Navigating the Menaka-Archive: An interdisciplinary platform on entangled histories of modern dance across India and Europe

A screenshot of the Menaka digital archive's locations interface, which enables the user to trace sources on a world map.

Table of Con­tents: Towards the Digi­tal Archi­ve | Trans­na­tio­nal Sites of the Archi­val Sources | Enga­ging cri­ti­cal­ly with the Source-Base | The Men­a­ka-Archi­ve as Col­la­bo­ra­ti­ve Rese­arch Plat­form | End­no­tes | Biblio­gra­phy

The Men­a­ka-Archi­ve (www.menaka-archive.org) is a digi­tal meta-archi­ve which houses and links docu­ments on the Indian dan­cer and cho­reo­gra­pher Lei­la Roy-Sok­hey, ali­as Madame Men­a­ka. The focus of the digi­tal collec­tion is on mate­ri­al from the con­text of the three-year tour that Lei­la Roy under­took with her Indian bal­let through Euro­pe and espe­cial­ly through Ger­ma­ny from 1936–38. In this paper, we descri­be the struc­tu­re of the digi­tal Men­a­ka-Archi­ve and some of the metho­do­lo­gi­cal approa­ches we have been explo­ring in rese­ar­ching, index­ing, describ­ing, and con­tex­tua­li­zing its collection.

A black and white photograph showing the portrait of Madame Menaka

Fig. 1: Lei­la Roy-Sok­hey aka Madame Menaka,
pho­to: All­ard Pier­son Collec­tions Amsterdam,
https://allardpierson.nl/collecties/.

Madame Men­a­ka was the sta­ge name of the Ben­ga­li dan­cer and cho­reo­gra­pher Lei­la Roy-Sok­hey (1899–1947). In the 1920s and 30s, Lei­la Roy was acti­ve in India’s natio­nal cul­tu­ral reform. She stro­ve to revi­ta­li­ze tra­di­tio­nal dance forms such as the North Indian Kathak, foun­ding her pri­va­te dance school and ensem­ble, for which she cho­reo­gra­phed dance dra­mas. Alrea­dy in the ear­ly 1930s, she under­took tours both in South Asia and Euro­pe. Her pro­ject recei­ved inter­na­tio­nal atten­ti­on on a lar­ger sca­le when she tou­red Euro­pe for the second time with her ensem­ble from 1936 to 1938. Most of this tour took place in Ger­ma­ny, whe­re the Men­a­ka Bal­let also per­for­med at the inter­na­tio­nal dance com­pe­ti­ti­ons during the Olym­pic Games in Ber­lin in the sum­mer of 1936.

The­se are some of the mile­stones of an artist’s life tra­jec­to­ry, which qui­te liter­al­ly criss­cros­sed with con­flict-rid­den spaces across Euro­pe and India – both geo­gra­phi­cal­ly and meta­pho­ri­cal­ly. Menaka’s body of work is con­si­de­red one of the first inter­na­tio­nal­ly reco­gni­zed attempts at sta­ging and estab­li­shing con­tem­pora­ry Indian dance. It aimed to be accep­ted both crea­tively and theo­re­ti­cal­ly on a par with the Wes­tern avant-gar­de. At the same time, it also sought to eman­ci­pa­te its­elf from the hege­mo­nic power of the Euro­pean art world to deve­lop an inde­pen­dent and „natio­nal­ly authen­tic“ artis­tic language.

A sepia tone photograph of one of the ballet's performances.

Pic­tu­re 2 (The Indian Bal­let, pho­to: All­ard Pier­son Collec­tions Ams­ter­dam, https://allardpierson.nl/collecties/)

In Indian art histo­ry, Menaka’s work is ack­now­led­ged as a con­tri­bu­ti­on to the revi­ta­liz­a­ti­on of the north Indian Kathak-dance. Abo­ve all, howe­ver, Men­a­ka is known for her merit in ope­ning up the high­ly con­tro­ver­si­al field of dance for a new midd­le class, fre­eing it from long­stan­ding social stig­ma and the­r­ein con­nec­ting it to the emer­ging natio­na­list move­ment in India. The dance steps of the Indian bal­let were seen as essen­ti­al steps towards streng­t­he­ning natio­nal self-con­fi­dence in India and thus part of broa­der cri­ti­cal dis­cour­ses on Bri­tish colo­ni­al rule (Kan­hai 2020).

A black and white photograph of Madame Menaka sitting on a lawn.

Fig. 3: Ley­la Roy demons­tra­ting a mudra-pose,
pho­to: All­ard Pier­son Collec­tions Amsterdam,
https://allardpierson.nl/collecties/

Mean­while, in Euro­pe, the idea of natio­nal cul­tu­ral rene­wal, pro­mi­n­ent­ly fea­turing in Menaka’s Indian Bal­let, was com­pa­ti­ble with social-revo­lu­tio­na­ry dis­cour­ses and aes­the­ti­cal uto­pi­as. Espe­cial­ly in Ger­ma­ny, the Indian Bal­let pro­vi­ded a par­ti­cu­lar „plat­form in pro­jec­ting modern lon­gings for a return to the ori­gins.“ (Bax­mann 2008a: 42).[i]   Par­ti­cu­lar­ly in the 1930s, dance per­for­man­ces from Asia met with widespread inte­rest becau­se they „see­med to refer to bodi­ly know­ledge that had been lost in Euro­pe.“ (Ibid.) Such con­si­de­ra­ti­ons were a pan-Euro­pean phe­no­me­non, but in Ger­ma­ny they lead to an almost “ine­vi­ta­ble” amal­ga­ma­ti­on of folk­lo­re and racial ideo­lo­gy (Bax­mann 2008b: 102). During the three-year tour of Menaka’s Indian Bal­let, the Natio­nal Socia­list cul­tu­ral poli­cy was being con­so­li­da­ted. Unin­ten­tio­nal­ly, the Indian artists pro­vi­ded amp­le illus­tra­ti­ve mate­ri­al for an ongo­ing quest of Ger­man socie­ty for „re-roo­ting“ natio­nal cul­tu­re in Ger­ma­ny based on racia­li­zing principles.

Both in Euro­pe and India, the Men­a­ka Indian Bal­let has left its mark on the artis­tic land­s­cape. Howe­ver, com­pa­red to the extent of its con­tem­pora­ry recep­ti­on, remar­kab­ly litt­le of Lei­la Roy’s pro­ject has been archi­ved. The­re is no Men­a­ka archi­ve in India. Lei­la Roy died rela­tively young at the age of 48 in 1947 from Bright’s dise­a­se, a chro­nic liver dis­or­der. Her pri­va­te dance stu­dio (first on the cam­pus of the Haff­kin Insti­tu­te in Bom­bay, later in Khanda­la, a sub­urb of Bom­bay) could no lon­ger exist in the pro­fes­sio­nal form she had envi­sa­ged for it, alrea­dy by the ear­ly 1940s and clo­sed down after her death. The dan­cer Dama­y­an­ti Joshi, trai­ned by Lei­la Roy, also par­ti­ci­pa­ted in the Men­a­ka Ballet’s Euro­pean tour. Later in her life, she publis­hed a short bio­gra­phy of the artist in 1989 (Joshi 1989). Until today, this is the only com­pre­hen­si­ve wit­ness account of Lei­la Roy’s life and body of work by one of her contemporaries.

Nevertheless, the per­for­man­ces of the Men­a­ka Bal­let, albeit frag­men­ted, have been wide­ly docu­men­ted. News­pa­per reports, theat­re pro­grams, pho­to collec­tions, let­ters, film clips and sound record­ings paint a nuan­ced pic­tu­re of the dance events. Espe­cial­ly the Euro­pean tour of 1936–38 was a tho­rough­ly docu­men­ted event. Not only does it offer mate­ri­al rela­ted to the hund­reds of per­for­man­ces done by the ensem­ble over three years, but it also points to trans­na­tio­nal­ly inter­wo­ven art-worlds and their under­ly­ing ideo­lo­gi­cal and logisti­cal net­works during the inter-war period. 

A screenshot of the Menaka digital archive's locations interface, which enables the user to trace sources on a world map.

Fig. 4: The Men­a­ka-Archi­ve, loca­ti­ons inter­face, https://menaka-archive.org/orte/

This mate­ri­al and its dis­cur­si­ve field were the star­ting point for the idea of a digi­tal Men­a­ka-Archi­ve. The archi­val rese­arch pro­ject aims to under­stand the three-year Euro­pean tour of the Indian Bal­let as an archi­ve in its own right, to collect traces of the dance per­for­man­ces, loca­te frag­men­ted archi­val hol­dings, link them in a data­ba­se, and map the over­all event of the tour. This gro­wing data­ba­se of a trans­na­tio­nal art event such as the Men­a­ka tour pro­mi­ses new insights pro­vi­ding the basis for fur­ther inter-disci­pli­na­ry research.

Towards the Digital Archive

The first impul­se for a sys­te­ma­tic recon­struc­tion of the Men­a­ka tour came from our Indian part­ner, Ustad Irfan Muham­mad Khan, a musi­ci­an working in Kolk­a­ta. Sin­ce his grand­f­a­ther, Sak­ha­wat Hus­sein Khan, had par­ti­ci­pa­ted as a musi­ci­an in the Ballet’s Euro­pean tour, he asked for help with his rese­arch into his fami­ly histo­ry in Ger­ma­ny. In return, Irfan Khan ope­ned his fami­ly archi­ve with his grandfather’s memo­ra­bi­lia in Kolk­a­ta for access.

In 2015, the exchan­ge with Irfan Khan first led to a seri­es of joint artis­tic events with music, Kathak dance per­for­man­ces and short lec­tures on the his­to­ri­cal clas­si­fi­ca­ti­on of the pro­gram­me in Ger­ma­ny. At the same time, initi­al rese­arch in Ger­man archi­ves brought first results and led, sub­se­quent­ly, to ide­as to sys­te­ma­ti­ze the gro­wing collec­tion of found objects via an archi­val con­cept. Sin­ce 2016, the pro­ject has taken con­cre­te shape wit­hin Mar­kus Schlaffke’s PhD pro­ject (Schlaff­ke 2021). 

A black and white photograph showing Sakhawat Hussein Khan posing in front of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig.

Fig. 5: Sak­ha­wat Hus­sein Khan 1936 in Leip­zig, pho­to: Irfan Khan Fami­ly Archi­ve, Kolkata.

This pro­ject was part of the doc­to­ral pro­gram for artis­tic rese­arch at the Bau­haus-Uni­ver­si­ty Wei­mar and con­nec­ted artistic/design prac­ti­ce and cul­tu­ral stu­dies rese­arch. The con­struc­tion of the data­ba­se, the con­cep­tua­liz­a­ti­on of inter­faces and the fur­ther deve­lo­p­ment and cura­ti­on of the digi­tal archi­ve was first unders­tood and descri­bed here as a spe­ci­fic form of artis­tic research.

From 2018, Isa­bel­la Schwa­de­rer has sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly loca­ted and com­pi­led the reviews of all docu­men­ted Men­a­ka per­for­man­ces in Ger­man regio­nal news­pa­per archi­ves and from inter­na­tio­nal digi­tal archi­ves for her rese­arch on the Men­a­ka Ballet’s recep­ti­on histo­ry in the con­text of her post­doc­to­ral pro­ject based at the Chair of Gene­ral Reli­gious Stu­dies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Erfurt. The theat­re reviews pro­vi­de a text cor­pus, which is part of her broa­der rese­arch on the image of India in the Ger­man deba­te around Ger­man reli­gious reform move­ments across art and philosophy.

As a data­ba­se and web­site inter­face, the archi­ve has exis­ted sin­ce 2019. We have been run­ning the web­site with a con­nec­ted rese­arch blog, expan­ding the collec­tion and deve­lo­ping new mate­ri­al. The archi­ve has chan­ged from the ori­gi­nal inten­ti­on of sim­ply docu­men­ting the Ger­man tour of the Indian Bal­let as com­ple­te­ly as pos­si­ble to a broa­der approach of brin­ging diver­se mate­ri­als from other Euro­pean coun­tries and India tog­e­ther on the ear­ly and late histo­ry of Menaka’s artis­tic work.

In the fol­lowing sec­tions, we pro­vi­de an over­view of the several sites whe­re we found sources rela­ted to the ensemble’s tra­jec­to­ry and dis­cuss some metho­do­lo­gi­cal con­si­de­ra­ti­ons for fur­ther explo­ra­ti­on. All sources have duly been lis­ted and descri­bed in the digi­tal Menaka-Archive.

Transnational Sites of the Archival Sources

1. The Ernst Krauss collection in The Allard Pierson Collections, University of Amsterdam

A black and white photograph of Ernst Kraus sitting at his desk in front of an impressive book shelf.

Fig. 6: Men­a­ka impre­sa­rio Ernst Krauss in his Ams­ter­dam office,
pho­to: https://allardpierson.nl/collecties/.

The lack of scho­l­ar­ly publi­ca­ti­ons and edi­ted sources on the histo­ry of Menaka’s Indian Bal­let makes the recon­struc­tion of her Euro­pean tour an archi­val detec­ti­ve work. The incre­a­sing move towards digi­tiz­a­ti­on of archi­ves con­stant­ly chan­ges this situa­ti­on. Howe­ver, as recent­ly as 2016, at the begin­ning of the aut­hors’ rese­arch, sear­ches in the data­ba­ses avail­ab­le online yiel­ded vir­tual­ly no results. The iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on of the per­so­nal collec­tions of Ernst Krauss, the impre­sa­rio of the Men­a­ka tour, in the All­ard Pier­son Collec­tions, Uni­ver­si­ty of Ams­ter­dam (https://allardpierson.nl/en/), the­re­fo­re, was a bre­akthrough for the research.

A photograph of an archival source.

Fig. 7: The tour plan of the first 350 per­for­man­ces 1936–37. From Ernst Krauss‘ com­mer­cial documents,
All­ard Pier­son collec­tions Ams­ter­dam, https://allardpierson.nl/collecties/.

Ernst Krauss (1887–1958) was a Ger­man who had estab­lis­hed an artists‘ and con­cert agen­cy with an inter­na­tio­nal reach in Ams­ter­dam in the 1920s. Krauss had plan­ned, coor­di­na­ted, and finan­ced the majo­ri­ty of Men­a­ka per­for­man­ces in Euro­pe sin­ce 1935. Exten­si­ve mate­ri­al from his agen­cy – pri­ma­ri­ly artist port­fo­li­os, event docu­men­ta­ti­on, and some per­so­nal papers – are pre­ser­ved in the All­ard Pier­son Collec­tions’ theat­re archi­ve. As Krauss had no child­ren, the records of his com­pa­ny and pri­va­te docu­ments went to the All­ard Pier­son Collec­tions. The collec­tions were cata­logued in the ear­ly 1990s, and this allo­wed us to iden­ti­fy the Krauss esta­te. It also con­tains a port­fo­lio with pro­mo­tio­nal mate­ri­al, pho­to­graphs, reviews and, most import­ant­ly, a list of docu­men­ted per­for­mance dates and venues of the Indian Bal­let in Ger­ma­ny. This list was an important clue for asses­sing the sca­le of the tour and crea­ting a grid for fur­ther sys­te­ma­tic research.

 

2. The Khan Family Archive, Kolkata

Ano­t­her important source of infor­ma­ti­on is the pri­va­te archi­ve of the Khan fami­ly of musi­ci­ans in Kolk­a­ta. This con­sists of the pri­va­te collec­tions of Sak­ha­wat Hus­sein Khan, who led the six-mem­ber accom­pany­ing orches­tra of the Men­a­ka Bal­let. Khan regu­lar­ly wro­te let­ters from Euro­pe, repor­ting about his expe­ri­en­ces, sett­ling fami­ly mat­ters. He also docu­men­ted his jour­ney with his came­ra. The albums with pho­to­graphs showing his tra­vels through Ger­ma­ny, his post­cards, let­ters, and sou­ve­nirs have been kept by Sak­ha­wat Khan’s grand­son Irfan Muham­mad Khan. The­se docu­ments repre­sent a cohe­rent collec­tion of sources that visual­ly depict the Men­a­ka tour from the per­spec­ti­ve of one of its participants.

An aged black and white photograph showing Sakhawat Hussein Khan posing with two women surrounded by trees.

Fig. 8: Sak­ha­wat Hus­sein Khan some­whe­re in Ger­ma­ny 1936,

3. The European Press Archive

A scanned page of a German newspaper

Fig. 9: Men­a­ka review in the Leip­zi­ger Neue Zei­tung of April 9, 1936.

The per­for­man­ces of the Men­a­ka Bal­let have been exten­si­ve­ly docu­men­ted in Euro­pean press. The­se took place almost every evening on the sta­ges of hund­reds of dif­fe­rent city thea­tres in the Ger­man-spea­king coun­tries, and bey­ond, and gene­ra­ted a broad respon­se in the fea­ture pages of regio­nal news­pa­pers. The search for the Ger­man mate­ri­al tur­ned out to be com­pa­ra­tively com­pli­ca­ted sin­ce at the begin­ning of this par­ti­cu­lar part of the rese­arch, in 2018, vir­tual­ly no Ger­man news­pa­pers were acces­si­ble in digi­ti­zed form. The­re­fo­re, we had to rely on local archi­ves of several cities (Stadt­ar­chi­ve), whe­re we suspec­ted one or more per­for­man­ces had taken place, based on the tour sche­du­le. Our search in the archi­ves bore over­whel­ming results in the form of nume­rous traces of the tour. A base of about 120 theat­re reviews, gene­ral­ly in two colum­ns of about 500 words, some­ti­mes with a pic­tu­re, were the star­ting point.

 

This was a much easier pro­cess when it came to the full-text sear­ches we could con­duct in the archi­ves of neigh­bou­ring Euro­pean coun­tries, many of which have mean­while beco­me acces­si­ble, that led us to high-qua­li­ty docu­men­ta­ti­on of the tour. The fol­lowing natio­nal plat­forms should be men­tio­ned here, in the order in which we inte­gra­ted the documents:

- Del­pher (https://www.delpher.nl/): Netherlands

- Anno (https://anno.onb.ac.at/): Aus­tri­an Natio­nal Library

- Digi­ti­sed Swiss news­pa­pers (https://www.e‑newspaperarchives.ch/)

- Digi­tal archi­ve of the French Natio­nal Libra­ry (https://gallica.bnf.fr/)

- Euro­pea­na (https://www.europeana.eu/en): various Euro­pean newspapers

Among the mate­ri­als that have incre­a­singly beco­me acces­si­ble, are adver­ti­se­ments, thea­ter cri­ti­ques and pic­tures from the Sin­g­a­po­re news­pa­per archi­ve (https://eresources.nlb.‌gov.sg/‌newspapers/), which form a basis for recon­struc­ting the Men­a­ka Ballet’s South Asi­an tour in 1935. Various Indian news­pa­pers, pre­do­mi­nant­ly the Bom­bay Chro­ni­cle, also decisi­ve­ly shed light on the hither­to com­ple­te­ly neglec­ted area of the Indian recep­ti­on of Menaka’s sta­ge dramas.

This incre­a­sing digi­tal avai­la­bi­li­ty of sources hel­ps trace the trans­na­tio­nal and colo­ni­al ent­an­gle­ments of a glo­bal enter­tain­ment indus­try. For instance, reports on the Indian Bal­let appe­ar in pla­ces whe­re the trou­pe had never been, such as Aus­tra­lia. The net­work of news bure­aus and the exchan­ge of texts from feuil­le­tons show that dis­pu­tes about art and cul­tu­re were important and were con­su­med inter­na­tio­nal­ly along with news about poli­tics, eco­no­mics, and the natu­ral sciences.

4. Individual sources

In addi­ti­on to the collec­tions iden­ti­fied so far, several indi­vi­du­al sources that are important for the collec­tion of tour docu­ments have also been iden­ti­fied and are pre­sen­ted on the Men­a­ka-Archi­ve plat­form. At the Ham­burg People’s Ope­ra (Volks­oper), the Reich Broad­cas­ting Com­pa­ny (Reichs­rund­funk­ge­sell­schaft) recor­ded one per­for­mance on shel­lac records at the begin­ning of 1936. The­se record­ings exist until today and belong to the collec­tions of the Ger­man Broad­cas­ting Archi­ve (Deut­sches Rund­funk­ar­chiv) in Frank­furt am Main. Bes­i­des, the Men­a­ka Bal­let took part in the Ger­man fea­ture film pro­duc­tion Der Tiger von Eschna­pur in 1937. In this pro­duc­tion by Richard Eich­berg, the ensem­ble appears as extras in a sce­ne of the movie. The cho­reo­gra­phy was an item from the ensemble’s sta­ge reper­toire. The­se are the only moving-image record­ings of the Men­a­ka Bal­let known to-date. Some other signi­fi­cant indi­vi­du­al docu­ments, such as let­ters exch­an­ged bet­ween the impre­sa­rio Ernst Krauss and the artis­tic direc­tors of the Stutt­gart Sta­te Ope­ra (Staats­oper Stutt­gart) avail­ab­le at the Sta­te Archi­ve Baden-Würt­tem­berg (Lan­des­ar­chiv Baden-Würt­tem­berg); a let­ter addres­sed per­so­nal­ly to Hit­ler by Lei­la Roy (Ian Say­er Archi­ve), pri­va­te collec­tions (The Hano­va Sis­ters’ Collec­tion), or Bri­tish secret ser­vice notes on a mem­ber of the ensem­ble also shed light on a glo­bal net­work (Kuhl­mann 2003: 172).

A black and white image showing six musicians on stage, some holding musical instruments prominent in South Asian classical music.

Fig. 10: The Men­a­ka Orches­tra on the film set of „The Tiger of Esh­na­pur“, 1937,
pho­to: Karen McKinley

Engaging critically with the Source-Base

Ques­ti­ons of deco­ding, rea­ding and the his­to­ri­cal con­tex­tua­liz­a­ti­on of the mate­ri­als are undoub­ted­ly much more com­plex than the pro­cess of collec­ting the­se scat­te­red sources. A cri­ti­cal exami­na­ti­on of the source-base is the­re­fo­re necessa­ry on several levels. First of all, the frag­men­ta­ry natu­re of the digi­tal collec­tion pres­ents a spe­cial situa­ti­on. While each new source com­ple­tes the over­all his­to­ri­cal pic­tu­re of the tour of the Indian Bal­let in Euro­pe, it also rai­ses fur­ther ques­ti­ons. Each new docu­ment or object reve­als con­tra­dic­tions, gaps, and mis­sing parts, lea­ving it unclear whe­ther cer­tain docu­ments ever exis­ted or if they were deli­ber­ate­ly dele­ted. (Ernst 2002: 25). A typi­cal cross-sec­tion of the finds, for instance, might look like this: A medal from the 1936 inter­na­tio­nal dance com­pe­ti­ti­ons, kept in a dra­wer in Kolk­a­ta; a shel­lac record in the Ger­man broad­cas­ting archi­ve in Frank­furt; a pho­to fol­der in the theat­re archi­ve in Regens­burg. Such sources are a few clues amidst which the fates and lives of tho­se invol­ved appe­ar brief­ly and then disap­pe­ar again. 

A fraction of a scanned page of a German newspaper.

Fig. 11: Men­a­ka announ­ce­ment in the Würz­bur­ger Gene­ral­an­zei­ger on May 16, 1936.

In the collec­tions of Men­a­ka Ballet’s impre­sa­rio Ernst Krauss, for examp­le, the traces of his busi­ness part­ner, the Jewish jour­na­list Nathan Wolf, have been lost. Nathan Wolf’s signa­tu­re is mis­sing in the minu­tes of a share­hol­ders‘ mee­ting in Janu­a­ry 1942. This mis­sing signa­tu­re is the last clue to Wolf’s disap­pearan­ce. He was mur­de­red in Ausch­witz in Sep­tem­ber 1942. The traces of a mem­ber of the Men­a­ka ensem­ble have also been lost in Ger­ma­ny. Ambi­que Majum­dar, the company’s music direc­tor, remai­ned in Ger­ma­ny when the others retur­ned to India in 1938. Majum­dar first stu­di­ed musi­co­lo­gy in Königs­berg and then worked for Sub­has Chand­ras Bose’s radio sta­ti­on in Ber­lin. A note in Bose’s bio­gra­phy indi­ca­tes that Majum­dar was kil­led in the bom­bing of Dres­den in 1945. The years in-bet­ween remain a gap in the archi­ve. Final­ly, Irfan Khan, the grand­son of Menaka’s orches­tra lea­der Sak­ha­wat Khan, reports that his grand­f­a­ther took the pre­cau­ti­on of des­troy­ing docu­ments from his tour of Ger­ma­ny upon return to India becau­se he fea­red repres­si­on by the Bri­tish admi­nis­tra­ti­on. Here, too, it remains unknown as to which items were pre­ser­ved and which not.

Fur­ther­mo­re, the Men­a­ka Bal­let sources requi­re care­ful con­tex­tua­liz­a­ti­on becau­se the Indian bal­let moved into several con­tes­ted cul­tu­ral and poli­ti­cal fiel­ds in the ear­ly 1930s, whe­re nume­rous con­tra­dic­to­ry dis­cour­ses overlapped.

Menaka’s Bal­let was, first­ly, an obvious expres­si­on of India’s strugg­le for inde­pen­dence. (And, inci­dent­al­ly, it was per­cei­ved as such in Euro­pe.) It was pro­mo­ted by actors of the natio­nal move­ment as a genui­ne Indian art form, which stro­ve against the cul­tu­ral hege­mo­ny of the Bri­tish colo­ni­al power – at a time when India’s natio­nal inde­pen­dence was still an uncer­tain project. 

Second­ly, it was also a sym­ptom of a pro­found and con­flic­tu­al socio-cul­tu­ral chan­ge in India its­elf, which was being nego­tia­ted in the arts, and espe­cial­ly in dance, bet­ween tra­di­ti­on and moder­niz­a­ti­on (Soneji 2012: 13). This pro­cess of moder­niz­a­ti­on in the arts was accom­pa­nied by the rise of a new bour­geois class as the pro­mo­ters of the per­for­ma­ti­ve arts, with the simul­ta­ne­ous mar­gi­na­liz­a­ti­on of tra­di­tio­nal women per­for­mers (Wal­ker 2017).

Third­ly, it was pre­cise­ly the­se qua­li­ties that made Indian Bal­let an inte­res­ting object for cul­tu­ral deba­tes in Ger­ma­ny – name­ly, tho­se along the lines of the Natio­nal Socia­list poli­cy of cul­tu­ral co-ordi­na­ti­on (Gleich­schal­tung) vs. the modern art of the inter­na­tio­nal avant-gar­de. The Indian Bal­let was thus regar­ded as modern art, but also as a suc­cess­ful “völkisch”-national expression. 

A ques­ti­on that ari­ses is how cri­tics in Euro­pe nego­tia­ted the aes­the­tic cri­te­ria for eva­lua­ting a pre­vious­ly unknown art form. Here, the spec­trum of descrip­ti­ons in the sources ran­ges from an eru­di­te eth­no­gra­phic enga­ge­ment with the instru­ments to a cul­tu­ral appro­pria­ti­on of music and dance into the art-reli­gious con­cept of a Gesamt­kunst­werk, as pro­po­sed by Richard Wag­ner. Howe­ver, the­re is no lack of voices that appre­cia­te the per­for­man­ces as an inde­pen­dent, modern form of dance expres­si­on. Wri­ting about the­se reviews and how they belon­ged to their con­tem­pora­ry con­texts requi­res a care­ful seman­tic exami­na­ti­on of the sources and a clas­si­fi­ca­ti­on of an ongo­ing chan­ge in the cul­tu­re of bour­geois repre­sen­ta­ti­on in Euro­pe and Germany.

The Menaka-Archive as Collaborative Research Platform

The Men­a­ka-Archi­ve is an illus­tra­ti­on of ent­an­gle­ments that exis­ted bet­ween actors from colo­ni­zed India and tho­se from inter­war Ger­ma­ny. Tra­cing such tra­jec­to­ries hints at his­to­ries that cross paths with, but also go bey­ond the realms of the Bri­tish empi­re. The digi­tal Men­a­ka-Archi­ve docu­ments how our search moves through this histo­ry and is pri­ma­ri­ly to be unders­tood as a work-in-pro­gress tool for various inter­di­sci­pli­na­ry and lin­ked rese­arch pro­jects. It ser­ves to visua­li­ze his­to­ri­cal con­texts and to build a docu­men­ta­ti­on and rese­arch net­work. Final­ly, it is a con­cep­tu­al frame­work for an open and col­la­bo­ra­ti­ve data collection.

The Men­a­ka-Archi­ve has a num­ber of future objec­ti­ves. The first pur­po­se is to secu­re and inter­con­nect fra­gi­le data. The archi­val records, some of which are stored under pre­ca­rious con­di­ti­ons, are to be collec­ted, digi­tal­ly secu­red, and ren­de­red acces­si­ble to a wider public. One of our main goals is also to iden­ti­fy how the scat­te­red sources belong tog­e­ther. We aim to offer impul­ses that con­nect dif­fe­rent sources with each other, the­r­ein making them „speak“, and to docu­ment them as part of a living histo­ry of a cul­tu­ral encoun­ter bet­ween Ger­ma­ny and South Asia. The­re­fo­re, the Men­a­ka-Archi­ve is not only limi­ted to the pure­ly his­to­ri­cal sources of the 1930s, but also inclu­des the results of various rese­arch trips con­duc­ted in Ger­ma­ny and India, which trace the mul­ti-laye­red inter­con­nec­tions of the his­to­ri­cal encoun­ter and estab­lish new con­ta­cts (Schlaff­ke & Schwa­de­rer, 2019/2020).

A still from a film showing Irfan Khan seated in what appears to be a library, conversing with a person whilst pointing at the print out of an image lying on the table in front of them. The moment is subtitled with the words "Das ist mein Großvater" [German for "This is my grandfather."

Fig. 12: Rese­arch with Irfan Khan in the St. Pau­li district archi­ve, Hamburg.

As the collec­tion is open, we expect fur­ther deve­lo­p­ments in the near future. Recent­ly, sin­ce the web­site is also lis­ted in inter­na­tio­nal search engi­ne algo­rith­ms, descen­dants, inte­res­ted rese­ar­chers, and collec­tors have been get­ting in touch to share their pri­va­te collec­tion items. The­se are per­so­nal let­ters, pho­to­graphs, and post­cards, but also memo­ries and sto­ries they have pre­ser­ved in the fami­ly. This dyna­mic is about to turn the Men­a­ka-Archi­ve into a plat­form for a lively exchan­ge, ren­de­ring it a living archi­ve. This implies that our objec­ti­ve is not just to collect only the his­to­ri­cal, mate­ri­al sources, but also to con­nect the­se to oral his­to­ries of various per­sons rela­ted to the tour, which gives the archi­ve a con­tem­pora­ry value. Memo­ries and sto­ries of friends, rela­ti­ves, or stu­dents all over the world come into con­ta­ct and enab­le us to wea­ve a den­se net­work of con­nec­tions that have ari­sen from the his­to­ri­cal event of the Menaka-tour.

A few examp­les will illus­tra­te this. One of the most important wit­nes­ses to the musi­cal signi­fi­can­ce of the „Indian Orches­tra“ is Irfan Muham­mad Khan. He pre­ser­ves today the mate­ri­al lega­cy of his grand­f­a­ther Sak­ha­wat Khan, Sar­od maes­tro and lea­der of the musi­ci­ans of Menaka’s ensem­ble, and is a con­tem­pora­ry musi­ci­an in India hims­elf. For him, this mate­ri­al ser­ves as evi­dence of his grandfather’s pre­sence as an artist in Ger­ma­ny. Moreo­ver, this mate­ri­al is important for him as it enab­les him to pro­ve that Mus­lim artists like Sak­ha­wat Khan have also made a sub­stan­ti­al con­tri­bu­ti­on to the intan­gi­ble cul­tu­ral heri­ta­ge of the Indian nation.

As part of the ongo­ing invol­ve­ment with the archi­val sources of the Khan fami­ly, Mar­kus Schlaff­ke pro­du­ced the docu­men­ta­ry film The Alba­tross Around My Neck, Retra­cing Echoes of Loss bet­ween Luck­now and Ber­lin (https://vimeo.com/113805297). This film fol­lows the prot­ago­nist Irfan Khan over several years as he lives his life as a musi­ci­an in India and also takes him to a num­ber of per­for­mance venues of the Men­a­ka Bal­let in Ger­ma­ny, addres­sing the archi­ve as a con­tem­pora­ry site whe­re prac­ti­ces of trans­mis­si­on are negotiated.

Reflec­tions on the Men­a­ka-Archi­ve mate­ri­als have been incor­po­ra­ted in a seri­es of publi­ca­ti­ons and events that enga­ge with the objects in the digi­tal collec­tion in various ways. Here we would like to espe­cial­ly men­ti­on Par­ve­en Kan­hai, muse­um edu­ca­tor from Rot­ter­dam, who con­tri­bu­t­ed to our pro­ject with her pro­found know­ledge of digi­tal archi­ves of the colo­ni­al peri­od all over Euro­pe. In nume­rous smal­ler and lar­ger arti­cles, she comments on mate­ri­al from the archi­ves and neigh­bou­ring sources. Her work shows mul­ti­ple con­nec­tions of art to socie­ty and poli­tics, and in par­ti­cu­lar their colo­ni­al ent­an­gle­ments, and con­tex­tua­li­zes the Men­a­ka per­for­man­ces in the field of cul­tu­ral poli­cy across the Nether­lands and Nazi-Ger­ma­ny in the inter­war period.

To open a plat­form for spe­cial fin­dings and dis­cus­sions, we have crea­ted two sec­tions on the web­site. The main sec­tion is the project’s jour­nal (https://menaka-archive.org/journal/), which works like a blog. It pro­vi­des space for essays such as Isa­bel­la Schwaderer’s exami­na­ti­on of a ques­ti­on that has haun­ted the rese­ar­chers from the very begin­ning, name­ly, whe­ther the ensem­ble real­ly dan­ced for the most pro­mi­nent poli­ti­cal lea­ders of Euro­pe, as sta­ted by Sak­ha­wat Khan in his memoi­rs (Schwa­de­rer 2021). Par­ve­en Kan­hai con­tri­bu­tes regu­lar­ly to the jour­nal with arti­cles that recon­struct the ear­ly body of Menaka’s work, such as her first tour in Euro­pe in 1931, with her dance part­ner Nil­kan­ta, by using amp­le mate­ri­al from Dut­ch news­pa­per archi­ves (Kan­hai 2019). Addi­tio­nal­ly, this sec­tion pro­vi­des a space for inter­views, oral histo­ry record­ings and other broa­der discussions.

Con­ver­se­ly, the sec­tion Notes on the archive’s web­site (https://menaka-archive.org/notizen/), pres­ents indi­vi­du­al archi­val sources, most­ly pho­to­graphs, intro­du­cing them with the most important infor­ma­ti­on, simi­lar to objects in a vir­tu­al muse­um. This con­stant­ly expan­ding sec­tion regu­lar­ly pres­ents new fin­dings and unex­pec­ted curio­si­ties, such as a pho­to­graph depic­ting Men­a­ka and two of her ensem­ble mem­bers on skis (https://menaka-archive.org/en/notizen/india-on-skis/), or the long tra­vels of a prin­ted pho­to­graph of Men­a­ka from Ber­lin to New York (https://menaka-archive.org/en/notizen/photographs-around-the-globe/). The­se short notes are also publis­hed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly on social media chan­nels, name­ly Face­book, whe­re they gain gro­wing atten­ti­on by dance prac­ti­tio­ners and a wider audi­ence inte­res­ted in dance histo­ry in India and around the world.

Based on a bio­gra­phi­cal memo­ry of a descen­dant of a mem­ber of Menaka’s ensem­ble, the digi­tal plat­form has taken shape step-by-step as an archi­val body. Today, it ser­ves as an invi­ta­ti­on for fur­ther dis­cus­sions and explo­ra­ti­ons, which we con­si­der to be a pro­cess of con­ti­nuous navi­ga­ti­on as well as an artis­tic and eth­no­gra­phic explo­ra­ti­on of the archive.

Endnotes

[i] All trans­la­ti­ons done by the authors.

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Mar­kus Schlaff­ke, Fakul­tät Kunst und Design, Bau­haus-Uni­ver­si­tät Weimar

Isa­bel­la Schwa­de­rer, Theo­lo­gi­sche Fakul­tät, Chris­ti­an-Albrechts-Uni­ver­si­tät Kiel