Iconic dancer-actress, Sadhana Bose’s exceptional talent in dance, acting flair, and exquisite beauty helped establish her as one of the leading female stars of the 1940s. Marrying filmmaker Madhu Bose at a young age, she joined his theatrical company, Calcutta Art Players. A competent and captivating performer, she quickly rose to the top. Venturing into films, she featured in the Bengali film Alibaba (1937), a runaway hit, which carved her a permanent place in the history of Bengali films. Abhinoy (1938), her next was another major success. Migrating to Bombay, she featured in successful films such as Kumkum (1940), Rajnartaki (1941), Meenakshi (1942), Shankar Parvati (1943), Vishkanya (1943), Paigham (1943) and others, establishing herself as a heroine in her own right. She however enjoyed only a brief yet brilliant period of creativity and success, burning out soon.
Born Sadhana Sen on 20 April, 1914, she was the grand-daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, a prominent social reformist leader and Brahmo Samaj member, and the daughter of Saral Chandra Sen and Nirmala Sen. Brought up in a Brahmo household, she received the customary education of the time. In 1929, she was married at a young age to filmmaker Madhu Bose, son of pioneering geologist and palaeontologist Pramatha Nath Bose, and Kamala Dutt, educationist and founder of Kamala Girls School and daughter of Romesh Chunder Dutt. Sadhana joined Calcutta Art Players, a theatrical company owned by her husband, acting as heroine of many plays directed by him.
A classically trained dancer, Sadhana learnt Kathak under Taraknath Bagchi, and Manipuri under Guru Senarik Rajkumar. She was also a musician, studying under Inayat Khan, Timir Baran and, briefly, S.D. Burman; and also learning the piano from musician Franco Polo. Her early work included ballets which were supervised by Rabindranath Tagore. An exemplary danseuse, she became a famed and accomplished ballet and stage dancer of Calcutta. Playing the mercurial gypsy girl, Morgiana, in her husband’s Alibaba, she was all impudence and allure. When performing the stage version of Alibaba in 1929, Sadhana met the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova and also worked with her in passing on certain dance elements. Her best-known play, Alibaba helped translate the musical style of Calcutta Theatres, which had started with Khirode Prasad Vidyavinode, into Broadway/ Hollywood inspired Orientalist spectaculars. Her plays like Theme Songs of Omar Khayyam and Hindu Dance Dramas, Birth of Freedom, Samarpan and Ajanta went on to be described as ‘neo-classical ballets’, adhering to the tenets of traditional art. The show Rhythm of Victory was a political spectacular with more than 40 dancers. Later, she took on social issues that were plaguing the country, and incorporated them into her dances. Her ballet called Bhook (Hunger) during the Bengal famine of 1943, was a searing piece of dance drama that was said to have left viewers shaken.
Venturing into the world of cinema with the film version of Alibaba (1937), which became an instant hit, she went on to act in several films which were directed by her husband, leading to her becoming an established actress in Bengal. She was introduced in Hindi cinema with Kumkum The Dancer (1940) by her filmmaker husband, Modhu Bose, becoming an overnight star. As a film review of the time in Filmindia magazine declared, “The burden of the entire tale is Sadhona and she has done marvellously well. Beautiful dancing, punctuated by suitable symbolisms, superb acting, sweet and sympathetic diction, poise and dignity born of traditions and an undefinable charm all at once proclaim a new star to our screen world.”
Desiring to launch Sadhana on a grander scale post the success of Kumkum The Dancer, Modhu Bose directed her in the Wadia Movietone-produced trilingual Raj Nartaki or The Court Dancer (1941). It was one of the earliest Indian talkies to be released in the USA with English dialogues in 1944. The film featured Sadhana along with Prithviraj Kapoor, Jal Khambhata and Protima Das Gupta. The film featured the doomed love story between the prince Chandrakirti played by Kapoor, and the beautiful court dancer Indrani essayed by Sadhana. The English version, unfortunately, was not well received in Hollywood.
She went on to feature in films such as New Theatres’ Meenakshi (1942) also directed by Modhu Bose, Amar Pictures’ Paigam (1943), Ranjit Film Company’s Shankar Parvati (1943), Vish Kanya (1943) directed by Kidar Sharma, Neelam (1945) directed by Essa, Jayant Films’ Urvashi (1946), For Ladies Only (1951), Nand Kishore (1951), and the P L Santoshi-directed Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo (1952).
Sadhana and Modhu Bose had separated by the mid-40s, but she continued making her mark working with various other directors. However, her lifestyle took a heavy toll. An artiste of her calibre was left with no option but to accept mediocre films like For Ladies Only and Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo, in which she appeared as the lead character’s mother in feathered tribal get-up, for the money.
She returned to Calcutta after a reconciliation with Modhu Bose, and went on to feature in his Bengali directorials such as Shesher Kabita (1953) and Maa O Chhele (1954). However, they failed to make an impact. With film offers drying up, she formed a dance troupe of her own and conducted all-India tours with plays like Wither Now, Hunger and others, which were appreciated. She was however, floundering in body and mind. Shortly before her death she did get appointed as dance trainer in Calcutta's prestigious Star Theatre. She trained junior artistes for the play Janapad Badhu and once again her name featured in newspapers in advertisements for the play. However, chronic ill health saw her pass away on 3 October, 1973. She was 59.