Great Dancers and Choreographers of India

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Uday Shankar:

Uday Shankar (1900-1977), the elder brother of the sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar, is counted among the most accomplished dancers and choreographers of India. He was instrumental in introducing Indian dance and music to Western audiences. Some of Uday Shankar’s famous ballets include, ‘Shiva-Parvati’, ‘Rhythm of Life’ (1938) and ‘Labour and Machinery’ (1939). He also made a path-breaking film, ‘Kalpana’ on the theme of dance. He set up the ‘Uday Shankar India Culture Centre’ at Almore in 1939. He is considered as the ‘Father of Modern Dance in India’.

 

Sitara Devi:

Sitara Devi (b.1920) was a legendary danseuse, who was known the world over as the ‘Kathak Queen’. She started performing on stage as a professional solo dancer at the tender age of ten. Sitara later became a dancer with the Sagar Studios and soon rose to fame with films like ‘Allehlal’, ‘Nagina’, ‘Roti’ and ‘Vatan’. After watching her performance Rabindranath Tagore gave her the title ‘Nritya Samragini’. Sitara Devi has been honoured with several awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1969), Padma Shri (1973), Kalidas Samman (1995) and Nritya Nipuna. She, however, refused to accept the Padma Bhushan.

T. Balasaraswati :

 

T. Balasaraswati (1918-1984) was one of the legendary exponents of Bharatanatyam, who captured the imagination of the people with her command over both ‘nritta’ (technique) and ‘abhinaya’ (expression). She is considered as one of the greatest exponents of ‘padam’ and is best remembered for her rendition of the ‘padam’ known as ‘Krishna ne begane baro’. She has been conferred with several honours and awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1955), Padma Bhushan (1977) and Sangita Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy.

Birju Maharaj :

Pandit Birju Maharaj (1937-2022) was perhaps the foremost exponent of Kathak dancing in India. He hailed from the Maharaj family, which has a long lineage of renowned Kathak dancers, including his father Acchan Maharaj, and uncles, Lachhu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, who were all giants in the Kathak world. He was the foremost proponent of the Lucknow “Kalka-Bindadin” Gharana of Kathak, recognised for its graceful movements, subtle expressions, and rhythmic brilliance. He was also a brilliant choreographer, known for innovative dance dramas that blended traditional Kathak with contemporary themes.

He was instrumental in elevating the stature of Kathak by bringing it out of the courts to the stage and expanding its audience and reach by pioneering new choreographic ideas and making it relevant for modern audiences.

Pandit Birju Maharaj choreographed dances in several notable Bollywood films such as Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Devdas (2002), Vishwaroopam (2012), Dedh Ishqiya (2014), Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Kalank (2019). The only film in which Pandit Birju Maharaj acted was Gadaria (2023), which was released after his death.

Pandit Birju Maharaj was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and honours throughout his illustrious career which included Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1964), Padma Vibhushan (1986), Kalidas Samman, Lata Mangeshkar Puraskar (2002) and the National Film Award for Best Choreography (for the film ‘Vishwaroopam‘).

Pandit Birju Maharaj founded and ran the dance school named ‘Kalashram’ located in Delhi, which continues to be a prestigious institution for learning Kathak.

 

Narasimhachari and Vasantha Lakshmi​:

Narasimhachari is a rare combination of a music composer, choreographer, singer, ‘nattuvanar’, mridangam player, concert musician and dancer. Under the rigorous training of his father Sri Satyanarayanachari, Narasimhachari made his debut in Kuchipudi at the tender age of five. His wife Vasanthalakshmi, who is specialised in ‘nattuvangam’, writes the lyrics for their compositions. The couple has produced over twenty one dance-dramas including ‘Kambaramayanam’, ‘Sivaleela’, ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Challenge of Growth’.

Indrani Rehman ​:

Indrani Rehman (1930-1999) was a renowned danseuse who carried the glory of Indian classical dances to all parts of the world through her varied performances and her mastery over several dance styles such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi. She played and important role in the revival and popularization of Odissi. She was awarded Padma Shri (1969) and Sahitya Kala Parishad (1973).

Sanjukta Panigrahi:

Sanjukhta Panigrahi (1944-1997) was the noted Odissi danseuse who started performing Odissi at the age of six under the guidance of Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra. At a time when Odissi was a relatively unknown and less respected form, she chose the art as her primary focus. While respecting the core traditions of Odissi, she contributed to expanding its choreographic horizons. She played a crucial role in the revival and popularisation of Odissi dance globally.

Sanjukta was married to accomplished Odissi vocalist Raghunath Panigrahi who composed music for many of her iconic performances.

In 1977, She founded a dance institution in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, named ‘Kalinga Kalakshetra’ which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Odissi dance. Sanjukta experimented with several non-traditional lyrics in Odissi such as the Surdas Padmavalli, Tagore songs, Bhagwad Geeta and Tulsi Ramayana.

She was awarded Padma Shri (1975) and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1976).

 

Sonal Mansingh:

Sonal Mansingh (b.1944) is a renowned social activist, choreographer and dancer. She is a leading exponent of Odissi, Bharatanatyam, Chhau and other forms of Indian dances. Her choreographic works cover a wide range of themes ranging from Indian mythology to contemporary issues. Her renowned choreographic works include, ‘Indradhanush’, ‘Manavatta’, ‘Mera Bharat’, ‘Draupadi’, ‘Gita Govinda’, ‘Sabras’, ‘Chaturang’ and ‘Samanavaya’. In 1977, she founded the ‘Centre for Indian Classical Dances’ in New Delhi. She is a recipient of Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award, Padma Bhushan and Indira Priya Darshini Award.

Mallika Sarabhai:


Mallika Sarabhai (b.1953) is a renowned exponent of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi and an internationally known choreographer, who has to her credit compositions like ‘Draupadi’, ‘Sita’s Daughters’, ‘Itan Kahani’, ‘Aspiration’, ‘Ganga’ and ‘Mean Streets on Earth’. She played the role of Draupadi in Peter Brooke’s film ‘Mahabharata’. She anchored television programmes like ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Eye Witness’. She has also made noteworthy contribution in the fields of television, theatre, cinema, writing and publishing. She has received several honours and awards including Crystal Award by World Economic Forum (2008), Kala Shiromani Puraskar (2004), Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, French Government (2002), Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2000), ‘Chevalier des Palmes Academiques’, French Government (1999) and Film Critics Award for Best Actress for the film ‘Muthi Bhar Chawal’(1974).

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