Film Dances of Madame Menaka and the Menaka Indian Ballet

Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Joshi's Biography
Over a year ago, I featured three rare film dance sequences of members of Madame Menaka's "Menaka Indian Ballet"; two were from the 1938 German film Der Tiger Von Eschnapur and the other was from the 1938 British documentary Temples of India.  Medame Menaka (real name Leila Sokhey) is generally recognized as an instrumental figure in the transformation of the maligned North Indian "nautch" dance to respectable "Kathak" in the 1930s.  Not only was she among the first (some would say the first) Brahmin women to perform Kathak on the public stage at a time when public female performance was stigmatized due to its association with prostitution, but also she was a pioneer in refashioning the form with a modern, dance-drama format and introduced Kathak technique to the international community for the first time through her troupe's tours of Europe and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, Menaka's name and contribution remain generally forgotten today outside of serious dance circles due to her early death in 1947, the demise of her dance school soon after, and the establishment of Kathak as a patriarchal tradition that rarely acknowledges women practitioners of the past "as gurus, teachers, co-creators, or pioneers" (Chakravorty). 

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
Der Tiger Von Eschnapur (1938, Germany) - "Deva Vijaya Nritya" - The dance-drama this is excerpted from was Menaka's second production of her career, Deva Vijaya Nritya, and it was based on the legend of Shiva's temptation by Mohini.  Menaka and Ramnarayan are showcased at the beginning, Gauri Shankar comes to the forefront at 1:50 for a striking closeup, and the shortest young girl on the right is Damayanti Joshi.  Surprisingly, Lachhu Maharaj is said to have directed this dance drama for Menaka.  When I first saw this dance, I stared at my screen in utter confusion!  There is nothing Kathak-like about the dance at all which is essentially a series of punctuated postures.  Menaka seems to be inspired by Javanese or other Southeast Asian dance forms especially in the way she holds her hands in a "jnana mudra"-type hand gesture.  The points when she lifts her hands in the air are completely graceless and I find her dance style quite terrible!  [Update: This dance certainly has to be viewed in the context of it's time, and Menaka's innovations, I have changed my opinion as I've learned more over the years :)]

Der Tiger Von Eschnapur - "Krishna Leela" - This dance is an excerpt from Menaka's very first dance drama "Krishna Leela" which portrayed Radha's reunion with Krishna after a difficult parting.  The costumes, clearly the same as those from the real-life production, were inspired by 17th-century Rajput paintings and the choreography was jointly designed by Menaka and her first Kathak guru, Pandit Sitaram Prasad.  Of the two film dances, this one clearly has a closer affinity with Kathak but only in the way Menaka's arms are held and the female costumes.  The male dancers are still in the same costumes as the previous number which, from looking through all the photos in Joshi's book, I can see was true of all of Menaka's productions.

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!

Nearly every account I've read of Menaka's dance style seems to be fairly vague and focuses more on general structure than specific movements.  Much is written on how she transformed Kathak from a solo display of technique to a grand dance-drama utilizing Sanskrit drama narratives with beautiful costumes and stage decoration/lighting, but how exactly did she utilize the Kathak dance form itself?  Was she a good Kathak dancer? In the only detailed description of Menaka's movements I could find, Joshi writes, "She exploited to advantage the superb footwork of the dance, its angaharas and karanas, the beautiful arm and body movements.  Mimetically she drew upon the traditional gat-bhavas with their wealth of expressive nuances.  This was the mainstay of her ‘drama’, the acting out of a story on stage…" That description is missing many aspects of Kathak that are today considered standard. Much more is written of Menaka's musical accompaniment and how she removed all association with the thumri and ghazal genres (often performed by courtesans/tawaifs) by discarding the traditional lehra scale and creating orchestral compositions with varied instruments like the sarod, shehnai, tabla, pakhwaj, ghantu, xylophone, and clappers. 

In reading European reviews of Menaka's performances from people who knew nothing about Kathak, one finds descriptors like: "extraordinarily mimed," "gentle, dainty dance like spring itself," "powerful, rhythmic movements," "graceful body movements and hand gestures," and "swirling movements of a Mughal Serenade" (Joshi).  I find it surprising that there are not any mentions of brilliant spins and pirouettes or the quick pivots and shifts that often impress outsiders to Kathak.  Could it mean that Menaka's "Kathak" did not include these things or at least not in any significant way?  One review notes that the music "reminded one of Javanese music" which is what led me to believe that the music in all three films dances is likely authentic to Menaka's real-life dance-dramas.

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.

In the end, I think I agree with Margaret Edith Walker who in her dissertation Kathak Dance: A Critical History frames Menaka in a way no one else has (that I'm aware of, anyway).  Walker notes "various hybrids of Oriental dance" like Uday Shankar's troupe were much more ubiquitous and visible in the 1930s than the small amounts of authentic Kathak by traditional practitioners that was slowly becoming visible.  Unsurprising then it was that Kathak's first grand public incarnation via Madame Menaka "was in a format more Oriental than authentic." Walker then goes on to say that "in some ways [Menaka's] accomplishments form as important a bridge as Uday Shankar's work.  The productions of the "Menaka Indian Ballet" troupe were related to Oriental Dance in form, concept, and costume," yet unlike Uday Shankar's troupe "the male dancers were hereditary Kathaks and the repertoire they taught was "authentic" dance from the past century."

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. :)
"...I cannot lay too much importance on the fact that one must master all the traditional technique...we must strenuously discourage all attempts to bluff the public by those whose sole aim is to gain the limelight by senseless posturing and posing on the stage. We do not want our dance to become an exotic and erotic presentation for the delectation of the must express the life and emotions of our nation and not be mere ethnographic posturing.  We must make it live again...I have devoted my life to it and I want others, both men and women to join me..."

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 [article no longer available at] 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
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.


  1. documenting orientilism can be a tough job but it's gotta be done. too often dances like Madam Menaka's have fallen between the cracks and been forgotten. and when you forget history, someone with a long term memory forces you to repeat it..cough..slumdog... pi...cough... :)

  2. I have been wondering about a possibility. It seems that both Menaka and Uday Shankar started dancing late in life. It is possible that they did not really master the more athletic aspects of the classical dances. It also seems that they have their visions of ballets etc where dance plays an important role but some of the parts of the classical dances do not have dominant roles. Uday Shankar was somewhat contemptuous of the gymnastic aspects of Kathak but admired Kathakali. But may be such things are difficult to pass on and others in their camps took what suited them and pursued in their own way. There seem other later dancers with different perceptions of what to adopt from classical dances like Chandralekha
    It may be a combination of conception as well as skills set, with the former dominating.

  3. rameshram - Ha! Well, at least Life of Pi had a lovely Bharatanatyam practice scene. :)

    gaddeswarup - That's an interesting point. Seems all the early pioneers were that way, including Rukmini Devi who also started learning well into adulthood. I think you're right that the larger "ballet" aspect of presentation was more important to Shankar and Menaka than the specific dance movement was. That seems to be what made them pioneers - that dance was no longer simply one person on a stage showing virtuosity but a grand display of choreography that used space and set decor in novel ways.

  4. Stumbled upon your blog - well written,well researched & interesting .I was researching my Dad's(Pulin Behari Deb Burman's ) early student days at Bhatkande University ,where he influenced by sarod maestro Ustad Sakhawat Hussain & Hamid Hussain .Usatd Sakhawat Hussain -was a part of the Menaka Ballet Company and travelled with the troupe between 1935 - 1938 .She had one more sister Bina Chatterji - who was a classmate of my father @ Bhatkande University . The year was 1940 -

    1. Thank you Deepak1954 for sharing this information. How interesting that you mentioned Bhatkhande University! In those days it seems to have been quite a prestigious place in North India and I've read quite a few references to it. That is fantastic that your father was a student there in 1940. Do you happen to have any old photographs of his classmates at Bhatkande from that time period? While doing research on the Baroda devadasi Kantimati (see this post) I learned that she was said to have taught dance at Bhatkhande College of Music, Lucknow, in 1941, and her son Kubernath also taught there. I have been eager to find any other photos of he or Kantimati during this time--if you ever want to share photos you will have an eager sharee! :) Ah, so Menaka had at least two sisters, Mira and Bina! Best of luck in your research on your father's background. ~Minai

  5. Dear Madam Cassidy Minai,

    Thank you for your extremely informative blog, your effort and your generosity in sharing your knowledge.

    I have included a link your research from 2013 in a Dutch blogpost about Menaka:
    The link to 'Cinema Nritya' is under the heading 'Further reading'.
    Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any objections.

    Kind regards,


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