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#EXCLUSIVE: Hindu dancer left British India but returned to Independent India from Australia

Shivaram was the “star of India” who enjoyed constant attention from an excited Australian public.

By Amit Sarwal and Pallavi Jain

Ananda Shivaram, dressed in a grey sherwani (traditional Indian long coat) arrived in Australia in March 1947 at Port Melbourne on the SS Marella attracting the attention of photojournalists eager to capture him. He was the first Indian Kathakali artist to tour Australia. Kathakali is an ancient Indian dance. Historically it is an all-night traditional dance-drama performed in Hindu temples.

Ananda Shivaram, 1947. Photograph: Source unknown. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

Shivaram was received in Australia by an Australian ballet dancer and impresario Louise Lightfoot who spent several years in India learning different Indian classical dance forms including Kathakali, Bharatnatyam and Manipuri.

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(Left to Right) Ananda Shivaram received by Louise Lightfoot at Port Melbourne on board SS Marella, 1947. Photograph: Source unknown. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

Shivaram, then in his early thirties, performed in all the major Australian cities: Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth. The Australian media overwhelmingly characterized him as an “exotic Hindu temple dancer.”

Ananda Shivaram posing and performing eye exercises for Australian journalists, May 31, 1947. Photograph: PIX Magazine. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

His first major show was organized at the National Theatre in Melbourne, under the patronage of the Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Sir Raghunath Purushottam Paranjpye. By the time Shivaram was leaving Australia he had already become a star.

A poster for Ananda Shivaram’s first dance recital at the National Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, April 28 to May 3, 1947. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

When Shivaram boarded the SS Marella for Australia, India was still under British rule but when he left Australia and touched the shores of Mumbai (then Bombay) on his way to London he was in the seas of an Independent India.

Hindu temple home of all arts: Louise Lightfoot

This fascinating chapter in the history of Australian-Indian cultural relations was made possible by the Australian impresario Loiuse Lightfoot.

The Indian media saw this collaboration between Shivaram, Lightfoot and other Australian Ballet artists as a much-awaited “cultural union between the Orient and the Occident.”

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Louise Lightfoot wearing a Sari. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph: Mac Juster. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

Louise was the first Australian and the first Western woman to study Kathakali. Born in May 1902 in Yangery in Victoria she first arrived in India in 1937. She learned Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Manipuri during the many years that she spent in India over several visits. She also devoted her considerable talents—experiences drawn from promoting ballet in Australia—and energy to promote Indian classical dance in Australia.

Before Shivaram’s arrival in Melbourne, Louise successfully started preparing the public to receive him by publishing extensively on Hindu dance art in Australian newspapers and magazines, teaching selected Australian ballet students Indian dance and giving public talks at the Theosophical Society and at Ballet clubs.

Poster for Ananda Shivaram’s dance recitals, 1947. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

Louise spoke of discovering Indian dance, an ancient and perfect art, though in danger of extinction; of Indian dance being more than entertainment, being considered an approach to God; and how the Hindu temple was the home of all arts.

Seeing Louise’s dedication towards promoting Kathakali, Vallathol Narayana Menon, the great poet of Malabar and the founder of Kerala Kalamandalam, bestowed upon Louise the fond title of “Kathakali’s Australian mother.”

Kathakali in Australia

To popularise Kathakali in Australia, Louise thought it was best to infuse the Indian rhythms of this symbolic art with Western dance and vice versa. Here, Louise’s knowledge and training in architecture, sculpture and painting helped her in the elaborate planning of costumes, ornaments and stage design. Nevertheless, this experimentation could not have been possible without the active support of Ananda Shivaram—Louise’s teacher, friend and star artist.

Louise and Shivaram’s experimentation in the fusion of Eastern and Western practices and making a classical Indian form accessible to uninitiated audiences was an overwhelming success. Audiences and critics were bowled over by the eloquence, expressiveness, and range of characterization of Shivaram’s Kathakali performances.

Ananda Shivaram in his iconic Peacock Dance, 1947. Photograph: John Tanner. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

After his first tour, Shivaram attracted attention from journalists and public alike, in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, as a picturesque figure with shoulder-length hair. The critical consensus was that the audiences had viewed the ancient temple dances as if on a “magic carpet” ride.

Australian connoisseurs of ballet were “profoundly interested” and “pleasantly impressed” with Shivaram’s “original demonstrations.” Comparing the dance style of Shivaram with that of the American modern dancer Ted Shawn, Alan Seymour wrote in The Mail: “… the most marvellous thing in Shivaram’s dancing is his virility, which makes such a deep impression … it unleashes before us a power and vitality completely masculine and astonishingly thrilling.”

Ananda Shivaram in a Man-Lion pose from Narasimha Avatar, 1947. Photograph: The Advertiser. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

Alan Seymour noted that during her stay in India, the “religious tradition” and the “deep spiritual content of Indian dance” had had “an over-whelming effect” on Louise and she had “absorbed its technique and emotional content” in her own presentations.

According to Moya Beaver, who was also an Australian ballet dancer and teacher, no Australian woman had done this before. Seymour also noted that “… unlike many Australians in the theatre world who have gone abroad and forgotten to come back, she has devotedly, and with passionate sincerity, attempted to bring something of culture, enlightenment, and international goodwill to the Australian people.”

(Sitting in the centre, from left to right) Ruth Bergner, Ananda Shivaram and Louise Lightfoot, Fiji, 1950. Photograph: Source unknown. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

While Shivaram was on his way to becoming an international star, a rich Indian-origin business owner invited Louise and Shivaram to Fiji. On their return to Melbourne, however, Louise and Shivaram were told by the officers of the immigration department that Shivaram’s visa was meant for Australia and his Fiji tour had led to its cancellation. On Louise’s request, the officials granted a few weeks’ stay to Shivaram to make arrangements for his travel back to India. But in any case, Shivaram was now ready to move on and explore Europe.

Louise and Shivaram boarded Marseilles from Freemantle bound for Ceylon and Bombay. But they did not get down at Bombay as planned and moved on to London to showcase India’s new cultural ambassador. However when Marseilles docked in Mumbai, India had gained independence from the British and Shivaram who had left British India touched the shores of a free India.

(Right to Left) Ananda Shivaram with his father and first guru Gopala Panikar. Photograph: Source unknown. Photograph from the Louise Lightfoot Bequest, Monash University. Photograph Courtesy: Music Archives of Monash University and Mary Louise Lightfoot.

From 1947-1950, Shivaram performed in Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and England with Louise as his trusted impresario. The Australian tours, 1947 and 1949-50, were made possible by the official assistance of state funding bodies, such as the Arts Council of Australia, the Adult Education Board (in Western Australia and in Tasmania), and the Council of Adult Education (in Victoria). Shivaram performed at prestigious theatres, such as the National Theatre in Melbourne, the Majestic Theatre in Adelaide, and the Repertory Theatre in Perth.

Shivaram was the “star of India” who enjoyed constant attention from an excited public. After his successful Australian tours, the Indian media hailed Shivaram as the true “cultural ambassador” of India in Australia. He interacted with both Australian artists and the common people to promote knowledge of his art and to bring Indian and Australian cultures and worlds closer together. In the 1950s, Shivaram returned to independent India to rest after years of touring continuously and Louise moved on to learn another traditional Hindu dance form of India – Manipuri.

(For a detailed story, please see Amit Sarwal’s The Dancing God: Staging Hindu Dance in Australia, London: Routledge, 2020)

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