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  • Published 22.08.12

Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Arts completes 25 years. How was it conceived?

It was born out of the ideas that Ananda had. Coming from a family of artistes and being the son of a dancer, a male dancer [Uday Shankar], he always wanted to encourage dance as a very dignified profession. In those days, dance was taboo. As a hobby it was okay, as a profession, a no-no. Ananda believed, if one is an outstanding dancer, can do it with dignity, then why not take it up as a profession?

He always felt very privileged that he was born into the Shankar family and would say ‘I have the Shankar tag behind me but there are lot of young people who are probably much more talented than me but do not find a platform where someone might present them.’ That was another reason for starting the institution.

Picture by Rashbehari Das

He called it a centre for performing arts because it wasn’t meant to be just about dance but theatre, music or anything that is performed on stage. Ananda also inculcated into the students discipline, like being punctual, neat, well-dressed. He was a fun-loving person but during rehearsals he was a tyrant! That has helped students in their future lives and profession.

Thirdly, he wanted more people to follow the dance technique that Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar started or else it wouldn’t survive.

What is the Shankar technique?

It’s not classical but a different medium that has its own grammar. We don’t call it creative or contemporary because both the terms have a very vast connotation. We call it the Shankar technique of new dance and have our own definition for the style. It’s Indian in origin and spirit, modern in presentation with universal appeal.

With so many popular dance forms now available for youngsters to learn in the city, is there a need to keep evolving the Shankar technique?

You need to learn one language properly before you decide to do classical or pop. We never stop anyone from going ahead with any form of dance one is interested in because if your body is tuned, whatever you do will look good on you. So we train the body with our technique so that later on whatever our students want to do, it looks good on their body. Also, our themes for a ballet or a short piece are very universal.

What are your roots in dance?

I started dancing when I was 13. My father, who was a doctor in the army, got posted in Calcutta. He was a big fan of Uday Shankar-Amala Shankar and said that if he had to admit me into a dance school it would have to be theirs. I was around 10 or 12 and had no clue who they were. Prior to that, during my father’s army life, I was doing gidda and bhangra on Baisakhi and the usual pujor naach during Durga Puja!

On joining the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre, which was run by my (future) mother-in-law Amala Shankar, I started to learn Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Manipuri. Three pure classical styles, which we weren’t mixing and matching to create a fourth form. And of course the innovative creative dance classes with Ma (Amala Shankar) where she would get us to create movements that could become a dance form.

Tanusree and daughter Sreenanda pose for Ananda Shankar’s camera

Do you remember the first major performance you choreographed?

My sister’s father-in-law told Ananda that I should choreograph the annual programme for La Martiniere. Aami toh Anandake khimchochhi pichhon theke (I was desperately trying to tell Ananda from the back, I can’t)! I had no confidence. Amakey keu naach shikhiye dilo, aami naach kore dilam (I would just learn the dance and then perform it). I didn’t want to get into choreography but knowing Ananda, he wasn’t going to let me off so easily. For him, there was no ‘I can’t’. Everything has a first time. So in 1976 or ’77 I did my first show.

How did you and Ananda meet?

At the dance school (laughs). His father wasn’t well so he had stayed back in America. When I got admitted to the dance school, Ananda was still there. I first saw him in 1970 January when he came down from the States, flower-powered, with long hair and big sideburns. He had just recorded his first album so he was playing the spool to everybody invited to listen. I too went to listen as a dance school girl and then over a period of time we started dating. I was 13 and Ananda was 13-and-a-half-years older than me! My daughter tells me ‘You dare not say anything to anyone. Tumi nijei toh emon depo chhile (You were so precocious)!’ (Laughs)

Tanusree with Amala Shankar, producer-director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and Mamata Shankar at Cannes in May this year;

A 13-year-old going on dates in the 1970s must not have been easy…

VERY difficult! I used to have special classes every morning. Not everyday, but I still had them to meet Ananda! (Laughs) It was a tough time but I don’t blame my parents or my mother-in-law because they thought ‘What would a 13-year-old know about bhalobasha and prem?’ Those days they were more naive. Nobody took me seriously. They thought he’s a good-looking man, she’s infatuated. And I survived! Because I grew up in army life, all boys my age were like friends. You need somebody to look up to, older to you, who will protect you. That was what probably attracted me to him.

I got married when I was 17 and Ananda would always tease me: ‘I fell in love with you, but you didn’t even know what was happening to you. You just got married!’

Well, I wish it was that way but it wasn’t. (Smiles)

Did you feel the pressure of marrying into the Shankar family?

You know, it wasn’t there, to be very honest. I think it was because of my age. I was too young to even understand that pressure. When I look back now, sometimes I feel it was wonderful to get married at that young age. You sort of grow up and get moulded into the family. Ananda used to tease my parents that he was going to charge them for bringing me up after 17! (Laughs)

It’s true. Ananda actually mentored me. I was a young girl and he used to condition me. ‘Ebar jodi tumi first division na pao, don’t talk to me!’ Such pressure and stress, khub raag hoto (I would be very angry)! No love, no romance. I used to be sitting and studying all the time. I don’t think I had ever paid so much attention to my books before marriage. I was happy to be a housewife… ektu ghor gochhabo, ektu ranna korbo. I had grown up seeing my mother doing that. He knew I was at a very vulnerable age where I could get carried away with falling in love and studies would go down the drain... But it was good that he pushed me. I not only got first division but letter marks in three subjects. He would also tell his students to not be like a vegetable but make their lives worth living.

A teenaged Tanusree as Yashodhara

Was it a battle for you to deal with those who wrote you off as a fluke or a dancer by marriage?

I don’t think so. In the first place, I wasn’t a very ambitious person. I wish I was but I still am not. You know, Ananda used to say a very beautiful thing — ‘People will come to see your work for the first time because you are Uday Shankar-Amala Shankar’s daughter-in-law and Ananda Shankar’s wife. But if you’re not worth it, they won’t come back again’. That was my test.

Today, I enjoy doing what I’m doing. Teaching and seeing our dancers being recognised for their work. Onek taka korbo, onek naam korbo (Lots of money and fame), and then what? I want to be comfortable and enjoy what I do. I’ve never wanted to get under any kind of pressure. Jodi bhalo kaaj kori (If I do good work), it will all come. It’ll take time but people will realise.

Probably my spiritual side has awakened now. Not that aami sharakkhon bhogobaner jop korchhi but I feel that as artistes we are very lucky that people buy tickets to come and see us. So we do need to give something back to society. Your conscience should be clear. I’ve really worked at it to create that happy space for myself. I’ve always been a patient and positive person. If I want I can keep on brooding and slip down into darkness. Why should I? I want to see the sun shine and I’ve taken my life into that phase. People tell me, ‘Tanusree tomay shobai tupi poriye jaay. I laugh and say, ‘poraak na… aajkal onek rod aar brishti. I don’t care.’ (Smiles)

Do you still feel the onus of carrying forward the family legacy?

Yes, of course. And Ananda is still a driving force. Aami ekhono boli that after that hairpin turn in my life in 1999, whatever I’m doing till date, I think it’s Ananda still sitting here somewhere in this room [in their Palm Avenue residence] and pushing me. The first three or four years were really tough. When he was around, I used to really sit back. No responsibilities on my shoulders. Then suddenly you’re pushed down with loads and loads of responsibility and I had to strengthen my back to take that responsibility. It was tough but we have wonderful friends who have stood by me and the institution. Something uncanny is still taking us forward.

Is your daughter (Sreenanda) keen to step into your shoes?

Mishtu has suddenly awoken to dancing. Recently, she’s been on a few tours with us too. She’s also planning to come and stay here and do some dancing for the next few months. I never forced her and now Mishtu is slowly taking an interest in dance. She is a director in the dance company and wants to take it forward. It’s very important for this want to come on its own. Also, we have some wonderful teachers and the whole idea is to have good teachers who will carry forward this style.

You accompanied Amala Shankar to Cannes in May for the screening of Kalpana. Sum up that experience for us...

Cannes was a great experience, especially for Ma. For a 94-year-old to walk the red carpet was fabulous. Mamo (Mamata Shankar) and I were just hangers on with Ma. She went to Cannes after 80 years and it was full of great moments for Ma. To travel out of the country after so many years, to get that limelight, to talk about Kalpana to a packed hall and get a standing ovation when she said ‘I’m the youngest over here’.... It was wonderful.

Don’t you wish to act in more films?

There are a lot of young dynamic directors now and Bengali cinema is doing well, so yes I wish I did more but because I’m so involved with dance, to suddenly take out 15 to 20 days becomes difficult for me. People come to me with television serial offers but I tell them not to take me. I won’t be able to do justice. But if there’s a role worth giving two months of my days to, then I would.

Haven’t you ever wanted to choreograph for a film?

It’s always been there at the back of mind. Having said that, I’m not very good with the camera. Most Bollywood choreographers are fabulous with camera lengths and shots. That is an area I’m not good at. I’ll have to learn before I jump into choreographing for a film. If someone approaches me, I’ll take the initiative and learn. After Padmavati, Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) had expressed that he wanted to work with me so I’m still waiting to hear from him!

After large-scale musical productions like Chirantan and The Child, what next?

We want to re-stage We The Living in December on Ananda’s birthday. We’ve worked on a piece on Swami Vivekananda called Jagaran. We also plan to bring in a few foreign choreographers to our centre for residency with our dancers. Our teachers have offers to attend and conduct workshops in the US, UK and Canada so that is a project I want to work towards. Very recently, we’ve turned the Ananda Shankar Centre For Performing Arts into a charitable trust. We’ve taken the dance academy out of it and made it the Tanusree Shankar Dance Academy because now we want the centre to provide other facilities. We’re also planning twice-a-month addas with established artistes who youngsters can look up to, apart from foreign scholarships.

Your idol/inspiration in dance:

My father-in-law and mother-in-law, Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar.

A dance form you wish you knew:

Odissi and some very good jazz forms.

A song that you would love to choreograph:

A song composed by Kaka (Ravi Shankar) and sung by Lakshmi kakima (Ravi Shankar’s sister-in-law) called Yeh shaam jaane na doongi.

A dancer you’d love to work with:

Isha Sharvani. She’s a fantastic dancer. Her body is like rubber and she’s so good in her aerial work. I would like to do something with her in our style.

An oh-no moment on stage:

Music failure in the middle of a performance! The whole group was on stage including me. Then we did the whole thing in silence and they followed me. The biggest panic of my life!

A secret talent apart from dance:

Solving sudoku. I have to go through the sudoku column in t2 every morning before I do any work.

A filmmaker you’d like to work with:

Anurag Kashyap.

A recent film you watched and liked:

Bhooter Bhobishyot.

Favourite pastime:

Sitting with my laptop and Googling. I also read a lot.

Favourite dance production:

I’m a die-hard fan of Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and there’s a piece choreographed by Judith Jamieson with them called Hymn I saw in New York which still haunts me.

A favourite Bollywood choreographer:

Sarojji (Khan) has a stamp of her own. Among the new ones, I’ve seen Terence (Lewis) do a good job as well as Vaibhavi (Merchant).

The Shankars in one line:

Full of life and mad! My father-in-law used to say, ‘You can’t be creative unless you’re mad’. It’s a positive thing.

After 25 years of journeying with their styles and forms of dance, the Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Arts will take a walk Down Memory Lane with old students who have come together to dance and pay tribute to their “Anandada” at the two-hour-long show, in association with t2, at Kala Mandir on August 28. Around 80 students, both old and new, will perform 12 individual pieces ranging from folk medleys, theme-based pieces on sorrow, freedom, pollution of the Ganga... against a backdrop with a collage of old photographs. That apart there will be stories and anecdotes shared about their association with their guru and the centre. “Some have put on weight, some have turned mothers. A few haven’t danced for more than 14 years and someone has come from as far as London to take part in this reunion show. It’s a beautiful feeling,” said Tanusree Shankar. t2 caught up with some in between their rehearsals at the Palm Avenue address.

Anindita Kapileshwari, television actress

I was a part of the first batch and learnt here for almost eight years, and then was associated with the school for 12 years. After leaving the troupe I got into acting but haven’t been dancing much. It will be my first stage performance after almost 10 years. It feels amazing. Khub emotional hoye porechhi! I have deferred all my shooting dates till this show is over.

Mitali Sinha, homemaker

I was teaching here from the day the centre started and left when my daughter was born in 2006. It’s great to see all the students who were so young back then, return. Whatever we’re doing in life today is rooted in the discipline that we’ve imbibed from this centre. Not only dance. Anandada’s discipline and punctuality — be it saying ‘namaskar’ to everyone, keeping our shoes properly, putting our hand to the mouth while yawning, not putting safety pins on our uniform.... He also taught manners and etiquette to students before they travelled abroad for shows — how to hold the knife and fork or how to pull the shower curtain after using the bathroom.... He was a perfectionist. He would even match the time on his watch with BBC! It’s not just an institution for dance, this centre grooms you as an individual.... Anandada’s motto was that the show must go on and Tanusreedi is carrying that forward.

Debraj Goswami, network engineer at an IT firm

I belonged to the 1990 batch. I was there as a student for six years and then I worked in the troupe for three years. In the IT sector I belong to, we’re always under a lot of stress. This place provides a kind of breather. When I heard that such a reunion was happening, I decided to take time out and balance my work with rehearsing for this show. A lot of manners and ethics that help me in my IT work is influenced by my days as a dancer. Punctuality, perfection and even that sense of time management is something I learnt here. Sometimes I can’t decide whether I miss this institution more or only the dancing.

Rita Kundu, 54, teacher

I joined in 1977, way before the school had even started. After that I’ve been a troupe member, performing artiste as well as a teacher. I’m still a part of the school because of my love for teaching...this world, these duties. Rehearsals with old students for the 25th-year celebration are turning out to be exciting. Eto hoi choi je shobai pagol hoye gechhe (Everyone’s going crazy)!

Protima Chatterjee, travel executive in London

I had started performing with the troupe when Anandada had revived his orchestra. After eight years of learning, performing and teaching with the troupe I had to leave in 1993 because my husband got transferred to America. The moment I heard about this reunion show, I packed my bags and came running from London. I’ve been here for a month. It’s so exciting. So much I’ve learnt and gained from this centre. Tanusreedi’s style of new-age dance is the gateway to Indian dance if foreigners want to learn. Because it’s so much in the middle. Not hard and rigid like classical forms, nor is it Bollywood.

Joydip Guha, 43, dancer

I’ve been with the troupe since 1986 as a professional dancer. We were 12 of us in that batch and I’m the only one still around. This show will help us show everyone that what we learnt hasn’t been forgotten, as well as the healthy relationship that still exists between us. It’s like a get-together between the old and new.

Mohua Das
What does the Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Arts mean to you?