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The Dancing Advertisements: Do they benefit the arts?

December 19, 2021

Let me begin by wishing you a very Happy New Year. I hope and pray that this year sees us escape this fast-mutating virus, at the earliest. Apart from this being by far the most common desire on earth, it is not unrealistic to wish for it in January. January is a month named after the Roman God Janus. Janus is the God of new beginnings, gates, transmissions, passages, and even endings. Because he can look at what has gone by and also what is yet to come, he is often depicted with two faces, each looking antipodally.

Exactly this feature, of looking at the back and the front at the same time allows me a segue into what I wanted to write about. Advertisements. Particularly those that have used dance and dance moves. Those that have used well known dances consciously, those that have used well known dancers, sometimes as dancers and sometimes as very animated actors, those that have used dance and dancers only as mise-en-scene, and those that have used dance moves to suggest mood and 'masti'. Then there are those which have used the image of great artistes to popularize awards in their names. For example, The Hindu runs the M.S Subbulakshmi Award, and uses her photograph. That sort of promotion is outside the purview of this article. I am looking at commercial advertisements, particularly those using dance.

My attempt has been to recall as many as possible, but this essay in itself is something that could just be the first step up on a more exhaustive study, that may go beyond the listing, to raise troubling questions on the relationship between capitalism and dance. Even a listing has demanded an effort. By no means is this listing exhaustive. There are those that have been forgotten and those that we remember. While some forgetting may be a natural process of failing memory, could some forgetting also be political?

Tanishq ad
Tanishq ad

Advertisements are also pretty much one of the flavours of the year gone by. Advertisements have made a lot of news by being called out, trolled and banned. It is important to note that all the ones that are being called for banning are those that refer to traditional occasions and festivals. Among them are Tanishq's Godbharai one (I could access only a screen shot of the video), the Fabindia "Jashne Rivaaz" ad and the Dabur Fem bleach Karva Chauth ad showing the festival being celebrated by same sex partners. Festive times are always shopping times, but more than anything else these advertisements were celebrating our traditions albeit with a twist.

Wah Ustad! Wah Taj!
What is more traditional than India's classical arts, be they music or dance. That is why it is not surprising that the arts have features in many iconic advertisements. Who can forget the Wah Ustad, Wah Taj ad featuring an exuberant Ustad Zakir Hussain? This advertisement made for Brooke Bond's Taj Mahal Tea was the only ad that Hussain did. It showed him against the background of the Taj Mahal playing a fast paced 'rela' with his disciple Aditya Kalyanpurkar. At the end of the flourish, the beaming Ustad says to his disciple "Wah Ustad" and he comes up with the repartee - "Wah Ustad nahin Wah Taj kahiye". With these few words the Ustad and the Tabla became as popular as tea, if not the 'T' that stayed in the mind! Subsequently, Zakir made other ads for the same tea brand, including one with pop star Alisha, but nothing was as memorable as the one with Aditya.

The brand did another set with Santoor star Rahul Sharma, whose charm and good looks matched Zakir's. Rahul said that music refreshes just as tea refreshes and so the brand's attempts at staying with classical music made sense. In one of these ads, Rahul was seen sipping from a glass of hot tea and playing in the early morning hours, as the mist was lifting off the Dal Lake in Srinagar. The raag was Vasant Mukhari and when he concluded, he is surrounded by shikaras, drawn by his music. It was a lovely ad, lovingly made, but it did not leave the same imprint.

Gauhar JaanGauhar Jaan

Using artistes is not new for the world of advertisements. The iconic tawaif Gauhar Jaan, yes, the same Gauhar Jaan that Google celebrated on its doodle, on her 145th birthday, 26th June 2018, was featured on match boxes as far away as Czechoslovakia. Here's a photo of the same. Interestingly, as photography was invented before the gramophone, it was her image that first became popular at this global scale, rather than her voice. Cultural historian Dr. Navina Jafa feels that the value of them as fashionistas and celebrities, made them akin to our A-listers now. This is the quality with arts and artistes that advertising honchos attempt to capture.

Zandu Balm
Wonder how many of you remember a 2011 ad made by the iconic Pt. Birju Maharaj for Zandu Balm. He wore his Padma Vibhushan award lightly and was ever ready for new experiences. To begin with, he was no stranger to the camera. He had already been associated with Satyajit Ray's 'Shataranj ke Khiladi', where he sang, composed the music, and choreographed the dance sequence that had his well-known disciple Shashwati Sen perform to "Kanha mein tose haari". Later, in the SRK version of "Devdas"( 2002) he had choreographed the piece set in the Kotha of Chandramukhi, and danced on screen by Madhuri Dixit, "Kaahe chhed mohe" . After this ad, he continued to do his choreographies for films but no other ad.

Maharaj ji was 73 that year when the ad was made, and Emani, the Kolkata based FMCG Company that had almost 300 brands in its stable, including the iconic Zandu series, was celebrating its centenary. For a year it signed up Birju Maharaj as its brand ambassador. Birju Maharaj was agreeable to this association as he is a great believer in Ayurveda and used some of the Zandu products, including the balm. Incidentally, it is worth recalling that the balm had already been immortalized by Malaika Arora in the song "Munni Badnaam Hui"-- the major draw item number in the film 'Dabangg.' Incidentally, the unauthorized use of the words 'Zandu Balm' in the song created a legal controversy and ended in an out of court settlement, even though the reference in the song ended up sending the sales of the balm soaring by 35%. And as part of the deal, the out of court settlement, Malaika Arora became the brand ambassador of Zandu Balm!

In this advertisement, Birju Maharaj not just gave his credibility but also lent his voice for the voice over; he danced and sang as well. He was accompanied by his disciples - Saswati Sen, who appeared only in the last dance sequence, while the more important role was enacted by his other disciple, Harshvardhan Singh, a graduate of Kathak Kendra, where Maharaj ji was once the senior Guru. Harshvardhan has a parallel career in the television industry and even now effortlessly negotiates the two worlds of dance and the camera!

The Vodafone Advertisements
While Vodafone ads on the theme of the 'Old couple having a rollicking time' featured the iconic Bharatanatyam Gurus V.P. Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan, recipients of the recently announced Kalidas Samman, these ads did not use their dancing prowess, except only indirectly, in the sense that their abhinaya skills may have been honed by their dance abhinaya!. However, this clutch of ads certainly made them extremely popular and visible. Vodafone's story board choices and high visibility, ensures that its models become very popular. Recipients of the Padma Bhushan (2009), Shanta and Dhananjayan were star students at Kalakshetra before they opened their own school. Legions of students have since then been trained to perfection under their eagle eye. That is the reason their willingness to be part of the Vodafone 4G ads came as a surprise.

This series of ads on the theme, 'Make the most of now,' featured an old couple going to Goa for their 'second honeymoon'. A series of six ads in the campaign capture quotidian scenes from their vacation. We see them as they use the phone's GPS to find their way around (as they attempt to get to the 'Yeh Chahta Hai" Castle, no less), use google to learn to dance at a boat party, stream live a parasailing adventure on Facebook live, and even catch pictures of getting a tattoo! While acting isn't entirely new to them, given the fact that Indian classical dance come from the natya or acting tradition, Shanta admitted that the acting they do when they dance, is more exaggerated.

XXX Soap
XXX Soap
This same quality of exaggeratedness often serves as a good contrast to the quotidian and in the differential the point gets made with greater velocity. In the XXX Soap advertisement, the mudras and movements of the dancer contrast with the quotidian scenes of domesticity going on behind. The company used another dance sequence too in another ad. Incidentally the company has been using some imaginative story boards to say their bit. Anyway, this second dance-oriented advertisement was more in the nature of western dance movements performed by regular people, as if bursting into song and dance, joyously, as if to celebrate the many fine qualities of their detergent. A word of caution here. For obvious reasons getting to the advertisements in google is difficult since as soon as you press XXX the server takes you someplace else!

Lux ad, actress Helen

Detergents remind us of soaps and one of the most iconic soap brands has been Lux. Mostly it has used film actresses, and then in its 75th year it signed on an actor, Shah Rukh Khan. While consciously Lux has always been endorsed by actresses for their thespian avatar - even renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Hema Malini had no reference to her dancing skills in her ad text, which recalled instead her "Dreamgirl" image, in her Lux ad, actress Helen had her dancing skills celebrated, as you can see from the accompanying visual which starts with the words, "Dancing through Helen's heart."

eBay TVC
In 2016, eBay India released a TV Commercial that wanted to do two things - draw attention to its vast array of over 10 crore products, and encourage open mindedness about shopping online. The film opened with a scene of pouring rain, as a young man wearing ghungroos performs classical dance on a terrace by himself, unmindful of the lady who is looking at him. His thoughts are articulated in the voice over: "Log chahe kuch bhi kahe, par mere ghungroo mujh se ye nahin kehte ke woh sirf auraton ke liye banaye hai" (No matter what people say, my anklets don't tell me that they're made only for women). The film has more such sequences of doing whatever the heart says and the commercial ends with the voice over saying, no matter what others say, the 10 crore products on eBay simply say "Jeeyo aur jeene do" (live and let live), before signing off with #ThingsDontJudge. This was a wonderful way of asserting how dance was seen as non-judgemental, accepting and inclusive. Ironical in scenarios where dance and dancers have experienced rejection, neglect and stigma.

Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk Chocolate
Who can forget the winning ad of the Bharatanatyam dance that is about to commence? In the group of three dancers who are scheduled to perform, one gets on to the stage while the other two linger backstage, savouring some well-deserved Dairy Milk Silk chocolate. Savour is exactly what the two young dancers are doing as they roll their eyes, smile and look as if the chocolate is allowing them some true 'Rasaswadan". Then the Hasya Rasa enters as the first girl looks sideways and realises why they haven't joined. Her eyes gesture to them to stop it and join her. The voice over talks about the creamy, silky smoothness of the chocolate, using the words - "Kiss me; Close your eyes and miss me…" And I often wonder whether the first girl does not, for a split second, get tempted to slip out and join this immediate pleasure of the chocolate, or chase the distant Ananda of a well-defined teermanam!

Cadbury also managed to weave in dance with India's big love of cricket in its Dairy Milk ads. These iconic dance moves dancing on the cricket pitch to celebrate her boyfriend's century from the beloved advertisement of the 1990s, had catapulted model Shimona Rashi to fame as the 'Cadbury Girl.' Many may remember that this ad was based on a real life incident that had happened in the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, when a woman rushed on to the field to celebrate Brajesh Patel's half century. This year, the same advertisement of the 1990s was re-imagined. In the more recent version of the Cadbury Dairy Milk advertisement, once again a century was celebrated with the same nostalgic song and movements, but this time it was a woman cricketer who hit the century, while her boyfriend, interestingly a young Sikh man, danced in celebration. You can see the new ad here. A woke twist but our women's cricket team deserves this pivotal positioning, for making spectacular success stories and emerging as powerful role models for the youth.

Fortune Sunlite Oil
Another similar reality storyboarding around dance can be seen in the advertisement promoting Fortune Sunlite Oil. Fortune is a brand owned by the Adanis. Had it been the Ambanis, I would have understood the dance mise-en-scene, since Neeta Ambani has learnt Bharatanatyam for a while. Nevertheless, this Fortune Oil advertisement makes you a participant in the backstage excitement. You can see the advertisement here. The young dancer does an amazing job of polishing off samosas and puris just before going on to the stage, and challenges the wisdom of her teacher, claiming that it is all lite, "very very lite" says the voice over as our young dancer does an impressive jump on stage!

Tanjara Filter Coffee
If dance lovers think this is fun, let's double the pleasure. We do it by bringing on the Tanjara Filter Coffee advertisement that features not one, but two Bharatanatyam dancers. Do catch it. The advertisement stars the American Indian twins - Poonam and Priyanka Shah of Michigan. The tag line says "Double the flavour, Double OK", and fits in perfectly into a story board in which the twins have come to be checked out for marriage by twin boys and their mother. The twins Poonam and Priyanka are famed for their Bfusion work that marries Bharatanatyam, Bollywood and Hip hop. And it is a bit of Bfusion we see in this Tanjara Coffee advertisement as well. Some of you may have also caught them on Color's Reality Dance show "Jhalak Dikhla Ja" in season 9. The girls have chutzpah and it comes through even in their Tanjara Coffee ad. They are popular sensations on Youtube as well and have their own channel.

OLX commercial using the Attami movement
One advertisement that I never cease to enjoy is the OLX commercial that uses the Mundi dance. What can this be? Well you can get to know by watching it. Everyone in the commercial seems to be doing an attami. The heads move side to side - all heads - bald heads, young heads, curler bearing heads, hairy heads, middle aged heads, buyer heads and seller heads! So while there is no dancing, the attami movement is one all dancers learn and perfect. I wonder how long it took all these actors to master it. Or were they dancers? Or maybe they used technology to get the effect!

7 Up (Kathakali)
Here is another advertisement that uses dance in a very much in your face manner, but gets its point across - refreshingly. It is hot and waiting on a street is the lovely model with her bags around her, when she feels a tap on her shoulders. A hand offers her a chilled 7 Up, and as she looks incredibly at this kind person you meet a pacha Kathakali character, in a yellow skirt. And then the most incredible thing happens. The Kathakali dancer breaks into dance and some Michael Jackson moves to a medley of songs from Punjabi, Gujarati, disco and some pure fun, leading into the tagline, "Jab saath ho 7 Up, I feel Up". No other advertisement had started such a debate on authenticity and creativity as this advertisement, on Youtube itself.

7 Up have used even famous stars like Dhanush, Allu Arjun and the late Puneet Rajkumar in their regional advertisements. But interestingly all of them dance their hearts out in unusual story boards that place them in hospitals, railway stations and even crowded traffic intersections. Here is Dhanush at the railway station. To be fair this was an ad seeking talent for the position of '7 Upstarters', that came with a prize money of Rupees One Lac. Here is another one where Dhanush joins the traffic policeman in directing its flow on a busy crossroad. Here is the advertisement for 7 Up in Kannada, featuring the late Puneet Rajkumar in a hospital setting. Given the fact that the story boards were pretty unique, the dance is really a little OTT, which till the abbreviation started standing for the direct streaming over different platforms, just referred to things that seemed a bit excessive!

Colgate toothpaste
Since the last five years, Colgate pastes have been using the metaphor for dance to suggest an energy about freshness. In 2017, they created a series of advertisements featuring actor Allu Arjun. In one Colgate ad, he is woken up from sleep by the sounds of a Bharatanatyam class. A few seconds of brushing his teeth with the brand's Max Fresh paste, has him join the dancers in a semi- B-boy version of the flute wielding Krishna and destroying the decorum of 'paavam' Bharatanatyam! Carrying forward a similar story board, Allu Arjun refreshed from his Max Fresh brushing, descends on to a traditional wedding where the notes of the Nadaswaram resounds, and in a minute the Lavani dancers take over, driven by this inexplicable energy.

From blogger Purba Chakraborty's post I got this poem that explains all!
What is life without some Taazgi Ka Dhamaka?
Now, anybody can dance with Colgate Max Fresh
The cooling crystals teach you
How to groove and give Thumka!

So it seems to be true for over the next few years, dance featured in many of the Colgate Max Fresh ads. The models ranged from film actor Ranveer Singh and Sara Ali Khan. Sara admittedly modelled for the Colgate Visible White brand of toothpaste. These ads were a big step away from the formulae the brand had once followed by having a normal dentist, or someone who was passing off as a normal dentist, endorsing this brand as the best. But in a 2019 ad they actually used a dentist, a UK based expert, frequent on TV shows including 'Good morning Britain' with a popular Youtube channel, Dr. Milad Shadrooh, famous as the singing dentist. In the advertisement he sang the benefits of Colgate Total to the tune of "All is well" from the 2009 film '3 Idiots'! You can catch this winsome and funny ad here. Two things stand out in this ad - the shabdarthak abhinaya and the amazing 'Bhrukuti' work by the extremely talented singing dentist.

Washing Powder Nirma
Nirma girl
Nirma girl
Little Afghan girl arriving in Belgium
Little Afghan girl arriving in Belgium

You may be surprised at the next product I am citing. This is the washing powder Nirma. You can go over all the advertisements for Nirma, which will show you how many ways there are for washing clothes, and that too by ordinary people and glamorous stars, although you may remember that 1980's star Sangeeta Bijlani was associated with it. So where is the dance you may well ask. In answer I direct you to its mascot- the little girl in a dress that flies as she appears to be dancing. Even though it is simple, still the entire jingle can be seen in that one image. The little girl is owner Karsanbhai Patel's daughter Nirmala, from whose name came Nirma. Nirmala dies in an accident, but continued to live as a still in the mascot, and literally became "sab ki pasand". Memories fade. So did little Nirmala's. Till we saw the picture of the little Afghan girl who disembarked from a plane on Belgian soil, while fleeing Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover, and the still drawing moved. She skipped with joy on the tarmac of the Melsbroek airport, which is a military airpost and does not have the thrill of a well-appointed commercial airport. That moment was caught admirably by Reuters photographer Johanna Geron in August and became the image of the day. Admittedly, it is not the same, but it does suggest the same dance in a skip. Little Nirmala morphed into the skipping Afghan girl for me!

I have enjoyed doing this listing. I am sure it is nowhere near comprehensive. I hope someone else will take it further. For myself, I would like you to know that my column in the February 2022 issue will take it into the direction of the debate between authenticity and creativity. Meanwhile I would like to leave you with a question. All these advertisements used dance to sell products and enrich the deep pockets of capitalism. Unfortunately, during the pandemic when the artistes, especially dancers suffered from livelihood challenges, none of these companies came forward to give back. Maybe that is something we need to foreground too in our generic discussions stoked by the pandemic. CSR is not only in response to grand festivities, Utsavs, Melas and Festivals. CSR is most needed for sustainability. Seeking footfalls and grabbing eyeballs cannot be its only justification. If so, then corporate donations to the arts have no social responsibility, no soul, no ethics - only self-aggrandisement.

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 through her NGO, Kri Foundation (estd. 2003), and has extended her academic work to Indian dance in the diaspora.

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