Obituary: Alain Danielou

Alain Danielou (Shiva Sharan), musicologist and oriental scholar: born Neuilly-sur-Seine 4 October 1907; died Lonay, Switzerland 27 January 1994.

ALAIN DANIELOU was a man whose vast and curious learning in the fields of literature, music and the Orient was unequalled in our time.

I first became acquainted with Danielou through a medium we both despised - television. He appeared in 1981 on one of Bernard Pivot's now defunct book programmes to discuss the first edition of his autobiography Les Chemins du Labyrinthe. The general title of the discussion was 'Good and Evil' and it was a fascinating expose of widely differing beliefs that in the end, through the charmed elegance of Danielou's presentation, reconciled him with the other redoubtable intellects on the set, who included George Steiner and Anthony Burgess, both in top form.

I bought the book (a new, enlarged and illustrated edition appeared last May from Editions du Rocher) and at once fell under his spell.

Alain Danielou's Breton father was a noted anticlerical and a minister in the Third Republic, while his mother, a grande dame, was devout to the point of being called a fanatique by that most tolerant of her fellow-religionists, Julien Green. She founded schools and the Order of Sainte-Marie. Alain's brother was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

Danielou was educated at the Institution de Sainte-Croix, Neuilly-sur-Seine, and at St John's College, Annapolis. He was soon in revolt against his mother's excessive religiosity, but his father was instrumental in developing his musical gifts. He studied piano and singing, and mastered the songs of Duparc and Chausson and the Lieder of Schumann and Schubert. He wrote poems, became fluent in English and the major European languages, and practised translation. He loved to dance, and studied with Nijinska and Legat until he was good enough to appear professionally with the Romanian dancer Floria Capsali and Marjorie Daw, a brilliant English technician with whom he danced in music halls and at the Palais d'ete in Brussels. Among his friends in the ballet he counted Karsavina, Rolf de Mare, Mary Wigman, Balanchine, Nicolas Nabokov, Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc. But gradually Danielou abandoned the dance for more serious matters.

In 1932 he travelled to India, where he met one of the great influences on his life and thought, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. India was a revelation to the young Parisian dandy - 'Real civilisation, the source of everything that helps one to understand the cultures of the Orient'. He entered Benares University in 1935, where he studied Hindu music, Sanskrit, Indian philosophy and Hindu religion for the next 15 years, during which time he was appointed research professor, a post he held until 1953. He became a professional performer on the vina. He moved to Madras to become director of a centre of research into Sanskrit literature at the Adyar Library until 1956. From 1959, he became a Member of the French Institute of Indology at Pondicherry. On returning to Europe, from 1960 he was adviser to Unesco's International Music Council, then founder and director of the International Institute of Contemporary Music in Berlin from 1963 to 1977, and of the Istituto Internazionale di Musica Comparata in Venice (1969-82).

While in Benares, Danielou converted to Hinduism, taking the initiate's name of Shiva Sharan. He was a great teacher, but his main work was in translation of texts on religion and music, and the composition of major works such as Mythes, et Dieux de l'Inde (1993), Les Quatre sons de la vie (recently translated as The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India), Le Betail des Dieux (1983), La Sculpture erotique hindou with photographs by his companion the Swiss photographer Raymond Burier (1973) and La Musique de l'Inde du Nord (1985). In 1993, Editions Pardes published the remarkable study of Le Phallus, the best short account of the turbulent history of this essential organ. His Dix-huit chansons de Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali text with English and French translations, musical notation and accompaniments for piano all by Danielou, will appear later this year. Meanwhile, we have Le Mystere du culte du linga (1993). Danielou was supposed to be present to sign copies, but he was already too ill to attend.

Danielou's new and complete translation of the Kama Sutra is one of his great masterpieces. It comprises the Sanskrit text of Vatsyayana from the fourth century with the medieval commentaries by Yashodhara and part of a contemporary commentary by Davadatta Shastri. Vatsyayana had compiled texts written at a time when the Kama Sutra was taught to deserving children, who were not supposed to practise their expertise until they were 16. It provides a moral code for erotic practices addressed to men and women in the interests of social order. We are introduced to the 52 types of lovers, including lesbians and male homosexuals ('the third sex'), to intimate and abstruse anatomical details, to the 10 kinds of love-bites, and a list of men to be sexually avoided or of women who are to be had without difficulty. It is often Machiavellian in its advice: 'Each individual should employ those means which best serve his own interests.'

It was Danielou who stopped Gandhi destroying erotic temple statues and who was rebuked by Nehru who accused him of being interested only in those things India's new puritanism sought to eradicate when Danielou published his book of magnificent photographs of sacred sculptures proving homosexuality was not some infamous occidental import. And Danielou caused a scandal when he claimed that it was the British memsahib who caused Britain to lose the Empire by interfering with the native sexual customs enjoyed by Westerners before their women made the passage to India.

His beautifully written works, totally free of pedantic jargon, and never afraid to call a spade a spade, remain to console us on our increasingly barbaric continent. Our debt to Alain Danielou's scholarship and deep humanity is immeasurable.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor