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Paucity of archival material threatens legacy of Kathakali dancer Shanta Rao

Published : Jun 17, 2019, 2:44 am IST
Updated : Jun 17, 2019, 2:44 am IST

Some critics had observed in those days that her style was rather “masculine”.

Rare photos of the artiste
 Rare photos of the artiste

Whenever I go to New York, I invariably visit Dance Collection at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Centre. It is an amazing library having archival material and records of performing artists, the like of which does not exist anywhere. With latest state-of-the-art technology, computer system, data, records, photographs, notes, old programme books and what have you systematically organised, for a dance historian it is manna
from heaven.

I am not a pessimist. In India, the biggest collection of archival material and documents is available at the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA). Other major institutions are the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), the Nehru Memorial Library, and the Ranga Mandal Pratishthan established in memory of Nemichandra Jain, the  Hindi literary figure and an authority on Indian drama, to name a few. Now that Mohan Khokar’s dance collection has been deposited at IGNCA, it will serve as an important resource for dance historian and scholars. My own dance collection I will be donating to IGNCA.

During my discussions with them in New York, some dancers mentioned how little the information was that was available to them on Shanta Rao,  the legendary Mohini Attam dancer. She was at the peak of her career in the early forties and one of the first women to study Kathakali at Kerala Kala Mandalam from a very young age under the renowned Kathakali asan, Ravunni Menon.

Hailing from Mangalore and born in a Saraswat Brahmin family, her parents were freedom fighters and their home in Mumbai in the early thirties was a meeting place for the non-violent rebels of the 1931 Civil Disobedience Movement. Shanta was a joint secretary of the students’ union in her school in Mumbai. Poets, painters and musicians also met at her parents’ residence.

Shanta was a very young and unusual woman. For, of all the forms available to her, she decided to study the strenuous Kathakali dance, a male preserve. She undertook rigorous training under the guru who taught her this difficult art, seeing her industrious and hard working nature. She made her debut  in 1940 before an audience consisting of Namboodiris and die-hard Kathakali experts in Thrissure. They hailed her as a brilliant dancer. During that period, she also visited Sri Lanka where she saw Kandyan dances and studied them under the great guru, Gunaya.

Shanta was the contemporary of Rukmini Devi, Ram Gopal, Balasarswati, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Indrani Rahman and Tara Chowdhary, all dancers who had received training from the great guru of Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai. Shanta also studied under him and had her debut in Chennai at the Music Academy of Madras in 1942. Her Bharatnatyam was of the most unusual style. Forceful, powerful and dynamic. Those used to watching  Bharatnatyam performed by other dancers got shocked seeing her style, which was evidently influenced by the powerful Kathakali. Some critics had observed in those days that her style was rather “masculine”.

When I started writing in Gujarati on leading dancers, the first time I came across a photograph of Shanta Rao was in the special issue of Marg on Bharatnatyam, edited by Mohan Khokar dated September 1957. Her  photo stood out for her individual style, rather strong. Khokar, my mentor, had warned me that if I would go to see her Bharatnatyam performance, I should be ready for a shock, as Shanta’s Bharatnatyam would have unusual movements. Shanta was to perform in Mumbai at Jai Hind College. The year was 1958. The Indian National Theatre (INT) and its secretary Damu Jhaveri were to present her. I requested Damu Jhaveri to give me an introduction to her so that I can meet her and interview her. He gave me the address of the hotel where she was staying. But when she came to learn that I was writing for the newspapers, she told me to meet her after the performance. I realised that she was a private person.

When I saw her performance, I did find her movements jerky, awkward and strong but at the same time quite hypnotic. I could not take my eyes off her. Her costumes were gorgeous, the ornaments and necklaces  stood out and her demeanour  was of a majestic queen. Her taste was faultless.  Once she entered the stage, one was completely under her spell. Even after so many years I am able to recollect my first impressions. But I found it difficult to express my feelings of uneasiness then.

In 1959, once again I got an opportunity to see  her dance and meet her through the director of Asian Music Circle, London, Mr Ayana Dev Angadi. He was arranging Sonal Mansingh’s (Pakvasa) dance tour in south India. Sonal and I, along with Ayana Dev, went to see her at the suite in Taj Mahal Hotel where she was staying. Because of Ayana Dev’s introduction, Shanta Rao was very friendly and charming and received us warmly.  Whatever prejudices I had developed against her vanished. We kept in touch through correspondence and I followed her performances whenever she performed in Mumbai.

It was in 1967 that the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India asked me to do a cover story on Mohini Attam.  I wanted Shanta’s photo to be on the cover. But when she came to learn that I was also mentioning other dancers like Mrinalini Sarabhai, Roshan Vajifdar, Vyjaynthimala, Hema Malini, Kanak Rele and others, she was upset and did not send her photos. Finally, the photographer Jitendra Arya agreed to take a photo of Vyjayanthimala which we used for the cover. Vyjayanthimala had studied under traditional teacher Chinammu Amma at Kerala Kala Mandalam. I still remember her excellent abhinaya to the padam, “Ali Veni”. But Rao was upset and it took quite some time to pacify her. She was possessive of her Mohini Attam and had sacrificed everything to learn it and was unable to accept the fact that others were also learning it. Hers was absolutely unique and she felt that there was none to whom she would pass on her legacy. She was upset with me and told me so in no uncertain terms that I could not bracket her with other dancers.

She also did not send photos for the  Bharatnatyam book Dr Mulk Raj Anand, editor of Marg, had assigned me to edit. She refused permission to use her photos. With the result there was an omission of a leading dancer in my chapter on Contemporaries. When my book was presented to the Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was her great fan, she asked me and Dr Anand why she was not included. Mulk, being witty, answered that in the second edition it shall be included. But even for the second edition she did not agree to send photos. Therefore, we used an excellent sketch of hers by the scientist, Dr Homi J. Bhabha, who was also her great admirer. She was pleased seeing that and our friendship resumed.

Rao’s fame and name had spread far and wide. Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist, invited her to his Festival of Windsor. Her performances organised by John Coast, the famous impresario, in the US, Europe, Israel, Germany and France, were received very well. I have one of the reviews of the British dance critic Arnold Haskell which describes her dance in unqualified terms: “Then she started dancing — a mixture of silk and steel, rippling water and sledgehammer blows. Every movement was crystal clear in a school of dance that combines as none other the mathematical and dramatic, the abstract and emotional. And this impact tremendous as it was grew with accumulative effect that became completely hypnotic. This dancer of genius — and I use the word after careful consideration is Shanta Rao in the East as is Margot Fonteyn in the West.”

Critics have tried to analyze her art but it is not easy to pinpoint what exactly in her art made Shanta a great artist.

 When she received in 1971 Sangeet Natak Akademi award and also Padma Shri I wrote in Femina about her unique art. She visited Mumbai to receive Nritya Vilas award given to her by Sur Singar Samsad. I used to assist Brijnarainji for the award ceremony. She was very happy and invited me to visit her place in Bangalore. It was in 1967 that with my two very dear friends, the famous jazz singer Asha Puthli and Indira Jaising, the celebrated Supreme Court lawyer and former Assistant Solicitor General, Government of India, during our tour of Kerala, had stayed with her at her Brigade Road apartment near Post Office in Bengaluru on return. She was affectionate, charming, and we remember her cheerful laughter.

Mrs Gandhi had given her a substantial grant to build her residence which consisted of a 250-seat auditorium in Malleswaram. It was quite palatial and had three stories which included her practice hall, a library and a terrace. Several paintings of hers performing Kathakali were displayed on walls. Large manuscripts were in her library. Fond of books, she used to collect from K.V.K. Rao of Select Book Shop near Brigade Road. When I visited her residence, with great enthusiasm she showed me all this and the research work she was doing.  She told me that the chief minister,  Ramakrishna Hegde, was her great supporter.

Shanta Rao had also studied Kuchipudi under Vempati Chinna Satyam and later on from Venkatachalapathi Shastri and created Bhama Nrityam.  She was a versatile dancer and vastly gifted as a painter and a musician.

She stayed alone in Bengaluru. Ashoke Chatterjee, former director of the National Design Institute (NID), Ahmedabad, was a devotee and admirer of Shanta Rao. He wrote a book, Dances of Golden Hall, her biography, published by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.  Well-known photographer Sunil Janah has taken her excellent photographs which were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India.  Painter Hebbar had drawn Shanta’s sketch which was published in the same issue. Ashoke Chatterjee was one of her close friends. He writes: “Shanta preferred anonymity rather than misuse or dilution of her art. Implicit faith, study, practice, creation, and documentation had been Shanta’s regiman. Each an act of private worship through dance, each to be protected from the distracting demands of a career or performance management. Unswerving in her commitments each appearance by her had been a feat, surmounting the stringent demands that the dancer makes on herself and on her audience. For years she had followed that without break, an exacting routine for herself even as a young girl, hailed by Sarojini Naidu as ‘independent India’s spring time dancer from the South’. This had ensured an undisturbed life, rich with personal achievement as well as in paintings and music. She had transcribed her exhaustive study of comparative dance forms into documented resources.”

It was in 1997 during SNA’s Swarna Samaroha festival that Shanta appeared with enthusiasm. SNA recorded that performance, which seems rather rare, as she never allowed her performances to be photographed and recorded. Many years ago I had found in the Indian Consulate in New York a brief documentary film made by Films Division which showed her dance. That is lost. BBC has made a film on her which was telecast many years ago. Fortunately, Ashoke Chatterjee has the excerpts of that film and has very kindly given me a copy. Barring these few records there is nothing in terms of her dancing on film which can be shared with public.

On June 4, 2006, she appeared in her own theatre to honour K.V. Ratna, her vocalist, and  who did nattuvangam for her. That was her major last performance. Ram Gopal was in Bengaluru on a visit from London and he went to see her performance. Both met after many years and recalled how when young they had performed together. I had seen in Ram Gopal’s collection a brochure with a photo of them together in a
Bharatnatyam pose.

Shanta led a very reclusive life. Once in a while whenever I visited Bengaluru, I would take my photographer friend, Avinash Pasricha and his wife, Santosh, Kuchipudi dancer Shanta Rati Mihra and critic Leela Venkataraman to meet her. She received them warmly. She spoke of old times and entertained us all with cups of coffee.

Then suddenly I received the sad news in December 2007 that she had passed away at her residence in Bengaluru. There was only a brief note in the newspaper about her demise. No one knew what had happened. She had a few relatives but she had not been in touch with them.  

It appears that a few years before her demise she had contacted a Malayali building developer, one Mr Mrutunjaya, to turn her Shanta Rao Centre for Arts in to a 150-seat theatre available for private hire. I found a small booklet which mentions her centre as a digital theatre for performing arts and cultural heritage. But sadly I came to know when I visited her premises that the Malayali gentleman was renting it for banquets and wedding receptions!!

I met Chiranjeev Singh, the former Ambassador to United Nations at Maya Rao’s Institute on her 82nd birthday. I requested him to do something so that Bangloreans and those who knew Shanta would “wake up and do something for her in her memory and salvage the centre from turning into a marriage reception hall”. It is a great pity that such a legendary dancer’s property should end up like this. It was funded by public money and now that it has gone into the hands of a building developer and could only be solved by the intervention of the trustees, Mr Chiranjeev Singh and Ashoke Chatterjee, her trustees, who could solve this problem. I was told that Shanta did not sign papers for succession.

I do not know what took place later on. They could negotiate, one hoped, with the builder developer and regain the property for use of dance and music performances by the Malleswaram artistes in this prime location at a reasonable fee. Much later I learnt that some solution was sorted out. All ornaments, valuables, paintings and books of Shanta were retrieved, books were donated to Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai, but in the absence of a will and legal documents, the property, Shanta Rao Centre for Arts, has not been regained. It is a tragic story of a legendary dancer. Whenever I pass by that building it pains me a lot.

Later on when I met Ashoke Chatterjee, I was told that nothing more could be done. In Shanta Rao’s memory, a memorial lecture was delivered by Ashoke Chatterjee at India International Centre in New Delhi with Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, Shanta’s close friend. Similar events were arranged in Kolkata and at NCPA in Mumbai. Some rare photos taken by Sunil Janah were also displayed. Excerpts of the BBC film were screened. At IGNCA in New Delhi, when going to the Kaladarshan section on staircase, one can see some photographs of Shanta Rao displayed on the wall. Or else, for the young generation of dancers  today Shanta Rao is forgotten. I am hopeful that some of her valuable material could be displayed at IGNCA and on the occasion of her death anniversary some lectures in her memory be arranged by prominent dance scholars. The dance world owes it to her.

The writer is an eminent dance historian

Tags: sangeet natak akademi, shanta rao