Given Menaka's importance to Kathak dance and her billing as a dancer using Kathak technique, I was perplexed when I first watched her troupe's performances in Der Tiger Von Eschnapur. The first dance segment had absolutely nothing to do with Kathak and the second only marginally so; both seemed to be presenting a generic, "exotic" Uday Shankar-style aesthetic that did not follow any particular form of Indian classical dance and instead looked inspired by Javanese dance. At the time I figured Menaka must have bowed to the demands of the film which wanted to feature an "oriental" spectacle.
But this interpretation was turned on its head this week when I got a hold of the late Kathak dancer Damayanti Joshi's biography of Madame Menaka. Joshi explicitly notes the dances in Der Tiger Von Eschnapur were excerpts from two of Menaka's earliest dance-drama creations, Krishna Leela and Deva Vijaya Nritya! What's more, the costumes are clearly authentic pieces straight from the real-life productions, and it's highly likely the music is authentic as well. What conclusions can be drawn from this striking information? I'll get to my thoughts later on in the post, but first I want to review the songs again and reveal who the dancers were.
Here is a photo from Joshi's book which identifies all the troupe members shown in the Der Tiger Von Eschnapur film dance:
Finally names to match to these striking faces! Now we now that the lead male dancer in Der Tiger Von Eschnapur and the solo dancer in Temples of India was Ramnarayan Mishra, Menaka's chief male partner in the troupe, who was humorously described by an acquaintance as "an arrogant young Brahmin boy from the U.P." (Palit). Surprisingly, Mishra was a trained Kathak dancer as the son of Pandit Ramdutt Mishra and the cousin of the eminent Shambhu Maharaj (uncle of the phenomenal Birju Maharaj). The other male dancer seen in the film dance was troupe member Gauri Shankar who was also a trained Kathak dancer under his father Devi Lal and uncle Shiv Lal (Banerji). It's interesting that all the male dancers and gurus in Menaka's troupe and school seemed to be from hereditary, traditional Kathak backgrounds, but all the female dancers were not (hereditary women were likely not welcome). As Joshi notes, "Menaka never employed professional (or nautch) dancers in her troupe but took girls from middle-class, respectable families and trained them." How lovely it is to learn that the shortest girl in the film dance is Damayanti Joshi herself who grew up with Menaka, danced in her troupe, and would later become a well-known Kathak artist and was featured in the 1970 Indian Films Division Documentary on Kathak.
The Film Dances
Here again are the film dances presented with the new information I've gathered (and sorry about the DailyMotion platform; I hate them too!):
|Deva Vijaya Nritya|
Temples of India (1938, Britain) - While beautifully shot (and in brilliant color for 1938!), this British documentary/travelogue tries to pass itself off as a serious look at Hinduism but is full of inaccuracies and seems most interested in presenting a bizarre and "exotic" Indian religion. I commented more about it in my previous post, but at 6:50, Ramnarayan performs Shiva's "dance of destruction" that the film seems to be presenting as an authentic temple dance. Once again, it looks like something Uday Shankar might have performed and has nothing to do with Kathak. Menaka is said to have choreographed many "divertissements"--solo, duet and group dances presented before the main productions. One solo piece I read about numerous times in Western reviews was Ramnarayan's solo dance as Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. I don't think it's a stretch to assume that this film dance might be an exact reproduction of that set piece.
So what can we infer now knowing that the dances in Der Tiger Von Eschnapur were excerpts from two of Menaka's earliest dance-drama creations, Krishna Leela and Deva Vijaya Nritya (and that the Temples of India dance was probably an authentic solo piece as well)?
Menaka learned Manipuri and Kathakali at one point during her career (and offered these and other forms as courses at her dance school), so initially I had wondered if the Deva Vijaya Nritya aesthetic was somehow inspired by those dance forms. Yet more than one account claims Menaka did not start incorporating Manipuri and Kathakali into her dances until her third dance drama production, Malavikagnimitram, in 1939. Menaka certainly would have known authentic Kathak given that she trained with the well-known Lucknow Gharana gurus Pandit Sitaram Prasad, Acchan Maharaj, and Lachhu Maharj. As noted above, Sitaram Prasad and Lachhu Maharaj even assisted with choreographing her first and second dance dramas respectively!
One could argue that such small video clips from popular cinema simply are not enough to make sweeping conclusions about Menaka's work. But as I showed above, all evidence points to the film dances as authentic reproductions of Menaka's real-life work, so even though they are brief and short they are rare and important! Words simply cannot do justice to the visual image which gives us documented proof that second-hand accounts cannot. And combining the videos with photographs seems to present a fair picture of how Menaka might have danced.
While Walker had to rely on photographs to assert that Menaka's ballets seemed "to owe much to Oriental dance," we get the pleasure of seeing documentary proof in video format thanks to the wonders of feature film. And some folks wonder why I get so excited about dance in films... ;)
I'll conclude this post with a quote from Menaka herself, in an article in Sound and Shadow magazine (1933), that doesn't quite seem to match what's been presented above. :)
P.S. - There is so much more to say about Menaka! There are a lot of gaps in Menaka's story, and I had to hunt around extensively for different sources to piece together something coherent. Here's a few tantalizing bits I read about from different sources:
- When Menaka first returned to India after her schooling in Europe, she and her sister Mira Chatterji danced in a group set up by female freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay!
- Menaka met her husband Dr. Sahed Singh Sokhey at the home of her friend, Princess Indira Raje of Baroda, where Menaka was exposed to Bharatanatyam through the performances of...guess who! The devadasis Kantimati and Gauri of Baroda!
- One of Menaka's troupe members, Shevanti, is the same Shevanti that dances next to Ram Gopal in this footage at the Victoria and Albert museum in London; Ram has said that Menaka introduced Shevanti to him.
- The performance that put Menaka and her troupe on the international map was their dances at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Germany. The games' dance portion ended up being a competition-turned-festival that simply awarded diplomas and prizes, but the games are fascinating to read about given the Nazi organizers desire to highlight their leader Adolf Hitler, their suppression of German modern dance at the games, and Martha Graham's refusal to participate! I wonder what the Indian athletes and dancers thought of the Nazis during their visit?
- Mentioned in Joshi's book, the University of Mumbai still awards a rotating "Menaka Trophy" for the Kathak winner in its dance/cultural competitions.
- Menaka met the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova who assigned one of her dancers (Algeranoff) to teach Menaka, and on Pavlova's second visit to India in 1928-29 Menaka choreographed three stage dances with Algeranoff! Oh how I wish I could find any information whatsoever on this (I'm trying to track down Algeranoff's book which seems to talk about it)...
- Most of all, I'd love to know what Menaka's attitudes toward the "nautch" dancers and their repertoire were and how she responded to critics of the time.
Sources and Further Reading:
Banerji, Projesh. Dance in Thumri.
Chakravorty, Pallabi. Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India.
Chakravorty, Pallabi. "Dancing Into Modernity: Multiple Narratives of India's Kathak Dance." Dance Research Journal.
Chattopadyay, Kamaladevi. Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoirs.
Joshi, Damayanti. Madame Menaka (Biography).
Joshi, Kusum. "Giants Who Reawakened Indian Dance." Hinduism Today.
Jost, Diana Brenscheidt gen. Shiva Onstage: Uday Shankar's Company of Hindu Dancers and Musicians in Europe and the United States, 1931-38.
Khokar, Ashish Mohan. "Pavlova and her India Links." Narthaki.com.
Kothari, Sunil - Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art.
Palit, D.K. Musings and Memories Volume 1.
Walker, Margaret Edith. Kathak Dance: A Critical History. PhD Dissertation.
Note: All images in the post are from Damayanti Joshi's book Madame Menaka.