We’ve updated our Terms of Use to reflect our new entity name and address. You can review the changes here.
We’ve updated our Terms of Use. You can review the changes here.

Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Musicians: New York City, Feb. 2, 1937

by Vishnudas Shirali and Company

Raga Tilanga 04:05
Raga Bahar 04:08
Bhajana 03:39


Researcher Michael Kinnear pointed out that the first recordings of Indian music made in the U.S. were undertaken between November 22, 1910 and Nov. 17, 1911 by “Dr. U.L. Desai (b. Jan 13, 1869), his wife Satyabala Devi (b. Nov. 16, 1892), and some of their friends living in New York City under the direct patronage of the Maharaja of Rewa, who governed a small princely state in Western India.” The resulting 25 discs were released on a specially allocated N series with picture labels. They were comprised of some ancient Indian ragas as well as performances of the coronation song of Emperor George V, a comedy record, and a sonata composed by Mozart. They were almost certainly privately funded and pressed. According to Kinnear, the performers returned to India in early 1913, where Dr. U.L. Desai took a post as the personal physician to the Maharaja of Rampur. The fact of the existence of those discs is an interesting footnote in the early history of foreign-language recording in the United States, and Kinnear’s research is fascinating to the discographically inclined.

Coincident with those recordings was a visit to New York City by the Sufi musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (b. 1872; d. 1927) who performed at Columbia University in 1910 under the patronage of a staff member of the court of Baroda and the Theosophical Society as an accompanist to the American modern dancer and orientalist Ruth St. Denis (b. Newark NJ 1879; d. Los Angeles CA 1968). That group subsequently traveled to Paris and to London where he met Indian intellectuals including the writer Rabindranath Tagore (b. 1861; d. 1941) and Shyam Shankar, father of Uday Shankar.

The recordings undertaken more than 20 years later under the leadership of Vishnudas Shirali on February 2, 1937 in New York City are the first of Indian music recorded and released in the United States for a general audience. Those recordings and the circumstances surrounding form part of the basis of the idea of “World Music” as it has developed as a genre, based an an audience in the U.S. and northern Europe for music from what’s referred to as the Global South - Asia, Africa, Central, South America, etc. Shirali later said of the 1930-39 tours of the Uday Shankar company's tours of Europe, the U.S., and Canada, "Ours was a sort of pioneering work. The attitude toward our music was more of curiosity than of understanding, especially during 1930-34, the initial years. But they felt enthusiastic and wanted to learn to appreciate our dance and music. Their ears were not accustomed to our music. Our frequent visits to these countries for nine years, giving dance and music performances, paved the way for our dancers and musicians to go abroad in the post-Independence period and give performances independently. This is not a small achievement."

A great deal of research has been published on the life and work of the dancer Uday Shankar. To summarize his early life, he was born December 8, 1900, the eldest son of a Brahmin lawyer father, who was then employed in the court of the Maharaja of Jhlawar in Rajasthan. He studied art first in Bombay (now Mumbai) before moving to London in August 1920 to study at the Royal College of Art, where he studied painting under Sir William Rothenstein. He was noticed when dancing at a charity event by the innovative Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (b. 1881; d. 1931.) She brought him to the U.S. during her 1922-23 tour titled “Oriental Impressions.”

Shankar was untrained as a dancer but was interested in developing dance as a modern art form derived from his study of antique Indian art. His work over the next several decades was, essentially, a sui generis creation drawing from traditional sources and informed by an awareness of what the West would perceive as “good” or interesting about Indian music and dance. He was also charismatic and easily charmed audiences and drew other serious artistic collaborators toward him.

His work with Pavlova during the early 1920s was immensely successful, particularly in London and Paris. Following a trip to India, he founded his first dance troupe in Paris in 1924 and began collaborating with the pianist Simone Barbiere who took the stage name Simkie and performed with him for more than two decades. Shankar trained her as a dancer, and she eventually identified as Hindu. By 1929, Shankar’s tours in Europe had brought him in contact with the Swiss artist Alice Boner who took on the role of secretary and tour manager from 1929 to 1931. Boner and Shanker traveled together to India in 1929, living, through Shankar’s father’s connections, as guests of various maharajas. (After parting with the Shankar group, she moved to India in 1935-36. In 1974 she was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the nation of India for her work.)

By 1931 the troupe’s musical director was Vishudas Shirali (b. 1906; d. 1984), who had studied music from the ages of 12 to 19 under Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (b. Aug., 18, 1872; d. Aug., 21, 1931). V.D. Paluskar was an influential part of a liberal Brahmin circle of artists. His work demonstrated both explicitly Hindu religiosity and showmanship, and he saw no conflict between vehement, radical nationalism and the patronage of the colonial British establishment. In the 1910s, he assembled orchestras of ten to sixteen members playing traditional Indian instruments that sought to demonstrate that Western musical practices such as harmony exist within Indian music. Shirali later said, "For me, he was music personified. Music is not all technique. It lies beyond and penetrates your heart and head. [...] He was a great vocalist with a voice of exceptional quality, a strict disciplinarian, and a man of tremendous personality and dignity, of understanding and vision. He opened my ears to the approach to Hindustani music and gave me the vision to experiment with applied music with a classical background."

The brilliant 23-year-old French writer Rene Daumal (b. March 16, 1908; d. May 21, 1944) witnessed three performances of the Uday Shankar troupe in 1931 and 1932. Daumal was already a notable figure in the Parisian avant-grade whose high-minded poetry and essays were taken seriously by Andre Breton and the surrealists, although he and his school friends, referring to themselves as Simplists, dismissed them and published several issues of their journal called Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game) that demonstrated their collective fascinations with intoxicants and the occult. Daumal was a dedicated seeker of Truth, later writing lucidly, for instance, about his experiments while still a teenager on his experiments in getting as close to death as possible through the inhalation of carbon tetrachloride.

Daumal published two essays on Indian music in the literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Francaise in 1931 and 1932, the second of which was a hyperbolic and earnest disquisition on the Shankar group’s performances (the translation here having been made by Louise Landes-Levi):
“Hindu thought, alive, authentic, in flesh and bone, in sound, gesture, and spirit was presented here in our very midst. Nothing deformed it, which is a miracle: neither ignorant translators nor hypocritical interpreters, nor even the smallest shadow of minor Theosophists. […] To those beings, bearers of the always new immemorial beauty, I can offer no more than a barbarian’s salute. In their presence, I feel grotesque, ignorant, false. As I watched them, the word ‘civilization’ pronounced itself within me, perhaps for the first time, without invoking anything odious. […]
Timir Baran Bhattacharya, with his sarod, suddenly became a sonorous sun, radiating waves of resonant silence. Even imbeciles are crushed. Only the silence of certain cathedrals speaks, at times, with such lucidity. Amid the diversity of sounds, this music always signifies the indescribable and positive silence. […] What drama is enacted between Vishnudas and T.B. Bhattacharya? […] Drama, for as each player follows the theme of the raga, he strains his ingenuity to complicate the other’s play, and they also dance, with the head and eyes. Living music - in the process of birth. In the middle of a sonorous stairway of vertigo, Shirali finds the time, between two precipitated notes, nonchalantly to arrange a drum which had perhaps displaced itself by a hair’s breadth. On another plane, when I will leave the hall after a few moments’ charms, two and a half hours will have elapsed. Chronometers do not explode in the spectator’s pockets. The chronometers don’t have time.
Uday Shankar, perfect and all-powerful master, governs some four hundred and fifty muscles of his body; each one does exactly what he wishes it to do, obeying the head only and ignoring the neighboring tissues. […] When the last bell of a bracelet is absolutely silent, accentuating the definitive gesture of an arrested finger — the silence and sudden motionless stillness is that of the sky above storms.” Etc. etc.

Daumal’s enthusiasm won him a job as Uday Shankar’s secretary and the tour manager of the group’s first U.S. tour, a job for which he would seem to have been underqualified. Nonetheless, he arrived in New York City on December 13, 1932, more than a week in advance of the arrival of the troupe of about fourteen dancers and musicians. Syndicated press announcements of Shankar’s arrival appeared in U.S. newspapers on the 23rd, often including a photo of Shankar with Simkie and the group’s youngest member, Shankar’s youngest brother, 14-year-old Rabinindra, later Ravi Shankar.

After an appearance on Christmas day 1932 at the New Yorker Theater, the troupe spent January 7 through 13, 1933 in North Carolina and Virginia, performing under the auspice of Duke University and other schools. How a mixed-race group of Bengali and Parisian intellectuals perceived the segregated American South during the Depression, we do not know, but the concerts were favorably, often reverentially, reviewed. Through January and February, the ensemble performed in larger metropolises: Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago, Madison, and New York while universal acclaim appeared in newspapers well into the hinterlands of the U.S. They returned to the U.K. in March and toured there in April and May.

An interview by the Indian-American science journalist (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937) and Indian nationalist activist Gobind Behari Lal (b. Oct. 9, 1889; d. April 1, 1982) appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on February 13, 1933. Lal pointed out that “These dances of yours are unlike any that are actually seen in India. And yet somehow you convey more truly and poignantly the concentrated essence of whatever beauty India’s rhythms have than any traditional dance of that country. How do you do it?” Shankar responded, “I’ve created these dances myself. To be sure, I observed whatever dancing, dramas, and related arts there were all over India. But in the main, I was depressed by the performers. Most of our women dancers are of low social status and utterly ignorant. Men are of low social and educational level. In fact, in India more than even in Europe and America, dance was relegated to the lower social levels of society. We of the upper classes, who studied at universities literature, sciences, learned professions, eschew these arts and crafts, except to look at them from above with a lofty air. No wonder then that our arts remained underdeveloped. In my company, there are several men who are highly trained in pure and applied sciences, and I was a student of sciences at the university in my day. My drummer, for instance, is a scholar and expert engineer. My love for literature, ethnology, painting, and psychology took me to see the ancient frescoes in India and in other countries. I observed the simple and ordinary rhythms of the people as they went about their work, and also their folk amusements and unsophisticated postures. It was from such living suggestions and under scientific and artistic methods that I started out to devise patterns of what you call dances.”

By July 1933, another U.S. tour was being promoted in the U.S., and in September a promotional blurb promoting a proposed concert in San Francisco was published by the avant-garde autodidact composer Henry Cowell (b. 1897; 1965), who had just published his seminal book New Musical Resources a few years earlier. The San Francisco show ultimately did not take place on that tour, but the troupe arrived in Los Angeles in December 1933 (with a new tour manager, Mrs Walter Robinson. Daumal remained in Paris and published his poetry collection Contre Ciel, Against Heaven, in 1934 and his satirical novel of art and artists La Grande Beauverie, A Night of Serious Drinking, in 1937.) Following their December 30, 1933, L.A. gig, the Shankar troupe played in Arizona, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia over two weeks before going to Baltimore, D.C., upstate New York, Chicago, New Jersey, and Montreal for a subsequent two weeks, followed by two weeks in Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin before a final show at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn and their return journey to England.

From October 20, 1935 to January 1936, they toured the U.S. again, returning to many of the same venues in the major cities while also spending considerable time in the mid-west. That tour did finally end in San Francisco on January 24, 1936, where we guess that Shanker finally met Henry Cowell. The influence of Shankar’s group would eventually be heard clearly in the music of Cowell and his followers in the 1940s including John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Alan Hovhaness.

Hovhaness said in 1983, "I had heard the Uday Shankar musicians with Ravi Shankar when he was just a young boy. He was in the orchestra of Indian musicians. This was in 1936, and it had a very profound influence on me.” Hovhaness’ recollection is nearly correct. The group tried to book shows in 1936 but did not actually arrive until January 1937, when Hovhaness must have seen them on the 15th at Boston Symphony Hall. That month, they played New York, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, and Toronto, before, during a week off, they made the recordings on his album on a single day, February 2, 1937, in New York City for Victor Records.

The group arrived at the studio extremely well-rehearsed, and although two takes were recorded of each of the performances, the first take of each was ultimately used for release on an album that appeared for sale in January 1938. Comprised of three 12” and two 10” discs, at a time when the average disc sold for about 75 cents (the equivalent in 2023 of about $16), the five-disc Uday Shankar album retailed for $9 (the equivalent of nearly $200 today) marketed largely toward educational institutions. With the exception of the soundtrack of the 1951 Jean Renoir film The River, it was the only recording of Indian music available in the United States (and the only one recorded in the U.S.) until 1956 when the violinist Yehudi Menuhin supervised the recording of touring sarodist Ali Akbar Khan accompanied by Chatur Lal at the Museum of Modern Art on April 18, 1955. (That disc has been cited by La Monte Young as having been important in the development of his aesthetic for having been the first instance of a tambura having been heard on record in the U.S.) Almost simultaneously, the first recording of Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing was released in the U.S. in 1956. Two decades after Uday Shankar and Vishnudas Shirali’s s foundational tours and recordings, the first long-form performances of instrumental ragas were made available to listeners in the United States.

The Shankar company completed its 1937 tour in February in Baltimore, D.C., NYC, Brooklyn, and Bronxville before returning to Paris. The press announced that the ship that carried them also carried the writer Ernest Hemingway and the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Shankar’s troupe toured the U.S. again several times in the 1940s and ‘50s. Immigration restrictions in the U.S. did not allow Indian citizenship until after 1965, and the first wave of arrivals from the subcontinent were largely scientists and engineers brought to work for companies like DuPont. By the 1980s, the largest Hindu population in the U.S. was in northern Delaware, where DuPont was headquartered, and where I was born and raised and first exposed to the music of India.


released June 9, 2023

Restorations and notes by Ian Nagoski.

Recording on Feb. 2, 1937 supervised by Robert P. Wetherald
Group director Vishnudas Shirali who performs on all tracks, including solo tabla on track 5 and voice on track 10.

Further musicians:
Sisir Sovan 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, (tabla) 8, 9, 10
Rabindra [Ravi Shankar] 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, (esraj) 8, 9, 10
Dulal Sen 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, (sarod) 8, 9, 10
Nagen Dey 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10
Brijo Behari 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10

Cover photo: Uday Shankar ca. early 1937
Attached photos: Uday Shankar on arrival in New York in December 1932 with Ravi Shankar (age 14) and Simkie (Simone Barbier); Uday Shankar, 1933.

Attached document:
Partial reconstruction of Uday Shankar Company tours of the United States, Dec. 1932 - Feb. 1937.

Discographical data drawn from the Discography of American Historical Recordings at the University of California, Santa Barbara: adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/mastertalent/detail/106068/Shirali_Vishnudass
Thanks: JiHoon Suk and Matt Marble

Further reading:
Janaki Bakhle, Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford, 2005
Rene Daumal, Rasa or Knowledge of the Self. Translated by Louise Landes-Levi. New Directions, 1982
B.C. Deva, Towards an Indian Orchestra: Interview with Vishnudas Shirali. Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1993.
Gerry Farrell, Indian Music and the West. Oxford 1997
Richard Howard Interview with Alan Hovhaness 1983 www.hovhaness.com/Interview_Howard.html
Michael Kinnear, Columbia Double Disc: An Unusual Indian Series Made in the United States. Talking Machine Review, Number 74, February 1988 bajakhana.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/tmr-73.pdf


all rights reserved



Canary Records Baltimore, Maryland

early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

An hour in clamor and a quarter in rheum.

contact / help

Contact Canary Records

Streaming and
Download help

Redeem code

Report this album or account

Canary Records recommends:

If you like Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Musicians: New York City, Feb. 2, 1937, you may also like: