Sharmila Banerjee first came across Amala Shankar when her family visited Kolkata in 1969. Her cousin Bhaswati Ghosh, a student of Uday Shankar India Culture Centre at the time, took her to the academy, where she discovered the magic of dance as a means of communication. "I first met Mashima (Amala Shankar) while she was dancing at the academy with instrumental music. It felt like a dream to see the tall and beautiful opshora. She was so graceful, and she could tell tales through her body," shares Sharmila Banerjee, the founder of Nritya Nandan, an established dance institution in Bangladesh.
Sharmila Banerjee and her family left Bangladesh and moved to India, during the Liberation War in 1971. "I joined Uday Shankar India Culture Centreas a student in India. That is when I bonded with Mashima," she smiles. "Her powerful personality astounded me and after attending few of her classes, I decided that I wanted to be a dancer. The Liberation War of 1971 had two gifts in store for me —an independent nation and dance!"
Amala Shankar had a unique teaching technique that focused on creativity. "Alongside dance lessons, the main attraction of Mashima's classes was exploring creativity and improvisation. She would ask us to represent nature, or numbers, alphabets and shapes with our body," says Sharmila Banerjee. "Her techniques have stayed with me. Following her ways, I taught a class just recently, asking the students to emphasise on their elbows and make an '8'."
Amala Shankar was always very welcoming to newcomers. "During the Annual Show of 1972, held at Rabindra Sadan, Mashima selected dancers from a group of first-year students, but no one dared to take the floor and dance before her. I don't know what came over me then, but I spontaneously jumped and showed a few movements," she says. "I was lauded for my work, and selected to perform along with the seniors."
Sharmila Banerjee further talked about the ideals and principles she learnt from Amala Shankar. "Mashima made no compromises in the execution of the dance," she asserts. "If someone had any problems, she humbly advised them to step aside. She did so not to criticise anyone, but to protect the quality of the performance." As dancers, everyone was equal before Amala Shankar, regardless of their fame or seniority. Their positions in the choreographies were determined through their performance, not their status of seniority. "Mashima encouraged us to improve and to earn our place in the performance. She always prioritised the dance as a whole, and never seconded the concept of individualism," explains Sharmila Banerjee. "On one hand, Mashima taught us the true joy that humbleness begets, and on the other hand, she taught us the importance of punctuality, commitment, practice and orderliness."
The dancer last visited her guru in Kolkata, when Amala Shankar turned 99. "She was surprised to see her students. We reminisced our days as teenagers at her dance academy," shares an emotional Sharmila Banerjee. "She wanted to visit Bangladesh one more time. I am glad that my last memory of Mashima is that of a strong and beautiful, yet humble and sweet woman, who treated dance like a prayer."
The demise of Amala Shankar is a grave loss for her students and admirers. Sharmila Banerjee reminisces her guru as a majestic artiste, who inspired young dancers to express their inner emotions through the body. "Mashima aided my trajectory as a dancer – she was a guiding light to me," she adds.
Sharmila's fellow friend from her early dance school days, Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, an associate professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University, is writing a book on Amala Shankar's husband, legendary dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar. She has dedicated a section of the book to Amala Shankar's brilliant methods and journey.
"Mashima changed my whole perception about dance. I embraced her ideals, morals and sense of discipline wholeheartedly. Though I was under her guidance and tutelage for a very short time, she holds a special place in my life. I hope to instill the values that I learnt from her in future generations of young dancers," concludes Sharmila Banerjee.