The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 22, 2002
Lead Article

Pavlova steered Uday Shankar towards Indian dancing
K. R. N. Swamy

Uday Shankar with Anna Pavlova
Uday Shankar with Anna Pavlova

SEPTEMBER 27, 2002 marks the 25th death anniversary of the famous dancer Uday Shankar, who changed the very concept of modern/contemporary Indian dancing. The renaissance in Indian classical dancing began in the 1930’s and in North India it was led by Uday Shankar (1900-77) and in the South by Rukmini Devi (1904-1986), the eminent theosophist. But for the dynamic lead given by these two famous artistes, classical dance in India would not have reached the present popularity and vitality. At the same time, it is poignant to note, that but for the perceptive appreciation of India’s dance heritage by another famous dancer, the Immortal Anna Pavlova (1882-1931), reputedly the 20th century’s greatest ballerina of western dance, these two all-time greats of India’s performing arts, might have deserted classical Indian dancing for its western equivalent, namely the ballet.

Uday Shankar had left India for London in 1920 to study painting under Sir William Rothenstein. With a statuesque body, he dabbled in Indian dancing in London and in 1923, Anna Pavlova saw an Indian dance performance choreographed by Uday Shankar. Pavlova had been thinking of adding some Indian mythological repertory for her ballet and decided to enlist the help of Uday Shankar. To quote Uday Shankar’s wife, Amala, "Uday Shankar, from all accounts was, at that point of time, an aspiring and highly talented student of painting, a rather spoilt young man of an affluent father. Anna Pavlova met him and asked him not only to choreograph two dance compositions — Krishna & Radha and Hindu wedding — for her programme of oriental dances, but also asked him to partner her in the performances at the Covent Garden. Because of this event, Uday Shankar overnight became a figure to reckon with in the world of dance". "I woke up one morning to find myself famous", remarked Uday to his friends.


Anna Pavlova was the talk of the town, whenever she performed and after a few months, Uday Shankar wanted to join her ballet troupe. Gently, but firmly, Pavlova told him that he must try to make his future in the great tradition of India and not follow her in western dancing.

To cut a long story short, it was Pavlova’s suggestion that eventually led Uday Shankar to organise a troupe of Indian dancer (funded by the Elmhirst family) and organise 29 shows in the USA, which evoked a great positive response in the western world. It was his success in the USA, that gave courage to Uday Shankar to return to India in the 1930s and re-establish the concept of modern Indian dancing.

Near about the same time, in the middle 1920s, 21-year-old Rukmini Devi Arundale had a chance to see in London one of the ballets of Anna Pavlova. Daughter of the famous Sanskrit scholar Nilakanta Shastri and a protegee of the famous Dr Annie Besant, Rukmini Devi had shocked the orthodox south Indian society by marrying in 1920, the eminent British theosophist scholar Dr G. S. Arundale (who later succeeded Dr Besant as the President of the Theosophical Society). Travelling to Europe frequently, Rukmini Devi attended a performance of the famous ballet "dying Swan" by Anna Pavlova in 1925. Returning from the performance, Rukmini Devi told her friends, that she felt, that she should become a career-dancer, like Pavlova. In 1928, Anna Pavlova came to India and gave few performances in Bombay.

Dr Arundale and Rukmini Devi were in Benares for the annual convention of the Theosophical Society. But to ensure that they are able to see Pavlova’s dance, they left one day earlier. After seeing the famous Ballerina’s performance, they were to leave Bombay for Australia for the Theosophical Society’s work. To her great delight Rukmini Devi found that Anna Pavlova was also travelling by the same ship and both art enthusiasts spent hours, discussing dancing. Their friendship continued even after they reached Australia and in Sydney, Pavlova told Rukmini Devi that she should take the first steps to learn dancing. Pavlova requested one of her leading solo dancers, Cleo Nordi to teach Rukmini Devi the first lessons in ballet. As such, the inaugural dance steps, Rukmini Devi took were in western ballet dancing! But after some days, Pavlova with her great intuitive vision, told Rukmini Devi, that she should take up Indian dancing, instead of the western equivalent. After returning to India, Rukmini Devi attended, in 1933, at the annual conference of the Madras Music Academy, the performance of "sadhir", a south Indian dance form, then almost extinct, due to its association with devadasis. Fascinated, Rukmini Devi decided to rescue this art form from its negative aspects and thus was born a new life for Bharatanatyam, the oldest of Indian classical dances in India. MF