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Zohra Segal's dancing days

In an excerpt from her biography of Segal, Ritu Menon writes about the influence of choreographer Uday Shankar on the artist

Zohra and Kameshwar Segal in a production by the Zoresh Dance Institute, Lahore, in the early 1940s. Photo courtesy Kiran Segal
Zohra and Kameshwar Segal in a production by the Zoresh Dance Institute, Lahore, in the early 1940s. Photo courtesy Kiran Segal

The Uday Shankar Cultural Centre, modelled on Dartington Hall, opened for students on March 3, 1940, but the group of dancers and teachers had already been installed a year earlier. The Centre was beautifully sited. The provincial government, via the good offices of the Congress leader and former premier of the United Provinces, Govind Ballabh Pant, donated ninety-three acres of forested ridge land, known as Simtola, to the Centre, but its studio and residential complex of a few cottages (rented from the Pandes and Joshis of the area) were in Ranidhara. Things seemed to be falling nicely into place, but had it not been for the Elmhirsts’ support, financial and material, and for Boshi Sen’s administrative oversight, the Centre might not have had a fighting chance. Leonard Elmhirst had realised early in their discussions that while Shankar was the creative and inspirational magnet, he had neither the time nor the inclination to see to the day-to-day running of an institution.

When it opened, the Centre had only ten students, but as its repertoire and performances increased, its popularity grew. Among the students who joined later were Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s daughters (and Nehru’s nieces), Chandralekha and Nayantara; Guru Dutt (who would become a celebrated film-maker); Shanta Kirnan (later Shanta Gandhi, noted theatre director); Sundari Bhavnani (who became Sundari Shridharani, founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam); and Sheila Bharat Ram, who was then a student of the legendary Hindustani classical musician and guru Ustad Allauddin Khan.

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Zohra threw herself into the Centre’s regimen with her customary gusto. Before the day began at eight in the morning, she would emerge from the cottage to drink in the beauty of Nanda Devi and Nanga Parbat, and the brilliance of red rhododendrons and soft yellow mimosa in the morning sun. Classes began at 8:30, after breakfast, when Uday Shankar arrived at the studio for the general class, followed by a class in technique, and then classes in Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri, conducted by the great practitioners Sankaran Namboodiri (Shankar’s guru), Kandappa Pillai (the legendary Balasaraswati’s teacher) and Amobi Singh. Allauddin Khan would provide musical accompaniment from time to time, assisted by his son Ali Akbar Khan and student Ravi Shankar. Senior to the latter two was Vishnudas Shirali, who had been with Uday Shankar since 1935 and joined the Centre as music director. Zohra was in charge of developing a five-year syllabus for the students, and, together with Simkie, she was also Uday Shankar’s dance assistant. It was here that her training at the Wigman school came in handy, but she was also quick to see that Shankar’s own genius lay elsewhere. Zohra knew and admired his extraordinary dancing, but it was his exceptionally inventive group formations that fascinated her. He was a master of innovation, skilfully coaxing Simkie, Uzra and Zohra to improvise exquisite and intricate movements. They became ‘like putty in a sculptor’s hands’, moulded by his brilliant and questing imagination, performing to new and exciting rhythms. ‘His own classes were fabulous’, she said. ‘It was as if years and years of an artists’ vision had come to life, and he was able to explain his theories about his art, giving form and articulation to his dreams.

'Zohra: A Biography In Four Acts', by Ritu Menon, Speaking Tiger,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
'Zohra: A Biography In Four Acts', by Ritu Menon, Speaking Tiger, 599

From Shankar, Zohra learnt the importance of being able to walk properly before learning to dance, and so for one hour every day, his students and the dancers walked around the huge studio hall to the beat of a gigantic drum made of rhinoceros hide. Then, simple dance steps, alone, in pairs or in groups, reverting to walking rhythmically. Shankar’s exercises emphasised complete relaxation and suppleness, coupled with rigid control of the body. Facial expressions and moods were picked up from everyday life, poses derived from daily activities. Then there were the improvisation classes, including pure mime, in which students were required to improvise to musical themes.Sometimes the music was there and Shankar created movements to go with it, at other times he first composed the dance and the music was then arranged. Movement had a melody of its own, he believed, the movement must express the spirit of the music and vice versa.

‘Shankar prepared the body as an instrument to reflect and obey and blossom into new dance forms,’ Zohra said. ‘His training evoked a consciousness in the dancer of a complete and complex human being.’ It was the evocation of this particular self-awareness that made his method unique.

Never in her wildest dreams, and certainly not when she was at Mary Wigman’s school, had Zohra thought that she would be part of a Company that comprised the greatest names in Indian dance and music. Indeed, nowhere in the country was there a centre that broke away from the classical forms and experimented with movement and music, that performed secular pieces like Rhythm of Life and Labour and Machinery, or like Grasscutters of Kumaon that Zohra herself choreographed. Here, with Uday Shankar, she learnt to work with the body as a whole, in the process unlearning some of what she had been taught at Dresden.

But only some; for Wigman’s training was modern, based on eurhythmics, and while Shankar was seeking to incorporate the modern in his teaching and performance, ‘modern’ for him did not mean what was being taught and performed in the West; indeed, he had a ‘great antipathy’ to it. He told the dance critic Mohan Khokar: ‘When I first saw modern dance in Europe, it was shocking to me, I felt it was something being done just for the sake of doing something new… I did not learn or derive anything from it.’ Nor was he impressed by Mary Wigman, Martha Graham or Ruth St. Denis. What he learnt from the West was how to compose the body in space, and how the dancers’ bodies formed patterns as they moved in it. Beyond that, his conception of movement and dance was uniquely his. So, from Shankar, Zohra imbibed that ‘the body must be developed, not just for the dance, but as an element of intrinsic beauty’. The body beautiful was what Shankar sought to cultivate, what he wished to impart to his students: ‘If I can teach the young to value the body, to perfect it, I will have done something for them.’

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As she danced with Uday, Uzra and Simkie in the vast, light-filled studio, the hills visible through the glass wall that formed one side of the building, Zohra felt a rare exhilaration. Shankar’s focus on the body and the sheer boldness of his technique, combining the fluidity of movement with the discipline of yoga, was exceptional. ‘Dada declared that once a dancer had been trained in his method, he or she would be able to follow any technique with ease, because his system provided the basic training for all actor-dancers. It was then that the realisation of his true genius dawned on me,’ she said.

Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger Books.

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