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Why Dance? I Had No Answer to That…

April 28, 2020 | By

An extract from famed author and screenplay and script writer Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography Eka Naukar Jatri, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta as a special LnC feature on World Dance Day.

A writer and a dancer? Yes, that is true of Nabendu Ghosh, the pen who scripted so many classics of the Hindi screen even as he authored novels and short stories that are landmarks in Bengali Literature. That could be why the dancing ladies of the films he scripted are sketched with so much empathy at a time when the very term ‘dancer’ – nati, nartaki, nautch girl – implied a woman of easy virtue.

Here’s a run through the characters:

1. When Bimal Roy went to Bombay in 1952, the first film he directed there was Baap Beti (1952), based on a story by Nabendu Ghosh, the writer in his team from Calcutta. The protagonist of the film was Baby Tabassum, a child growing up in a hostel because her mother is a dancer – in other words, a fallen woman.

Devdas (1956) Vyjayanthimala

Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi in Devdas (1956)

2. When Nabendu scripted Devdas (1955) for the legendary director, every established actress approached to play the tawaif Chandramukhi wanted to be Paro, the lady the hero pines for. Yet, when Vyjayantimala stepped into the role, she not only won a Filmfare Award, which elevated her into the ranks of the lead actors of India. The ‘fallen woman’ also came to be seen in a new light because of the empathy the makers showered on a professional dancer. She’s not a leech but an odd woman in love.

3. In Chanda Aur Bijli (1969), the leading lady Padmini was, again, a street dancer. But, despite being a woman of easy virtue, the dancer in this adaptation of Oliver Twist wins the heart of every viewer as she protects the innocent child from the gang of thieves she herself is a member of.

4. Hirabai, the Nautanki dancer in Teesri Kasam (1966), falls in love with Hiraman – and she leaves the itinerant company so as not to disillusion the naïve bullock cart driver who places her on a pedestal.

5. The dancer who is the pivot of Sharafat (1970) sings, Sharafat chhod di maine / When I saw how the righteous of this world conduct themselves, I rejected righteousness. Because? The feisty woman who sets out in search of her father is disillusioned by the hypocritical moral standards of society.

At a time when dancers were mere ‘naachnewali‘, these narratives underscored that a body could be sullied, not a soul. For Dance, to Nabendu, was a sublime art form. He himself began dancing as a ‘sakhi‘, when he was still in his single-digit years, and he tutored himself in the art in mid-1930s when he had already made a name for himself as a writer and an actor on Patna’s stage. Why did he still want to hone his taal and mudras? The writer gives an engrossing account in his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat. Read on..

Eka Naukar Jatri

Journey of a Lonesome Boat

Nabendu Ghosh

 

Nabendu Ghosh

Nabendu Ghosh

I was barely four when my father settled in Patna, in 1920. But every Durga Puja we used to return to our ancestral village home in Kalatiya village of Dhaka district in undivided Bengal. The courtyard of the country home would see performances of traditional arts like Kabigaan, Jatra and theatre, in which even my grandparents would participate.

It so happened that in 1926, soon after we reached the country home, Jagadish Saha, the director of Kalatiya Dramatic Club, visited my father. “Nabendu,” he called out to me, “this year we are staging the play, Karnarjun, and I have a role for you.”

“What role?” I was curious.

“Good role – with songs to sing and dance. That of a sakhi,” Saha replied with a smile on his lips.

Sakhi! A woman!!” My eight-year-old manliness was offended.

“Yes, a sakhi. Not everyone can sing and dance. We know you have a melodious voce. You will sing as a sakhi, and also look beautiful in colourful dresses!”

Look beautiful! That decided it. I started rehearsing the three songs and also One-two-three-four One-two-three steps of dancing needed to play the sakhi. The accompaniment of harmonium and tabla lent the act a seriousness that appealed to the young actor in me. Then, on that Ashtami night, under the glare of Petromax lights, with my face painted in talcum and sindur, a wig bestowing me with undulating tresses, and a pounding heart, I stood on the stage with three other sakhis. The curtain went up to reveal Sri Krishna sitting on a throne – a wooden chair covered with a brocade sari. He was wearing a peacock feather-crested ‘crown’, and standing next to him was Draupadi – reassuringly for me, another man dressed as woman!

The curtain went up to the sound of a gong. The foursome started dancing in circles to the chanting of the lines – ‘Madhav rakho charaney! Madhav rakho charaney!’ It was just make believe, but that evening I was transported to a moment in Dwapar Yuga, and experienced the delight of devotion.

Much later my father had explained to me that that this was ‘Rasa’.

*****

Eka Noukar Jatri by Nabendu Ghosh

A handwritten page from the manuscript of Eka Naukar Jatri

Patna, 1934. A dance teacher came into our lives. Name: Rakhal Mullick. His maternal uncle Bankim Das had come to Patna four years ago and gained popularity by teaching dance and music to youngsters. This same uncle has engaged Rakhal to teach four-five of his students. Rakhal sings better than his uncle but modern stuff, while his Mama was known for his devotional Bhajan and Kirtan.

Rakhal was perhaps 20-21, older to us by four years. But you couldn’t make out from his appearance: short, dark, curly hair, soft spoken and sweet mannered. On our first meeting I learnt that, about 10 years ago, he used to play a sakhi in Srinath Opera. In other words, he would sing and dance. And by the age of 13 he was acting in the female roles. For year after year he had travelled with the Opera in cities, mofussils, towns and villages. When he tired of the itinerant existence he sought out his Mama in order to eke out a new life for himself.

I stuck an instant rapport with Rakhal, perhaps because he had played a sakhi! I’d played sakhi only once, at the age of seven. So what? Both of us had tasted the joy of immersing ourselves in sur and taal, melody and beat. Once we became friends, we – Sunil, Bhuli, Ranjit and I – all started addressing him as ‘Rakhal Master’. A couple of months later he got to play a female role in the Kadamkuan Dramatic Club. His singing and performance won over the local Bengalis and he got several offers to teach singing and dancing. All girls.

Those days most parents wanted to teach their daughters music and dance. It was considered an additional qualification. When the groom’s party came to see a prospective bride, the party leader would ask with a smile, “Can you sing, child?” If the girl nodded her head to say “Yes”, he’d urge, “Go on, let’s hear you sing.” She would sing. If she happened to have a melodious voice and was adept at playing the harmonium, she’d be appreciated. “Well done! One more song?” She’d oblige, and then she wasn’t asked to sing another song. So the music teacher was engaged to teach five-six songs – and then he would stop. Music teachers were never out of job.

And six months after he played the female role in Kadamkuan Dramatic Club, Rakhal Master could rent an accommodation and move into a two-room house across the railway line. It didn’t bother him that the roof had only terracotta tiles. It was his own – he was no longer under the shelter of his uncle. And if Rakhal was happy, so were we: We now had a place to assemble for our addas on Sundays and holidays.

literary award for screenplay writer Nabendu Ghosh

Literary award received by Nabendu Ghosh for his writings

“Rakhal Master!” We’d call out from the doorstep. “Come right in!” he’d reply with a smile. Even at 2:30 pm, we’d say, “Let’s have some tea!” Rakhal would keep a serious face as he said, “This is no time to have tea. Wait till 4 pm.”  I’d say, “Haven’t you heard the Englishmen say, ‘Anytime is teatime!’” “I care two hoots for Englishmen!” Rakhal would shoot back. “I’m going for my siesta and so may you.” “No Sir, we won’t, nor shall you until you’ve made us the tea.” Rakhal would pull a long face and say, “You guys are bent upon driving me out of Patna!”  At the same time he’d spring to his feet and proceed to make tea for us. Holding the teacup I’d urge Rakhal, “Now go on and dance for us the steps Marjina did in Alibaba Chaalis Chor…”  “Pampered, aren’t you!” – Rakhal would protest. Nevertheless he’d go on to dance and sing:

Chhi chhi etta janjaal…

(Goodness! So much of dirt!
Such a big mansion and so much to clean!
All through the day
I dust and mop and clean
And still, so much of dirt!)

When he finished, I requested Rakhal, “Master, please, once more, will you repeat the footwork? For my benefit…?”

“You write stories, you act – isn’t that enough of activity? Now you also want to count the beats of footsteps!” But Rakhal was ever willing to oblige me.  “Dance is a matter of moving to the beats,” he would explain. “Every musical performance has melody and beat. Take Dadra for example – Dha dhinta na tinta, Dha dhinta Na tinta – it’s a six beat style. And the footwork to it goes thus”- Rakhal would happily dance to the beat. “Dha dhin ta… now the vilambit prolonged movement… and this is drut – rapid steps. See!”

At the end of the evening I would return home, finish my studies, think up stories, jot down points to create situations and characters. And then, before retiring to bed, I’d stand up and imitate Rakhal Master’s footwork. “Dha dhinta na tin ta…”  I would faintly recite, or repeat the kaharwa bols of dhege tete nag dhin.  Dadra, tritaal, ektaal – I’d go on dancing every step I’d seen Rakhal dance. Why? I had no answer to that. I only knew that I was enjoying every moment, every bit of it.

*****

We had a friend named Jadunath Bandopadhyay. He belonged to a wealthy family. He was an arts graduate, he was good looking, he was an artist, and he was a body builder. He had an athletic club called Olympus where many young men practised gymnastics. A few ladies also practised in a separate quarter.

Jadunath once invited me to their annual function which was to be held a day after Diwali. I went across because, among his many feats, Jadu was renowned for physically holding back a running car for 20-25 seconds. Amazing!

Jadu’s imposing mansion on Gobinda Mitra Road stood in a large walled compound. A stage had been set up on one side of it, with a tented enclosure to seat the audience. A ring with parallel bars had been created outside it – the rest of the activities would be on the stage.

The first item announced was ‘The Hunter’s Dance’. It was to depict a hunter chasing a deer.

A dance about a hunter?! I was hooked and keenly waited for it to commence.

I’ve always been very keen about dance. I’m still a regular at the adda with Rakhal Master. I still urge him, “Rakhalya, please recite your ‘rela’ to the accompaniment of your footwork, just for my benefit…” Else, “Please demonstrate the stepping in Char tal – and I’ll treat you to tea!” And he’d reply, “So the writer must have tea as he watches dance!” But he’d respond with “Dhinna dhig dhinna, Kette tete dhinna…” I’d watch sharp-eyed his foot and body movement and after nightfall I’d silently practice it in my room.

Uday Shankar and Simkie

Uday Shankar and Simkie as Shiva and Parvati (1937)

That wasn’t all. A year before this I’d started following in Bharatvarsh, the foremost journal of the time, reports of the world tour of Uday Shankar, through Europe. It would carry a number of photos of the Indian Glory and his team. I’d file the clippings, study the pictures and repeatedly read the accounts. Each and every theme of Uday Shankar would play-out in my mind.

Meanwhile some dancers like Gopinath and Ragini Devi had taken to touring the major cities of India. There was a preponderance of classical codes in their performance and so, they could not absorb me. On the other hand, even before watching Uday Shankar in person, I could well imagine the performance and flow with the movements. So impressed was I by just  watching his photographs that I could visualize him to the last detail and hear him move to the music of Timir Baran’s Sarod. I silently thanked his younger brother Rajendra Shankar for penning down the Europe travels in such detail.

Of course, I would also regret that they never performed in Patna. If only my city had a teacher like this Master of Movement! True, Rakhal Master was also moving to the beats but surely dance was not merely the art of moving with the anklets and ghungroos in place? Dance was, most of all, an experience, a realisation.

To sum it up: I had an innate fascination, an inborn inclination for dance. And that had compelled me one day to get hold of a copy of Bharat Muni’s ‘Natya Shastra’.

The Natyashastra by Bharata-muni

The Natyashastra
by Bharatamuni (Pic: Wisdomlib)

##

Back to the Hunter’s Dance.

In good time the curtain rose to reveal a forest. The dim lighting was conducive to creating the jungle onstage. All of a sudden came the sound of maadal being played offstage. In keeping with its beat a hunter stepped into the forest. He seemed to have sighted a prey. He appeared to hold a spear in his hand. Suddenly he froze mid-stage and was flooded with white and red lights on his biceps. A burst of applause greeted the moment.

This pattern repeated itself as the hunter paced around the stage, froze from time to time in order to aesthetically display muscular movement of his arm or his legs. I was fascinated by his command over the body muscles that seemed to live a life of their own, detached from the rest of his body. The hunter was none other than Jadunath Banerjee.

As the curtain fell, I went backstage to congratulate him.

Jadu smiled as he spotted me. “So what did you think of it, Nabendu?”

“Wonderful Jadu!” I couldn’t contain my excitement. “Wonderful concept, this dance item of yours!”

“There sits the man who enthused me into giving shape to the concept,“ Jadu pointed to a person sitting with others at the back. The bespectacled man of 40-something smiled at me. “How are you Nabendu?”

This gentleman, Prakash Ghosh, was more popular as ‘Phoring Da’. He was a highly placed officer in the Bihar Secretariat but was more respected as the Secretary of the 20-year-old Patna Music College located in a double-storey building on Moradpur Road. The club was a storehouse of musical instruments such as esraj, sitar, banjo, flute, clarinet, piano, tabla, pakhawaj, mridang, jaltarang – all of which were used to induct new players by the dedicated seniors of the club. Phoring Da knew me and would affectionately converse with me whenever we ran into each other.

Jadu said, “Had it not been for Phoring Da and his music club, this item would not have succeeded in such a big way. Thanks to the musical accompaniment, the muscle control act has become a dance number.”

“Would that happen, Jadu, if you didn’t have dance inside you?” Phoring Da observed. I really liked the comment. “You are spot on Phoring Da!” I burst out, “Watching Jadu on stage today I too feel like dancing!”

Jadu laughed out loud. “You’re into writing and acting in plays. Why get into dancing?”

“You paint and hold back a car roaring at the speed of 40 mph. So why did you dance?” I retorted.

“Nothing more to say on the topic!” Jadu conceded with folded hands.

Phoring Da smiled. “Well said Nabendu. So why don’t the two of you team up and prepare an item?”

“Why Phoring Da?”

“Here’s why,” Phoring Da continued to speak. “Come December we will celebrate the annual day of our club. We’ve booked the University Senate Hall for it and Sir Manmatha Nath Mukherjee will be our chief guest.”

“Great!”-  I responded. Sir Manmatha Nath was the first Indian Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court who had retired from that role and relocated to Patna High Court as a Barrister. He was also the then President of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Phoring Da went on, “We have planned about ten items: two orchestras, the playing of sitar, flute, esraj, jaltarang, tabla, pakhawaj… Besides, two ustads will give Khayal recital, and there’ll be some Rabindra Sangeet. Why not add two dance items? You prepare them, we will lend you the musical support. You have about two months to prepare…”

Overwhelmed, I looked at Jadu but his face was inscrutable. “Jadu, let’s do this,” I couldn’t hold myself back. Jadu looked at me, thought for a second and said, “Fine, Phoring Da.”

I couldn’t sleep that night. Envisaging Uday Shankar’s Shiv-Gajasur Nritya, whose pictures I’d seen in Bharatvarsh, I scripted a number in my mind.

Uday Shankar

In Paris 1933 performance, Uday as Shiva and Simkie as Parvati (Pic: Mukto Mana)

The next morning I met Jadu to discuss it.

Jadu said, Ï want to dance whenever I hear music – that’s all I know. Beyond that I know little, Nabendu!”

“I’ll teach you the footwork Jadu,” I assured him. “I’ve thought of two items. First, Shiv-Gajasur danced by Uday Shankar. You’ll be Shiv, me Gajasur. But who’ll be Parvati?”

Jadu thought for a while. “There’s a girl in our gymnasium, Chhabi. She can do it. And what’s the other one?”

“I’ll do a solo about the emotions of a young man at the onset of spring. The trees blossom at the hint of spring and the humming bees start lusting for honey. A young man becomes restless and falls in love with any pretty young lady he encounters…”

I danced a few steps for him to sample what I had in mind. Jadu was delighted. “Well then, let’s get cracking!” he enthused.

That evening we walked into the Patna Music College and confirmed our participation. The next day onwards from 2 to 5 pm we would flesh out the dance at Jadu’s. A few days later came Chhabi, a slim beauty of fifteen-sixteen years who would enact Parvati. Once I danced a bit for her, I realised that her movements had fluid grace – and her eyes bespoke emotions far better than Jadu could.

But I must apportion Jadu his due of praise. He could gracefully soften his muscular body. If he excelled in the Tandav Stances, he was no less charming in the Lasya moments.

The problem now was the music. Phoring Da heard what I was doing and asked for a demonstration so that they could score. One day he came along with a certain Nutu Da. As we danced, they noted down where they’d play the violin and where the flute; where both would give way to pakhawaj, where the footsteps would be echoed by Kartaal and which one called for which beat. They even worked out which raga would underscore which emotion by playing two-three choices for us to pick up one. Like, they played Yaman, Bhimpalas and Behag, and I zeroed in on Yaman. In a matter of days we – the dancers and the musicians – got the hang of it. And we ourselves were enamoured of our progress.

patna secretariat

The Patna Secretariat’s Senate Hall was the venue

Finally 20th December arrived.

The programme was to start at 6:30 pm sharp. The grand Senate Hall was overflowing with people. At one end of the hall was the stage, aesthetically decorated with wings on either side, a drop-scene carried over from Kadamkuan Dramatic Club, and a backdrop depicting the snowclad Himalayas.

Make-up over, we got busy with our costumes. Chhabi added kangans and neckpieces borrowed from her aunts. Jadu as Shiv was clad in an imitation tiger-skin and put on a wig that resembled the matted lock of Yogis. A third-eye painted on his forehead never blinked. And I put on the mask of Gajasur – crafted to look like the pictures I’d seen of Uday Shankar in Bharatvarsh.

All the respected guests had arrived. An honourable minister was seated in the front row, next to the fair complexioned Sir Manmatha Nath Mukherjee. The evening started with an orchestra of the Music Club. Then a sitar solo, followed by our Shiv-Gajasur Nritya. The curtain rose to reveal Shiv in deep meditation. Enters Parvati and starts worshipping him. Gajasur comes on the scene and, attracted by Parvati’s beauty, he makes unwarranted comments and draws her towards him. At this Shiv, awakened from his meditation, is angered and challenges Gajasur to a duel.  The fierce battle that ensues ends in the death of Gajasur. The entire clan of gods sing the praise of Shiv who dances with Parvati by his side until a ‘freeze shot’ brings the curtain down.

The enchanted silence in the hall ended in tumultuous clapping by every single person present.

Phoring Da came backstage chanting “Wonderful! Wonderful!!” In its entire history Patna had not witnessed anything like this, he asserted. This calmed our palpitating hearts and I went out of sight to light a cigarette. Ah!

Jadu came and placed a hand on my shoulder. “This is entirely your success Nabendu!”

“This is a fallout of your ‘Hunter’ Jadu!”

Chhabi joined us at this moment. “She was also good,” Jadu welcomed her. “Not good, she was excellent!” I responded. Chhabi bent forward to touch our feet.

Nabendu Ghosh

Nabendu Ghosh

Half an hour later I returned to the stage sans the mask and with a Lord Krishna type, shoulder-length wig on, to dance ‘Spring in the Air’.

Phoring Da played the raga Basant exceedingly well. Again the hall broke into applause as I finished.

Rakhal Master and Pranab – better known to us as Bhuli – hugged me.

“Excellent, Nabendu!” Rakhal bubbled.

“G- gr- great Nabendu!” Bhuli stuttered.

It was another 15 minutes before the show ended. By this time I had cleared the make-up and was sipping tea. I was taken aback to see Sir Manmatha Nath entering the green room with Phoring Da. Respectfully we stood up.

“These were the trio who danced”- Phoring Da pointed out – “Nabendu, Jadunath and Chhabi.”

“You’ve danced wonderfully!” Sir Manmatha Nath was exuberant, “I am extremely happy. Who thought of it?”

“Nabendu takes the credit,” Phoring Da said. “Not just that, he is also responsible for designing the musical score.” He spoke on, “His father Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh is a renowned figure in the Bengali society of Patna.”

Sir Manmatha Nath’s eyes lit up at this. “I know him only too well! Every now and then we meet in Patna High Court. I am well aware that he is a scholar of the scriptures and a famed kirtan singer!” He turned towards me and said, “You’re his son? That’s great!”

Phoring Da spoke about Jadu’s Gymnasium, he also praised Chhabi. We three bent down and touched his feet.

Sir Manmatha Nath looked at me and asked, “What do you need to carry on with your dance, Nabendu?”

What do we need to dance on? I’d not given it a thought! But it suddenly struck me that Timir Baran, the musical backbone of Uday Shankar, plays sarod – and our music club didn’t have one. “A sarod would be invaluable…”

“And?”

“And… some costumes.”

“I understand.” Sir Manmatha Nath sat down on a chair nearby, took out a cheque book from the pocket of his woollen kurta, plucked a pen from another pocket, wrote out a cheque in favour of Patna Music Club and handed it to Phoring Da. “Just a pat on the back to inspire them to create more dances…” he said, and left.

Phoring Da studied the cheque and held it up toward us. The sum inscribed on it?  “Two thousand five hundred only.”

Rupees 2500/- in 1939 amounts to how much today?

The next morning Patna’s Bengali society was rife with excitement. The English dailies Searchlight and Indian Nation carried detailed reports of the Patna Music Club Anniversary and rave reviews of our dance.

A day later when Ananda Bazar Patrika of Calcutta also praised us, we felt we were walking on clouds!

The next evening Jahar Roy came and touched my feet. This very same Jahar became the unparalleled comedian of Bengali screen, Jahar Roy.

Jahar Ray

Jahar Roy (centre) in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The only son of Satu Roy, the highly respected theatre director of Kadamkuan Dramatic Club, Jahar was a cheerful undergrad, junior to me by about six years.

“Why this sudden show of respect Jahar?” I asked Satuda’s son. “Because I am charmed by the new talent I saw in your dance yesterday Nabendu Da!”

“Where does your personal interest lie – in acting or dance?”

“In caricature,” came the prompt reply. Jahar followed it up with a series of demonstration. The one I liked best was his impersonation of a film-crazed character, Laltu. He’s unlettered but gifted with innate aesthetics. He has seen Pramathesh Barua’s Grihadaha and every now and then he calls out, “Achala! Achala!” He converses with her and bursts into singing these lines:

“I shall go to the fimile…

Fimile has beckoned me

I shall go to the fimile…”

“Fillim” – I tried to correct Jahar, “not Fimill…”

“But he’s unlettered, remember?” Jahar smiled. “And so…”

I was startled. Cinema, the newly developed art, has captured the imagination of every strata of society, worldwide. And ‘Film’ and ‘Female’ have got intertwined in people’s imagination. That immediately evokes laughter and appeals to a cross-section of audiences.

I too became an admirer of Jahar and included him in our group. His caricature turned out to be a superhit item. He became a special attraction once he crafted a Bengali impersonation of The Great Dictator with an admixture of Chaplinesque gestures and bogus words. Meanwhile my dance was also garnering immense applause. The various clubs in Patna and many little towns of Bihar would request Patna Music Club for a performance. As we started getting invitations from Ara, Bakhtiarpur, Danapur and Bhagalpur, our group underwent more transformation. For, Jadu had become extremely busy by this time. He had taken up teaching in the newly established Patna Art College, and I was forced to look for new dancers.

Two Bihari boys were recruited: Vijay Singh, a graduate son of a police officer; and Maheswar Prasad, an undergrad student. Vijay Singh stepped into the ‘Bagh chhal’. Chhabi had played Parvati just that once: though she wanted to continue, her guardians didn’t let her do so. Girls dancing on stage was not so common; even professional theatre didn’t have girls acting in female roles. So we were fortunate to get someone like Maheswari. When he dressed up as Parvati, even women did not believe that he was not one of them.

One of the calls came from Gaya where there was an ancient Durga Bari. To enable the restoration of this Durga bari, the Bengali community organised a charity show that included dance by our team from Patna Music College, magic by an upcoming magician P.C. Sorcar, Jahar’s caricature and finally, songs by K.L. Saigal. The renowned actor-singer had come to Madhupur for a change of scene and acquiesced to the request of the Bengalis there.

On the appointed day we arrived in Gaya to enjoy the impeccable hospitality of the local Bengalis. We were put up in the Bengali school there. In the evening Jahar’s Laltu and ‘Hissler’ floored an overflowing hall – so much so that a voice rose above the laughter to say, “Jahar babu, please, don’t carry on! I’ll choke from laughter!”

That entailed another round of laughter.

Then our Shiv-Gajasur Nritya. Vijay Singh was Shiv and Maheswari Prasad was Parvati, with me as the constant Gajasur. Big round of applause. After that was an orchestra performance filling up a break before PC Sorcar took the stage. That’s when a non-Bengali voice came to our ears: “I am KL Saigal’s younger brother.”

KL Saigal

KL Saigal

“Namaste. Farmaiyen?” Phoring Da greeted him.

“Bhaisaab wishes to meet up with the lady who played Parvati. Will she please accompany me?”

Phoring Da knitted his brows. “We respect Saigal Sahab a lot,” he replied, “but if he wishes to meet Parvati he will have to take the trouble to visit the green room. Our artistes don’t go out.”

“All right, quite all right…” he retreated.

A couple of minutes later K.L.Saigal showed up with his brother.

Arre bhailog, where is the person who danced Parvati? Excellent performance!”

His slur gave away the fact that the celebrated singer had already downed a few pegs. Phoring Da couldn’t hide his displeasure as he said, “There’s Parvati. Maheswari, step forward.”

Maheswari came forward with folded hands. By now he had folded up his sari and put away his wigs. He was dressed in a half-pant and sandow banian. He touched Saigal’s feet – but the star stepped back. “This is a boy here! Where’s Parvati?”

As we broke into laughter, Saigal joined in. “This boy – he was such a beautiful Parvati that I lost my senses. Wonderful, Maheswari – you’ve worked a wonder! You will have the blessings of goddess Parvati – go on dancing. Congratulations to all of you dancers!”

We were touched.

And we were enchanted when Saigal took the stage after downing some more whisky while the magician held the floor. For, his voice had not a hint of the alcohol inside him. What a divine recital he gave of that evergreen number from Devdas, “Dukh ke din beetat naahin…”

So true! The days of sorrow seem endless… And the happy times just whiz past!

##

One day the newspapers reported that Uday Shankar has returned to India and will be starting a Dance Academy in Almora. Two-year-course. My heart jumped at this. “Will you go?” – I heard my inner self ask me. My pocket — and the reality around me — said, “What you have danced so far is enough; now it’s time to fulfil your duty towards your parents.” The scriptures have prescribed a time for everything – a time to educate yourself, a time to love, a time to repay your parents… Not just your father and mother, we owe it to our larger family too — our friends, our society, our country… So forget Almora.”

I did – although unhappily.

Some months had passed when I came across an advertisement. It said that Uday Shankar will be in Patna with his team of dancers for a two-day concert. How wonderful! This is not the clay image of Guru Dronacharya crafted long distance by his student Eklavya — this is the Guru himself, in flesh and blood.

I’d see the posters on the street and the photographs in the pages of ‘Bharatvarsha’ would flash through my mind. Three days before the performance, when the booking counter opened, I was foremost in the queue for tickets. A 20-rupee ticket that would seat me towards the back-end of the theatre — never mind! I’ll still be seeing him dance, with my own eyes…

Uday Shankar

Uday Shankar performing the dance of the Gandharva in Paris (1931) (Pic: IGNCA)

On the appointed day I was on my seat long before 6 pm — when the show would begin. The huge hall of Elphinstone Cinema was nearly packed. I was on a restless countdown for the curtains to go up.

Finally the lights started dimming in the hall. The musicians on the stage started playing a symphony. The velvet curtains gently rolled upward. The lights spread enchantment on the stage. Sitting at the far end, almost as an extension of the backdrop, were the instrumentalists, all dressed in uniform costumes. And in the middle of them, sarod in hand, was Timir Baran, whom I got to know from the pictures in the magazine.

All of a sudden a dancing Gandharva lit up the stage. A spot of light was trailing the divine form. Uday Shankar. I was watching his world famous ‘Gandharva Nritya’!! What grace! And fluidity. How charming his presence. And enchanting glances. So aesthetic, the costumes and dresses, accessories and ornaments. Once more I was transported to the land of Gandharvas — the divine beings who made music for the Gods. There, one can hear only the symphony of ankle bells and mridanga, of flute and veena — and the voices of the choral singers. And much like the incorporeal fragrance of jasmine, the whole world was engulfed with the ceaseless flow of ethereal, transcendental happiness!

Thank you Ashish Khokar, Editor, AttenDance

Pictures courtesy: Ratnottama Sengupta

Some of the interesting and memorable cameo roles played by Nabendu Ghosh in the classic films – Do Bigha Zameen, Sujata and Teesri Kasam.

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Nabendu Ghosh: The Master of Screen Writing

On the Buddha’s Trail… Nabendu Ghosh’s Trishagni

And They Made Classics – Director-Writer Duo of Bimal Roy and Nabendu Ghosh

A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine CineBengal.com. Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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