Tamara Khanum and her musicians, Credit: Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, London, 1935
Rosa Vercoe is an independent dance researcher and blogger. She is based in St Albans (United Kingdom). She is passionate about promoting Central Asian art and culture in the United Kingdom. Her main interest lies in Uzbek dance and its history and origins.
The following article is based on my independent research in the London libraries. The key findings of the research were presented during the Value of the National Traditions in the Art of Dance Conference (Urgench, Khorezm), held as part of the Raqs Sehri International Dance Festival (14 – 16 September 2019, Khiva, Ichan Kala). The Raqs Sehri Festival was organised by Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Culture, the Administration of the Khorezm Region, and Urgench State University.
In my article, I attempted to bring to life a short but a very important episode in the life and work of the renowned Uzbek dancer, choreographer and performer, Tamara-Khanum; her teacher, Usto Olim Komilov (a famous musician, choreographer, cultural activist and mentor); and her supporters Tokhtasyn Jalilov and Abdukodir Ismoilov, who introduced Uzbek culture to the British public for the first time in 1935.
Tamara Khanum had Armenian origins (her real family name was Petrosyan), but she was born in a small town in the Fergana Valley called Skobelevo and grew up totally native to the Uzbek environment. Her performance during the International London Folk Dance Festival in 1935 demonstrated a new image of the Uzbek woman and a professional performer—confident, with a great sense of dignity and pride for the country she was representing, while at the same time very charming, beautiful, and warm—and always with a dazzling, enigmatic smile.
How were Tamara Khanum and her three accompanying musicians perceived in London, and how did the British press of that period react to the first Uzbek performers on the British stage?
To answer this question, I started my research in the British Library in London, which soon brought me to the Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), located in a quiet part of Camden in London.
The idea of promoting a unified European heritage via folk dance was in a way an inspirational call to leave behind old tensions between some countries or regions and unite as the European continent. The English writer Simona Pakenham wrote in her book that ‘more than five hundred dancers eventually arrived [for the event of 1935], representing seventeen countries, and three hundred British dancers from the EFDSS, the Scottish Country Dance Society, and a number of regional groups also took part.’
The program below mentions that the USSR “sends a large group of dancers who will show a great variety of Russian folk dances.”
The three days of the Festival took place on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall on the 17th, 18th, and 19th of July 1935. The Queen Mary took the duty of the Patron of the London International Folk Dance Festival and, together with her husband, King George V, attended all performances at the Royal Albert Hall.
The USSR delegation arrived to London at the invitation of the Festival’s Organizing Committee. The Delegation included Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, and Georgian dancers—38 people in total. The Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maiskiy was also a member of the Organizing Committee of the Festival, alongside the ambassadors of 17 additional countries. As Tamara Khanum recalls in her autobiography, the Ambassador was very helpful and supportive; he even allowed the USSR dance delegation to use his Embassy residence as the place for their rehearsals and costume making facilities.
It is important to note that the Ambassador took great care of Usto Olim Komilov (Tamara Khanum’s teacher and one of the accompanying musicians) when he arrived to London in very poor health following his long train journey to London. His condition required urgent medical attention, and Ambassador Maiskiy played a crucial role in ensuring the Uzbek musician would be seen by a British doctor in home conditions. Additional details about this episode of Usto Olim’s life will be discussed below.
Tamara Khanum and her musicians
Tamara Khanum and her three musicians’ participation in the USSR Delegation during the First International Folk Dance Festival in London in 1935 was very important because it provided a rare opportunity to introduce the Uzbek culture to the British public and British press for the first time.
The British press was already aware that Tamara Khanum was a special member of the USSR delegation: in 1933, she was awarded the title of the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan and was already a star in her own right—well-known not only among Uzbek people, but also across the USSR. The below photo shows the Uzbek group in London: Tamara Khanum proudly holds on to a Soviet flag while accompanied by her fellow countrymen-musicians and a Russian sailor.
The caption under the photo says ‘Musicians of the Asiatic Russian Folk Dance Group.’ The association of Uzbek performers with the Russian Asiatic group is not surprising: Tamara Khanum and her musicians arrived to London as part of the USSR Delegation. The British public and the press of those times did not know much about USSR and could not fully appreciate the ethnic, historical, and cultural diversity of the people living in the USSR. The West saw the whole USSR primarily as Russia only. This event was the first opportunity to showcase the diversity of the national folk dances and music of the people representing USSR. In a way, it mirrored the London Folk Dance Festival’s own key objective of showcasing the regional diversity of the folk dances of England, Scotland, and Wales.
On the first day of the Festival, each group of dancers dressed in their national costumes—each with their country’s flag—walked in a procession into Hyde Park to dance in the Cockpit by the Serpentine. The USSR Delegation was also part of this procession, and Tamara Khanum was one of the key stars of the USSR Delegation. The photo above mostly likely was taken in London’s Hyde Park.
The Daily Telegraph published the small announcement below, stating, “the Soviet authorities have decided to send three professional ballet dancers from the State theatres in Tashkent to exhibit Uzbek, Tajik and other Central Asian native dances at the coming Folk Dance Festival in London. Among them is the ‘honoured people’s artist,’ Tamara Khanum.”
Mistakenly, the Daily Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent mentioned three professional ballet dancers from Tashkent. In fact, these individuals were the pioneers of Uzbek national musical theatre: Usto Olim Komilov, Tokhtasyn Jalilov, and Abdukadyr Ismailov (both well-known musicians and actors).
The newspaper extract above mentions Tamara Khanum as a professional dancer from the Tashkent Jewish theatre who would ‘display the local dances of [her] race in Turkestan’.
It is quite obvious that the British journalists of this period were not familiar with the Uzbek culture or ‘race,’ as they call it. They could not know that Tamara Khanum actually had Armenian origins but was born in Uzbekistan, grew up in an Uzbek neighborhood, and, consequently, was completely native to Uzbek musical, singing and dancing culture, language, and traditions.
All four started working together during the establishment of the first state mobile ethnographic troupe, which was transformed into the State Uzbek musical theatre in 1929 (which laid the foundation for the current theatre named after Alisher Navoiy in Tashkent). It is important to note that the musicians’ role in London went well beyond the simple musical accompaniment of the young dancer Tamara Khanum. They were also her mentors, consultants, teachers, and choreographers. Usto Olim Komilov played a particularly important role in developing Tamara Khanum as a dancer and enriching her repertoire with new content and forms to embody the rich heritage of traditional Uzbek dance.
This photo shows Tamara Khanum and the musicians in a London park (presumably either Hyde Park or Regents Park, as both parks were used as the outdoor venues for the Festival). The group looks happy and relaxed, and Tamara Khanum, as usual, is flashing her famous, dazzling smile.
I also discovered the below photo in the archives of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Library, which says ‘Uzbek musician,’ who can be easily recognized as Tokhtasyn Jalilov.
The next photo below shows the Uzbek group sitting at a table and enjoying tea, with the English hosts standing just behind them.
The caption of this historical photo says, “United by tea: dancers at the International Folk Dance Festival, 1935.”
The photo does not mention where these dancers were from, but they are easily recognizable as Tamara Khanum, Usto Olim Komilov, Tokhtasyn Jalilov and Abdukadyr Ismailov. They are drinking tea from English cups with saucers and savoring sandwiches. This was quite an unusual style of drinking afternoon tea for the Uzbek musicians, who were used to drinking tea from traditional Uzbek pialas. I love this photo as it gives a viewer an opportunity to observe the interplay of two different cultures in subtle ways: for example, in the way Abdukadyr Ismailov looks at the sandwich seemingly trying to figure out what is in it. Another interesting sign of this cultural interplay can be seen in the way Tamara Khanum is holding English teacup like a piala and not using the handle like the British would. The juxtaposition of the two groups of people – a group of English men dressed in English clothing typical for that time, and the Uzbek group dressed in colorful national costumes with the men wearing traditional Uzbek skullcaps (do’ppi)– represents an unusual cultural mix for that time.
The juxtaposition of the two groups of people – a group of English men dressed in a typical for that time English clothing, and the Uzbek group dressed in colorful national costumes with the men wearing traditional Uzbek skullcaps (do’ppi)– represents an unusual for that time cultural mix.
In her autobiography, Tamara Khanum tells a story which makes you smile when you think about different cultural perceptions of hospitality. After the London trip, the group safely returned back home. Upon their arrival to Andizhan, all four received a big welcome back party, or toi. Tamara Khanum describes crowds of people meeting and greeting them with joy and admiration for their success in London. To celebrate the success, they were treated with such a delicious generous dastarkhan (meal) that it made the Royal Reception they attended in London seem to be just a memory of tiny delicacies which could not fill them up and only left them hungry. They were dreaming about the traditional Uzbek full-on ‘receptions’ while savoring the tiny portions offered at the Royal Reception in London.
Her is another extract from The Times newspaper, which was promptly shared with me by a librarian working in the archives of the Royal Albert Hall. This extract mentions “a brilliant woman dancer who danced solos yesterday afternoon and a small team of men from the Caucasus.” We can easily conclude that the compliment about ‘a brilliant woman’ dancing solo was referring to Tamara Khanum, as she was the only solo dancer in the USSR Delegation.
The story of the Usto Olim’s turban
A noticeable detail from the photos is that Usto Olim Komilov is the only Uzbek musician who wore headgear that looked more like a chalma or turban. There is an interesting story behind his headgear that Tamara Khanum recounts in her autobiography, My life. Recollections of myself and outstanding cultural activists of Uzbekistan. The book was compiled by Lyubov Avdeeva, who collected an extensive amount of materials reflecting the famous dancer’s life and work story.
According to Tamara Khanum’s storyline in the book, Usto Olim Komilov became extremely unwell on the way to London. The illness fell on him during the long train journey to London and it became so bad that the group had to interrupt their journey in order for him to receive medical treatment in Berlin.
Because of this interruption, the group had to rush back to the station to get to London in time for the Festival, and they were in such a hurry that they left behind all their luggage at the station’s platform! Thankfully, the luggage was then transferred to the Embassy and the group was reunited with their luggage the following night. The group reached Rotterdam, crossed over the English Channel and arrived to London, but Usto Olim was still very unwell; his conditions were getting worse. Three abscesses had appeared above his left eye, causing him throbbing pain and making him feel very weak.
Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maiskiy and his wife, Agniya Alexandrovna, took great care of Usto Olim, according to Tamara Khanum’s autobiography.
The Ambassador and his wife, with the help of The Kennedys (the London Festival organizers), literally saved Usto Olim from death.
They urgently called for an experienced local surgeon to perform a complex operation on his forehead in home conditions. Tamara Khanum looked after him during his long recovery process. It was her idea to cover up the post-surgery scars on Usto Olim’s forehead with bandages that looked like a Bukhara style turban. She was very worried as to how his unusual turban would be received by the British public during the concert, but the Bukhara style turban actually looked very appropriate. Usto Olim, wearing his chalma, successfully performed not only at the Royal Albert Hall in London, but also in other London venues at the Festival.
In her autobiography, Tamara Khanum describes her feelings when she was requested to start her performance with a bow for the English King and Queen at the Royal Albert Hall in accordance with British Royal etiquette. “I was flying like a bird: I thought my heart will jump out of my chest”—that is how she describes her excitement just before performing ‘Gul Uyin’ on the massive stage of the Royal Albert Hall. As soon as she finished dancing, shouts of applause broke out.
Tamara Khanum mentions how determined Usto Olim was to make their debut on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall a success. Suffering from a bad fever, he collected all of his strength and gave a fantastic performance on his doira while Tamara was dancing on the famous stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Her dances of Katta uyiin, Gul Uyiin, Pillya, and Kari Navo brought the British audience to their feet.
Tamara Khanum also recalled in her autobiography that during the reception hosted by the English King and Queen, all of the national delegations were awarded medals in remembrance of the London Folk Dance Festival, but The Kennedy’s (the Festival organisers) invited the Uzbek group separately to award Usto Olim Komilov with a personal medal from the Queen. Both the Queen and the King took Usto Olim’s hand and put it gently along their cheeks as a sign of admiration with his incredible musical fingers.
“Both the Queen and the King took Usto Olim’s hand and put it gently along their cheeks as a sign of admiration with his incredible musical fingers”
Arthur Batchelor provided a fascinating description of the performance by Tamara Khahum and Usto Olim Komilov:
“…on the second night of the Albert Hall there appeared a lady of a pronounced Mongol type who gave an interesting solo dance which reminded one of a Nautch, and made one wonder to what extent Western culture had altered Uzbek. Her taborer’s mastery of his instrument, pianissimo or forte, made every other accompaniment seem a profanation. She had the good taste to lead him from his seat to share in the roar of applause which ensued.”
Ascribing Tamara Khanum’s facial features to “pronounced Mongol type” and comparing her solo dance with a Nautch (a traditional dance in India) further indicates the lack of knowledge that the British press of that time had in regards to the origins of Uzbek culture, dance and music. However, this lack of knowledge did not impact the outstanding success of the first Uzbek performers in London.
The dancers of the USSR: British press and dance critics’ comments
Based on the remarks made by British critics and journalists, the dancers of the USSR Delegation seemed to pose a real puzzle for them.
They could not overestimate their astonishing dancing technicality, artistry, and enthusiasm—but they could not theoretically define them within the European canon. It is pleasing to mention, however, that Tamara Khanum and Usto Olim Komilov managed to charm the demanding British critics and the journalists regardless of their non-conformity with the European style of performance.
The British dance critic Arthur Batchelor mentions in his article “the very oriental lady from Uzbek with that marvelous musician her turbaned taborer.” He also highly complimented the doira skills by Olim Komilov as the best (Ibid, p. 250). He describes him as an “aged Asiatic, with the sieve-like drum, who really thrilled to the marrow every musician and dancer in the hall. It was interesting to see how every expert taborer in the place contrived to cluster round his corner.” He comments that the joint performance of Tamara Khanum and her taborer on the stage of Royal Albert Hall “ended up in a roar of applause.” He further describes her as “the smiling but inscrutable enigma from Uzbek [sic] with her mesmeric-fingered old drummer – but one could go on indefinitely.” Noticeably, the author did not know how to name the place where these performers came from and assumed that their native land is called Uzbek, which was the right association but not the full name.
Tamara Khanum also mentions in her autobiography that the British public was so amazed with the technical ability of Usto Olim to extract such a variety of rhythms from such a seemingly simple musical instrument (the doira) that the organizers decided to make a model of his hand, which was kept in the Cecil Sharp House for some time. When I asked the librarians about the model of his hand (following this hint from Tamara Khanum’s autobiography), they said that the Cecil Sharp House building was bombed during World War II, and the model of his hand was likely destroyed along with the collection’s other artifacts.
I was delighted, however, that the original photographs and materials related to the London International Folk Dance Festival, including the Uzbek materials, have been kept in immaculate conditions. It is thanks to that preservation and the help from the Cecil Sharp House Library’s staff that this story could come to life.
Rosa Vercoe would like to express her thanks and gratitude to the staff of Ralph Vaughan Williams Library (Cecil Sharp House, London) for their invaluable help in sourcing all materials relevant to the First International Folk Dance Festival that took place in London in 1935.
A slightly modified version of this article was translated into the Uzbek language and published on the BBC Uzbek website on 9 October 2019.
 Singing and Dancing Wherever She Goes. A Life of Maud Karpeles. Simona Pakenham. London, English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2011, p.199.
 Tamara Khanum. My life. Recollections of myself and outstanding cultural activists of Uzbekistan. Edited by L. Avdeeva, Tashkent, Publishing House by the National Library of Uzbekistan named after A. Navoyi, 2009.
 Ibid, p. 142.
 Ibid: p. 143
 Ibid, p. 143
 Ibid, p. 146
 Arthur Batchelor, A concert of Europe. In: E>F>D>S> News. The Magazine of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Number 42, Volume IV, Part 8, p. 251 – 252.
 Arthur Batchelor, A concert of Europe. In: E>F>D>S> News. The Magazine of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Number 42, Volume IV, Part 8, p. 248.
 Ibid, p.250
 Ibid, p. 251-252
 Ibid, p. 253