A Documentary on Simkie, Uday Shankar's Dance Partner

Saturday, April 7, 2012
I recently came across the documentary Simkie Paris-Delhi made in 2008 by Charlotte Arrighi de Casanova and was thrilled by what it contained!  The documentary's subject is Simkie, the French woman who was Uday Shankar's dance partner for some 20 years.  She is the woman often seen in stills dancing next to Uday, and in articles about Uday she generally gets at least a passing mention and at most  the revelation that her real name was Simone Barbier and she transitioned from being a pianist to being Uday's closest dance partner.  But I've never been able to find more about her personal life such as who she was, how she as a European became interested in Indian dance, how people reacted to her, what she herself thought of Uday's dance style, authenticity issues, etc.  This documentary, made by Simkie's niece, helps shed a bit more light on the elusive figure.  Here it is:

Embedding disabled; click image to go to video.

The documentary is comprised almost entirely of interviews of Simkie's relatives and former dance associates interspersed with rare photos and shots of modern Indian street life and dance practice.  While the first half is mostly in French with no subtitles, most of the interviewees in the second half speak English.  The cinematography is lovely, the pace reflective and languid, and the mood a bit sad, almost forlorn.

Half of the value in the documentary is seeing and hearing from all of the wonderful people interviewed, some of whom may not be with us that much longer.  Among the many: Simkie's daughter Minnie and cousin Francoise, Uday Shankar's widow Amala and younger brother Ravi Shankar (the famous sitarist), former dance company member Zohra Segal, dancers Amala Devi and Uma Sharma, and a few other folks.

Many of the remembrances are very sweet and dance-focused; my favorites were Minnie's remembrance of her mother as a 'hippie' following her dream, Ravi Shankar's adorable imitation of the faux-neck movements of Paris cabaret dancers in 1931, and Zohra Seghal's imitations of Uday and Simkie's creative movements (and yes, it's the same Zohra who's acted as an adorable elderly woman in many recent films- I had no idea of her past dance history with Uday Shankar and his style!).  But what's perhaps most interesting, and what most fits with the tone of the documentary, are some of the more critical, real-life comments from Zohra Sehgal and Amala Shankar.  Zohra notes ("off the record") that she thought Simkie gradually became jealous of Zohra's importance in the troupe and later left to return to France. Simkie's departure was discussed in a more emotional tone by Amala Shankar who noted that Simkie inexplicably cut herself off from everyone and refused to meet with Zohra and Ravi. These revelations, along with those about her transforming herself into an Indian appearance and persona, made me curious about Simkie's inner life and suspicious that she might have been a person who sought to escape her society to the exotic world of the orient, but it's hard to say, and there certainly are likely more insights in the documentary in French that I didn't understand.

Perhaps the documentary's greatest value is the rare visuals it provides: lots of photos of Simkie from the interviewees personal photo albums, and even a video clip of Simkie and Uday dancing.  It's the same one that Richard at the Dances on the Footpath blog discovered a while back, but the documentary disappointingly shows only small fragments of it in slow motion; the video on Richard's post is much better.

Here are some lovely screencaps:

Simkie

Left: Simkie, Zohra, Amala, and others; Right: Simkie and Amala Shankar

Simkie's Dance Notebooks

Simkie and Zohra Segal

Uday Shankar

I was able to find out a few more bits of information on Simkie outside of the documentary, which lovely as it is still leaves questions unanswered.  From the sources:
"...It was the Frenchwoman Simone Barbier, an accomplished pianist who could score [Shankar's] music in western notation, who understood and learned to move as an Indian dancer...Between 1924 and 1930 (the year he returned to India to found his first troupe) Shankar experimented with teaching non-Indians to move like Indians. This experience of training others provided him with crucial components of his performance texts for translation and initiated a method of transmission which helped make his French partner Simkie an Indian dancer. Simkie was not promoted as a westerner who had learned Indian dance. She was so convincingly Indian that spectators usually thought she was an Indian. Only if they came backstage to meet her did they learn her nationality. She was also warmly and approvingly received in India, according to interviews with troupe members and others who recalled her appearances there." (Performance as Translation: Uday Shankar in the West)  "The success of the group did not decrease when Simkie's nationality became known, a point to be noted as the company at least in the beginning built a lot of its success on the supposed authentic Indian background of its members."  (Shiva Onstage: Uday Shankar's Company of Hindu Dancers...)

"It was a very important occasion when his French pianist, Simone Barbier (whom he called Simkie), started to learn dancing from him and became his partner, for she had enormous talent and mastered his style to perfection...The combination of tandava and lasya is as crucial in Indian art as it is in Indian religion and philosophy: the great god Shiva is helpless, lying in a slumber, and needs his shakti-his feminine aspect before he can be creative. Uday Shankar understood very clearly this aspect of Indian religion and aesthetics, and it enabled him to give magic to his ballets...Shankar radiated masculine power onstage, and Simkie's charming femininity acted as a perfect foil for his masculinity. Together they created magic."  (Honoring Uday Shankar)
Simkie seems to get the most attention in Mohan Khokar's book "His Dance, His Life: A Portrait of Uday Shankar," but I've not been able to locate a copy so far.  A book exclusively devoted to Simkie is long overdue as there is clearly much more to her life story.

14 comments:

  1. Except for a few stills, I did not get a chance to see any of the dances of Uday Shankar or Simkie. Recently, I tried to find a copy of Kalpana in Kolkata but somebody who has been trying to get it for Jadhavpur University archives said that he could not get it. There are news items of its revival
    http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-02-04/news-interviews/28145270_1_martin-scorsese-world-cinema-foundation-classics
    After seeing your article, I came across this
    http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/theatre_s/research/jnu/resources/boundaries_and_beyond.pdf
    which has a number of references.

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  2. Khokar's book seems to be available on eBay
    http://www.ebay.ca/sch/sis.html?_nkw=Vintage+40s+UDAY+SHANKAR+SIMKIE+HINDU+BALLET+Photo+Lot

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  3. Sorry for too many comments, one of those topics that gets me. It seems that Simkie choreographed for a couple of Hindi films Awaara and Jhansi ki Rani under the name Madame Simkie. For Awara news check the article by Syresh Kohli, scrolling down, in
    http://indembassy.org/Embassy/images/englishaug2010.pdf

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    1. hello gaddeswarup! No problem about all the comments, I love comments--especially informative comments like yours. Yes, Kalpana prints are quite elusive! I discussed that issue on my obscure wish list post, and two commenters confirmed the existence of at least two separate prints, and there seem to be many other copies "unofficially" floating around out there from what I've heard. I hope some day a copy is made available to the public.

      And thank you for the warwick Boundaries and Beyond article, I've not seen it before and it looks to have a very interesting discussion of modern Indian dance, Tagore, Uday, and a few rare screenshots from Kalpana! A great find.

      And last, I'm so excited that you mentioned Simkie's film choreographies! I just recently learned of those two films she worked on, and I plan on including her in a big post series about film choreographers I am diligently working on. She choreographed the dream sequence in Awaara and the two dances from Jhansi Ki Rani I featured on my Western Coproductions post. I found out a few tidbits about those film choreographies that I'll feature in the upcoming series. Thanks again for stopping by and for your excellent information, as always!

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  4. Minai,
    I have now read the book (thanks for mentioning the book) and posted some excerpts in my blog, even though I am not very much into arts:
    http://gaddeswarup.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/excellent-book-about-uday-shankar.html

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    1. Thanks again Gaddeswarup - What wonderful information you've presented for us folks to read who can't readily get a copy of the book. Muchas gracias!! :)

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  5. fascinated to read about Madam Simkie ; I found myself sitting neext to an european lady at a cocert of Pt Ravishanker found myfingers grasoed by this lady ! much to myshock I had also met her at Samovar Bombay Fort we had talked and talked
    she was agitated and said " so and so " is a squeezed lemon" demonstrating the same
    I did not know who she was . I was told it was Simkie .
    Wish I had known then
    but someone came over and said " she should have married Udaya Shankar

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    1. Hello! How fascinating--you must have met her in the 80s or 90s when she was quite old, is that right?

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  6. I came here looking for Awara dream sequence choreographer. Thanks very much for sharing the link on this extraordinary documentary.

    Unfortunatly, valuable information is not clearly stated unless you listen very carefully. For instance, she was born in 1910 (year of famous Paris floods) and died in 1998 (10 years before this documentary). You also understand from her cousin that Simone leaving to become a dancer with an indian dancer at about 16 was not very welcomed by the wealthy Barbier family. Eventhough her aunt Carole was a "little gipsy" and her father was an artist was not enough for such a radical move.

    In addition, I suppose some details are misleading. I don't think she was a pianist. Her father was, but at 16, when she met Uday, she was not, at least not a professional one. She was learning "exotic dance" (at it was called at the time in France) with Jeanne Ronsay when Uday was invited as a teacher in 1926.

    The man must have been very impressive since at least two young women followed him right away : Simone Barbier which would become Simkie (Simone Jeanne Barbier was her full name) and Alice Boners a young Swiss sculptres, It should be noted that Michelle Damour, a French dancer, was on stage with Uday and Simkie at Salle Pleyel (a famous theater in Paris) on December 15th 1928. By the way, it means that Simkie was very fast at learning indian dance.

    Two important dates are missing in the documentary : Simkie married Prabhat Ganguli (who would become an important choreographer and who passed away in 2006) in 1942. The Almora center was closed in 1943 and I assume it is about at that time that Simkie started to work for All India Radio.

    Soon she divorced from Prabhat and married an englishman, Minnie's father.

    She must have been in India in 1950-1951 to work on Awara's choreography, and was still involved in dance in 1957 since she published a paper on that subject at that time.

    Well, it's already far too long for a comment :)

    BTW: a nice portrait of Simkie that is shown in documentary is available here : http://catalogue.gazette-drouot.com/images/perso/full/LOT/42/5176/124.jpg
    It could have been taken around 1930 and "Shankar New-York" is hand-written at its back.

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    1. Hello Mel, Well my intention to come back and respond to your comment later took a bit longer than I thought! I wish I could say something more intelligent at the moment, but I would need to go back and read through and dig through all the research I did on Simkie's life around the time of this post. I had intended to do a very detailed follow-up post but have not gotten around to it yet. Your comments inspired me to try to write it up soon! I've forgotten a lot of what I read, unfortunately! Thanks for the comments about the documentary. I recall I paid someone $5 online to translate the voiceover into English for me (quite a small sum for such a task!), and I thank you for the information you gleaned from the documentary. I recall from my research discovering that the name she came to be known later with was Simkie Hannan, and it seems she was trained in piano by a Manuel Infante for ten years when she was younger. Thanks for the portrait link--I love that photo of her. Let me dust off my dormant research and see if I can get a post out in the near future...:)

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  7. I am sure many of you know now that Kalpana 1948 and many other rare films are available on the indiancine.ma site https://indiancine.ma/grid/year

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    1. Yes, thank you--I blogged about this quite a bit over the past couple of years. :)

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  8. when did Simkie leave Uday Shankar's troupe? Can't find the date, would appreciate it if you could tell me.

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    1. Hello Roshen, It's been awhile since I did my research on Simkie, and I have a post in draft on her but have never finished it. It’s hard to piece together the last years of her association with Shankar. In Mohan Khokar's book on Uday Shankar, it said "in a mere five years, beginning in 1942, the parting of ways was complete. Simkie gave up performing altogether and tried for a while to direct dance in Bombay films. This discouraged her further. She then joined the External services of All India Radio. This, too, was not for very long. Finally she left India, demoralized and hurt, never to return to this country. She has since preferred to keep religiously away from anything connected with the Shankar cult." In the documentary on Simkie, I had a note that someone said Simkie "left for France after the tour of India." The 1949 issue of Dance Magazine (volume 23) had this quote: "Simkie, the former partner of Shankar, has returned to France after nine years in India, and is appearing in solo concerts in Paris. Her name is now Madame Ganguli and she has a three year old daughter." From my research, Shankar stopped touring in 1938 and returned to India to start his infamous Almora Centre which officially opened in 1940. At some point Simkie married one of the dancers there, Prabhat Ganguli, but the marriage was reportedly not a happy one. It is at this point, around the time when she reportedly left Shankar, that the details about her life are murky at best. Zohra Segal in the documentary had noted she felt Simkie got jealous of Zohra's importance of the troupe and after the peninsular tour went back permanently to France. But Simkie was at the Almora Centre after Shankar stopped touring in 1938. The Almora Centre shut down in 1944 and Shankar moved to Madras in 1945 to work on Kalpana for four years. After the Centre shut down, many of the members seem to have gotten involved with the "Cultural Squad" or "Central Troupe" of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural arm of India's Communist Party. Among the documented members were Ravi Shankar, Shanti Bardhan, Sachin Shankar, Narendra Sharma, Prabhat Ganguli. One source revealed a surprise--that Simkie was involved! It describes the "Central group of 30 people composing dances and shadow play under direction of Madame Simkie, Prabhat Ganguly, and Debendra Shankar." Ravi Shankar in his autobiography says that a year later in 1946 he and most of the others associated formerly with Almora left. It's difficult to get a good picture of how the cultural group evolved, but apparently Ravi then formed a close group post IPTA sponsored first by the Indian National Theatre and later independently as "India Renaissance Artists." What’s hard to fit in is that she choreographed for least two films in the early 1950s in India: Awaara in 1951 and Jhansi ki Rani in 1953. In the documentary, Miss Butani speaks of how she worked with Simkie on the radio in Delhi. She says Simkie's background with Uday Shankar's troupe was impressive when she came to work at AIR but she never talked about her private or past life. Said Simkie eventually left radio to marry an Englishman she had met in Bombay and then they went to live in England.
      TLDR: My guess is that she returned to France in 1949, but returned to India a year or two later to do film choreography and join All India Radio, meet her husband, and go to England.
      I've not listed sources and citations like I do in posts, but hope that helps! At some point I'll have to dust my post off and get it published. Some day!

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