Tag Archives: Choreographer

The Powerful Dancing Legacy of Saroj Khan

Sarojji, you were a legend and one of a kind. A heartfelt salute for countless moments of cinematic joy and moves; for making a mark as a female choreographer in Hindi cinema – despite the odds stacked against you.

Saroj Khan’s life and 60 plus years of career were defined by her natural talent and love for dance – she transformed into an ethereal being when she put her dancing shoes on. A classic rags to riches story, her professional and personal journey was filled with pure love, dedication, hard work, passion, and candor.

While her aptitude for dance gave her everything, it also took a lot away. Sexism, exploitation, struggles, barriers… she didn’t let any of that stop her. Over the years, she worked with a variety and generations of stars from Sridevi and Dharmendra to Shahid Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai.

Saroj was born in 1948. Her parents, affected by partition, had fled from a wealthy existence in Pakistan to poverty in India, hoping to build a new life. At three years of age, she entered the film industry as a child actor, fending for her family, when her mother discovered her love for dancing by accident. To avoid the stigma of working in films, her name was changed from Nirmala Nagpal to Saroj.

At 8-9 years, Saroj had outlived her career as a young actor and turned to background dancing for a living. She had no formal training but picked up dance movements easily and quickly. In those years, as a group dancer, she identified herself as Anglo-Indian, had short hair, and mainly did Western styles of dancing –  jive, rock and roll, and acrobatics.

Her transition to Indian dancing was difficult. Western dancers were looked down upon by the classical-bent dance veterans. Nevertheless, she turned a chance to work with B Sohanlal into an opportunity, when she was called to perform acrobatics (Spot Saroj in video below at 1:42-1:441:52-1:58 and 2:04-2:16)  as a group dancer in Vyjayantimala’s version of Eeena Meena Dika from Aasha.

Saroj changed her appearance from an Anglo-Indian to Indian to learn from Sohanlal, it marked her big break, and she became a part of his troupe, first as a group dancer and later as an assistant. At 13 years of age, she married her 38-year-old mentor, who had shaped her as a dancer. He was married with children but she was unaware and much in love. At 14, she gave birth to their first child. Her association with him lasted 5 odd years in which she learnt the finer aspects of dance and also discovered her knack for choreography. When he was away for a song shootingPL Santoshi (Rajkumar Santoshi’s father) inspired her to choreograph Nigahen Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai for Dil Hi To Hai.

When Sohanlal refused to give their child his name, she walked out. It was the start of a long struggle but also finding her own feet as a solo professional. “I wanted to live my life as I wanted to live, without him,” she had said at a Ted Talk event. Those were big words from a young teenage mother, who also had to break professional ties with her ex-husband. Despite what happened, she continued to respect him and remained grateful for the learnings and livelihood. Not a justification but it gives context to her controversial casting couch comments in 2018. After the break-up, she went back to working as a group dancer and assistant choreographer for other lead choreographers. She was a good talent to hire, she could be the proxy lead whenever needed, without the money or credit.

Accolades and fame were still elusive despite support from actress Sadhana who gave her a break as a choreographer in her directorial venture Geeta Mera Naam (1974)Her talent wasn’t enough, she was still stuck. “I worked very hard – day and night – but I was not popular. Nobody accepted me as a choreographer, as I was female. That time, the rule was that only men can be choreographers or dance masters, as they were called then,” she recalled.

The road to A-grade success began with the Hema Malini-Dharmendra starrer Pratigya (1975) but the journey to popularity was still slow. Around that time, she also remarried second husband Sardar Roshan Khan and took some years off to focus on her family. She returned with Raj Babbar’s debut movie Jazbaat (1980) and this time the path was smoother. She was accepted whole-heartedly as a choreographer in the industry. Top directors like Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Ratnam lined up.

Saroj was also known for her penchant for perfection and had a temper to unleash on anyone who didn’t meet her high levels. Though she loved actors who knew their dance, she also enjoyed guiding non-dancers like Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, and Sunny Deol. Actors had to rehearse before they arrived on set. Madhuri rehearsed Ek Do Teen for over two weeks. Saroj demanded that Sanjay must rehearse Tamma Tamma (Thanedaar) as a signing condition. He did. She added a touch of femininity to Hrithik’s steps in Bumbro (Mission Kashmir).

Kareena fondly remembers Saroj telling her, “Perrr nahin chala saktiii to kam se kam face to chalaa!” (if you can’t work your feet, at least work your face!).

Saroj was hired to train Madhuri, who had done a few movies but hadn’t succeeded as a lead heroine yet. It won’t be an exaggeration to say Madhuri owes her success to Saroj Khan.  Ek Do Teen handed her stardom and a career on the platter. Ek Do Teen was out there and fun compared to the classic and subtle beauty of Oh RamjiMadhuri aced both.

There was a marked difference in Madhuri’s persona on screen post the Saroj influence. The oomph, confidence, and attitude that Madhuri imbibed in both her acting and dance performances were unmistakable learnings from Sarojji.

Saroj had a long association with Sridevi as well, whom she considered her daughter. There is no doubt that her partnership with Madhuri was more fruitful commercially but some of her most refined and creative pieces were with Sridevi.

They created wonders in the cult classic Mr. India with Hawa Hawai. I remember watching it in a seedy Mumbai theatre and being blown away. It was one of those surreal cinematic experiences where your senses are shot and the only way to get over it was to watch the movie many times over.

Ek Do Teen brought other achievements for Saroj. She bumped up her price, benefiting her assistants, and made sure choreography was valued for its true worth. She was proud of the students she gave the industry. Her unavailability propelled two of her assistants into success. She requested prodigy Ahmed Khan to choreograph Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) which won him a Filmfare award for Rangeela Re. Farah Khan stepped in to do Pehla Nasha when she couldn’t adjust her dates for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).

Sarojji‘s style was a stamp, she dominated the 90s and left her impact well into the 2000s.

Not that Saroj Khan needed awards to prove her worth but hopefully they were sweet revenge for having to stay under the radar for decades despite her formidable talent. Portrayed with dignity and grace, her women could still be sensual and defiant within the traditional mold. As Kareena said aptly in her tribute to Sarojji: dance and expression will never be the same for us actors. I would add Hindi cinema to that. It’s an end of an era. Or perhaps, many eras.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

“I Don’t Remember a Time When I Was Not Dancing”: Aditi Mangaldas

She is a leading dancer and choreographer in the classical Indian dance form of Kathak. Regarded as one of the leading dancers in both the traditional and contemporary idiom, Aditi Mangaldas has performed traditional and contemporary Kathak across the world. She is also the artistic director and principal dancer of the Delhi-based dance company, The Drishtikon Dance Foundation. Neha Kirpal spoke to Aditi Mangaldas about how dance became such a big part of her life, the contemporary vocabulary/movement language she has devised as well as her upcoming activities, performances and tours.  

Unlike most classical dancers, you do not belong to a family of dancers. How did you decide on a career in Kathak?

This is a story that my parents remind me of—I honestly don’t have any memory of it. My family has been industrialists on one side, and academicians on the other. My paternal grandmother used to live with us in Ahmedabad. It’s a very large family, so every evening the entire Mangaldas family would come to our home to meet my grandmother. I have been told that there was this little table on which I would promptly jump up and somehow try to attract their attention and tell little stories and do other things, mostly using movement. 

WITHIN : Contemporary dance performance by Aditi Mangaldas & troup at Jamshedji Bhabha Theatre,NCPA on 23/03/2014.Photos By : NARENDRA DANGIYA

 

My parents were both very liberal. They encouraged both my brother and Ito explore our maximum. Within their possibilities, they tried to expose us to different cultures, music, dance, art and sculpture. Further, there was a community science centre that I went to as a young child where I became really interested in mathematics, and went on to graduate in the subject later. Gradually, all the classes fell off, and dance seemed to be my calling. 

I don’t remember any particular moment when I decided to become a professional. I don’t remember a time when I was not dancing. My earliest memories are of me in class with my gurus. They did put me in a Bharatnatyam class to start with because Mrinalini Sarabhai was a family friend, but my best friend was in a Kathak class. When I went there, I fell in love and it was magic to see the class of my guru Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia. So, I implored my parents to move me and they did. Thereon, started my lifelong immersion, passion and dedication with Kathak. That’s how the first steps were taken in Kathak. 

Also, I went to a very liberal school called Shreyas that encouraged music and dance along with mathematics, languages and the rest. Being in such an environment, with my parents and my guru, where art can prosper, helped. Later on, I left Ahmedabad and came to Delhi and joined my second guru, Pandit Birju Maharaj. I was with him for many years, and then decided that I need to find my own language. For me, life has been the greatest guru, because you find that strength within you to relearn everything and forge your own path. So, dance just became a part of my existence.  

Tell us a little about your extensive training under the leading gurus of Kathak, Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia and Pandit Birju Maharaj.

I was really lucky to have these two stalwarts as my gurus. If I see it in a broader sense as to what my learning and education has been from them: from Kumudini ji, I learnt the relationship of this tiny body in terms of the vast space around us—a horizontal understanding, a connection with not only the space, but with lights, music and text. Similarly, with Pandit Birju Maharaj, I learnt to see this body itself as the centre of the universe. What is the central part of the body that reaches out to the edges? I also learnt how this body is self-sufficient on its own and the intricacies of movement within the body. 

Kumudini ji also always told us never to wear blinkers; to observe and be open to whatever is happening around us. That really helped me to constantly question. My family also always encouraged questioning, discussions, debates and arguments—not to take anything written in stone. So what if something is written 2,000 or 5,000 years ago? You are free to question it and find your own relevance with it. Maharaj ji, on the other hand, expected us to go deeper and deeper into the style. So, you shed all the externals and constantly did sadhana or dedicated practice—got immersed in the dance. Eventually, I always consider my family and life my two ultimate gurus. The experience of learning from life is something quite different. 

Tell us about the contemporary vocabulary/movement language that you have devised. 

There are two streams under which my work can be categorized—classical Kathak and contemporary dance based on Kathak. There is one stream of thought according to which what we call khula naach is one in which one comes and recites the bols and communicates with the audience, and it’s not a structured performance. I prefer to structure my performances in a way that a certain concept is woven through it, and the pieces that I dance to, are like little gems that are strung on the piece. I do a lot of solos and also choreograph many group works. All of this is about 80 percent of my work. 

Dance Umbrella 2016, Inter_rupted, Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Barbican

 

 

At the same time, I found that there are many things that I want to communicate. As Kathakars, we are storytellers, and sometimes the stories we want to communicate, cannot be best communicated through the medium of classical Kathak. For example, when I wanted to communicate claustrophobia, I found it impossible to do so within the broader parameters of classical Kathak. So, I had to find a movement vocabulary that allows me to communicate it. As an artist, I have a desire to communicate things, and I should not stop myself from doing so. So, I asked myself how to go about it. How do I develop a vocabulary that is informed by our history and geography, but not bogged down by it? How does this new exploration start? I don’t believe in fusion—it’s like cutting a branch of an apple tree and grafting it on a mango tree. 

My attempt, however, is to sow the seed of Kathak and water it with contemporary sensibilities, movement, thought, music and inspirations from life. So, the fruits are firmly entrenched in Kathak, and yet the tree that grows out is very different from my Kathak tree. This contemporary dance based on Kathak tree is totally rooted in Kathak. No one can do it who is not a Kathak dancer. Classical Kathak has a kind of external boundary, though one that is constantly expanding. Whereas in this case, it’s like absorption—not fusion, or deconstructing the form. 

You will turn 60 next year. What are some of your upcoming performances, tours, and other activities of the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – The Drishtikon Dance Foundation that you head.

There are many exciting things coming up in the future. We have a whole set of performances happening in India, many of which are my solos. We just performed as a group at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai for their 50th anniversary and I’m also dancing a classical solo for them. I’m also performing in Chennai for a festival. We are performing all over India this year. We are also going to Russia and Turkey. We have also just returned from an extensive tour of Germany with 11 performances of our work which is within classical and contemporary dance based on Kathak. We are also scheduled to be going to the Middle East. In April 2020, I will be performing Immersed at the “Dancing the Gods Festival” in New York. 

Since last year, under Dance Drishtikon, we have also started sponsoring young dancers and giving them an opportunity to completely make their own work—from the concept to the choreography, etc. That happened in May this year, and now we are going to present another young dancer and four young choreographers. Among all these, the most exciting is the work I’ve started on three new productions, one of which is a contemporary solo. All our collaborators are from England. It’s about why society is scared of female fantasy. Some of the top names in light design, dramaturgy, costume design and set design are my collaborators. We will premiere it in November 2020. The other group work—both classical and contemporary—is also going to be premiered sometime in 2020 or early 2021. I’m also talking to Shubha Mudgal for the music composition, and working on another fully classical solo. 

Another series we have started is the baithak, to give young dancers and musicians an opportunity to perform in an intimate atmosphere. Since last year, we have had eight baithaks—five in our own home studio and three at other  venues, like the Oddbird Theatre or the Serendipity Foundation. My only involvement is that I curate the piece. Another series that I have started are the workshops in which I teach myself. We are also planning to start a series called Saturdays with Aditi, which will be a very intensive training in the classical form of Kathak for three hours over many Saturdays. 

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com