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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:
Left: Simkie, Zohra, Amala, and others; Right: Simkie and Amala Shankar
Simkie's Dance Notebooks
Simkie and Zohra Segal
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...)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.
"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)