Rare Madame Menaka Find: The Menaka Archive

Saturday, November 16, 2019
A few days ago, an article on Madame Menaka by the great Indian dance historian Sunil Kothari was published in The Asian Age, and I was heartened to see that the title of his article is about his viewing a clip from "The Tiger of Hastinapur," which by his description of the brief tiger and king visuals and reference to my blog, is clearly the video clip I posted online years ago from the 1938 German feature film Der Tiger Von Eschnapur (see here and here) which, due to the editing program I used, included brief glimpses of the scenes before and after the dance sequence.  I love knowing that rare video clips I have posted or sourced are being seen by such knowledgeable people as Kothari who lived through so much of India's dance history!  There is some confusion and perhaps typos in Kothari's article, given that the photo and descriptions he references from Damayanti Joshi's book on Madame Menaka, which I own, actually refer to the film and the photo still as "Die Tiger von Eschnapur," not "The Tiger of Hastinapur," and he also amusingly refers to me as "Milai Milan." :)

Anyway, Kothari's article prompted me to see if any new Madame Menaka finds had surfaced online in recent years, and through a quick search I discovered something EXTRAORDINARY: some Indian dance and music history enthusiasts/scholars in Germany have created an online archive, "The Menaka Archive," dedicated entirely to Madame Menaka (aka Leila Roy-Sokhey, 1899-1947) and her Indian ballet group's European performance tour from 1936-1938 at http://menaka-archive.org Note that the archive is in the German language, and while it does have an English option, the English translations seem to be automatically generated so are not fully accurate;  I have linked to those pages or linked to/used automatic Google Translate translations throughout this post where possible (but for those that appear in German, you'll need to use the translation features of a browser like Google Chrome).

The archive looks to be the brainchild of two Germans, Markus Schlaffke, a documentary filmmaker and doctoral student at the Bauhaus University Weimar researching the Menaka Ballet in Europe, and Isabella Schwaderer, a research associate at the University of Erfurt who is also working on a project about the European reception of the 1936-1938 Menaka ballet tour.  The efforts looks to have sprung from the artistic research project/collective of which Schlaffke and Schwaderer seem to be a part, Zinda Naach, that has aimed to hold Indian dance performances in recent years along the original route of the Menaka tour.  In such coincidental timing related to Kothari's November 11 article this month, the Zinda Naach Facebook page (which writes in English) shared that The Menaka Archive went live a few days earlier on November 6, proclaiming:
... We are now able to trace Madame Menakas performances in Europe from an overall perspective for the first time. Over the last years we have researched documents of Menakas performances in Europe in hundreds of Archives and private collections. We have ordered these finds and assigned them to a digital database that is now available to the public as 'The Menaka Archive' (www.menaka-archive.org). We understand The Menaka Archive as a collaborative platform for further research and reconstruction of a specific history of artistic modernity, written jointly by dancers and musicians in India as well as in Germany ... The Zinda Naach performances will from now on continue as a series of events under the umbrella of The Menaka Archive in order to activate and decipher its archival findings. We kindly invite you to explore The Menaka Archive holdings and to contribute to its research program.
The first thing visitors to the Menaka Archive see is—guess what!—the other Menaka troupe dance from the 1938 film Der Tiger Von Eschnapur!  I think the archive's version, given the sharper appearance and some scratch lines, may come from a copy of the film in Germany, rather than the lesser-quality but longer one I had found and posted.  Here's a screencap of the archive's homepage:

Screencap from www.menaka-archive.org

Looking at the rest of the archive website, I quickly realized the incredibly-rare finds finds in it.  On the left-hand navigation, the "All" section under "Archive" brings up 539 thumbnails of many wonders: rare photos of Menaka's troupe, press and newspaper clippings, correspondence, notebooks, and a few AUDIO recordings from the troupe's musical ensemble!  It seems the other sections under "Archive" present some of the 539 archival documents in different ways—there is a map documenting the troupe's 1936-38 European tour performance locations, a chronological list of performances, repertoire list, and troupe identifications, all with many links that connect the viewer to an applicable archive document or holding if available!  The separate Journal section features a few articles that offer insightful scholarship and analysis related to Menaka's troupe, musicians, legacy, and broader perspectives on perceptions of dance, religion, and art in Europe at that time—though I found the automatically-generated English translation hard to understand in many places.

Screencap from www.menaka-archive.org

The archive's holdings are listed as coming from various sources mostly in Germany and The Netherlands, but one notable and significant source and partnership is from India: Sarod-maestro Irfan Muhammad Khan of the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur-Gharana, whose grandfather Ustad Sakhawat Hussain Khan was also a Sarod maestro and at one point the music director of the musicians accompanying the 1936 Menaka Hindu Ballet Tour (and can be seen in one of the Der Tiger Von Eschnapur clips).  Schlaffke featured Irfan and a documentary trailer about him (also embedded below) in his article at the Menaka archive, "Counter-tales to the National Cultural Heritage: The Role of Muslim Musicians in the Invention of National Tradition in India at the Menaka Archive," and from videos on Schlaffke's Vimeo page and Zinda Naach's Facebook page, it appears Irfan was able to fulfill his dream and visit and perform in Germany with Zinda Naach and hear and see important archival finds related to his grandfather.  How wonderful for him, but certainly tempered by the sadness he feels at the loss of so much of his family's tradition and need to preserve and pass it on.  [Note: To learn more about the history of Irfan's family tradition and decline, I recommend an article unrelated to the archive at Scroll.in, "In Kolkata, the inheritor of the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana is trying to keep its legacy alive."]


In Markus Schlaffke's article "Historical Perspectives of Indian Dance Modernism: Field Research in Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai" at the Menaka Archive, he describes how he visited India in 2018 on a research effort "to resume some of the connections between Germany and India that were made in 1936-38 and later lost."  He shared some of the archive's rare European-sourced materials with people in India and "documented their reactions and reflections" including some video footage of Ashish Mohan Khokar's dance archives and Khokar's thoughts on dance in India in the early-to-mid twentieth century.

In a longer version of Isabella Schwaderer's archive article "Oriental Spectacle on German Stages Until 1937" found at the "Decolonize Erfurt" blog, she embeds one of the dances from the Der Tiger Von Eschnapur film and describes it as "the only film footage yet of the dances of the [Menaka] Indian ballet" that "fit[s] seamlessly into the orientalist spectacle."  Further acknowledgement of the rarity and importance of those dance clips from Der Tiger Von Eschnapur!  But also, unfortunately, dashing any hopes of seeing more video recordings of Menaka or her troupe in the archive at present.  At least any rare finds in the coming years will have a perfect home in this archive!

Schlaffke and Schwaderer also just this month published an article in the online publication wissenderkuenste.de, "(Re-)connecting embodied archives: Artistic research in the Zinda Naach collective," which expands upon some of their articles at the archive.  It also answered my question if they were aware of the most detailed publication of Menaka's life, Damayanti Joshi's 1989 biography of her—they are but write that "the documents that were available to [Menaka's] student Damayanti Joshi for the only publication to date on Menaka's biography are currently not available" which must have been frustrating for them.  There have been a few other full articles or chapters written about Menaka in Indian publications over the years.  I've come across Shirin Vajifdar's "Menaka: Pioneer of Kathak" in the September 1959 issue of Marg, her husband Sahib Singh Sokhey's "Menaka Gave Ballet to the Indian Stage" in the December 1963 issue of Natya, Projesh Banerji's "Menaka's New Dimension to Kathak" in his 1982 book Kathak Dance Through Ages, Susheela Mishra's "Madam Menaka (Leila Sokhey) Who Ushered In the New Era of Kathak" in her 1992 unimaginatively-named book Some Dancers of India, and Menaka gets a few solid paragraphs in Sunil Kothari's 1989 book Kathak Indian Classical Dance Art, plus at least a mention in many more.  In EuroAmerican publications, Menaka's obituary was published under "Lady Sokhey" in the May 31, 1947 issue of The New York Times, and I also located an early article "Menaka and Indian Dancing" written by Tyra de Kleen of Stockholm, Sweden, from a 1937 issue of Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology.  But Joshi's book seems to be the only full-length work dedicated to Menaka.

Something else is tantalizing: on Schwaderer's institutional profile page, her current research project is given the more detailed title, "Dance and Religion in the Nazi era: Press reviews for the tour of the Indian Ballet Menaka 1936-38."  I'm sure I'm not the only one that was surprised to discover when reading about Menaka that the 1936 summer Olympics were held in Berlin during the Nazi regime in Germany, just a few years before WWII and the Nazi's worst atrocities.  That's a research subject all on its own, but then to learn that Menaka's troupe not only performed and won awards at that Olympics but also performed all over Germany and Europe during this time begged the question of how Menaka and her group experienced and reacted to this tumultuous period in Europe.  Some of the articles at the archive touch on this subject and wider discourse about modernism and intercultural crossings, but I look forward to seeing Schwaderer's coming scholarship!

The discovery of The Menaka Archive and scholarship is gripping stuff!  I eagerly await news of new finds being located for the archive in the coming years, and I will soon be reaching out to Schlaffke and Schwaderer and also spreading the word elsewhere about this archive!  This endeavor is such an important contribution to the world's knowledge and understanding of Menaka and her troupe, adding a sharp focus on a certain period of Menaka's output and a fresh perspective from Europe and insights into the "dance-like modernity that was interwoven between Asia and Europe" at that time.

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My past two posts on Madame Menaka:
Film Dances of Madame Menaka and the Menaka Indian Ballet (January 2013)
Indian Dances in Western Films About India: Part 2 (The Rare) (November 2011)

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