Revisiting Kalpana, Uday Shankar’s Film that Cost ₹22 Lakh in 1948

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Revisiting Kalpana, Uday Shankar’s Film that Cost ₹22 Lakh in 1948

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

I was 11 years old when I watched Kalpana, an experimental dance-drama on celluloid, by the father of modern Indian dance, Uday Shankar. It was in a government-owned theatre in Calcutta where I sat with the entire Shankar clan – Pandit Ravi Shankar was my father’s musical guru and our families often met on special occasionsand tried to make sense of the two-and-half-hour film that was rejected by audiences when it was released in 1948. Today Kalpana is considered a rare gem, a masterclass in dance choreography, a riotous celebration of Indian performance arts: dance, music, and drama.

This story dates back to the early ’80s. Pandit Ravi Shankar was in the city to receive an award, and the screening of Kalpana brought three generations of the incredibly talented family and their friends and followers together. Guruji dadu, as I called Pandit Ravi Shankar, was particularly fond of my parents. And his affection and generosity often translated into a special seat at intimate family gatherings such as this one.

I didn’t think much of the movie at the time: It was too long, too obscure. I did not get much of the expressionism that was at the heart of this ₹22-lakh magnum opus. But I remember, I still could not take my eyes off the star of the show – Uday Shankar, the writer, director, and producer who also essayed the central character, Udayan. He appeared to be a demi-god who moved like the spirits – fluid as water, swift as the wind, and intense as fire. He occupied almost every frame. And every time he appeared, the screen lit up. Small wonder then that writer James Joyce once described Shankar as someone who “moves on the stage like a semi-divine being”.

Uday Shankar was a self-taught dancer, who had gone to London in 1920 to study art. It was a chance meeting with legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, that inspired him to study Indian art and sculpture in the British Museum and come up with his unique style of dance, which was a fusion of western theatrical elements and Indian movements and costumes. And Kalpana is a reflection of all these diverse influences, the only extant document of the life and work of a maverick genius.

In truth, Kalpana was a poorly veiled biography of the man who took Indian performance arts from the temples and hamlets, the durbars and gullies, and put them on the finest stages of the Western world in the 1920s. The film is the story of Udayan, a dancer driven by a single-minded obsession with setting up his own performance and teaching centre to promote Indian art and culture, and struggling to negotiate exploitative promoters. In between, it’s a commentary on crass consumerism, mindless aping of Western cultures, class conflict, Mumbai being a “dumping ground for the worst from Europe and America”, and a love triangle that may have mirrored his own (Shankar’s on-stage chemistry with Simkie, his French dance companion, is legendary, though he remained married to Amala Shankar until his death).

By the time Shankar made the film, he had experienced both dizzying stardom and crushing disappointment. For nearly a decade, he was the toast of the European and American artistic and elite society, travelling and performing with an entourage of musicians (including his younger brother Ravi Shankar who joined as an esraj player) and dancers, from his base in Paris. He was an incredibly attractive physical manifestation of the exotic Oriental that the West was just about discovering. And yet, in his own country, he was accused of desecrating traditional culture. His pet project, a dance institute in Almora, failed to take off.  And he brought all his complex emotions to the film.

Shankar took himself as seriously as his art – the two were inseparable. He was a man consumed by the passion for dance, and in the film, he appears exactly as he was. In some of his relationships, he borders on the abusive when viewed through the prism of gender politics of our times. He voices his political opinions as freely as he heaps insults on the rich, scoffing at how the privileged class made small talk over the great Bengal famine and poked fun at Gandhi. 

There was that one scene, in which Shankar, dressed like Shiva, dances with his consort, played by his wife and dance partner Amala Shankar that has stayed with me. I was awestruck at how he blended elements of costume drama, folk and classical dance forms, with a keen sense of Western-style presentation, to create a spectacle. In another sequence, he made his knuckles dance, as ripples ran from the tips of his fingers to the rest of his body. 

Sometimes, he is a Van Gogh tormented by his inner demons.

Years later, well past his prime, the award-winning cultural ambassador, explained the inspiration behind his signature set pieces in an interview for Doordarshan. He demonstrated his famous knuckle wave and Natraja move and explained how he had studied plaques, temple sculptures, and plates in books on Orientalism and Indian art to create the poses.

Today, as Bollywood choreography continues to remain one of our most popular cultural exports, Kalpana is that chapter in history that needs to be rediscovered to understand how far we have travelled from that point in our cultural history. Some of that acknowledgement came in 2009, when it was digitally restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, although it has also been mired in some controversy over who is the rightful owner of the film. But, it is available on YouTube for the world to rediscover this masterpiece.

Several decades and life events past, I revisited Kalpana. This time around, I began to read deeper into the narrative of an artist who knows he is misunderstood and undervalued and realises that art has no true connoisseur or patron. I was reminded of Guru Dutt and his films that dealt with similar artistic anguish over moral and social decay. Shankar’s Kalpana had a charming naivete in its urgency: “How can you not patronise the culture of your country,” it seems to ask with righteous indignation. This is Shankar’ personal reflection, born from the failure with his dance institute in Almora. He had hoped to restart the institute with the money from this film, an idea that didn’t quite materialise. 

And here’s where the lives of two geniuses intersect. Dutt, who was born and raised in Kolkata, was a fan of Shankar’s unique dance form and had perfected his own version of Shankar’s “Snake Charmer” routine. He had also spent a few years at the doomed dance institute in Almora, that went down with almost all of Shankar’s confidence and fortunes. Whatever remained, was destroyed in the debacle that was Kalpana

It is impossible for Kalpana to have worked at that moment in the country’s life. Just a year after Independence, where India grappled with the aftermath of the Partition, facing poverty and starvation, the idea of patronising any form of art would have appeared ludicrous. Particularly obtuse would have been Shankar’s dark expressionism, bordering on artistic insanity. 

Sometimes, he is a Van Gogh tormented by his inner demons. At others, he is Krishna, who is generous with his affections and appears as a divine lover in some of the choreographed pieces. Occasionally, in sequences that deal with the exploitation of farmers and labourers, he displays Chaplinesque humour and sarcasm.  

What astonished me about Kalpana, is the courage that is on display, the audacity of imagination and ambition. I reminded myself, I was watching a one-man show, much like Shankar’s elaborate stage performances that were showcased across the world for almost a decade between the ’20s and ’30s.

Some of the greatest artists were discovered and cherished only after their death. Sometimes, they will have that one creation in their repertoire, that one book, one song, film, or painting that will be the greatest marker of their identity, only after being discarded in their own lifetime. Shankar’s Kalpana, his disciple’s Kagaz Ke Phool, share that tragic legacy.

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