World-renowned dance artiste Uday Shankar's father, Pandit Shyam Shankar, was a native of Jessore district. Uday was born in 1900, in the city of Udaipur, while Shyam Shankar was serving the Maharaja of Jhalawar as his private secretary. Shyam Shankar was a connoisseur of performing arts. To him dance was both art and worship. Uday himself was instinctively inclined to dance and painting. He was sent to Mumbai in 1918 to receive training at the famous J.J. School of Arts and then to Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. For higher training, Uday Shankar went to Royal College of Arts, London, where he received both theoretical and practical training in oriental and western painting and dance. Sir Rothenstein, President of the Royal College of Arts, introduced him to leading performing artistes of Britain. With a scholarship from the Royal College of Arts, Uday went to Rome for further training in painting.
Uday's training at home and abroad and his interactions with the leading contemporary dance artistes of India and Europe equipped him for performance at cross-cultural levels. The great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, engaged him to create two dance items with Indian themes: Radha-Krishna and the Hindu Marriage.
Uday's compositions demonstrated his extraordinary imagination, knowledge and perception. His association with Pavlova inspired him to design modern Indian ballets where movement and costume, theme and decoration, music and song had to be proportioned and blended to fit the modern stage. With Pavlova, Uday performed numerous shows in a coast-to-coast tour of the USA.
Uday Shankar returned to India in 1929 with a new vision. With him came Simone Barbiere, a pianist in Paris, and now a dance partner and disciple of Uday. Together they toured India and presented shows, drawing enchanted audiences everywhere. With him also came Alice Bonner, an influential Swiss sculptress and art historian. With Bonner, Uday visited all parts of India in search of folk dance and instruments. He was fascinated and inspired by the highly stylised classical forms and varieties of Indian folk dances. He chose Kathakali and made it popular all over India, particularly in Bengal. With the cooperation of Alice Bonner, he established in Paris a dance and music company called 'The Compagnie Uday Shankar de Dance Musique Hindous'. From 1930 to 1942 his troupe gave 889 performances all over Europe. His engaging performances brought a new awakening in the Western world about the richness of South Asia's dances and music.
In 1939, with the encouragement of Tagore, Uday established an institute called 'Shankar India Cultural Centre' at Almora, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The gurus whom he invited to teach at the centre with him were Shankaran Nambudirei for Kathakali, Kandappa Pillay for Bharatanatyam, Amobi Singh for Manipuri and Ustad Allauddin Khan for music.
Uday Shankar's national and international recognition brought respectability, status and dignity for dance. He made dance in India and in Bengal as respectable as music and theatre.
Uday Shankar finally settled in Kolkata in 1960. In 1971, he was decorated with Padma Vibhushan for his unique contributions to the renaissance of Indian performing art. The Visva-Bharati University conferred on him the Deshikottama in 1975. Uday Shankar was a compulsive innovator. Drawing on classical and folk dances, he created his own style, which was essentially mystic and transcendental. He blended mythological and modern themes into a new creation suitable to modern taste and sensibilities.
Compiled by Correspondent