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  • Dancing Otherness:Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Work of Uday Shankar
  • Prarthana Purkayastha (bio)

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[End Page 68]

Lost in Translation

Uday Shankar's career as a dancer and choreographer has been under frequent inspection by dance historians and scholars in both the South Asian and Euro-American worlds. To date, some articles, books, and biographies have documented various aspects Shankar's life, which provide factual details about his performance career (Banerji 1982; Khokar 1983; Mukhopadhyay 2004; Singha and Massey 1967). While these biographies serve as an important source in their delineation of Shankar's life and his works, there have been few attempts at critical analyses and evaluation of Shankar's body of choreographic works. Scant scholarly interests in Shankar have mostly described him as one of the many exotic "oriental" dancers in Europe.1

Noteworthy exceptions, however, are Joan L. Erdman (1987, 1996a), Ruth K. Abrahams (2007), and Urmimala Sarkar Munsi's (2008) work on Shankar. Elucidating the theory of translation of performance of one culture (oriental/Indian) into another (occidental/Euro-American), Erdman argues that Shankar achieved a fine balance between the translation of Indian narratives on the one hand and interpretation of such narratives for a Western audience on the other:

The structure of the source text must be preserved and yet re-created in the second language so that the resulting work has an identifiable or comfortable shape, an architectonic design and order. The narrative sense must reflect the conventions of both the source culture and the culture of translation—the work must be "from" and yet be "at" home on a foreign stage. Thus the balance between a western performance with an Indian theme or veneer (an interpretation) and an eastern performance accessible to western audiences (a translation) must be calculated and strategically determined.

(1987, 68)

According to Erdman, what Shankar presented before his audiences in the West, i.e., narratives from his source culture, was channeled through a recognizable Western language of dance. When Shankar danced, his body carried out a negotiating process in which a text and its presentation came from two different cultures and yet were being made to converge. At the same time, Shankar made use of his identity as an "authentic" Indian, playing on his foreignness and his [End Page 69] exclusivity as a dancer from the Orient (Photo 1). In Erdman's terms, Shankar's intelligent use of translation and interpretation gave his dance works potency and meaning in Europe and America (1987).

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Photo 1.

Uday Shankar (1900-1977). Reprinted, with permission, from Sunil Kothari's collection.

At home too, Shankar's biographers state that his shows were considered huge box-office hits in cities like Bombay and Calcutta during his 1934 India tour. Critics adored his dance, and audiences flocked to the theaters to see his productions. It was also around this time that the Nobel Laureate poet and pedagogue Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) saw Shankar's performance in Calcutta and praised him highly for his creative potential and his efforts to resuscitate the art of dance in India.2 In some parts of India, therefore, particularly in the western and eastern regions, Shankar's dance communicated well with audiences. Yet, to say that Shankar's India tour in 1934 was wholly successful is a statement that needs to be carefully examined and qualified.

As Khokar's (1983) biography documents, the southern Indian reception of Shankar's work was quite different. E. Krishna Iyer, one of the pioneers of India's renaissance and revival of dance and a major voice in dance criticism in Madras (present-day Chennai), commented in the Indian Republic: "With his genius for originality and superbness in presentation Uday Shankar can do a great deal, if only he can improve his faith in the best of our classical traditions and utilise them effectively (Quoted in Khokar 1983, 79)." The Triveni-Journal of Indian Renaissance in its July-August issue of 1933, made the following observation on Uday Shankar's works:

Were Uday Shankar to stay in India for a few years and put himself to systematic training under a master like...