Experiments with shapes and sounds (1933-1934)

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An examination of articles published in The Bombay Chronicle provides a general understanding of Menaka’s artistic endeavours during the years 1933-1934. With some experimentation, the repertoire that she would perform night after night on European stages with the Menaka Indian Ballet took shape. It remains impossible, however, to get an impression of the musical accompaniment.

The Menaka Archive’s reconstruction of Menaka’s first European tour reveals that Leila Sokhey concluded her performances in November 1932 at the renowned Vieux Colombier Parisian theatre. [1] Six months later, she was joined by two dancers, Lalita and Mohanlal, for her recitals in India. [2] There is still limited information about Lalita’s background, who seemingly was an actress as well. [3] Mohanlal Pande was a dancer educated by Menaka’s teacher Sitaram Misr and likely followed him from Calcutta to Mumbai. [4]

One year after Lalita and Mohanlal’s debut, the phrase ‘corps de ballet’ was first used in an advertisement. [5] The ensemble was expanded to include Jamnaprasad, brother of Mohanlal, and three young women named Mumtaz, Malati and Vimala.[6] The Bombay Chronicle’s dramatic critic noted that an extended period of rehearsals had taken place prior to the performances and that Sitaram Misr had lent his ‘unstinted support’. [7] The ‘ballet’ or dance-drama Krishna Leela, which premiered, continued to be performed until 1938, in addition to the pieces Lakshmi Darshan, Harao Mehri and Patang. The idea for the kite-dance Patang was proposed by Mumtaz, whose only appearance with the group was during this performance. [8]

The Central Entrance to the Auditorium, Royal Opera House, Girgaum, Mumbai. Source: Google Arts & Culture, https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-central-entrance-to-the-auditorium-archival-image/1gGuZc6TT6UQZg?hl=en

For the performance of April 1933 in the Royal Opera House, Menaka worked with B.R. Deodhar (1901-1990). “Professor Deodhar”, set up the “Indian School of Music” in Girgaum, in southern Mumbai, in 1925. He was one of the most prominent disciples of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931), who has been characterized as a ‘bhakti nationalist’ by historian Bakhle for his significant role in transforming music. Bakhle noted that Paluskar codified Hindustani music in line with nationalist ideologies and established a ‘sacralized’ approach with religious devotion at the center of pedagogy, repertoire and performance. [9] The ongoing legacy of Paluskar is manifested in the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, the music institute that he founded in 1901, which has branches across India and has trained thousands of students. Paluskar sought to foster an understanding of music not as a form of entertainment, but as a medium through which spiritual devotion could be expressed. His aim was to cultivate an audience that was knowledgeable in music, rather than to develop a professional group of musicians. [10]

When Deodhar’s tie with Paluskar is foregrounded, his association with Menaka seems consistent with her intentions to ‘purify’ the dance. Nevertheless, other scholars have suggested his learning was not merely limited to the teachings of Paluskar, since he drew on the distinct influences of the musical environment in Mumbai.

During the nineteenth century, Bombay underwent a dramatic transformation due to an influx of migrants. By 1891, the city’s population had grown to 8 million, of which a quarter had been born outside the city. By 1921, this percentage had risen to 84%. [11] This influx included trading communities from different regions of India, who were able to attain considerable profits. Often referred to as shetias, these migrants also assumed the role of patrons of music, and included dancers, vocalists, and instrumentalists formerly associated with the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in the state of Awadh. The annexation of the region by the East India Company in 1856 had ended the reign of Wajid Ali Shah and brought many of these artists to Mumbai, where they continued to practice and perform. [12]

Tawaifs and naikins, who were traditionally hereditary dancers from Northern and Western India, were highly skilled in both singing and dancing. In Bombay, they came to be known as songstresses, and were often invited to perform at celebratory events and nautch parties hosted by the shetias to honor business partners or British colonial officials. However, according to Niranjana, there is relatively little trace of either tawaifs or naikins, despite their significant contributions to the perpetuation of Hindustani music in Mumbai city. [13]

Deodhar’s connection to hereditary musicians, however, was more explicit. As a member of the Bombay Music Circle, established in the early 1930s, his School of Indian Music provided a platform for performers irrespective of their religious beliefs, social class or political alignments The concerts of the Bombay Music Circle were ticketed public performances and attracted a diverse, urban audience. The membership of the circle was comprised of initiated listeners, including renowned hereditary vocalists such as Alladiya Khan (1855-1946), Vilayat Hussein Khan (1895-1962), and Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1937). Hereditary musicians and songstresses, willing to adapt to changing circumstances, performed under the aegis of the music circle. [14]

Moreover, Deodhar cultivated a close relationship with two prominent Muslim singers, Sinde Khan (d.1950) and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902-1968), whom he met in respectively 1919 and 1944. [15] The Samvaad Foundation’s archival collection includes a recorded conversation with Deodhar wherein he reminisces about the vibrant character of Sinde Khan, and a fleeting reference to tawaifs appears:

Deodhar’s involvement with Menaka was short-lived, as in July 1934, a new trio was assembled, with Hamid Husain Khan on the sitar, Sakhawat Husain Khan on the sarod and Ambique Majumdar as musical director, to provide music for Menaka’s performances, which was composed and arranged specifically for this purpose. [16]


[1] https://menaka-archive.org/en/1932-1119-paris/
[2] The Bombay Chronicle (April 8, 1933). https://menaka-archive.org/en/dokumente/#document=4679
[3] The Bombay Chronicle (May 27, 1933). https://menaka-archive.org/en/dokumente/#document=4683
[4] Hemal Ashar, ‚Birju Maharaji would have added to my research‘, mid-day.com (January 18, 2022). ttps://www.mid-day.com/mumbai/mumbai-news/article/birju-maharajji-would-have-added-to-my-research-23210071
[5] The Bombay Chronicle (March 29, 1934). https://menaka-archive.org/en/dokumente/#document=4688
[6] ‘Menaka’s dances and ballet secure briliant reception’, The Bombay Chronicle (April 9, 1934).https://menaka-archive.org/en/dokumente/#document=4696
[7] ‚Menaka stages new ballet. Dance season opens at opera‘, The Bombay Chronicle (March 30, 1934).
[8] Hanova Collection, Programme leaflet (1939), ‘Menaka is indebted to Mumtaz Ali for the theme of this dance’. https://menaka-archive.org/en/dokumente/#document=4480
[9] Janaki Bakhle, Two men and music: nationalism in the making of an Indian classical tradition (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005) pp 24-25, p. 29.
[10] Bakhle, Two men and music, p. 155.
[11] Tejaswini Niranjana, ‘Musicophilia and the lingua musica in Mumbai’, Cultural Studies vol.32/2 (2018) pp. 261-285, p. 265.
[12] Niranjana, ‘Musicophilia and the lingua musica in Mumbai’, 266; Aneesh Pradhan, ‘Perspectives on performance practice: Hindustani music in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century in Bombay (Mumbai), South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies XXXVIII/3 (2004) p 339- 358, pp. 340-341.
[13] Pradhan, ‘Perspectives on performance practice’, 341; Niranjana, ‘Musicophilia and the lingua musica in Mumbai’, pp. 263-265.
[14] Pradhan, ‘Perspectives on performance practice’, pp. 349-350.
[15] B.R. Deodhar, Pillars of Hindustani music (Bombay 1993) p. 205,  p. 245.
[16] ‘Menaka’s dance recital. A crowded & Appreciative house’, The Bombay Chronicle (July 7, 1934). https://menaka-archive.org/en/dokumente/#document=4710