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Amala Shankar Pours Her Heart Out On The Red Sofa. Only T2 Was There   |   Published 03.07.13, 12:00 AM

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Peace (at the Royal Albert Hall) CD was playing on the stereo when his sister-in-law, 95-year-young Amala Shankar, accompanied by her daughter Mamata Shankar (and her husband Chandrodoy Ghosh), arrived at The Conclave for The Red Sofa conversations on a Monday evening. Waiting for her were grandsons Ratul and Rajit. Ratul introduced his Dida with whom he never fails to share the first mango every year: “It’s kind of a blessing from her.” Over to Amala Shankar, who turned 95 on June 27.

Rita Bhimani: Recently your exhibition was mounted (“Nabajiban” at the Academy of Fine Arts). You started painting with your nails and fingers on glass slides for Uday Shankar’s shadow play Lord Buddha. Tell us about the first thing you did when you drew for Uday Shankar; when none of the technicians could match up to the drawings that you did....

Amala Shankar: My husband hesitated to put up the show around Buddha without some landscape or colour. He said: “How can I present Buddha in black and white?” So he tried as background some of the best Indian architecture –– Ajanta, Ellora…. He had spent a lot of money on the slides that were to be projected on a 40-by-35 feet screen. The lights for the show had been brought from England. When the slides were projected, they spoilt the shadow effect; it became muddy. I just took a slide and with my finger and watercolour did like this (with her fingers) and drew trees and more… these were projected on the screen. That was a wonderful moment. I went on to do 82 slides. Sometimes I would be halfway through a slide and he would snatch it away!

How did you manage to paint so many other religious themes? You painted Christ, you painted people from mythology…

I was a little girl from a village, living in a house with a thatched roof. I would watch rain fall for hours while a kerosene lamp glowed. We were not very rich… a very ordinary family but a family full of ideas. Ours was a joint family, full of happiness. When rice –– enough for four months –– came to the house, the floor was cleaned and all of us would sit around and father (Akshay Nandi) would ask us to make a relief map of India with all the mountains and rivers, and sing patriotic songs like Jedin Sunil jaladhi hoite…. We would learn so much at home.

Cut to the red carpet at Cannes (in 2012) for Uday Shankar’s film Kalpana (1948). When the film was shown at Cannes, there was a standing ovation. Mamata (Shankar) was there; Tanushree (Shankar) was there…

After 81 years, I had gone back to Cannes. And on this occasion as the heroine of the film! (Mamata Shankar chips in: “She went on the stage and said she was the youngest heroine there!”) Life is full of miracles. Everybody can be like Amala Shankar. Whatever you do, do with love; enjoy your work. I find beauty in everything. There are so many things to tell…

Tell us a bit about Kalpana in which you played Uma. There were 82 dance sequences…

One dance is special –– “Dhinak na teen”. During the making of Kalpana, we took a three-day holiday. Mamata was not born then. We (Uday, Amala and son Ananda) checked into a hotel and ordered room service. We were waiting for lunch which was not coming… Shankar said “dhinak na teen” and I said “tinak nateen”, and then I said “dhinak nateen” and Shankar said “tinak nateen” and that’s how a song was created! You can see this in Kalpana.

Tell us about the time you visited Paris (at age 11, in 1930) with your father for an exposition and there you met Uday Shankar...

It was all arranged by God.

When you met them (the Shankars), they asked you to come and play with them. You were friendly with Ravi Shankar or Robu. Tell us about the time when your future husband wasn’t really interested in you!

I didn’t know what it was to dream. I was six years old and was sleeping. I dreamt that against a blue sky there was a mountain range. Goddess Saraswati appeared wearing a purple sari. She said: “Bilet jao” (go to England), and I said: “But I can’t speak their language”. The Goddess replied: “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you”. My father had been to England a year before that, for the British Empire exhibition. I told mom about my dream; that’s the first dream I remember. My father was invited to the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris. I was only 11 years old. My father asked me whether I wanted to travel with him. I agreed. When we reached Paris the only thing I heard was “tres belle” (very beautiful) but I thought they were saying something bad! I couldn’t believe that people in Paris considered me beautiful.

I knew there was a person called Uday Shankar. I thought he was an elderly person with a long, white beard like Rabindranath Tagore… a retired person living in Paris!

And so we met these four young boys. And one of them was Uday Shankar. When I visited his place, his mother (Hemangini Devi) hugged me. She made me wear a Dhakai sari. I had long thick hair and she groomed me for 30 minutes. Robu was wearing a long pyjama, rolled around his waist. In Robu I had found a brother. The whole day we were together, either stealing something from the kitchen or playing in the garden. My (future) father-in-law said we were playing all the time and gossiping. He asked us to write an essay on Paris. Robu soon excused himself, saying he had to go to the toilet or something like that. And then after sometime he said that his mother was calling me. This is how we skipped writing the essay! We both had so many cherries that we both got diarrhoea! We were also given Kashiram Das’s Mahabharata by his father. We started reading that.

Uday Shankar, whom I called Borda, one day asked whether I could do a certain dance movement. Borda, Mejda, Sejda… Uday Shankar, Rajendra Shankar and Debendra Shankar… and then there was Robu... He showed me a movement (enacts the movement) and I copied it. And then he handed over a stick and asked me to make another movement,which I copied once again. He told my father that if I considered taking up dancing, I would do very well. Back then I had no idea what dancing meant.

His family was travelling to America and my father was asked that I be left behind. Back then that was quite a big thing to do. My father had a magazine called Matrimandir. When Anna Pavlova visited India he wrote in the editorial that he had seen a glimmer of hope… women from good families had gone to see the performance of this amazing lady. Other papers didn’t agree. When I first danced, other newspapers critisised me because in those days dance was looked down upon.... My father wished that I would become a writer. Uday Shankar’s mother was very fond of me and she told my father that I would be safe with them.

Did you cry when Uday Shankar proposed to you?

It was God’s decision, a divine decision. My parents never forced me into marriage. My younger sister got married. So many people said Amala would never get married because her younger sister was already married. My father gave me the responsibility to find a husband. I never thought of marrying Uday Shankar. He was performing (Kartikeya) in Calcutta at Madan Theatre… this was 1935. His mother, my mother, my father and I were there. An announcement was made that Uday Shankar will now be presenting a dance based on classical style. As he made his entrance, I said aloud in English: “This is the man of my life!” I fell in love but I never thought I would be fortunate enough to marry him.

But tell us what happened on December 7, 1939…

Dilip Roy wanted Subhas (Chandra Bose) to see me dance. So he arranged a performance. Jnan Prakash Ghosh was on the tabla and Montuda (Dilip Roy) sang. After the dance was over Subhas Bose requested my father to send me to the institution Uday Shankar was planning to open. Eventually I went to his institute in Almora in June (1938). I was in love with him but I never expressed it.

We had a show in Madras on December 7. After the show all of us had dinner and then we retired to our rooms. Half-an-hour later he knocked on my door. He entered the room and sat in a chair and I sat at one of the corners on my bed. He announced that he had decided to marry. He then asked me if I wanted to know her name. I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘Amala’, and I burst into tears of joy!

Mathures Paul

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