It was a dancing partnership with the unlikeliest of beginnings. In 1939, as the Second World War broke out in Europe, its reverberations were felt in India too. Ernst Rubener, a German dancer who had travelled to India to learn bharatanatyam, found himself interned by the British government in a prisoner of war camp. The British were meticulous in separating Nazi sympathisers from the other Germans, and Rubener found himself with the latter group in Dehradun. There, Rubener met the German scholar and Buddhist monk Lama Angarika Govinda (formerly Ernst Hoffman).
Despite the privations of prison life, Rubener not only gave the odd dance recital for the British officers and his fellow prisoners, but was also initiated by Govinda into Tibetan Buddhism. In prison, Rubener had clandestine access to a few magazines. It was in one of these that he found a photo of a dancer called Zohra that he had pinned to his wall, resolving to meet her one day.
In keeping with the fairy tale flavour of this story, the two dancers did meet – at a recital organised soon after the war by the Maharaja of Kapurthala. They would be married in 1947, a union that had Govinda’s blessings. It was also the Lama who gave the couple names drawn from Buddhist history with which they would come to be known: Sujata, the Buddha’s disciple in his last days, and Asoka, the king who preached the Buddha’s message of Ahimsa and Dharma.
Asoka had been inspired by photos of the great dancer Uday Shankar and had left home for India in the 1930s. Little is known of Sujata’s early life. She was born Zohra into a Christian family from Mumbai, and her parents, despite their early misgivings, seem to have given in to her early fascination for dance.
A recital in the late ’40s at Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai earned the couple rave reviews. An invitation to perform at Paris’s Lido theatre and a tour of Europe followed. The pair’s journey to America came soon after, and in the early ’50s, they were known as Hollywood’s dancing couple.
Sujata appeared as Marguerita in one of her rare speaking roles in the episode The Mexican Gun Running Story from the popular television Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, in 1952. Also in that year, Sujata and Asoka choreographed and performed the Oriental dance sequence for the Rita Hayworth starrer Salome, based on the Old Testament story. The sequence featuring the duo takes place in King Herod’s court.
Sujata and Asoka featured in several other dance sequences in Orientalist adventure movies depicting pirates, rebels in colonial India and diamond hunters, including Caribbean (1952) and Fair Wind to Java (1953). Sujata and Asoka typically twirled as the intrepid European adventurer awaited a dire fate.
The popular Oriental motif of precious stones appeared in the Arlene Dahl and Fernando Lamas film The Diamond Queen (1953). Lamas plays Tavernier, the traveller who in real life did visit several parts of Mughal India, alongside Gilbert Roland. In the film, Lamas and Roland journey to India, where Lamas falls in love with Princess Maya of Nepal (Arlene Dahl as an early example of Hollywood white-washing). The adventurers are captured and wait with bated breath as a fire dancer (Asoka) performs. Their fates rest on the changing colour of his hand-held flames. Sujata appears later on in the film even as Prince Jehan, the Mughal ruler of Golconda (Hollywood wasn’t exactly clear on its history) seeks to woo the princess.
Flame of Calcutta is set in the 1760s, a time when the French and British trading companies are equal powers in the Eastern city and trying to stay aloof from local conspiracies and rival native princes battling for power. Replete with Orientalist stereotyping, the movie’s posters also made leering mention of the orgies and dances that were evidently a staple of any court on this side of the globe.
The Indian revolt of 1857 was the backdrop for Bengal Brigade (1954) and King of the Khyber Rifles. In Bengal Brigade, Vivian (Arlene Dahl) is the love interest of British officer Captain Claybourne (Rock Hudson). It is in the court of a native chief, during a dance sequence performed exclusively for Claybourne and Vivian, that they acknowledge and declare their love for each other.
King of the Khyber Rifles takes its title from a Talbot Mundy novel, but deviates considerably from the original plot. The movie features a British secret agent in the North West Frontier Province during the tumultuous 1850s, who is regarded suspiciously even by his own soldiers for he is of mixed parentage. Yet, his familiarity with local ways make him the main interlocutor in negotiations with the rebel Muslim chief. The dances appear as part of camp embellishments, as they would in films of this genre.
Sujata and Asoka’s movie appearances were interspersed between their lengthier dance recitals, for which they travelled widely. Sujata was not entirely satisfied with performing in Hollywood productions, as she reveals in the documentary Sujata and Asoka, Dancing in Love, but the movies did make them popular.
Sujata and Asoka also featured in an episode of the television series The Wild Wild West, called The Night of the Cobra. They appear as dancers in the court of the Maharaja of Rampur, played by Boris Karloff in an unlikely role. It’s a sequence in which the audience includes the king’s pet elephant calf and tiger and a gorilla with terpsichorean skills.
One film that got them attention in Europe was Italian master Federico Fellini’s fantasy-laden Juliet of the Spirits (1964). Sujata and Asoka appear not as dancers, but as helpers and attendants of an elderly lady, in a hypnotic, dream-like sequence – an effect enhanced by Sujata’s graceful gestures and mystical references to concepts such as illusion and the evanescence of life.
Before they settled down in their later years in Sedona in Arizona, Sujata and Asoka ran a café at the Pacificulture Asia Museum in Pasadena in California. Sujata’s recipe for chicken wings was particularly popular. Her special culinary trick was to mix dry spices with cider vinegar that made the wings mildly spicy and imparted a wonderful aroma hard to replicate. Sujata died in 1993, Asoka in 1997.