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Kalpana: Uday Shankar's broken dream 

A part of Indian cinema's lost treasures, Uday Shankar's Kalpana was the product of a broken dream. On the great dancer's 39th death anniversary today (26 September), the film continues to be a sad statement of Indian cinema's ignorance towards the protection of its own history. 

Shriram Iyengar

In 1933, after witnessing a dance performance on stage at the honoured premises of Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a letter to the manager of the dance troupe. He wrote, "there are no bounds to the depth or to the expansion of any art which like dancing is the expression of life’s urge. We must never shut it within the bounds of a stagnant ideal, nor define it as either Indian or oriental or occidental, for such finality only robs it of life’s privilege which is freedom." Few people explored this prospective freedom and creative synergy in dance like Uday Shankar. One of India's finest dancers, he travelled far and wide to bring recognition to India's traditional dance forms. However, the recognition eluded him back home. 

Shankar's Kalpana (1948) remains the finest film to incorporate traditional Indian dance forms, not as an element, but as the foundation of its entire story. Based on his real life experiences with establishing a dance school, the film was not just a creative exercise, but an expression of an artist's ideology. Kalpana told the story of a dancer who wishes to establish a dance school which combines different art forms to innovate a new unique form of expression. It was the culmination of an idea that had taken root in Shankar's mind during his early experiments with dance in the 1920s. 

Born on 8 December 1900, Shankar was no stranger to the rich tradition of India. His father, a Sanskrit scholar and a PhD, inculcated in him a love for arts at a young age. The new millenium was one of synergy between the East and the West. It is no coincidence that Pandit Ravi Shankar would go on to become the face of Indian classical music in the West, while his brother would represent the dance form. Regardless of his achievements, Shankar was not a trained dancer. In fact, he learnt music and photography while in school, and went on to study painting at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, and the Royal College of Art in London. It was in London that he came into contact with the famous Russian ballerina, Ana Pavlova. Speaking to Shombhu Mitra in an interview, Shankar says," Ana Pavlova had been to India, but she could not find a teacher, or an artiste to travel with her. I don’t know what I danced, but she liked it very much." It was the beginning of an influence that defined his life and career. 

Having travelled across the world between 1922 to 1936, Shankar learnt bits and parts of different dance forms, while including the traditional forms he had learnt from various sources back home. He incorporated all these elements to stage India's first opera ballet on Radha-Krishna, with Pavlova. Returning to India in 1936, he decided to establish a dance school by himself, The Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre, at Almora. A hub of artistes, dancers, singers, and people interested in traditional and tribal Indian forms of dance and art, he wished for it to become India's Woodstock. However, it was not to be. As he says in the interview, "I had to close down the centre at Almora due to problems which arose during the Second World War. We could not get funds. Children were unhappy." 

The funds were only one part of the story. Shankar's experimentation with dance forms was not well received back home. It was opposed by traditionalists who viewed it as a corruption of the ancient practices. In her essay, Imagining the nation: Uday Shankar's Kalpana, Urmimala Sarkar says, "The issues of local versus global, regional diversity, statehood, critiques of policies and trends, importance of ideological and artistic freedom, political as well as activist intervention, were dealt with, not from within the structure of nationalistic discourse in this movie, but from outside, as Uday Remained a protagonist, who never was seen as 'one of their own' by the nationalists in their process of building the modern India." 

This disappointment hurt Shankar. He says,"A problem in our country is that many people think we are mixing Eastern and Western dance forms and showing it in Europe. It is not so. Problem is, we don’t know our own, and we don’t know their style. They are well informed in their style, and therefore are interested and try to learn our forms." It is perhaps fitting that his film, his only film, was titled 'Kalpana' (Imagination). It was a rebuke to the tradionalists and nationalists who lacked that very factor which inspired an artist. 

To reduce Shankar's film as a product of disappointment and rejection would be to degrade it. Kalpana is filled with moments of immense cinematic splendour. It was also a historical film. Few films before, and after, have attempted the leap of imaginary faith which Shankar's directorial debut attempts. The director himself was suspect of his ability to make the film. He admits he was only attempting to make a 'propaganda for art and culture'. The film had several members of his own troupe. Amala Shankar and Padmini, then only 16, played the lead dancers along with Shankar, while Zohra Sehgal was a part of the dancing troupe. Guru Dutt, another student of the academy, assisted Shankar with the sets and the direction. It is no surprise that Dutt carried forward the passionate ideology of art against commerce in his films. 

Kalpana was a product of immense hardwork and dedication. Some of the dance features in the film remain incomparable. As director Martin Scorsese, whose The Film Foundation was one of the key members for the restoration of the film, says, "It is not a film just about dance, but that is dance in movement, composition, and energy." In the interview with Shombhu Mitra, Shankar demonstrates a part of his famous 'tandava' routine from the film and says "You have to make friends with these (your hands). You have to know you have a body, and how to use it."

Kalpana was restored in 2012 and shown at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. While in India, the film remains part of an ignored syllabus of classic heritage treasures. Sadly for Shankar, the ignorance about our heritage continues to this day.