Shared Spirits of Poetry and Nation
In this picture Menaka (seated) is in the company of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Sarojini Naidu (née Chattopadhyay, 1879-1949). Naidu and Tagore were both poets and towering figures in the nationalist movement. According to Damayanti Joshi the picture was taken at Menaka’s home on the campus of the Haffkine Institute and they were connected by a ‘shared spirit of national endeavour.’ There were other similarities as well. All three were Bengali Brahmins, Naidu’s parents were followers of Brahmo Samaj; the religious and social reform movement that was founded by Tagore’s father. Both Naidu and Menaka received their higher education in England.
Naidu was fifteen years when she received went on a scholarship to London, where she wrote the majority of the works for her first book of poetry, ‘The golden threshold’ (1905). A few years before the publication of her debut she became active in the Swadeshi movement for Indian independence. Her focus was on women’s issues like education, suffrage and child marriage. As a spokeswoman for Indian nationalism she travelled to the United States, France, South Africa and England. At the end of her second stay there she had her first meeting with Gandhi in 1914, who named her Bharat Kokila or ‘nightingale of India’, in praise of her poetical and oratorical talent. Henceforward she closely worked with Gandhi in all his satyagraha (non-violent non-cooperation) campaigns.
Naidu’s ‘The golden threshold’ and her second work ‘Bird of time’ (1912) contain vivid depictions of dance. An example is the second stanza of the poem ‘Dance of Love’:
‘Like bright and wind-blown lilies,
The dancers sway and shine,
Swift in a rhythmic circle,
Soft in a rhythmic line;
Their lithe limbs gleam like amber
Thro’ their veils of golden gauze,
As they glide and bend and beckon,
As they wheel and wind and pause.’
The swaying, gliding, winding and pausing evoke characteristic movements of Kathak. Naidu might have become familiar with the dance during her childhood. Although her family was Bengali, she grew up in Hyderabad. From the early 1700s until 1948 Hyderabad was ruled by monarchs, also known as Nizams. The Nizams broke off from Mughal rule, but continued their cultural forms, including patronage of the performing arts. A renowned artiste was Mah Laqa Bai (1768-1824), who performed music and dance in the court of the Nizam and together with her adopted daughter trained younger dancers. She established a remarkable trajectory in the transmission of Kathak, where male masters trained female courtesans. Although the dance lineage of Mah Laqa Bai scattered in the nineteenth century, her other legacy is still available: a diwan or collection of Urdu poetry.
– Anna Snaith, Modernist voices: colonial women writers in Londen, 1890-1945 (Cambridge 2014) pp. 67-89.
– Scott Kugle, ‘Mah Laqa Bai. The remains of a courtesan’s dance’, in: Pallabi Chakravorty, Nilanjana – Gupta (eds.) Dance matters too: markets, memories, identities (New York 2018) pp. 15 – 35.
– Photograph source: Damayanti Joshi, Madame Menaka, p.30.
Photographs Around the Globe