Veteran danseuse Amala Shankar, who died aged 101 in Kolkata, had a long and successful career that began as a 11-year-old when she went to Paris and did not finish until she was 92, when she took part in her final dance piece called “Missing You”. Amala, who had been suffering from age-related ailments, died of cardiac arrest in her sleep at home on Friday.
Wife of legendary dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar, mother of late musician Ananda Shankar and danseuse-actress Mamata Shankar, mother-in-law of Tanusree Shankar and sister-in-law of sitarist Pt Ravi Shankar, Amala was born on June 27, 1919, in Jessore, Bangladesh. Her father owned a jewellery house and was globally known for his exquisite designs. He took her to Paris at the age of 11 for an exhibition of their jewellery. At the show, she had chanced upon a group of Indian men. One among them had come up to her and introduced himself as Uday Shankar. “Being an Indian, I was invited to their residence in Paris. That’s where I first met his (Uday Shankar’s) mother and Robu (Pt Ravi Shankar). I was a young girl and his mother was extremely fond of me. I remember days when I would go over to their house, have regular Bengali meals and play with Robu. Back then, I used to address him as Borda. He was after all 19 years elder to me,” she had said in an earlier interview to TOI.
On that trip, Uday Shankar had asked her to emote a few dancing steps. Together, they toured Europe. At their first show in Belgium, she was so scared with the adulation that she literally ran to the greenroom when she heard the sound of encore. However, it was only after her graduation when Amala realised that dance was her calling. Without any professional training, she still excelled and would get invited to perform at conferences attended by greats like Pt Shambhu Maharaj and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, among others.
However, her father had always wanted Amala to take up writing as a career. She had also shown promise at the age of 14 when she had written a book titled “Saat Sagorer Paare” describing her tour of Europe that had an introduction by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Destiny, however, had other plans when Netaji watched her performance where Pt Jnan Prakash Ghosh was on the tabla and Dilip Roy on the vocals. Impressed with her performance, Netaji had requested her father to send her to join Uday Shankar’s dance centre in Almora that had the likes of Simone Barbiere (referred to as Simkie), Zohra Sehgal, Guru Dutt and Ruma Guha Thakurta in attendance.
Uday Shankar choreographed many dance-dramas featuring Amala in prominent roles. These include “Labour and Machinery” and “Samanya Kshati” and shadow plays such as “Ram Leela” and “Lord Buddha”. But romance with her guru never happened overnight. Once when she had seen him perform as Karthik at a show in Kolkata’s Madan Theatres, Amala had actually said in front of her parents that this is “the man” in her life. But no fireworks had happened back then and Amala had to wait till 1939 for things to take a different turn. A new chapter began on the night of December 8, when she returned to her room after celebrating Uday Shankar’s birthday in Chennai. Amala’s eyes would twinkle every time she recalled how he had knocked on her door, come inside and told her that he had decided to get married. “Don’t you want to know the name of the girl?” he had asked her. On seeing her nod in affirmation, he had said: “Her name is Amala”. They had tied the knot in 1942. “Though we had an age difference of 19 years, when we stood beside each other it was impossible to understand that. In fact, he’d always say we looked good together,” she had said in an interview to TOI.
Unfortunately, the centre closed down in 1944 and eventually, the couple settled in Kolkata and opened the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre (USICC) in 1965. Amala worked tirelessly as its founder-director till the centre finally closed down in 2015. In between, she choreographed productions like “Seeta Swayamvara”, “Vasavadutta”, “Chidambara”, “Yuga Chanda” and “Chitrangada” and also restaged many of her husband’s original choreographies including “Samanya Kshati” and “Mahamanav”.
But before all this happened, she played the lead in “Kalpana” – the 1948-film directed by her husband which revolved around a young dancer’s dream of setting up an academy. It featured the duo in a dance sequence titled “Shiva Parvati” which earned the couple critical acclaim both as a stage production and film. Though the film flopped, Satyajit Ray is rumoured to have watched it 11 times. “It was one of my father’s favourite films and he was obsessed with it. He had loved Amala Shankar’s dance pieces a lot. He liked the experimental and innovative styles and wondered how Uday Shankar had accomplished all that in 1948. Long back, there was a special screening of ‘Kalpana’ at Technicians’ Studios that was attended by people from abroad. A dear friend of my father – director Lindsay Anderson – had attended the screening too. I remember attending that screening. Even last year, I had attended her centenary celebrations,” remembered director Sandip Ray, waiting to watch the restored print of the film. Till date, her dance sequences in “Kalpana” including the Bharatanatyam-inspired tandav nritya, the Bhil folk dance and the climax where she heads a group of women on stage are discussed in the culture corridors.
In 2012, when the restored film was screened at the Cannes Classic Section 81 years after it was first screened there, Amala was present on stage. Resplendent in a golden sari, the 93-year-old had surprised the audience saying: “I am the youngest heroine here”.
A perfectionist to the core, she was extremely spirited. At 90s, she had asked actor-director Aparna Sen to direct a film where she would dance one last time! Last month, Mamata Shankar Dance Company and Udayan Kalakendra celebrated her birthday by uploading a performance. But it wasn’t dance and acting alone that made her an icon. Director Goutam Ghose recalled how she could paint with her nails and fingers effortlessly on glass slides. In 2013, these works were on display at a solo exhibition titled Nabajiban.
Amala was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1991 and the Banga Bibhusan by the West Bengal government in 2011. In a condolence message, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said her demise has caused irreparable void in the world of dance. As the state bid farewell to her with a gun salute, Amala was remembered by her family, students and admirers for having lived a full life. “She wanted a peaceful death and that’s how it happened,” said daughter Mamata. Theatre personality Poulami Bose, who received her guidance for four years, said she “defined grace”. Her father, thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, knew the Shankars for many years. Remembering her, Bose said, “My father was absolutely enamoured after watching ‘Kalpana’. Her grand productions actually developed my interest in theatre. Inspiring us as an arts practitioner, she also taught us how to live life with dignity.” Entrepreneur Sanjiv Goenka echoed the sentiments of many by saying: “Her passing away marks the end of an era. India has lost a great artist.”
Source: Times of India