This blog post is inspired by the Menaka Archive. Launched in November 2019, the archive presents the findings of four years of research into the European tour of the Indian ‘Menaka Ballet’ from 1936-1938. The Menaka Archive has a very rich database, including primary sources and a meticulous list of tour dates. Whilst the website is aimed at dancers and musicians in Germany and India, I attempt to make a small contribution by using Delpher – the Dutch database for digitized books, newspapers, and magazines. I will focus on Menaka’s first Dutch performances in 1931.
In the French database ‘Retronews’ the first European performance I could find was on November 7, 1930 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris. Menaka was accompanied by her dance partner Nilkanta and singer Bina Addy. 1 In March several Dutch newspaper reported that Menaka was ‘persuaded’ to perform in The Netherlands after successful shows in Paris and Berlin. 2
|18 March 1931
|23 March 1931
|24 March 1931
|8 April 1931
|5 & 6 June 1932
|Dutch Indies Exhibition
Reporters of two national newspapers, De Telegraaf 3 and De Tijd, 4 interviewed Menaka and Nilkanta. Both journalists quoted Menaka when she shared her views on the state of dance in her home county. Her remarks can be examined in the wider context of fundamental shifts in Indian dance, during the 1920s-1930s.
Menaka: […] In India dance is at a very low level. The same dances are performed in the temple and general gatherings, but the performers are women of uncivilised demeanour. There is no difference between general dances and religious dances, the dances in the temple are not religious. […] 5
Menaka , the stage name of Leila Sokhey (née Roy) hailed from Calcutta, where she belonged to a Brahmin family. As a child, she saw many performances of professional dancers 6, in the above quote she referred to them as ‘uncivilized’.
Until the twentieth century, dancers in India belonged to specific, artistic communities. Women of these communities received extensive training in dance, literature, music, and singing from childhood onwards. In North India the professional artistes were attached to predominantly Muslim courts, with cities like Lucknow and Jaipur, among others, as reputable artistic centres.
The British Raj (1858-1949), or direct rule in India, disempowered local kingdoms. A significant number of dancers and musicians across North India left regional courts and migrated to the city Calcutta, the new administrative capital. Here the art of the hereditary dancers became reliant on the patronage of men from the wealthy, upper-classes. 7
Menaka’s negative appraisal of the dance artistes reflects the sentiment of the anti-nautch movement that spanned from the early 1890s to the 1930s. ‘Nautch’, is an Anglicized form of the Hindi word for dance, naach.
There is a large body of literature that is concerned with the anti-nautch movement and the subsequent transformation of dance.8 Amrit Srinivasan was one of the first to discuss this campaign against hereditary dancers in the context of social reform movements of the late nineteenth century.
Pressure groups, associations and lobbies of educated Hindus served in that period as a platform to respond to critiques brought forward by British missionaries and legislators. In doing so, Hindu reformers defined the hereditary dancers in Victorian terms. 9 Compared to other women, dancers possessed a degree of agency: they were very well versed in the arts, literate, and had non-marital relationships with men: their patrons from the upper strata of society. Due to these non-conjugal, sexual relationships hereditary dancers were criminalized as morally inferior ‘prostitutes’. 10
As a result of complex changes in the moral, political and judicial realm, the hereditary artistes were removed from the dance and replaced by women from the upper castes, deemed worthy to perform the art. 11
Menaka broached this subject in the interviews:
[…] When Pavlova 12 saw me dance in my family circle, where I often danced, she said to me: “why don’t you dance and do something with your life. You can be of value for your people.” This entailed grave difficulties before I could even begin, I had to convince my husband, then my family and eventually all people from my caste. In 1927 I gave my first dance recital in Bombay, to a shocked and indignant audience. However, the second time I received much approval and I received many letters from girls of my class who wished to receive formal dance training.[…] 13
While recognizing the manifold factors that contributed to the displacement of hereditary dancers from the art, Natarajan mentions the personal interest of Brahmin women like Menaka who took to dancing. In their struggle to overcome caste barriers, their priority was legitimizing their own public appearances. The plight of the hereditary dancers, or seeking avenues where they could pursue their profession, was hardly a concern. 14
‘Priestess of dance’
[…] Meanwhile she chatters about famous Indians like Tagore and Gandhi. She tells us how she as well is bothered by the fact that India isn’t purely Eastern anymore. Despite her European orientation […] she wants to devote herself with all her might to save the pure Indian dance. […] “Menaka was the priestess of the all-knowing deity Indra, I want to be the priestess of Hindu dance”. […] 15
Leila Sokhey was born into the so-called bhadralok¸ the upper and middle classes of Bengal who articulated a sense of nationalism., with members of the Tagore family as preeminent intellectuals. Their nationalist construction of the Indian identity revolved around a distinct Hindu spirituality, which was embedded in ancient traditions and scriptures. While hereditary dancers were considered degraded, the art itself was conceived of as a sacred heritage, an embodiment of devotion, untouched by Islamic or European culture. 16
[…] What I mean with my movement for dance in India is a reconstruction of the ancient dance. For this I have found material with teachers who have taught dance from generation upon generation. However, they taught only in the technical sense; the spirit was completely lost. […] 17
In this quote Menaka makes it clear her teachers were the men from the hereditary artist communities. Although masters of music and movement, they did not embody the ‘pure’ dance:.
[…] I had to start from scratch. […] One sees in statues and reliefs that ancient Hindus must have had an extraordinary technique. […] I do think Balinese dance embodies Hindu dance in its purest form. […] 18
The performance in The Hague in March was tremendously successful, Menaka and Nilkanta were invited again to the theatre for one evening in April 1931. In 1932 they performed two days during the ‘Indische Tentoonstelling’, a colonial exhibition in The Hague. According to newspaper Het Vaderland the dance couple was preparing their journey to India, since Nilkanta had to return because of family circumstances. Despite the fact that the Dutch Indies were the focal point of the exhibition, Het Vaderland mentioned Menaka and Nilkanta agreed to end their European performance here because of the ‘Indian atmosphere.’ 19 In 1936 Menaka would return to The Netherlands for a far more extensive tour.
|Dance on the shore of the river Jamuna
|Dance of the goddess of dawn
|Dance of spring
|The wife of the warrior
|Dance of devotion
|Dance of the snake maiden
|Birth of the goddess Lakshmi
|The Buddhist sculptures of Amaravati
|The well of the village
- Cassidy Minai, ‘Film dances of Madame Menaka and the Menaka Indian Ballet’, Cinema Nritya (23-01-2013).
- Markus Schlaffke, ‘Historische Perspektiven der indischen Tanz-Moderne Feldforschung in Delhi, Kolkata und Chennai’, Menaka Archive. http://menaka-archive.org/forschung/historische-perspektiven-der-indischen-tanz-moderne/
- Dr. Isabella Schwaderer, ‘Menaka Indisches Ballett’: ‘Orientalische’ Spektakel auf deutschen Bühnen bis 1937, Decolonize Erfurt (14-04-2019). https://decolonizeerfurt.wordpress.com/stadtgarten-erfurt/