Carrying on the Shankar legacy

At the age of seven, Tanusree Shankar decided she wanted to be a dancer for the rest of her life.

Today, she is not only one of India's leading choreographers and dancers but has also travelled to more than 40 countries promoting the performing art.

She pursued what was then a favourite hobby by doing folk dance and other dance forms during functions in cities such as Jalandhar, Amritsar and Pune, as her father travelled to different cities while he was in the army.

When she was 12, her parents enrolled her in the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre where she learned dance forms such as bharatanatyam, manipuri and the Shankar creative style under the guidance of her mother-in-law Amala Shankar.

It was also where she met her late husband Ananda Shankar, a famous music composer and son of the late Uday Shankar and Mrs Amala Shankar. He died in 1999.

"Meeting Ananda at the age of 13 changed my whole life. He was my guide throughout my journey of dance and music. He was not only my husband but also my mentor. He taught me to appreciate classical music, made me confident and encouraged me in every project I did," said Tanusree.

In 2000, Mrs Shankar was encouraged to open the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company, a professional dance troupe. She also teaches at the Tanusree Shankar Dance Academy, formerly known as Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Arts, which was started by her husband in 1986.

At the academy, the 60-year-old teaches the Shankar technique of new dance. "My father-in-law pioneered this technique because he didn't want a dancer to become stagnant, but to be ever evolving and creative," said Tanusree.

She describes the dance as Indian in origin and spirit, modern in presentation and universal in appeal.

Explaining the technique, she said: "It is in between pure classical and modern dance. It should have the feel of a classical dance, yet look progressive. It is a difficult balance that we strike in our technique, but we prepare all our dancers through intensive training based on a comprehensive syllabus."

Most of her students at the academy learn this dance form for a minimum of seven to 12 years. Added Tanusree: "You cannot learn the technique overnight. You have to give yourself time to learn so that you can naturally execute the style."

From her early days as a dancer, Tanusree gradually became passionate about choreography, as she wanted to "create magic on stage". She said: "For a singer, it's the voice, for a painter, it's the brush and for a choreographer, it's the body language."

She believes that choreography gives her a chance to express her own creativity.

Her most memorable experience was when she choreographed a French opera Padmavati (a famous legend about Rani Padmavati and Alaluddin Khilji) in 2008.

Directed by renowned Indian film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the production, which was performed in Paris, involved 25 dancers from the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company and other international artistes.

Said Tanusree: "Padmavati had a 110-piece live orchestra, was sung in French by 50 choir singers along with leading opera singers and the dance sequences were choreographed in Indian style. It was very challenging to choreograph that piece.

I had to do my research to understand the music." Fortunately, she said, it looked beautiful and the show was a great success.

For her contribution towards creative and experimental dance, Tanusree also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award from the government of India in 2011.

For the first time in Singapore, she held a workshop at the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Dance Theatre during the Baishakhi Mela on May 2.

Said the president of the Bengali Association Singapore Abhijit Ghosh: "Our members have always looked forward to meeting Tanusree and learning the Shankar technique of new dance from her, so we thought this Baishakhi Mela would be a great opportunity to invite her to conduct the dance workshop."

One of the attendees

Mrs Swati Mukherji, said: "I enjoyed learning the new techniques especially the observation and concentration skills. She taught us how to coordinate our mind and body and our sense of hearing with our dance movements. With that, we executed a beautiful dance form at the end of the workshop."

Tanusree has also acted in several Bengali films such as Dui Prithibi, Hemanter Pakhi, A Waiting City, Takhon Teish, Aparajita Tumi and The Namesake. "I had no formal training in acting prior to this. However, Ananda was very supportive and told me that there was no harm trying something new.

It helped me a lot understanding the difference between acting on stage and acting in film," she said. Away from the limelight, she likes to read, play sudoku and decorate her home to de-stress.

She also said that dancing leisurely helps her relieve stress as it makes her forget the aches and pains in her body.

A piece of advice she wants to share with the younger generation is: "It's important for one to have discipline and patience in learning what you are passionate about. Expand your concentration span so your focus does not become diluted and in that way, you can sustain your learning.

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