bai.
Being an educationist, Uday’s father soon understood that his son had no interest in studies and it would be futile to inflict formal education on the child. As Uday had shown interest in drawing and painting at an early age his father took him to England and got him admitted to the Royal College of Arts, London. His teacher, Sir William Rothenstein, trained him in painting and plastic arts and impressed upon Uday not to ape the Western painters, but to seek his style in the rich Indian cultural heritage. This applied to other arts also, he was told; a lesson which Uday never forgot. Uday graduated, with honours, from the Royal College of Arts in 1923. During that period, he often danced at private gatherings. The dance form was his very own and not conforming to any rigid classical mould. At twenty-three, Uday Shankar was a very handsome man with finely chiseled features, large expressive eyes and beautiful hands. Even his unrehearsed movements, imparted an elegance and easy grace which earned the admiration of the people. As luck would have it, the great Russian-born ballerina, Anna Pavlova (1885-1931), saw him dancing and was charmed by his movements. She was considered as the greatest ballerina of her time and was famous throughout the Western world. Some of her ballets like Giselle and The Dying Swan have seldom been excelled. She wanted to add a few ballets with Indian theme in her repertoire. She offered Uday Shankar the lead role in the ballet Radha-Krishna, and Hindu Marriage. Uday Shankar thought it was a chance of a lifetime and joined her troupe. Pavlova as Radha and Uday as Krishna presented a scene of unrivalled grandeur and something of a novelty on the Western stage. After adequate rehearsal, Pavlova took Uday as a member of her troupe, for a coast to coast tour of America. This was in 1923. The first performance of Radha-Krishna was held at the Manhattan Opera House, New York. Though the media concentrated their eulogies on Pavlova and her famous ballet The Dying Swan, the Radha-Krishna ballet did not go unnoticed. So also Uday as Krishna. Some critics called him the Indian dancing wizard. Being in Pavlov as troupe was a great honour for any dancer but Uday felt that he was in a way tied to her apron strings and that his own personality and genius were being thwarted. On his return from America, he left Pavlov as troupe and decided to make it on his own. During his short stint in her troupe he had learnt a few things which were very helpful in his future career as a dancer. He learnt discipline, team work, punctuality, stage craft and above all, showmanship. Taking advantage of his association with Pavlova, he started giving solo performances. The dance compositions were based on Indian mythology some unknown stage artists joined him and he started performing amateur stage shows. From London, he moved to Paris where he was more successful. He also performed at Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and Geneva. His solo item, Nataraja, was appreciated the most. In Paris, he met Alice Boner, a Swiss lady, who was a lover of Indian art and culture and had settled in Banaras. She told Uday that he should know more about India and its varied art forms before he started his professional dance career for which he had unlimited talent which she could discern. The two came back to India. That was in 1929. Alice travelled with Uday from village to village, from one corner of the country to the other: Malabar, Manipur, Orissa, Lucknow, Punjab, collecting a variety of musical instruments used in folk dances. They also studied the costumes of folk dancers. They travelled for several months, on this educative tour, Alice Boner bearing all the expenses. The following year, with her help, Uday assembled a company of Indian dancers and musicians and took them to Europe. It was an immediate success and his future was now assured. He took his troupe to several countries in Europe and America and was applauded everywhere.
This success brought several aspiring artists who wanted to join his troupe, the most important of them being Simone or Simkia and Shirali, both young French girls. Then there was Amala Nandi, who met Uday Shankar in Paris where she was with her father on a visit. She joined Uday’s troupe and was a female partner in many of his ballets. Ultimately both of them fell in love and married after several years, in 1942.
Uday Shankar had by then a team of hundred and fifty artists, dancers, musicians and other sundry craftsmen. No Indian dancer had earlier assembled around him such an impressive team of artists and workers. He now started composing ballets for which he earned unmatched fame and applause. Some of his unforgettable ballets were: Shiva TandavShiv Parvati Nritya DwandaRhythm of LifeEternal Melody; Labour and MachineryGreat RenunciationLord Buddha and Pramila and Arjuna. Every ballet was a chapter in the life of the artist in Uday. He had also created some solo items like Kartikeya (son of Shiva) and Indra, but his genius was more discernible in the ballets than in solo items. He had studied the basics of various Indian dance forms like Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi, and Kathak and blended them into his own creations thus creating a new dance form. The costume and make-up Uday adopted in his stage performances were entirely in the classical tradition.
His creations were like lyrical poems on the stage. In his movements and expressions were depicted different moods, in his gestures and postures were a strange freedom and grace, and in his smile was hidden the mysteries of the Orient. He had brought a revolution on the Indian stage through his intrinsic talent and well-thought out showmanship. The stage craft, the lighting, the orchestra were all on a lavish scale. After seeing his stage show an American art critic once wrote: “Perhaps the showmanship on which we in America pride ourselves is more universal than we think. At any rate Shankar had it”. Surprisingly, Uday was the product of no school. His art was strictly his own and was not bound by the tedious rules of the classical form. That is why there was freshness in his art.
He took his troupe around the world - Europe, America and East Asia. Even after several shows, the enthusiasm of the viewers never waned. In San Francisco, there was a seating capacity for four thousand and hundred in the hall where he performed. Not one seat was available, with thousands waiting outside. Seeing the rush, tickets continued to be sold. Five hundred art lovers were made to stand in the passage. That space was soon filled. A few hundred were allowed to sit in the orchestra pit. Still a large number were standing outside and could not be accommodated. When Amala told Uday, after the performance, about the rush at the theatre, Uday modestly said, “I think I am deceiving them. I should give them more.” This enthusiasm was witnessed in city after city, in country after country. The media joined in to eulogize the Indian dancer of ethereal beauty. In New York, S. Hurok, art critic of New York Herald Tribune, came to Uday’s hotel and presented an album with the inscription ‘Uday Shankar’s Indra Dance’. On each page was a painting that depicted Uday’s movements’ _ lotuses, chakras, bows and arrows, his facial expressions and a series of alpana designs. Such was the impact of his dances on the Western viewers.
India also started appreciating and admiring this new form of dance that was steeped in Indian culture but not following the essential grammar of Indian classical dances. After his long absence from India, Uday performed in Calcutta’s First Empire Theatre. Rabindranath Tagore occupied a middle seat in the first row. When Uday finished his dance and was bowing to the crowd who were cheering him, the great poet gave him a standing ovation. Uday jumped from the stage and bowed and touched Tagore’s feet. From Shantiniketan the poet wrote to Uday Shankar: “Uday Shankar! You have made the art of dancing your life’s companion. Through it you have won the laurels of the West. Now you are backing home after a long absence. Your Motherland has kept ready for you her love and blessings, and the poet of Bengal offers them on her behalf”. In 1953, during Buddha Jayanti, Uday performed at the National Stadium, New Delhi. The ballets were ‘Buddha’s Shadow Play’ and the ‘Great Renunciation’. Among the audience were Jawaharlal Nehru, the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai and the Dalai Lama. The stadium was full. After the performance Nehru and Chou En Lai rushed to the stage to congratulate Uday and the Chinese prime minister greeted him with a wreath on behalf of the people of China.
Earlier he had an urge to establish a cultural center for the propagation of Indian arts. When some people taught about Uday’s plans they came forward to help him; above all, the Leonard Elmhirst family of Dartington Hall, England. They gave a large donation for setting up an Indian Culture Centre. The Surprised Uday Shankar was told by Mrs. Dorothy Elmhirst that it was nothing in comparison to what Indian art had given them. The Centre was opened at Almora, Kumaon Hills, in mid-1930s. Uday had big plans for the Centre. He collected under one roof great artists from various parts of India to train the aspiring artists: Guru Shankaran Namboodri of Travancore, Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar, Guru Kandappa Pillai of Madras and the wizard of Manipur dance, Guru Amobi Singh, from Imphal. They joined as the teaching staff. Students came from far and near, some of them very talented. Several of the students got married and left. Two sisters, Zohra and Uzra, were among the talented ones. Zohra even toured East Asia, playing the role of Radha with Uday as Krishna. But on her return she married one of her classmates, Sehgal, and left. Later, she became famous as a stage artist and actress Zohra Sehgal. Simkia, the French girl whom Uday had trained for the roles of Parvati and Radha and had toured Europe with the troupe, married one Prabhat Ganguli and left. So also many others. The lavish set-up and expensive paraphernalia added to the financial problems. One day the Centre caught fire and that was the end of Uday’s dream. However, while he was at the height of his career and money was flowing in, he had built a palatial building at 14, Boag Road, Madras, had a limousine, and a servants etc. He lived a fabulous life, though it lasted only for a few years.
He married Amala in 1942. For several years they travelled together, Amala performing the female roles. Along with Uday, she had also earned fame as an artist of exquisite beauty and grace. They had two children, son Anand Shankar and daughter Mamta. Ananda earned fame as a music composer, blending Western and Indian music, conducting his own orchestra. Mamta became an actress. Gradually Amala took over the management of the troupe. She loved Bengal and the couple moved to Calcutta. The house at Madras was sold out. The cosmopolitan nature of the troupe changed as Amala was now recruiting only Bengali girls and boys. Age was catching up with the agility of his younger days had gone. Uday became a heavy drinker, and spent some unhappy years in Calcutta. He and Amala separated and Uday started living alone. He was shattered. He died on 26 September 1977 at Calcutta. Before his death, the Government of India conferred the Padma Vibhushan on him.

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