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'Zindagi milke bitayenge, hal-e-dil gaa ke sunayenge': Antakshari and dance memories in the times of Corona

March 26, 2020

As we are almost all homebound by the need for social distancing and further curtailed by extreme social distancing, social media is buzzing with ideas on how to spend this time. Trevor Noah uses this time to do a version of his hugely popular Daily Show, which he calls "The Daily Social Distancing Show". Priyanka Chopa and Nick Jonas along with other Hollywood/Bollywood couples feed us with a stream of sweet videos of positive messages and pictures and details of how they are spending their time. The virus has been a great equaliser, for star and fans are often doing the same thing.

Very popular on both sides of the celebrity divide are experiments in cooking. Some pair the cooking with experiments in drinking. Online Solitaire, Candy Crush, Sudoku and Contract Bridge on the laptop are flourishing. Some serious minded students and some older but eternal students are looking for online courses they could enrol in. Both celebrity and ordinary, if we are to believe Kriti Sanon, are cleaning up their rooms and cupboards!

In the glut of options, a fresh idea came from the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, GOI, Smriti Irani. Ms. Irani is rather active on social media, and has an impressive list of followers. She invited all followers on her Twitter account to play 'Twitter Antakshari' with her, and urged them to tweet a line of a song that they like, to get the game going. By all accounts it is a great idea and a really happy way to keep both community and fun alive. But her effort went beyond that and became an effective medium for forwarding the anti Corona message.

How? Well her opening song was "Zindagi milke bitayenge, hal-e-dil gaa ke sunayenge, hum to saat rang hein, yeh jahan rangeen banaeingein" from the 1982 movie Satte Pe Satta. It suggested hope and reminded us of the beauty of the world we live in. It also unequivocally reiterated that we are all in it together, as we are. A slew of songs came in response. She was completely in the zone of the game, when she spotted something terribly wrong. She was quick to point out that Karan Johar's favourite song- the romantic favourite of many, "Lag ja gale ke phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho" - from the 1964 Bollywood film Woh Kaun thi? starring the beauteous Sadhna who sang it to an uncertain Manoj Kumar, was a terribly wrong song choice for the times, with its message of touchy feely intimacy. Sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the song was a defining song in Sadhna's career and among the top twenty favourites of Lata Mangeshkar herself. Here is the song for your reference.

Maybe Ms. Irani could have drawn our attention to another song, "Paas nahin aana, bhool nahin jana..." a duet by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar from the 1974 popular film Aap ki Kasam, starring Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz. In this song Mumtaz playfully tries to control PDA from a romantic and rather frisky Rajesh Khanna.

Or if she threw her memory far, she may have recalled another song, also by Lata Mangeshkar - "Paas nahin aaiye, Haath na lagaiye, Keejiye ishara door door se" from the 1952 film Saqi, featuring Madhubala and Premnath. The song however is sung in the film by the incomparable Cuckoo, born Cuckoo Moray to an Anglo Indian family and the unquestioned queen of screen dance in the 40's. In fact, it was Cuckoo who encouraged Helen to join Indian films.

Madam Azurie

For dance lovers, which I hope includes all who are reading this piece, it will be interesting to know that it was with the film Saqi, that Gopi Krishna first made his debut as a choreographer. He was only 15 years old then and probably would not have got this break had the prefixed choreographer, Krishna Kumar not been murdered. While not much seems to be known of Krishna Kumar's murder, we do know that he and his brother Surya Kumar had been trained by Madam Azurie, and also partnered her in many films including the 1944 film Rattan where he did the song "O Janewale Balamwa", which was a popular song of the times. In an interview she gave to Screen in 1980, Madam Azurie gave the back story of the brothers, both orphans, who went originally by the name of Tony and Robert. Only later they adopted the screen names of Krishna Kumar and Surya Kumar.

We know that the brothers Krishna and Surya left their impact on the next generation of Bollywood choreographers and dancers as they trained many, who went on to illumine the song and dance sequences, including Dada Saheb Phalke awardee, choreographer P.L. Raj. Raj's real name was Devraj Peter Lewis, and he was the father of musician Leslie Lewis, whose album, Colonial Cousins, with Hariharan, was an outstanding one. The time at hand while being house bound allowed me to trace all these connections.

Madam Azurie, born in 1907 (the date is contested with some records saying it was 1915) as Anna Marie Guezlior, to a German doctor father and an Indian nurse, was the original Dancing Queen of Hindi films and had danced in 700 of them. Cuckoo and Helen came much after her. Under the influence of her father she had trained in ballet with an émigré Russian family and in defiance of her father's instructions, she studied Indian dances at the home of Begum Atiya Rahman, member of the renowned and respected Tyabji family. After her father's death, since her parents had been separated for long, she stayed on at Begum Atiya's home. In the 1930s and 40s she blazed a trail in films.

Apart from films, Madam Azurie set up a dance company and performed extensively in India and overseas. She was invited to perform at the Buckingham Palace along with Krishna Kumar. In one performance while on tour, George Bernard Shaw was also in the audience. One of her songs that hit great popularity was called "Mein Harijan ki Chhokri" and drawn by its popularity, Gandhiji asked her to dedicate herself to the cause if the upliftment of Harijans. Azurie promised to help from the outside.

Eventually Madam Azurie moved to Pakistan and set up a dance academy in 1948 against which there was a big social agitation, but Azurie rode it and became a pioneer of Indian classical dance in Pakistan, a member of its National Council of the Arts and eventually passed there in 1998.

She was always known to be a feisty woman, and thought nothing of or even stabbing, over amorous and entitled men in the film industry. She also used her own social equity to promote and help people. A well known story about Azurie is that she helped get Naushad his first break in AR. Kardar's Nai Duniya by insisting that she would choreograph and dance in the film only to the work of a new music director. The rest is history! Here is to a woman of substance.

See how wonderful social distancing and house boundedness can be. We are compelled to stop and look at the richness and riches of the world around us, find new ways of keeping ourselves busy and engaged. This piece started with a song in a twitter antakshari, and by following the trail it left, I was able to recollect so many old dance memories. All is not bad about Corona!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

What a treasure of information on the dance scene specially in films! Being from Cuckoo generation it was wonderful to know how dancers have defied boundaries in race, geography and culture to enrich the dance history in films - reaching the audiences of all hues, colour, even crossing International boundaries. Keep it up and enrich us with such quality information.
-  P. Mohanty Hejmadi (April 4, 2020)

Do cover Fearless Nadia. I thought SHE was the first queen of Indian dance films....
- Uttara Asha Coorlawala (April 2, 2020)

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