Asian Music and Dance

Reader Focus – Dr. Sheelagh James

The first in a new series that focuses on Pulse readers opens with a fascinating account of Dr Sheelah James’ lifelong relationship with Indian dance that was sparked in 1952 when she saw the star of the musical South Pacific perform an Indian interpretation of the psalm The Lord is my Shepherd.

Since when have you been a Pulse subscriber? 

Since 2003: Chitralekha Bolar used to teach bharatanatyam and Nahid Siddiqui taught kathak on Saturday afternoons at the Midlands Arts Centre in  Birmingham. I was browsing the dance books and magazines in the small shop at mac during a break and came across Pulse. It was an amazing find! And is still giving me great pleasure.

What do you read first when you open the magazine?

The first are features on dancers or musicians I know, then reviews and especially the Listings so that I can look forward to performances; I’m also on the mailing list for SAMPAD and Surdhwani to ensure I’m kept informed. I keep all the issues of Pulse and found several numbers very helpful when I did my MA dissertation on Spirituality in Dance.

Is there a particular article or issue that stands out for you?

It is difficult to single out an item; I enjoy virtually everything in every issue, even the adverts! But I did find a real high spot with ‘Sufi Music and Dance’ [Dec 2008], and the feature article on Dharambir Singh, especially as he, and later Roopa Panesar, had taught me sitar in classes at mac. And very recently the article on ‘Hindutva and Indian Dance’. But every issue is so stimulating and varied; a real feast of information and fantastic photography.

What first sparked your interest in Indian dance and how did you develop this interest?

My interest dates back to 1952 when I saw Chin Yu on TV performing an Indian dance interpretation of Psalm 23. She had studied ballet, had a Jewish instructress in New York in Indian dance mudras, and starred in South Pacific doing an Indian dance interpretation of the song ‘Happy Talk’. In 1953 I persuaded my mother to take me to see Bulbul Chowdhury and his company perform at the Royal Opera House in Leicester, the première night of their UK tour. Ram Gopal was on TV around that time and I used to catch programmes whenever possible, and bought his book and a vinyl record on Indian classical dance. When I came to Birmingham in 1956 aged 17 to study medicine, I joined the Indian Student Society and enjoyed helping arrange cultural programmes. We had some top musicians and dancers (Leela Samson was one) and I took a subscription to the Illustrated Weekly of India and to Femina as both mags often had articles on Indian dance. I’ve always kept programmes and collected clips and cuttings and bought books whenever I could on Indian dance and music.  I tried to teach myself from a book by Kay Ambrose and Ram Gopal. In 1962 or 1963 I saw Yamini Krishnamurthy perform in Chennai; absolutely mind-blowing! Although I went to as many performances as I could, it was not until I was in mid-life, a wife, mum and a hospital doctor, that I found a teacher of Indian dance, Chitralekha Bolar, and after a couple of years Nahid Siddiqui also. Both tutors were very encouraging, even to us older students and choreographed performances for us. I found it a great hobby; something completely different from my work as a doctor. 

Are you still dancing or seeing performances? 

I still go to performances whenever possible and keep in touch with friends from dance-class days. Unfortunately surgery followed by complications about twenty years ago have left me with balance and breathing problems – not very good for dancing, especially the spins in kathak!  After a hip replacement in 2008 I had to accept I wasn’t going to be able to do bharatanatyam and kathak, but while convalescing I saw a programme on Arabic dance and thought ‘it looks fun’, so now I go to five classes a week and enjoy a new dance form. Some of the tutors combine Bollywood style and even bhangra, plus we use a very wide range of music from India, the Middle East, even contemporary pop and folk music; the moves can usually be adapted to suit the individual’s needs.

If you wanted to encourage a friend to come to an Indian dance performance, what would you tell them? 

I would tell them it is an amazing blend of ‘pure dance’ plus interpretation, colourful costume, entrancing music (especially when live and the interplay between dancer and musicians), that it combines strength and grace, can be traditional and showing mythological or religious themes, or contemporary and very topical depicting modern issues. I would also stress that an English friend need not feel that there will be a barrier because of language as the gestures and facial expressions of the dancer are often easily understood.

Is there something we have not covered in Pulse that you would like to see?

Not at present, although one of my interests has been the different reasons for learning Indian dance in India and in the diaspora in the West, and the ways in which attitudes have changed, both in India and in the UK, to the dance and to dancers. But the very latest issue has covered this latter topic. Arabic dance and dancers have had similar problems, perhaps even more so within the ultra-orthodox communities.



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