Anjali Hora : a Bharatnatyam Dancer in the photos of Werner Bischof

In the early 1950s, Werner Bischof, a Swiss photographer travelled to India, on an important assignment for Magnum Photos. Amidst his photographs, there are some featuring “the Indian dancer, Anjali Hora”. These photographs led us on a quest to unravel her story.

One of our first clues comes in the form of a cultural review by Rudolf von Leyden for the Akashvani. We learn from his writing, that by January 1950, when the city of Bombay was witnessing a new energy in the field of dance, poetry and painting, a young 22-year old Anjali Hora was already known for her enthralling Bharatnatyam recitals.

Click on any photo and swipe to read this story in pictures.

All photos ©Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos

In this photo, Bischof captures Anjali getting ready for the day. He writes: Dressing in the morning is a ritual. Like a western woman, Anjali suits her clothes to her mood & occasions. Today is the Jasmine festival and she will wear a diadem of Jasmine blossoms.

Who was Anjali Hora, the Bharatnatyam Dancer photographed by Werner Bischof ?

Anjali Hora as part of “Generation X”, a photo project by Magnum Photos.

The 1950s were an interesting time, not only for India but for also for the world. This is probably why, Magnum sought to capture the zeitgeist of the time through photos. Their project “Generation X” featured young men and women from around the world who had just turned 21. These young people had grown up witnessing war, and suffering. In the case of India, they witnessed the dawn of Independence and a bloody partition. Yet, these were adults stepping out into a hopeful world, one that they were helping rebuild, and had lots of stories to tell. With the thought that the face of the nation is mirrored in its youth, Magnum attempted “to essay the future of the world through individuals who will make most of its history for the next 50 years.”

The selected individuals were interviewed using the same questionnaire. Werner Bischoff’s photo essay represented Anjali as an exemplary figure for a contemporary India. He wrote about her:

“Anjali is a positive example of an independently raised girl of the East with the wisdom and intelligence to confront all the issues of life and to draw her own conclusions about the choices, rituals and thought of foreign and unfamiliar cultures”.  

Who was Anjali Hora ? 

Anjali was born to Rameshbhai and Mugdhaben Hora in 1928 and was their only daughter. Mugdhaben was a kindergarten teacher but also composed Gujarati musicals for radio programmes. Unfortunately, she lost her eyesight when Anjali was very young. Rameshbhai had a government job. In this photo, Anjali guides her mother to the library which she has established for the young people of her community.

Anjali and her Mother

The family lived in Santa Cruz, Bombay like any middle-class family of the time. They had electricity, but no telephone or refrigerator. This last bit of information was part of the questionnaire.  

Anjali at her parents’ home.

Anjali began learning Kathak when she was just four years old. However, when her parents  (being Theosophists), came in close contact with Rukmini Devi in the early thirties, Anjali was sent to train under her. Over the years, this Gujarati girl not only attained perfection of style but also gained an insight into the aesthetic and spiritual value of this ancient art. She was gifted with a melodious voice and rendered Padams, Javalis, Kritis, and bhajans in classical Carnatic music. 

Anjali Dancing

Anjali Hora’s career as a Bharatnatyam dancer : a “dream come true”

I dreamed I was going to be a dancer…I became one

{Generation X} Picture Post, Vol 58 (1953)

In her interview to Bischof, Anjali shared that she once had a dream where she was alone in a huge temple-hall with pillars. In her dream, she saw a tall woman who came inside and began to dance. The woman urged Anjali to dance too. Years later when she saw Rukmini Devi, she instinctively knew, that this was the woman she saw in her dreams. 

Anjali Hora, was one of the first students to graduate from Kalakshetra, Madras (now Chennai) along with with Sharada Hoffman and Lalita Shastri. At the time Bischof photographed her, she was teaching at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In 1947, at the invitation of Kulapati Munshi, Anjali became the first Principal of the Nartan Shikshapith of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at Bombay. For some years, she also conducted her own school, named Rukmini Kala Vihar – after her Guru.

Anjali teaching Dance

In 1953, after she married Dr. Sukumar Merh, Professor and Head of Department of Geology, M. S. University at Baroda, she settled in Gujarat. During the same time, the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad University of Baroda instituted its Faculty of Fine Arts with graduate programmes in Dance, Music, etc. At the behest of the University’s Vice Chancellor, Smt. Hansaben Mehta, Anjali joined in as Visiting Professor and later as the Head of the Department to introduce Bharatanatyam as a degree programme in the University. This first-of-its kind initiative was met with an enthusiastic response from students across the country.

Anjali Hora: advancing Bharatnatyam

Fun fact: the connection between Baroda and Bharatnatyam can be traced back to the royal court of Gaekwads, but we’ll save that story for another day.

Anjali Hora became known for adapting Bharatnatyam to Gujarati.

In 1977, Anjali wrote, composed and choreographed the Chandramoulishwara Kuravanji in Gujarati. It is considered to be the first ever Kuravanji (a kind of dance-drama) written in Gujarati. Anjali even composed the music for this Kuravanji in praise of the presiding deity of Somnath in Saurashtra. In doing so, she followed the example of Kutrala Kuravanji in which she danced as a Sakhi with Rukmini Devi.

What Anjali Hora thought of the times she was living in: excerpts from an interview with Werner Bischof:

“I do not believe there will be a war.  I am sure people have suffered and know fully well just what war can do.  I am sure that people in power sense not to drag themselves and everybody else into a war.” She also believed that Socialism was inevitable in India and placed her faith in the brotherhood of people.

Anjali Hora : her legacy

The 1950s represented a turning point in Indian culture. During this time three national academies were established – Sahitya (Literature), Lalit Kala (Visual Arts) and Sangeet Natak Akademi (Performing Arts). With an added impetus provided by the Government of India and ICCR (Council for Cultural Relations), there was opportunity for budding dancers and musicians.

Anjali Hora was one of the those who stood at the crossroads of time, between tradition and modernity. Her story, like Magnum Photos thought, is one we ought to preserve and celebrate.

“…becoming famous and popular is not very important but to preserve the art in its true and chaste form is most essential to a dancer”

Anjali Mehr (nee Hora), 1972

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  1. Anjaliben was my teacher and guru at the msu. Her first venture of creating Bharatanatyam in Gujarati was in 1972, when she wrote, composed and choreographed a whole Margam, repertoire in Gujarati which i learnt and performed
    In her sudden and untimely passing away in 1979, we lost a visionary dance master.
    Since 1981, in her memory, we run Anjali Memorial committee with yearly dance festival NRITYAPARVA and much more


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