In memory of Menaka

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Kathak danseuse Shama Bhate has conceptualised Madame Menaka Choreography Movement. She gives details about the festival

A noted artist in her own right is paying tribute to another performer, who has now faded into oblivion. Kathak dancer Shama Bhate’s dance school, nad-roop and Maharashtra Cultural Centre have come together to hold the first edition of Madame Menaka Choreography Movement. The project has been conceptualised by Shamatai to revive and revisit the ideas practised by dancer Menaka (in private life known as Lady Leila Sokhey). 

“I want to get a discussion started about Madame Menaka’s path-breaking ideas amongst the members of dance fraternity. Madame Menaka was trained in Western music and ballet; she also trained in Lucknow style of Kathak. In 1938, she set up a dance school, Nrityalayam in Khandala,” explains Shamatai.

The festival will be held on May 25 and 26 with five senior dancers of Shamatai presenting their performances, followed by a panel discussion, headed by Ashish Khokar. 

“The focus of the festival is on choreography. I think choreography has pervaded our lives in entirety. It’s something that we have all learnt, and know and grasp intuitively. So my dance students will have 25 minutes each to present their choreographies and then exchange the thought process with the panelists headed by art historian and critic, Ashish Khokar. A lot is discussed about subjects chosen in theatre or music. But there is not enough discussion about dance. I think dancers too should get a chance to talk about their thought process in choosing a particular subject, or in selecting a particular costume or light design. We need to go beyond the superficialities of making an entertaining or a well-applauded dance programme,” adds  Shamatai.

Her students — Ameera Patankar, Leena Ketkar, Ketaki Shah, Nikhil Parmar and Meghana Rao, Manasi Deshpande — will be presenting their choreographies on ‘proverbs and ‘idioms’. Interestingly,  Shamatai has allowed the dancers full freedom in choosing the themes, presentations and their dance styles. 

“I told them that instead of picking proverbs from English or Marathi and Sanskrit, choose from other languages, so that you get a different cultural context. One of the dancer has chosen a French proverb, another has picked an African one. I haven’t seen their performances, because I don’t want my opinions or thought process to influence them. I also told them that they could choose a different dance style other than Kathak too,” she adds. 

But how can one have a Kathak dance around a French proverb? What about the music?

Shamatai replies, “Proverbs convey the essence. Dance too conveys the essence. So it won’t be that abstract. Also, Kathak is an extremely fluid dance form and has undergone so many changes over the years — from being performed in temples to being a ‘darbar’ dance and then moving to ‘baiji’s kothas’ Kathak’s roop has changed, yet it’s identity is strong.” 

The veteran artist also wants the audience to be a part of the immersive experience so she and her team are working on creating the right ambience for them. “After the performances by the five dancers, I am also toying with the idea of keeping the sixth slot free — allowing musicians, dancers, technical people to express their thoughts,” says she. 

Ashish Khokar, art historian, dance critic and scholar, will be heading and moderating the panel discussion. “Ashish’s father was also an art historian so Ashish is aware of the changes that have taken place. He is connected with the old and new facets. There are some eminent people from Pune who too are a part of the panel — choreography is connected to theatre, music and other aspects. All this enriches choreography,” says she.

When asked about the future editions,  Shamatai says, she would like to hold the festival every year. “But everything depends on this first edition. We would like to have feedback from the fraternity and the audience. This year, I asked my students to pitch in. Next year, we might invite applications. All this is in the hope that Pune dance fraternity gets acknowledgement at the national level. A lot of work is being done in the city, we just need to spread the word. And, what better way than by holding a festival in the name of Madame Menaka, who pioneered the dance movement in Maharashtra?,” she concludes. 

Madame Menaka Choreography Movement, organised by nad-roop and Maharashtra Cultural Centre, will be held on May 25 and 26 at Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha from 5.30-9.30 pm

- Madame Menaka’s student, Shirin Vajifdar wrote an article on her guru highlighting her work. 
- She first appeared on the dance stage in Bombay, in 1926. Apart from training in solo recitals of kathak, she intitiated a new choreography into the dance form, adapting its techniques for dramatic purposes. She formed a Corps de Ballet of talented dancers and musicians.
- Madame Menaka and her ballet troupe won three Honour Prizes at the 1936 International Dance Olympiad, held in Berlin, in connection with the Olympic Games.
- She worked with Karl Khandalawala and Manishi De on costumes. Dr Raghavan, sanskrit scholar, helped her with the themes and Vishnu Shirodkar gave her inputs in devising music for ballets. She passed away in 1947.

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