In 1938, a 14-year-old from a conservative family in Aligarh decides to run away from home. He is free-spirited and his father is insistent that he undergo regimented schooling in Sanskrit studies.

The scrawny teen has no idea where to go. But two Bengali friends in his neighbourhood have told him that a magnificent Indian dancer had returned home after dazzling pre-war Europe with his spectacular ballets. His name is Uday Shankar, the children find out, and he has set up an arts centre in Almora.

The Kumaon hill town seems like a dream destination for the boy, proffering the promise of escape from the daily battles at home. He lands up there somehow but the centre’s administrators are aghast at the idea of taking in a runaway minor. He stays put anyway, seeking refuge at a wayside tea shop. A staffer at the centre is moved by his grit and asks him to present himself to Dada, the legendary dancer. “Hmmm, let him in,” says the formidable figure.

It is evening and the awkward youngster, in khaki shorts and with a choti knotted behind his head, as his teacher Zohra Sehgal was to later recall, is ushered into a hall with mirrors. “It was [an] improvisation class – ta-ta, two steps, two steps, with varying hand movements. And I did two steps, two steps frantically like it was a test I had to pass,” recalled dancer-choreographer Narendra Sharma in the 2007 documentary A Life in Dance.

The desperate ta-ta was the start of Sharma’s fascinating and dramatic journey as a contemporary dancer and choreographer – from Bombay’s film world and leftist theatre troupes to grand balletic productions in Delhi and a memorable stint as the dance teacher at Modern School. Along the way, he founded Bhoomika, a unique creative dance centre, in 1972.

At the Almora centre, Sharma (front, extreme right) performs in an improvisation class with Zohra Sehgal (in front), Guru Dutt (second row, in black trousers) and others. Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

Bhoomika celebrated 50 years of its existence earlier this year – five decades of seminal dance works that reflect an eclectic, progressive legacy. Sharma passed away in 2008 but his choreographies such as Balaka, Wolf Boy, Prarthana, Mukhantar, Antim Adhyaya, Antar Chhaya, Conference79 and Alingan have pressed into Delhi’s cultural memories. These works were more than creative flights, they reflected the reality of the world, political and social. And though he directed the first grand public Ram Leela in Delhi in 1957, his favourite characters were the men and women on streets.

“He would say, ‘I am sick of dances about gods and goddesses in costumes. Why isn’t there any place for the common man in our dances?’” said Bharat Sharma, his son, choreographer-dancer and director of Bhoomika. “His dance put this man on the stage. He also brought humour, slapstick, paradox on stage, things that no dancer would touch those days.”

An important aspect of Sharma’s dance journey is the historic arc it covered. The energy of the nationalist movement, the hope of the Nehruvian era, the rise of Delhi’s cultural edifices, and even its authoritarian and apathetic regimes – all these were reflected in Sharma’s oeuvre that, like his guru, built a bridge between dance and theatre. Sushil Dasgupta, who composed music for all his works between 1948 and 2008, remained his steadfast collaborator.

A scene from Ram Leela, featuring Sharma as Ravana and Jaya Sharma as Sita. Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

More than anything else, Sharma is remembered for his amazing contributions to children’s dance and theatre, creating evergreen pieces like Tick Tick, Panchtantra ka Sher, Hockey Match, Saagar, Joota Awishkar and Mirror. “What is dance?” he asks in the 2007 documentary. “It is actually a child’s work. It is the freedom and rhythm in their bodies, their unfettered imagination, to become who they want. Why reduce it to mechanics?”

Natural movements

At the Bhoomika studio in east Delhi’s Bharati Artist Colony, a dozen young dancers are powering through a two-hour-long workout supervised by Bharat. Moving from the basic walk to stylised gaits to growingly complex steps, their bodies acquire the kind of fluidity that can capture a range of human situations. For instance, how do the bodies that pack Delhi’s Metro at peak hour behave?

“I made them take the many Metro lines of Delhi from one end of the city to the other, [and] observe and recreate commuter behaviour on the studio floor,” said Bharat. “How do people behave in a network that has transformed their city, bringing dignity in the lives of millions?” The exercise resulted in Metro Metro!, a work on the hidden ways in which rhythm sneaks into our everyday lives, in how we swipe a card at the turnstile, jostle for a seat, lean against the train’s door and hang on to its straps.

A scene from Kamayani, featuring Kumkum Lal. Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

So, what was the dance form that Sharma worked with and which informs Bhoomika’s dance philosophy? It is hard to put a name to it. It grew out of Uday Shankar’s signature style, which itself defied codifying. It put a premium on natural movements – the walk for instance was at the centre of much creativity. It then built on things all around the students – the hill folks, the buzz of the bazaar, folk arts, animals, hunters – to create a choreography.

“Until then there was no dance language for contemporary topics,” said Bharat. “It was the greatest experiment ever in dance, theatre and pedagogy. It was allowed to die too soon.”

Shankar’s Almora centre, a back-to-nature idyll for artistes, lasted for all of four years, but its impact was far reaching in terms of the talent it put out – Guru Dutt, Zohra Sehgal, Sardar Malik, Sachin Shankar, Shanti Bardhan, among others. Shankar brought in classical dance masters and there were inputs from the radically changing ballet and opera scene in Europe too.

A scene from Antim Adhyaya, featuring Sharma as Gandhi. Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

Still, the emphasis at all times was on spontaneity and improvisation. Sundays would be earmarked as days to stage original choreographies. On one such Sunday, Sharma came up with a riveting work titled Hans Balaka that was an ode to the Siberian crane. Balaka was not just a Sunday afternoon hit, it became a staple for the Almora troupe travelling far and wide with Guru Dutt playing the crane.

“The centre produced all kinds of talents – dancers, musicians, theatre activists, arts administrators,” said seasoned Odissi dancer Kumkum Lal, a founder-member of Bhoomika and a lead performer in Sharma’s early productions. “What was exceptional about Sharmaji was that he was an amalgam of all these skills.”

When the centre folded up, Sharma, like many others, headed for Bombay. There, along with Sachin Shankar, he formed the Sachin-Sharma duo and began directing dance for films. This was also the time he worked with the leftist culture troupe, Indian People’s Theatre Association, and collaborated with Ravi Shankar on the grand production India Immortal. “It was [an] agitprop kind of work that toured widely for months,” recalled Bharat. “He used to say how exhilarating it was.”

A scene from Antar Chhaya. Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

Delhi found Sharma when he arrived with Discovery of India, Indian National Theatre Trust’s operatic take on Nehru’s epic work. The city also gave him his first full-time job – as a dance teacher at the prestigious Modern School.

Class act

In the 1950s, the school became the laboratory for what Sharma was to do later with Bhoomika even as it mirrored his experiences as a teen at Almora. Children were encouraged to present creative works every week. It could just be the flight of a butterfly, the cheer of a rainbow, rain pattering down a window. His rooms, once the home of stable hands who looked after the school’s horses, became a minor creative hub that fit the culture mosaic growing around Mandi House.

Sharma’s Ram Leela for the Bhartiya Kala Kendra that continues till date, albeit with many changes, is still remembered by old timers for its sweeping amalgam of many dance styles. Partially funded by the Nehru government, his Ram Leela was a mela of a ballet staged first at Ferozeshah Kotla grounds with a huge cast, a regular staff and tours around India.

A scene from Conference79. Standing in the centre is Sharma. Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

But his yearning for creative work was too strong to be contained in a classroom or the demands of mythological theatre. He set up Bhoomika, primarily for young audiences. “He was the first to imagine a professional dance centre that would create works for children,” recalled Lal. “And like me most of his dancers were his students at Modern School.” She was also the lead in his first significant independent work, the choreography of Jaishankar Prasad’s epic poem Kamayani.

Bhoomika’s dance continued to be anchored in the signature Uday Shankar style till the 1970s. A big change came when Chhau, a martial and folk dance form from India’s eastern belt, made an impactful arrival in Delhi, led by the masterly Krishna Chandra Naik of Mayurbhanj. With an exclusive rhythm and movement code and place for facial abhinaya, it was an ideal fit for contemporary dance – with its bold yet fluid elements, it could become a tool for both body conditioning and choreography.

Bharat became an exponent of Chhau under Naik and this, along with his training, made him an ideal candidate for Sharma’s next experiments. The most famous of these was The Wolf Boy, a visceral and muscular production made in 1977 featuring Bharat in the main role. Newspapers were rife with stories of a child found in a Madhya Pradesh forest who had been raised by wolves and Sharma was intrigued by the idea of a creature of the forest finding a place in a “civilised world”. “It was a breakthrough production that played at every big ballet festival,” recalled Bharat. “A fine example of non-verbal theatre, it mixed Chhau and various athletic movements.”

A scene from Wolf Boy, featuring Bharat Sharma (right). Courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives.

But humour remained the veteran dancer’s chief strength. Among the most memorably satirical of Sharma’s choreographies was Conference79, in which the international year of the child comes and goes as bureaucrats and power brokers confer endlessly at seminars that politicians sleep through.

The 1980s and more particularly ’90s saw a dip in Bhoomika’s trajectory. The space for a dance that was neither classical nor Bollywood began to shrink as funds and resources dwindled. But the dance centre continued to put out some significant works under Sharma’s baton, often reflecting his dismay with the changing world. Antar Chhaya was a protest ballet against the loss of political ideology. Mukhantar spoke of hypocrisy and loss of empathy. Antim Adhyaya, Bharat says, was the master’s acceptance that he had reached the end of his journey. He last took the stage in 2007 in a tribute to Gandhi.

“My times were important, not me,” he would often say, looking back at his long innings on the stage. Sharma remained a remarkably sprightly figure in the capital’s arts circuit, upright and fit till a bout of Delhi’s winter chill hit him at age 84. His last thoughts were of Almora, says Bharat.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.