Real Name – Sadhona Bose aka Sadhana Bose, born as Sadhana Sen
Profession – Actress
Active Years – 1930s – 1950s
Nationality – Indian
Religion – Hindu
Ethnicity – Bengali
Date of Birth – April 20th, 1914 (Calcutta, India)
Date of Death – October 3rd, 1973 (Calcutta, India)
Debut Film – Kumkum The Dancer (1940)
Last Film – Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo (1952)
Significant others in the Film Industry – Madhu Bose (Director, Husband)
Miscellaneous Info – Famous actress Sadhana was named after her father’s favorite actress-dancer Sadhana Bose.
The Triumph and Tragedy of Sadhona Bose
Life is full of strange logic. How else can one explain roads that double back on themselves and nights that never seem to end? A bird which hangs still in the sky? A darkness at noon?
The logic that connects a great nineteenth century social reformer with a beautiful dancer and film actress, 50 years later, seems as unlikely. The former was an intellectual and a social mystic who, in the words of a disciple, stood with the shadow of Jesus on the one hand and the shadow of Sree Chaitanyadev on the other. He was, of course, Bramhananda Keshab Chandra Sen, the driving force behind the Brahmo Samaj movement of nineteenth century Bengal. The woman who followed him was his granddaughter, Sadhona Bose.
Keshab Chandra and his granddaughter are far removed from each other in time and in the public eye, yet one finds surprising parallels. Surprising, because they impacted so differently on the Indian psyche. Religion tends to rouse strong personal feelings in us and we take it very seriously. Dance on ther other hand, as sublime as it may be, is quite another matter. Nevertheless, the granddaughter seems to have understood instinctively, what he meant by the poetry of synthesis and harmony in life. She never saw him nor was exposed to the primal force of the man. But like him, she was someone who just refused to work within the confines of tradition when it did not help in interpreting the current condition. In a way, it was a commitment to circumstance and change.
Within his short life Keshab Chandra’s beliefs pivoted around the Formless Absolute; conceptually, the omnipresence of a supreme being, who was the one without a second, the Adyaita, who had created this universe out of nothingness. Everything radiated from and led back to this power-source. This, he had formalized by 1860.
Seventy-six years later, at the Plaza Theatre in Lahore, dance-lovers witnessed a new ballet called The Divine Source and were struck by its force and significance. The main streams of Indian dance: Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Kathak, clash as each tries to prove its dominance. Finally, Natraja reveals himself. First languidly and then with mounting passion he demonstrates that there is only one common source for all dance. The conflicting streams merge in a spectacular finale. The Civil & Military Gazette says: ‘The dance haunts the brain. The great artiste is the great simplifier—what is complicated becomes simple, what is accidental, necessary!’ The Tribune talks of the ‘fire of inspiration’.
The ballet is honed to perfection as it moves across north India, sweeping hard-eyed drama critics off their collective feet. Sometime later it comes to Bombay and the Sunday Standard headlines, in earthquake type proclaimed: ‘Sadhona Bose Dethrones The Gods’. Hindu- Muslim strife is ravaging the country and the Blitz slants its review in that direction: ‘The Divine Source ballet’, it says ‘suggests a solution to the communal problem by an allegorical representation of conflict.’
Keshab Chandra died in 1884, but not before synthesizing the Bible, the Koran and the Zend Avesta with the Slokasangraha which formed the basis of prayer, or Upasana, in the Bramho Samaj. In 1875 he met Ramakrishna Paramhansa at Dakshineshwar and was totally captivated. It was a coming—face to face with a new divinity and on August, 1880, he wrote in the Sunday Mirror that Hindu idolatory was ‘nothing but the worship of divine attributes materialized.’
Maybe Sadhona found a new divinity too; and her idols were the gods and goddesses of dance. But her attitude towards them was ambivalent. As she dances through South India, the preserve of the classical tradition, on her record-breaking 1941 tour, she tells The Hindu on April 16th: “I have often been questioned why I do not belong to any particular school (of dance). My ideal has always been to evolve a new form that combines the best elements of all the different techniques.” A few days later she exposes the standing-room-only audience at the Athenaeum in Madras to a few home truths: ‘Indian Dance is too profound for anyone to master in ones lifetime… The different schools that have made up the grammar and syntax of the dance language come from another age and if we are to find inspiration in them we have to add to this dancing, our creative ability. Dancing is not prominently technique; it finds its adornment in the genius of the artiste.’
Perhaps she feels more at home in Bombay, the city which put her on the road to fame. Because at about the same time she tells Sunday Standard: ‘In the light of Arnold Haskell’s assertion that the dancer must be completely expressive from head to foot, Bharata Natya is the only Indian style that approaches perfection. Each of the other styles are over-developed in one aspect and defective in others. Kathak is mainly footwork, Manipuri is mostly grace, whilst Kathakali has too much of mudras and technique. The ideal to be aimed at by progressive dancers, is therefore, to evolve a new form, a neo-classical renaissance.’ How many modern day dancers would risk that in print? How many of them, indeed, consider themselves heirs to a great iconoclastic, reformist heritage?
Sadhona’s observations on Indian dance were not carefully articulated explanatory statement meant to be slowly chewed into pulp-news by her avid public, or an affirmation to friends who wanted her to focus her incontestable talents on a particular form according to the Bharata Natyasashtra and the Abhinaya Darpan of the ancients. Neither were they a criticism of the purists who leaned out of ivory towers to cry, ‘prostitution!’ She couldn’t care less.
Nor, I suspect, were they a cover- up for quick and highly profitable ventures. The kind of money Sadhona Bose made for her husband, Modhu Bose, his ensemble—Calcutta Art Players, for herself, was not to be found in classical dancing then, or now in spite of the ersatz variety which is served to tourists at many 5-star hotels. She was not dumb. She knew what was bringing them in to see her shows was the unusual balletic treatment rendered to classical forms. Kathak for instance was traditionally used to depict the divine love of Radha for her Blue God . Sadhona used it with great effect in ‘The dream songs of Omar Khayyam’ to tell the story of the sybaritic Persian poet and his sensuous saqi. “Come fill the cup and in the Fire of spring the winter garment of repentance fling…”
Those who saw Sadhona dance this quatrain remember how she stretched that moment into infinity, lending it both mysticism and erotic power. And towards the end, when Timir Baran’s music evoked:
“All the idols I have loved so long
Have done my credit in men’s eyes much wrong
Have drowned my honor in a shallow cup
And sold my reputation for a song…”
The sufi lament found an echo in the curve of Sadhnna’s perfect body.
After a particularly brilliant evening the Bombay Sentinel of September 24, 1938 effused: ‘If Omar Khayyam had been living today and seen the dance presentation of his famous Rubaiyat, he would certainly be encouraged to write some more verses and the inspiration would have been Sadhona’s exquisite rendering of his sentiments!’
The other point Sadhona kept on making concerned her audience. It was obvious that this wilful and egotistic young woman could never allow the severe metaphors of Indian classical dance to overawe her. There was nothing to be served, she insisted, in spending your lifetime struggling to master the ‘complex apparatus’. Whilst on the other hand, there was everything to be gained in communicating, to the greatest number possible, its awesome beauty and drama: the passion of Kathakali, the theatricality of Kathak, the butterfly grace of Manipuri, the poetic force of Bharata Natyam; but all this through a contemporary medium. Seen in isolation in her ballets, each mudra and aspect of abhinaya was as had been handed down from the ancients, but the stories she had them tell were of the here and now.
For Sadhona, this was a synthesis of the young and the old; the entirely classical with the necessarily progressive. Thus when in Lahore, in 1943, she danced in Street Singers with Jamunaprasad, the vigorous Punjabi audience cried Jiyo, beti, jiyo and showered coins on the stage as she mimed the beggar woman. Nine years later, immediately after Independence, she wrote a nationalistic ballet, Birth of Freedom. Against a backdrop of the luminous Om and a medley of uncoordinated atoms, she danced as Mother India; tableaus broke away and reformed in scenes from the freedom struggle and from human history. Over-dramatized? Well, the audience stood up and cheered.
But can one truly teach, without total mastery over one’s subject? To Sadhona the question was one of semantics. Art can be for people’s sake, she explained; without sacrificing Art. Her first Hindi film, Kum Kum was almost entirely explanatory. In a particularly beautiful sequence, she whirls her arms gracefully and then spreads her fingers to indicate the blooming of a lotus, one of the most classical of mudras. By the legerdemain of the camera, as one critic called it, this is transformed into an actual lotus which is there for everyone to touch and feel.
Sadhona’s commitment to an art form which had its own laws and its own features, the eclectic style which impelled her to take the best wherever she found it, marked her relatively brief creative period. As early as September, 1938, having already captivated north, east and west, and poised to storm the south, she talked with the noted drama critic, D C Shah in what many believes was the definitive interview, less generalised, more hard- hitting than the one she gave Charles Fabri many years later. It was a confirmation of everything that she believed was relevant in her work. Reading it now, 45 years later, one is struck by the remarkable conviction, courage and clarity of that statement.
“A mastery of technique is not enough,” she tells Shah. “A thorough study of the ancient standard works on the subject must be left to those who want to be scholars. For me, technique is but the background of my movements and gestures. And on this question of technique there is another point that we must not forget. The world is moving fast and as in everything else, so in dance, we must move with the times. To suit the requirements of the present day we must not hesitate to modify the age-old forms created centuries ago, consistent with their aesthetic and aspiritual appeal.” Sadhona was then 23 years old.
At the end of the interview Shah says, ‘As I listen to Sadhona, my mind goes back to the tragic failure of the great Kerala Kalamandalam of Cochin.. in communicating their art to the rest of the country … And what marvelous technique they had! (But in spite of this) they failed to make any substantial impression on the public because they did not adapt their presentation of the act to modern conditions.’
Encapsulated in this interview is a message: of adaptability, innovation, validity, relevance, verities, call it what you will, for anyone who has faith in one’s talent.
Was she a dilletante? The leading drama critics of the day did not seem to think so. A gentleman from Madras put it best: “I have often tried to analyse as to wherein lies her genius, and I have come to the conclusion that it lies in the fact that her form and her soul are in complete harmony with the form and the soul of Indian classical dancing. Hardly an estimate of superficial talent”.
In 1942, the twenty-seven-yearold Sadhona was at the height of her creative powers when Bengal was gripped by one of the worst famines in our history and thousands fell like leaves in autumn. Many artists have sensitised the public mind to this immense man-made tragedy. But to the best of my knowledge Sadhana is the only dancer/choreographer to do so. Shaken by the traumatic events in Bengal she dropped everything to create Bhook. Basically, the Bharata Natya form was used to draw the terrible geometry of avarice, hunger, death and retribution. A Calcutta critic said that it was unfair, the way Sadhona had released the full, awesome power of this greatest of Indian dance forms on an unsuspecting public! Then, in August of 1942, she took Bhook to Bombay. Blitz reported that the powerfully dramatic ballet had traumatized its audience. Sunday Standard called it the most extraordinary concept in dance.
Four years before that in Bombay, her lead-dancer Madhava Menon had shown her The Evening News of India of September 14, 1938, which devoted almost its entire front page to her Captive Sita. Ironically, it was a small news item alongside which had held her interest. It had captioned: Eating in hotels and sleeping on footpaths is not a crime, says magistrate. In acquitting Mahabir Karamali, the item said, Mr I N. Mehta, Presidency Magistrate, 3rd court, Bombay, had observed that there are hundreds who did this,and all could not be treated as `chapter cases’. The constable who arrested Mahabir, on being questioned by the court as to how many slept in otlas and footpaths in Bombay, said, ‘Almost the whole of Bombay’. The supremely talented and beautiful danseuse had become introspective. It’s a concept, she had murmured to Menon. This makes me think. If Sadhona had known Sahir when he wrote his Chinu Arab hamara, Hindusthan hamara lyric and choreographed it, the result would have been electric.
Wrenching my mind away, I search for clues in her childhood and find none. Her early teachers, the Kathak maestro Tarak Bagchi and Shenarik Rajkumar the court dancer of Manipur, had trained her within the severity of a system that blocked all interference. And even if they had sensed in their brilliant young pupil a peculiar stirring, to encourage her to react independently would have been a heresy. But the quicksilver Sadhona traipsed through the complexities of this most deliberate of art forms like a child running out to play when school was out. She seemed to move as if by pure instinct from the karanas (single postures) through the angaharas (multiple karanas) to the rechakas which directed the movements of foot, hand, waist and neck; and finally the pindibandhas, or finished tableaus.
Acting as the mercurial gypsy girl, Morgiana, in her husband’s Alibaba, she was all impudence and allure but tightly leashed by the experienced Modhu Bose. In Tagore’s Dalia she acted as Tinnie the heroine and even the poet, who knew a thing or two about grace and beauty, was impressed enough to send for her at Shantiniketan. Years later, she would adapt his Abhishar which concerned the courtesan Basabdatta’s love for the young Buddhist ascetic. Upagupta, to her evocative, Ajanta.
As long as she was maturing under Modhu Bose and his Calcutta Art Players, she was a very competent and captivating performer. But once she had cut herself adrift from him, she began to take those exciting little leaps into a different dimension. Fortunately for ballet, though not for her life with him, her creative association with Modhu Bose underwent a qualitative change in short-shrift. This is not to undermine her husband, who was both intelligent and creative. It was just that perhaps she was moreso, too much of a reformist even, to be able to work well with anyone else who held differing views on dance. She listened to her conscience as well as her public.
Sadhona’s film career was short, but in 1941 she made the magnificent Rajnartaki in Hindi and Bengali for J.B.H. Wadia, which was scripted into English by D.F. Karaka. This pioneering, tri-lingual film is in the Poona Archives, I’m told. Watching it even for the first time, one registers the true impact of Sadhona’s virtuosity. In one of its early scenes, the court dancer is performing before the prince who has just returned victorious from battle. Everything is in harmony in her dance: the angik or the gesture apparatus, the vachik or the murmur of music in the background, the acharya which is her costume and make-up and finally, the sattvika which richly expresses the mood of the moment. Suddenly Sadhona adopts a rechaka; she bends her left hip in the gesture of a devadasi dancing before her God. It is a brief but supremely innovative moment, at once both timeless and erotic. Most significantly, it is improvisation. The quick, instinctive movement is difficult to imagine as being a part of the original score; but doubtless, she must have been thinking about it a lot. It is astonishing that an artiste of this calibre could, not much later, appear in films like For Ladies Only and Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo, where she appeared as Rehana’s mother in tribal get-up, feathers and all. She said she did it for the money.
By then, Sadhona had caught the slow boat to ruin. Alcoholics suffer in a number of ways. Some become manic-depressives others schzoid, snapping links between their intellect and their emotions. There is the torment of ‘lost weekends’ and the confusion of motor functions out of control. The body screams for what is no longer just a drink but what junkies know as a ‘fix’. Unable to cope with the alcohol levels in the blood, the liver begins to destruct.
On the surface Sadhona was in control. The flick of brow and wrist, the ripple in the arm, that slow turn of the waist, the tracery of fingers complementing the quickness of her hennaed feet were perhaps only fractionally out of sync. After all, those years of regimentation were not for nothing. But in the evening, near the footlights, she saw the signs; the toxic craving in the blood, the hollowness of dispossesion in the recesses of her mind. Modhu, never the man of straw, had stormed out of her life; she was funneling more money than she could earn to feed the habit; she had, years ago, cut herself adrift from her family; she was lonely, fixated, lost. It only showed in her eyes. But because she was such a consummate actress, not many percieved what had happened to her. One of them was an exceptional man who saw her in Bangalore and wrote: ‘My friend called her the Indian Mona Lisa. There is some truth in that. Because as you look at her you are irresistibly reminded of Walter Pater’s description of his impressions of La Gioconda, specially this: “Here is the head upon which all the heads of the world are come and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts .”
Sadhona’s beauty had a wispy, enigmatic quality about it, which made you want to shield her from the wide world and yet you knew that she couldn’t. Smoky voiced, tall, very slim and perfumed as many remember her in pale Georgette with a small dot of kumkum to match. She was certainly someone to fight over and it is surprising that in her halcyon days separated from her husband, lonely and on-the-rebound, she did not have raging love affairs, end on end. One heard, of course, of the handsome, polo-playing prince and the father of a current top business executive who courted her. But the former accidentally burnt himself to death in a alcoholic stupor and the latter could have retreated when she became too difficult to handle. Her elusive persona was a challenge.
By the mid 50s it was all over for Sadhona. In less time than it takes for an artiste to realise his or her true potential, hers had flowered, manifested itself spectacularly and burnt out. Of course she, kept dancing, even in Tagore’s Shesher Kabita in the pivotal role of Katie. But in was not the same thing, never could be. In the 60s she started work on a new ballet based on Rabindranath’s emotional Bhrastha Lagna, but did not get beyond three pages of the script. I was shown the first page. It still has the innovative touch: the scene opens on Maheswurti at Elephanta and the ambience is intensely lyrical, soft moonlight, ripped sea, music… when suddenly a group of tourists stroll into view. And so on. The lines are scored out, overwritten; there are circled words and arrows and superimposed on the page is a large, very sad-looking eye, drawn with a ballpoint.
Sadhona died in October, 1973, sick in mind and body. The dance academy she had thought of setting up remained just that; a thought. Her memory is a few films, a few people who still talk about her and newspaper clippings in scrap books coming apart. And a few photographs, including one where she is wearing huge, mercurised sunglasses which reflect the photographer’s image. She is just about to smile for him.
Like everyone else I dream, she once said; sometimes of the past and sometimes of the future. Whatever moments of magnificience I may have known, whatever mistakes I have made—all these are the things that go to make my dance. It must seem that we go blind and blundering into a beautiful world. If I show something of the blundering, I doI hope, I also show something of the beauty. I am no judge, simply someone who loves to dance.
How could someone who can say a thing like that self-destruct? But then, life is full of strange logic (By Patha Basu – The Illustrated Weekly of India – 1983)
Filmographies might not be 100% accurate or complete because of various reasons including artistes with similar names