The Flavour of Memory

A conversation with Paullumi Bishnawath Mukherjee

Dancer, teacher, actress and author, holder of the legacy of a renowned family of artists and winner of numerous national dance competitions – Paullumi Bishnawath Mukherjee has had a manifold career in the Kathak world. In 1987, as a young student, she won the „Menaka Award“ donated by Bombay University for her Kathak solo performance. It was not until much later that she realized what hidden traces the name Menaka had already left in her own artistic career, beyond a mere competition trophy. At the moment, Paullumi is researching the network of the Indian dance scene of the 1930s, when the young Leila Roy alias “Madame Menaka” studied the basics of Kathak with those masters of the Lucknow dance school, with whom Paullumi herself, many years later, completed her dance training.
The authors of The Menaka Archive met with Paullumi to exchange sources and ideas. Protocol of a stimulating encounter.

Paullumi Bishnawath Mukherjee holding the Menaka-Award in 1987; Madame Menaka posing in the early 1930s

A price of surprising weight

In December 1987, the Bombay newspapers printed a picture that seems inconspicuous at first glance: the student Paullomi Mukherjee holds the Menaka Award for the best Kathak solo dance performance in the Bombay University competition. She had won the award for the second time in a row. Paullumi looks proudly into the camera. When she sent me this black and white newspaper photo from her mobile phone, I was immediately reminded of those pictures from 1936 of the young girls from Menaka’s company receiving the prizes of the Olympic dance competition in Berlin and who were just as proud – and probably also a little shy – looking into the cameras of German press photographers.
The enormous silver goblet seems to weigh heavily in Paullumi’s hands, although it is all about the lightness of dance. The figure that decorates the dance trophy looks familiar to me. It is modeled in detail on a photograph from 1934 in which Leila Roy is captured in a swirling move. The centrifugal force of the body’s rotation has spread her skirt to the characteristic spout that shapes the image of so many Kathak performances today. Menaka’s arms are as graceful as energetically raised above her head. It is one of those gestures that German dance critics tried to decipher as the “language of the hands” in 1936.
The picture of the young prizewinner holding the dance pioneer award captures a lot of the situation in which Paullumi today, over 30 years after her competition success, is reconstructing the story of her own artistic career  – now through the eyes of the historian.

Paullumi Bishnawath Mukherjee pays homage to her gurus Ramadevi Lachhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj.

Paullumi makes no secret of the fact that, back in 1987, she did not know what to do with the name-giver of her trophy. She was just a young student, she says. It was all about dancing – and probably also about winning. Although the name Menaka could be read here and there in the relevant dance publications in India, little was known about the precise historical circumstances. Furthermore, in contrast to her contemporary Uday Shankar – who, as Paullumi emphasizes – unlike Menaka at least had artistic heirs who continued his work, the world of the dance pioneer Menaka remained veiled by a strange historical fog. As a matter of fact Paullumi was much closer to this world than she realized at the time. As a student of Ramadevi Lachhu Maharaj, she was in direct contact with Lachhu Maharaj himself – the Kathak master of the Lucknow Gharana who had been Leila Roy’s guru  40 years earlier. Like some other teachers from the Lucknow-Gharana sphere, he had trained the future Madame Menaka, mentored her dance career and participated in her artistic development. In this way, Leila Roy was deeply embedded in the extensive network of artists of the Maharaj family from Lucknow. Lachhu Maharaj outlived his student, who died surprisingly young in 1947 by 30 years. Again, 10 years later – after Lachhu Maharaj had also left the dance world forever – it was therefore not surprising that his artistic successor Ramadevi was particularly touched when, with Paullumi, a representative from the next generation of students of the Maharaj family, received the Menaka Award.

A rare image of Lachhu Maharaj (1901-1978) who taught Leila Roy, later Madame Menaka, in the 1930s. © Nrityadarpana Foundation Library, Mumbai.

Since the 1930s, when it was still a sensational social event for an upper-class woman to perform public dances in India, the Lucknow-Gharana has grown into a steady stream of classically trained Kathak dancers. Menaka is credited with opening the door wide to today’s acceptance of dance in society. Nevertheless, none of her students or protégées followed her on her experimental path in the matter of dance aesthetics. Menaka remains in a certain way a missing link in dance history, and it is therefore necessary to take a closer look at the relationships between the masters of the Lucknow School, such as Lachhu Maharaj and the dance pioneer Menaka.
This is what Paullumi is concerned with today, based on her expertise in dance history. As little as she was concerned with the historical context when she won the prize, the more serious she is now to understand some of the historical Menaka references with which she is connected.

Where was Nrityalam?

In the course of our conversation, Paullumi takes us on a journey through a fragile landscape of memories, in which, step by step, the image of an India in artistic departure takes on contours. Her mind turns to those places Lachhu Maharaj frequented 90 years ago. These are places that we only know from the description of third parties as centres of artistic entrepreneurship: the household of the Roy-Sokhey family on the premises of the Haffkin Institute in Bombay – and later Leila Roy’s heart project – Nrityalam – her dance centre away from the hustle and bustle of Bombay, in the countryside of the small hill station Kandala.
These places had once formed significant nodes on the small map of modern dance in India. Today it would take extensive research in land registers, real estate lists, in the archive of the Haffkin Institute, or in all imaginable official documents in order to find and identify the location of these places at all.
The painful lack of the materiality of these places as a memory guide, becomes evident in Paullumi’s story. It shows once again how difficult it is to look back into an era of artistic performativity in which documentation was far from being considered in the same way as it is today, when hardly a public step remains unfilmed, streamed, shared and liked. Now the few scattered documents of early modern dance in India lie before us, and every single find becomes a revelation as well as a riddle. Given this precarious situation, one question in particular arises: what kind of time was it when Kathak’s mediation – as Suman Bhagchandani writes – had not yet wholly shifted from “court to classroom”?[1]
The relationship between two figures as different as the artistic cosmopolitan Leila Roy and the rather traditional dance teacher Lachhu Maharaj from Lucknow gives an idea of ​​the vibrant atmosphere in which the contours of today’s classical dance world in India were redrawn. It was a turning to new/old topics and materials, to a mix of forms and subjects, to an embrace of the new media, to conquering a new audience and new spaces for dance, an exceptional condition on the threshold of something new, a phase during which the door was opened for social rehabilitation of dance, a time in which the Indian nation reassured itself of its cultural roots – and a creative strand that was abruptly cut off with the untimely death of Leila Roy.

Furthermore, something else from the turbulent mood of this time echoes in Paullumi’s story when she talks about the artistic reform movement in India at the beginning of the 20th century: namely, the gap that emerged between the social classes of traditional female performers, the courtly art education structures and the new, bourgeois audience. How heavy the cultural conventions and the social stigma weighed on the caste of dance-practising girls and women, Paullumi knows from the direct experience of her teacher, who had felt personally what it means to be regarded with disparaging looks as “baiji”. Even a progressive reformer like Menaka did not resolve the precarious situation of the dancing girls and women – the “baiji” and nautch-girls, because she was painstakingly careful not to accept any girls from the disreputable lower class in her corps du ballet.[2]

Memory in Motion

Paullumi looks back on the memories of her own first contact with dancing and of her training. At that time, this little world of dance seems manageable – a discrete area of ​​schools, influences, knowledge and practitioners in which everyone knew everyone and where news quickly circulated. Paullumi, for example, vividly remembers her encounters with Damayanti Joshi. From her, we have the only coherent report on the story of “Madame Menaka”. With Damayanti Joshi, the first generation of dancing women comes into view, who succeeded Menaka, appeared in the Indian public and went their own artistic ways. From this first generation of contemporary witnesses, only a few representatives can be interviewed personally today. It is now the time of the grandchildren to ask questions to adjust their knowledge. Given the rampant corona pandemic in India at the time of our conversation, it also shows how precarious this knowledge transfer is at the moment. Access to libraries and archives is blocked as in many other places in the world, but also some critical authors in the field of dance and history in India have passed away within a very short time. Paullumi reminds us that with Sunil Kothari, Laxminarayan Garg, Yogesh Praveen and Yogendra Pratap Singh, some of the most eminent expert voices are missing – the loss of which will probably only become noticeable in its full range in the coming years, she says.
In the course of our conversation, I once again become aware of the unique way in which knowledge in the field of dance is distributed: namely on the bodies of the practitioners, on the active memories as well as on the few material fragments of paper or celluloid, which are now gradually appearing in the equally volatile digital world.
In Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time” there is the famous scene in which the narrator suddenly recalls his entire childhood through the taste of a piece of biscuit dipped in tea. Paullumi describes something very similar when she talks about the way in which the knowledge of her teacher was passed on to herself: “While we were travelling, Guruji started to talk about something. I asked myself: Why is she telling me that while we are travelling? It was because the memories were coming back in that way!” Today she regrets that back then, there was still no technology to record those moments of memory that were sparked by a place, a taste, a movement or a sound. There is also something of this “Proust Madeleine moment” in the way Paullumi mentally picks up the Menaka trophy again while we talk about her memories. It is as if this conversation also sets the memory process in motion. For a moment, the inaccessible places of Madame Menaka’s history become – at least in the imagination – tangible and fill with life.


[1] Bhagchandani, Suman: „Institutions of Change: Kathak dance from Courts to Classrooms“, in: The Chitrolekha Journal on Art and Design 2/1 (2018),

[2] Joshi, Damayanti: Madame Menaka, New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi 1989.