indian cinema heritage foundation

Amala Shankar


Famed danseuse and actress Amala Shankar, was the wife of world-renowned dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar, and sister-in-law of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Born Amala Nandy in 1919, she and her jeweller father first met Uday Shankar and his family in Paris in 1930. She was just 11. Later she went on to train at the Uday Shankar Centre for Dance in Almora. She and Uday married in 1942. She went on to feature in Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), a fantasy film and dance drama which he also produced. The film explored the flaws existing in our society and suggested how a creative education system and the cultivation of the arts in a good environment could prove beneficial.

Incidentally, the film was lost for many years till it was restored by Martin Scorsese and screened at Cannes in 2012. A then 93-year-old Amala had walked the red carpet to watch the film. Separating from Uday a few years before his death in 1977, Amala continued to keep his style of dance alive. 

She was born Amala Nandy on 27 June, 1919 in Jessore, in current Bangladesh into a merchant family. Her father Akshay Kumar Nandy was a gold trader. Though she hailed from a culturally inclined family, dance was not part of young Amala’s lexicon till she visited Paris in 1930 with her father, who was invited to showcase India’s craftsmanship at the International Colonial Exhibition in France. In Paris, Amala and her father met the Shankar family, namely Uday, his brothers, and their mother, Hemangini Devi. The much older Uday was already a famous name in global dance circles, having left the West in awe with his ballads titled Radha and Krishna, and A Hindu Wedding. Uday asked Amala to try out a few basic steps, which she reproduced perfectly in movement and expression. Impressed by her skill, Uday asked his mother to convince Amala’s father to allow her to tour Europe for two months. He choreographed Kaliya Daman for her, which Amala performed in Belgium in 1931, thus launching her dance career and her long association with Uday Shankar. 

Rabindranath Tagore had asked Uday to set up a holistic dance academy, which Uday did in 1938, under the name Uday Shankar Centre for Dance. It was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, a family friend of the Nandy family, who suggested that Amala’s father send her to the academy to train. Thus did Amala reach Almora where she trained alongside Zohra Sehgal, her sister Uzra Butt, Guru Dutt and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, among others. Amala and Uday went on to marry in 1942. The same year, the centre in Almora had to be shut owing to lack of funds. 

Next, Uday Shankar dreamt of making a film that would capture the dances of India. He penned a script which was autobiographical in nature, about a dancer’s dream to establish a centre. Amala and he moved to Chennai to make the film. Apparently, Uday Shankar wanted to name the film Imagination but Amala suggested the Indian word, Kalpana. Uday and Amala played the lead roles in the film. The film included 80 dances that Uday Shankar choreographed which covered many social issues. The Siva-Parvati dance performed by Amala and Uday was considered enthralling. Kalpana, shot in Gemini Studios, was the first film to present an Indian classical dancer in the leading role, and was entirely shot as a dance ballet and a fantasy. Released in 1948, it was far ahead of its times and it crashed at the box office, though it is today regarded as an invaluable archive of dance. Years later it was screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI-Goa) in 2008, as a part of the section Treasures from NFAI (National Film Archive of India), along with other ‘rare gems’ from the archives. The film had been caught in a legal battle for a long time. It was finally restored by Martin Scorsese after Ravi Shankar mentioned it to him. Amala Shankar, then 93, had walked the red carpet at Cannes to watch the film. 

After Kalpana’s poor performance at the box office, the disappointed couple moved to Calcutta with their two children, Mamata and Anand. After a world tour in 1965, when Uday Shankar established Kala Kendra in Kolkata, Amala was appointed as its Director. For 50 long years she worked at the centre, teaching, performing, choreographing and mentoring three generations of dancers.

Amala was known to be devoted to dance. Possessing a strong will, she combined discipline with affection, and offered excellent training. She bore her son Anand Shankar’s death with fortitude. She was a huge support to Uday Shankar, both in his choreography as well as administrative work. A versatile talent, when Life of Gautam Buddha was staged as a shadow play, she essayed the lead role and also choreographed it, besides designing the costumes and painting colour slides for projection. She was thoroughly well-versed in projecting and directing dances. 

After years of dancing together and marriage, Amala and Uday separated a few years before his death in 1977. Amala continued to teach his style of dance, as she nurtured it, experimented with it and kept it alive for many years. An excellent dancer herself, her presence in Kalpana and the cultural history of the nation remains valuable. 

Elegant and nimble-footed, Amala continued to perform with exquisite grace even at an advanced age. She remained active till her nineties, her last performance being the dance drama Sita Swayamvar at the age of 92, in which she played the role of King Janaka. As a dancer, she kept alive the elusive and faintly oriental style that Uday Shankar had created. Carrying on the tradition of the Uday Shankar style, Amala’s daughter Mamata and daughter-in-law Tanushree followed in her footsteps with innovative productions. 

Amala Shankar passed away in her sleep on 24 July, 2020. She was 101. 


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