One thing I love about exploring the classical Indian singers from the first few decades of the 20th century is that this can also lead to the discovery of some interesting early talkies in which they acted, too. It seems that the crossover between classical singing and acting in the old films was far from uncommon. Begum Akhtar comes to my mind as the most notable such crossover, but there apparently were quite a few others.
One other such singer who also did some film acting was Azambai of Kolhapur. I wish I could say that I knew about Azambai for a long time, but to be honest, I didn’t know about her at all until I looked through my YouTube subscriptions in the first week of August and stumbled upon this captivating khayal (in Raag Bihagra):
The YouTube poster, who (or which) is named ساقی حسن (I do not know how to translate that into English), also wrote a bunch of information about Azambai under the video, but I found some of it a bit difficult to follow, and it mostly consisted of details regarding who trained her and who might have, which pretty much went over my head due to my still-very-limited knowledge of the history of Indian classical music. One thing that did catch my eye, though, was this line:
Owing To Her Immense Fame During Early Days Of Hindi cinema, Over Musical Landscape Of British India, She Gave Voice To & Also Acted For A Few Of The Initial Hindi Flicks . . .
Because, of course, immediately after I read that, I wanted to know what those flicks were! I still don’t know the full answer if there were multiple flicks, but I started to learn about one such movie in the material written by YouTube poster cactus1762 under the next audio clip that I listened to, which was this very pleasing tarana in Raag Gaud Sarang:
I found the information below this clip to be a bit easier to follow than below the prior clip, so I’ll reproduce the whole description here. And, by the way, this information can also be found in a post at the blog Notes and Beats. (It could be that the blogger and the YouTube poster are one and the same person – or else the blogger simply lifted the information from the YouTube post. Unfortunately, that is another mystery that I have yet to solve.)
Azam Bai of Kolhapur (1906-1986) was also known as Azambai Pisal. Very little is known about her but the recordings she left behind testifies that she was a classical vocalist of truly exceptional quality. It is known that she was trained in the Jaipur-Atrauli style of Ustad Alladiya Khan, by one of his sons – either Manjhi Khan or Bhurji Khan during the 1930s. She also starred in a film named Naagaanand (1935) for which Vamanrao Sadolikar composed the music. Azambai of Kolhapur cut at least 15 78 RPM records released by the Odeon Company in 1936-37 – most of which are now only available in the collectors’ archives.
So now I really wanted to find out more about this film labeled here as “Naagaanand” (though I suspected – correctly – that the title did not need to be transliterated with quite so many “a”s). But before I did that, I wanted hear more from her! So I treated myself to another positively splendid piece of music posted by cactus1762 – another khayal, this time in Raag Nand:
And then right after I enjoyed that clip (which had the same exact information below it as the prior one), I went on my search for more information about this film . . . And it did not take me long to discover that this 1935 film called Naganand (which apparently also was spelled sometimes as Nagananda) actually featured a soon-to-be more prominent musical personality as a star – someone, in fact, who would become one of the very best music directors of the Golden Age. I found all this out – and more – via a post about a special screening of the film in Pune that was given on September 9, 2017 by the National Film Archive of India.
At the very top of the NFAI”s description of the film, we are told:
To commemorate the centenary year of renowned music composer C. Ramchandra (1918-1982), a special screening of the Marathi talkie “Naganand” (1935) has been organized on Saturday, 9th September 2017, 6pm at NFAI, Pune. C Ramchandra was the lead actor in this film. “Naganand” was the first talkie he worked on, at age 17.
And in the next paragraph, we get a good idea that the film was not very good – via quotes from an interview with Chitalkar, himself:
C. Ramchandra writes in his autobiography “Majhya Jeevanachi Sargam” (The Tune of My Life), “I have never seen a film featuring myself on the screen. When I called up the theatre where the film premiered, I was told that it has flopped, and that the 10 odd people in the audience had also walked out in the intermission. The theatre cancelled the showing of the second half. It was probably the biggest flop in history!” He said in an interview that since the failure of “Naganand,” he decided to stop pursuing acting and focus on music.
Though, of course, this does not mean that I wouldn’t want to see this film, because, as the NFAI points out (somewhat stating the obvious):
Despite its failure back then, a film such as this nevertheless remains an important part of our film history, and that is good enough reason to not miss this rare opportunity offered by NFAI.
But since I did miss that showing two years ago – and there was no way I could have traveled to Pune, India at that time anyway (nor can I go there now) – I definitely would love to find a copy of the film. That is especially true, given the notice that I saw at the end of this description:
The film will be screened with English subtitles.
Can anyone tell me how I could get a copy of Naganand (1935), starring Chitalkar (aka C. Ramchandra) and Azambai of Kolhapur, with English subtitles? Or is there a chance that anybody has it and can post it on YouTube? If your answer to either of those questions is “Yes,” please let me know right away!
In the meantime, I am going to explore some more of these early-20th-century Indian classical singers, because now I know that there is a lot of potential in such searches for very surprising discoveries in both music and films.
A few years ago, thanks to the efforts of two Facebook and blogging friends, I had the pleasure of receiving a free copy of the book My Name Is GauharJaan! by Vikram Sampath. I received this book from Karen Joan Kohoutek (of the blog October), who sent me an extra copy of it after asking for a suggestion of whom to send it to in a conversation with Suzy AKA Sitaji (who should be familiar to many longtime readers here.) It was great, indeed, to have this thick biography about India’s first recording star. But I must have been very busy or distracted at the time, because I really only skimmed it and probably not cover-to-cover, either. But this past month, I decided to read it again, a few days after learning (on June 26) that people were observing Gauhar Jaan’s birthday. And as I started to read it, I realized that it connected in a lot of ways to a few books – and general subjects – that I had just recently read and blogged about.
For instance, after writing a bit about Wajid Ali Shah (as well as reading and writing about his famous wife), it was very interesting to read that Gauhar Jaan had started on her path to becoming a famous singer by singing (along with her mother) in Wajid Ali Shah’s court in Calcutta. Sampath also took the time to write a very informative chapter about the thumri, the musical form that specifically is connected to both Wajid Ali Shah (whose artistic reign was known for the growth of thumri and, especially, Kathak) and Gauhar Jaan (because it is a form of music that she became very well known for, too).
My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! also contains a good amount of information about the fate of the tawaifs in this era. Sampath writes a lot about the anti-Nautch campaigns that eventually contributed to Gauhar Jaan’s demise, but he also describes how Gauhar Jaan became the first among many tawaifs who transcended the limitations of the tawaif culture (which was due to decline in any event) when she became the first star of India to transfer her talents onto records. (By the way, contrary to what many people say, she was not the first Indian singer to have performances recorded – a fact that becomes evident in the book and which is also very well documented in an article by Surjit Singh. But she was, indeed, India’s first recording star.)
Apparently, in a great way, Gauhar Jaan was a true pioneer. But there was another, far less positive way in which she was also a sort of prototype.
The bad/sad side of Gauhar Jaan’s story looked very familiar to me as I read about it, because it had a lot in common with some other stories that I had read about (and wrote about in other blog posts). That is because, in addition to being a bit of a rag-to-riches story at the beginning of her career, she was even more a riches-to-rags story at the end.
The story of Gauhar Jaan’s decline, impoverishment, and sad demise reminded me a bit of the story of Zarina Begum, a protégé of Begum Akhtar (who actually had, herself, been known to be well influenced by Gauhar Jaan). Since I have written about Zarina twice before in this blog (and also turned those blog posts into an article that was published in the journal The World of Apu), it was natural that Zarina’s story was one of the first that came to my mind. But there was an aspect of Gauhar Jaan’s decline that was more reminiscent of at least one of the artists whom I mentioned in my post Here’s to the Birth or Death Anniversaries of Three Classic Hindi Film Artists Who Certainly Should Not Have Died In Poverty. If you read the comments below that post, you’ll see an astute one by AK (blogger at Songs of Yore) pointing out that at least some fallen Indian film artists contributed to their own demise with their “excesses in lifestyle” (that is, the reckless and ostentatious lifestyles that they indulged in), with “total lack of concern for savings for future” (probably because they never considered that the good days might end). And at that point, I pointed out that the fallen artist in my post who most fit that description was the great pioneering film cabaret dancer, our beloved Cuckoo Moray.
Unfortunately, due to limitations of time, space, etc., I have decided that I cannot get (back) into the specific tales of those later fallen artists here (unless you would like me to take another six weeks to put up a post). But with a little investigation, I’m sure that most readers will be able to find a few such stories. Since I mentioned Cuckoo, I would like to recommend the sad story to be found at Cineplot, and also to look at Wikipedia and other sources. You will, indeed, find some uncommon parallels. Meanwhile, let’s get back to our poor departed Gauhar . . .
While at her peak, Gauhar Jaan became notorious for the lavish way she traveled (very fancy stagecoaches, etc.), her elaborate, mostly paid entourage, and her heaps of highly authentic jewelry, she was overwhelmed with debt by the end of her life, when she died in a “desolate corner” (as Sampath describes it) of a hospital in Mysore after suffering from a fever resulting from an unspecified ailment. Though once surrounded by hordes of admirers, there was no one around to keep her company on her deathbed, and apparently, no one is sure exactly where she was buried, and she might have just been left in an unmarked grave. (Had there been resources set aside for the purpose, her body might have received an appropriate burial in Calcutta.)
And in future years, Sampath tells us, Gauhar Jaan’s legacy was nearly forgotten, as other musical stars – on records and then in films – claimed all the attention of audiences throughout the rest of the 20th century. But as with some of those other fallen stars of the 20th century, there seems to have been some revival of her legacy in the past couple of decades. That’s why Google issued a Gauhar Jaan “Doodle” for her birthday. (Unfortunately, I live in the U.S., where so many of these Google Doodles related to Indian music and films are never posted. Nonetheless, it usually is still pretty easy for me to find out about them and see them.) There have been re-releases of Gauhar Jaan’s work in recent times, and we can even find 114-year-old recordings of her in audio clips on YouTube (such as the great one that I have included below). Obviously, this revival has been somewhat facilitated by new technologies that brought global access to Gauhar Jaan’s recordings so that people like yours truly could hear her voice with the click of a button while sitting in an apartment in 21st Century New York City, USA.
At the end of his biography, Sampath speculates that Gauhar Jaan’s ruined emotional state – due to the decline of her career and her finances – might have been a major contributor to her death. As with some others among that not-small number of stars who sadly followed in Gauhar Jaan’s footsteps via their own decline and descent into obscurity, at the sad end to her tale, we are left thinking, if only she could have known that her reputation would be at least somewhat revived many years later. But there are many things that Gauhar Jaan could never have predicted, including the fact that her voice would be heard via technology that far surpassed the once seemingly miraculous sound recordings in which she had played the part of India’s greatest singing pioneer.
Although I am a little late in commenting here about the tragic loss of Queen Harish, I actually found out about his death several hours before it was mentioned in a number of newspapers and magazines. This is because I receive news on Facebook from the dancer Colleena Shakti, and she sent out a post (which I received in New York City shortly after 2 am on the morning of June 2) saying, “My beautiful dancing sister, incredible one of a kind artist and dear kind hearted friend… has just passed away.” As Colleena Shakti reported and a number of news sites also started to report several hours later, Queen Harish died in a car (SUV) accident that also killed three other musicians. (Actually, Colleeena had said five, but the news reports that I saw later said three other “folk artists” were killed and five other people were injured.)
I have known about Queen Harish for a long time, since before I knew about most of the classic Indian film, music, and dance artists whom I’ve talked about on this blog for the past dozen years. I first saw Queen Harish perform in New York City’s Central Park in 1997, accompanying the Rajasthani folk music Group Musafir. I became a big fan of Musafir and had already a been a fan of a global-techno sort of group that Musafir ended up recording a single with, Transglobal Underground. I did not have the same access to performances by Queen Harish, but the memory of his fabulous dance performance at that Musafir show would pop into my mind now and then for the next decade… And then, finally, I got to see more Queen Harish dances when I started tuning in to YouTube.
Of course, I started tuning in to YouTube at about the same time that I started this blog. And in December of 2007 – when this blog was still in its infancy (and was not yet devoted to Indian films, etc.) – I wrote a post about Gypsies of Rajasthan, in which I started off by talking about my experience of seeing Musafir (whose first album was called “Gypsies of Rajasthan,” too). I posted one clip of Queen Harish, and then I moved on to a group called Banjara who also called themselves “Gypsies of Rajasthan” and I wondered if they might have been a new incarnation of Musafir. But Musafir had actually become a different group, called Maharaja. I found this out in my comments section from none other than Queen Harish. And this positively startled me!
This blog was, indeed, very new, I didn’t expect it to reach many people at all, and I wasn’t sure – and wouldn’t be for months – where the blog was going… Yet, I got a comment from the world-renowned Queen Harish! I have to say it was a moment of pride for me… And then, half a year later, Queen Harish popped up again, in comments to my post On Tour in the U.S.: Queen Harish! Here, he entered into a conversation that I was having with Sitaji of Bollywood Food Club, in which Sitaji wondered whether Queen Harish had appeared in a scene from the 2002 film Shakhti. (Sitaji also knew all about Queen Harish; she had mentioned him in a post the month before.) And sure enough, who do you think popped into the blog to answer the question himself?
Queen Harish confirmed his presence in the film and signed “from LA with love”! Looking back at that comments section, I don’t know why I did not respond, as this was the last comment in the thread. Maybe I missed it that time? In any event, I wondered after that if Queen Harish might be visiting again now and then.
But,enough of my glorying in my encounter with the Queen. Here are a few posts of his fine dances:
Queen Harish going to his roots, performing a Kalbelia dance on the Queen Harish Show:
Queen Harish doing his famous dance to “Dil Cheez Kya Hai”:
Queen Harish dancing with fire!
And here is Queen Harish dancing with Colleena Shakti:
I have seen a number of moving and informative articles about Queen Harish during the past week, the best of them being – in my opinion – the one that appeared in The Hindu. One thing this article told me that I did not know – which you might say connects this post to a number of other recent ones on this blog – is that William Dalrymple is a Queen Harish fan too. The article even shows a picture of William Dalrymple standing with Queen Harish, below these two paragraphs:
“He was an enhancer of life; investing his heart and soul into every move,” says writer and historian William Dalrymple, who loved watching Queen Harish perform. “My wife, my daughter, we all loved him,” he adds.
Dalrymple first saw Queen Harish at the Jaipur Virasat Festival in 2004. “A few months ago, he was in Delhi to perform at a wedding, which I happened to attend. He completely owned the stage and showcased the Rajasthani folk arts in a unique way.”
And I would have to agree with the line about Queen Harish being unique. There isn’t going to be another dancer like him! We’re going to miss you, Queen Harish.
[Looking at a novel, a few articles and a video, and linking back to a favorite old film review.]
Unexpectedly, in the past month, I ended up treating myself to a crash course in the role of courtesans (aka tawaifs) in the Indian rebellion of 1857.
If you saw my last post and you know a little about Wajid Ali Shah, it probably would not be difficult to figure out how I happened upon this subject. Begum Hazrat Mahal was a wife of Wajid Ali Shah, and she got to that position by being a courtesan. Earlier in her life, when she was just a little orphaned girl named Muhammadi Khanum, an aunt who was supposed to take care of her sold her to some sort of courtesan agent instead. Muhammadi was eventually sent to audition at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, and at some point, at about the age of 14, she overwhelmed everyone with her talents in writing and reciting poetry. And then, soon enough, she was Begum Hazrat Mahal, the second wife of the King of Awadh.
Unfortunately, in 1856, the British chose to annex Awadh, exiling Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was then known), probably in the neighborhood of Metiabruz. (Of course, there was some mention of that that in my last post as well.) There, he apparently was able to build up a mini-Lucknow and continue his pursuit of arts, Kathak, and all such good things. He had at first protested his exile and had sent his mother and some other family members to England to try to persuade Queen Victoria to change these circumstances (which never happened because Victoria never even spoke to them). After that, though, it seemed that he had settled into his circumstances fairly peacefully. He had some unpleasant stays in prison at some point – at least partly because of what his wife Hazrat Mahal was doing at home – but he never became involved in any active battles with the British, and it was probably just as well as far as he was concerned.
Hazrat Mahal did not go with him in his exile, and her fate and inclinations turned out to be very different. Her son, Birjis Qadr, was the apparent heir to the throne at home, but he was only eleven years old, so she was chosen to watch over him for now, officially as the Queen Mother. What she actually became was the Queen, and a warrior queen at that. She led a fierce fight against the British for over a year, overcoming many setbacks (until the last, that is) and defending against many onslaughts.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was not remembered as well as she should have been, but there are a number of good documents about her floating around on the Internet, etc. The first thing that I read about her, though, was a historic novel, In the City of Gold and Silver, which I found three weeks ago on the shelves of the New York Public Library.
The novel that I picked up is actually an English translation of a French novel written by a French war correspondent-turned-novelist named Kenize Mourad. (Reading a little further about her, I see that this author is someone of both Turkish and Indian ancestry whose journalism was focused on the Middle East. She also had some hidden royal heritage of her own, which she wrote about in an autobiographical novel, Regards from the Dead Princess. Maybe that will be another a story worth exploring, at another time.)
While reading In the City of Gold and Silver, I started to think a little about the nature of historic novels in general. Close to a year ago, I reviewed William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (along with his book White Mughals, which I actually liked a bit more). After I posted that review, I got into an interesting conversation with someone off-blog that included some discussion about whether Dalrymple might have fabricated some of his history. But to me, the events in his book seemed so meticulously documented, that if he invented anything, it had to have been far outweighed by all the facts that he related that were backed up with notes, etc. Of course, if this were a historical novel, that question might not have even arisen as a concern. If somebody appears in the novel whom no one has ever heard of, or if a relationship is described that no one knew existed, it doesn’t matter whether we ever find facts to back these things up, because this is a work of fiction anyway. (Right?)
As I understand it, there is no historical evidence for one of the main elements in Ms. Mourad’s novel, the romance between Hazrat Mahal and a certain “Hindu raja” referred to as Jai Lal. The parts of this novel that deal with the romance are also the most highly dramatic, and they sometimes made me feel as though I was reading…well, a romance novel. At a lot of other times, though, I felt as though I was reading something very similar to Dalrymple’s book; that is, a long chronicle of a war, replete with a long list of atrocities committed by the both the British and the Sepoys (and other rebels too). Dalrymple goes into the atrocities for longer and in more detail, but Mourad is pretty good at this stuff also, which is not surprising – after all, she was once a war correspondent.
It is a bit difficult to label In the City of Gold and Silver. Even we accept that it is fiction and not just slightly embellished history, what kind of fiction is this really? I think a review that I found in The Hindu sums it up clearly with the statement, “Mourad straddles multiple genres.” The author of this article, Suneetha Balakrishnan, makes a few other good points about the novel, too. One is that it’s strange for Mourad to have written the novel in the perspective that she did – which was third-person and present tense. As Balakrishnan points out, this is a style of writing that, at least sometimes, “limits engagement.” And it’s probably because of this lack of engagement in the narrative that I did find myself drifting sometimes, wondering if I would ever finish this book. But at the end of the 400 pages, I realized that it had been pretty moving overall. Of course, there’s a lot of tragedy near the end, and most of the people are killed. What else would we expect from a novel about the rebellion of 1857? Hazrat Mahal was not killed but was allowed to spend some time in exile in Nepal. Unfortunately, she did end up leading a very confined and heartbreaking sort of existence and died at a much younger age than the exiled kings. Strangely, though, the novel gets that age wrong, saying she died at the age of 48. I saw several other documents that said that she was born in 1820 and died in 1879, so she was 58 or 59. How could the author and her publishers have let such a big error through? It’s a bit distracting. Nonetheless, this and other minor faults notwithstanding, I do think this was a worthwhile read overall, and I’m glad that I pushed myself to finish it.
Of course, sometimes you can be up for getting information from a complicated 400-page novel and sometimes you’d prefer something shorter and more direct. It’s with that in mind that I’d also like to recommend a nice video that I found on YouTube, from a source called CIC DU (which apparently stands for the Cluster Innovation Center at the University of Delhi). It’s one of five videos that they made about 1857 (and maybe I will get to the others sometime). It’s just 9:57 long, yet it sums up the basic points about Begum Hazrat Mahal in a good way (via a pretty good narrator) and is moving in its own way as well as informative.
One curious thing that I found after learning all about Begum Hazrat Mahal is that she was far from the only former courtesan who ended up being an 1857 freedom fighter. Via a nice coincidence in timing, I found an article about this subject just as I was finishing In the City of Gold and Silver. The article, posted at Scroll.in, is: Tawaifs: The unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle. The 1857 rebellion is far from the article’s only focus, since it discusses the role of courtesans right up to 1947. (For instance, it delves into an interesting exchange in the early 20th century between Gandhi and the great singer Gauhar Jaan.) But there is a part near the beginning of the article where we are introduced to a couple of tawaif rebels from 1857 in addition to Hazrat Mahal.
One of the two relatively lesser-known rebel courtesans that the article mentions is Azeezunbai, a resident of Kanpur (then known as Cawnpore, in the state of Uttar Pradesh). She was frequently spotted dressed in men’s clothes, packing pistols, and riding with the Sepoys. The other is Hussaini, who was speculated to have participated in an infamous massacre of captive British women and children (the Bibighar Massacre), which also took place in Kanpur. Curiously, Hussaini did not even have political status; she was speculated to be “a courtesan lower in the hierarchy of tawaifs.”
Ms. Singh does provide some interesting facts and speculation regarding Azzezunbai (or Azizun, as she writes her name here). For instance, she points out that this tawaif had left the far more central town of Lucknow in order to live in Kanpur. Speculating about the reason for that, she cites the famous novel Umrao Jaan Ada, by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (which many of us know first as a famous Bollywood film), in which the title character talks about being able to earn more money and be more independent in Kanpur. Singh guesses that Azizun may have been driven to move to Kanpur out of the same “passion for independence” that inspired her involvement in the 1857 rebellion. This seems like a lot of speculation, but it does make some sense.
The most interesting part of this article, though, is the part that alludes to all the courtesan freedom fighters that it hasn’t named. I was taken aback when I read the claim that “There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of women like Azizun in the Rebellion, but most of these seem to have gone unrecorded.”
Wow, hundreds?! This looks like a subject worth returning to sometime. For now, though, I’ll just savor my newly found knowledge about the three above.
P.S. Before this past month, the only female freedom fighter from 1857 whom I knew about was Laskhmibai aka the Rani of Jhansi or Jhansi Ki Rani. I greatly enjoyed the Sohrab Modi film Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), starring the director’s wife, Mehtab. I wrote a review of that film in June of 2014, and it remains one of my favorite posts. More recently (at the beginning of the present year), a new film about the same subject came out, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. I was curious about this one at first, but I saw soon enough, from quite a few writeups, that nobody who saw it thought it was very good. So, I did not feel compelled to see it right away, though maybe someday I will.
The Rani of Jhansi was not a courtesan, but like Hazrat Mahal, she was a warrior queen of 1857, and the far better-known one as well. So naturally, as I have seen so far, when people write about Hazrat Mahal, they mention the Rani of Jhansi. The Rani of Jhansi does get mentioned in Kenize Mourad’s novel. She does not exactly make an appearance, but at one point, we learn that Hazrat Mahal is very disturbed by the Rani’s death because they had been corresponding and Hazrat Mahal had identified with her a lot. We also are provided the contents of a letter that the Rani of Jhansi wrote to Hazrat Mahal shortly before her death, encouraging Hazrat Mahal to keep fighting and never give up. (By the way, I don’t know if we can know for certain whether such a letter was ever really written, but that’s all right because this is a work of fiction. Right?)
In her review for The Hindu, Suneetha Balakrishnan compares In the City of Gold and Silver to a relatively recent novel about the Rani of Jhansi, Rani by Jaishree Misra. Balakarishnan claims that Misra’s Rani contains the kind of “engagement” for the reader that she found lacking in Mourad’s novel. After reading her recommendation, I am going to have to find this book as well and maybe post about it here someday too.
About eight and a half years ago, I wrote a post containing two film songs with the name “Kate Na Kate” (or “Katay Na Katay”), one of which happened to be a scene starring Padmini and Raj Kapoor, cut out of the film Mera Naam Joker. (It was not in my DVD of the film, at any rate, and I have been told it was one of the scenes cut out because the film was too long.) In comments to the post, an old blogging friend, Harvey, speculated that in this scene, Raj Kapoor was imitating Bahadur Shah Zafar, whom Harvey said was also portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s film Shatranj Ke Khilari (aka The Chess Players). Back at that time, I did not follow up the comments with research about Bahadur Shah Zafar, and I was not familiar with Shatranj Ke Khilari. I let the comments section drift in other directions, and it is only during the past few days (yes, eight and a half years later) that I realized that the figure whom Harvey should have cited for both Raj Kapoor’s performance and the Satyajit Ray film was Wajid Ali Shah – not the last Mughal emperor, but the last Nawab of Awadh.
In this scene, it makes perfect sense for Raj Kapoor to be imitating Wajid Ali Shah while Padmini does a Kathak-influenced mujra because Wajid Ali Shah is known for his influence on Kathak. Not only was he a major patron of the dance, but he also choreographed Kathak dances and composed for them and is credited with doing a great deal to help create the famous Kathak dances that came out of Lucknow (which was one of the capitals of Awadh).
I have never watched Shatranj Ke Khilari (so far), but I am quite familiar with the beautiful dance performed in this film by Saswati Sen and sung by her mentor, the great Kathak guru Birju Maharaj. In this scene, you can also see the actor Amjad Khan playing Wajid Ali Shah (sitting and watching the dance, wearing a big jeweled and feathered hat – which I assume was his crown).
And right now, 42 years later, I am happy to say that Saswati Sen and Birju Maharaj are both still active in their own ways. During the weekend that I am writing this post, they are making appearances at the New York Kathak Festival. Their performances are scheduled for Sunday, but they were already being introduced on Friday – with a great amount of reverence (especially for Birju Maharaj). I am not going to the Kathak concert on Sunday, but I am glad I saw the one on Friday, where several excellent dances were performed. (Much as I love Kathak in films, it is sometimes particularly special to see it live.)
The last dance in the lineup on Friday also contained references to Wajid Ali Shah. This dance was performed by the Courtyard Dancers, a dance group out of the Philadelphia area (which now has branches in Pittsburgh and Kolkata too). The title of the dance is “Find Metiabruz,” a reference to the neighborhood in Kolkata where Wajid Ali Shah was exiled by the British. Quoting from the description in the program guide (which also appears on YouTube under the video that I’ve linked to below), “In this dance theater piece, Metiabruz, a forgotten corner of a forgetful city, is a metaphor for the habitations of poetry.”
(This is a clip of a performance of the dance given at the Painted Bride Arts Center for the Facing East festival in Philadelphia in 2017. If a video comes out from the New York Kathak festival, I will post that here instead.)
This dance is very interesting conceptually and a pleasure to watch as well. And by the way, it was because of “Find Metiabruz” that I started thinking of Wajid Ali Shah in the first place (and returned to the film scenes mentioned above). The dance was choreographed by the founder and lead dancer of the Courtyard Dancers, Pallabi Chakravorty.
I will probably write more about the New York Kathak festival and Pallabi Chakravorty sometime soon. I have had some nice conversations with Pallabi, because she is a Facebook friend. She is also Facebook friends with Cassidy, aka Minai, whose blog Cinema Nritya (often referred to here, as you may know) got a mention in Pallabi’s book This Is How We Dance Now! Performance in the Age of Bollywood and Reality Shows. That was in Chapter 3, which covered the history of dance in cinema. I have read some of that book (especially Chapter 3) as well as a couple of chapters from her book Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity In India (which I will continue as soon as I get back to the reference room of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
Since I have mentioned Minai’s blog, let me add that it was sad to see in her last post that the blog is on “indefinite hiatus.” I regret that I have not posted in my own blog for two months, and sometimes it seems as though it is grinding down to “indefinite hiatus” too. But maybe it will pick up a little now that I have been inspired by a few things.
Earlier this month, I thought of writing another birthday post for a certain great cabaret dancer who, though much revered among my blogging and YouTube friends, actually met a terrible decline and died poor. A few days later, I found out it was the death anniversary of a fine actress from ’40s Hindi films (and some nice ’50s Pakistani ones) who died very poor. During this time, I also was busy combining and revising a couple of old posts about the ghazal singer Zarina Begum, whose illness and poverty became the subject of several articles and documentaries a few years ago. (I worked on those posts to turn them into an article that is going to appear next month in an online film journal The World of Apu. I will put the link in place when the issue comes out. :) )* So, I became focused on this sad and familiar tale (familiar especially with regard to the Hindi film and music industries) commonly known as “riches to rags.” I thought of writing a post chronicling five or ten such examples, but I found that there are quite a few articles or posts online that have already done this. (For example, from within just the past month, I found a list on a site called Top Yaps entitled Ten Bollywood Celebrities Who Died Penniless and Forgotten. And some of this looks familiar, so the article may have appeared in other places as well.) So, I decided to keep my focus solely on the artists whom I was remembering at the moment – Cuckoo and Meena Shorey – and I’ve added one more, who is known to have died in the early part of the year (though the exact date is unknown), the great singer Rajkumari. Cuckoo tends to make it to everyone’s list (including that Top Yaps one), but the other two not so much – though they deserve to be remembered just as much as anyone.
In the past, I’ve pondered the awfulness of a social system that would allow the most unlikely people – who contributed to so many people’s joy at some time in the past – to die in isolation and poverty. The poverty part, especially, is something that does not have to be. (Isolation is another matter. Sometimes people choose it, and given my own proclivities, I can understand why.) But I will keep my social preachings out of the post this time and let these sad stories speak for themselves. Suffice to say, all three of these artists from classic Hindi and Urdu cinema should have met much better ends than they did. (And actually, just about everyone else deserves a better end as well.) And to illustrate how great they were, I am also supplying a couple of clips for each. (Though, of course, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen their greatness illustrated here before.)
I’ve written Cuckoo birthday posts on February 5 (or near then) several times in the recent past. As I’ve been saying since I heard that this was her birthday (back in 2011), I’ve been happy to act on that information, even though I never was able to confirm this date widely. There are a few things about Cuckoo that are not as well known as they should have been. Maybe, partly, this is because she also seems to have spent some time in obscurity (though greatly appreciated by some of us further down the road). If there is any story of decline that is more incredible than all the others, Cuckoo owns it. And speaking of owning, how is it that someone who once owned so much ended up with nothing? When Cuckoo died of cancer in 1981, at the age of 52, she was completely broke; word has it that she could barely afford painkillers.(For one good summary of her grim ending, see the article in Cineplot, The Tragic Ending of Cuckoo More – Helen Remembers Cuckoo.)
2. Meena Shorey
Meena Shorey died on February 9, 1989 (as I was reminded via a Facebook post from Bollywood Direct). As I was saying, she still seems to have been forgotten by too many people (including those who put together lists of Hindi film actors who died forgotten and poor). How could anyone have forgotten the Lara Lappa Girl? Well, it seems that people remembered the song (and certainly the singer, Lata Mangeshkar) but not the actress, especially not after she moved to Pakistan and made an ultimately failed attempt to revive her film career there. (Though she actually did some very nice performances in Pakistani films too – as you will see in one of the clips below.) Fortunately, a few of the people whom I know through blogs and YouTube know all about her and are very fond of her, as am I. But she may not have thought that she would be remembered by anyone when she left this world 30 years ago.
Per an article by Karan Bali in Upperstall from a few years ago:
Meena lived the last few years of her life in abject poverty in Pakistan. She had no savings and was reduced to living in a couple of rooms in Lahore’s Mohni Road. There was no one to look after her and she subsisted on a small stipend paid to her by the Pakistan Arts Council and sometimes the Rotary Club. It is said she compared herself to a dried up tree in a grove full of green young saplings that everyone was out to destroy and burn.
Meena Shorey died lonely and forgotten in 1989. Her burial was arranged with charity money and few came to attend her funeral.
3. Rajkumari Dubey
When I pondered this general subject, my mind and heart turned to Rajkumari, who, according to a few sources, died toward the beginning of the year 2000. Since nobody seems to know the exact date, let’s consider the middle of February as a time that fits into that description well enough – because I wanted an excuse to commemorate Rajkumari anyway. I love Rajkumari’s playback singing in quite a few films made during the 1940s and early ’50s. Ironically, I think her best songs might be the ones that she sang in Mahal, one of the films in 1949 that made a superstar out of Lata Mangeshkar, the singer whose overwhelming takeover of playback singing in the Hindi film industry was probably a major contributor to Rajkumari’s decline. (Curiously, also, Rajkumari did playback in one fine song for the same actress whom Lata sang for exclusively – that is, Madhubala – though she sang two in that film for Vijayalaxmi and one for Neelam, too.)
Rajkumari dropped out as a featured singer in Hindi films for almost 20 years, from the early 1950s until Naushad found her doing obscure chorus singing at the beginning of the ’70s and asked her to sing background thumris in Pakeezah. In that film, her performance of the song “Najariya Ki Mari” was simply breathtaking. Rajkumari did some more singing in the industry after that up until the late ’70s, but this was far from enough to guarantee her any financial well-being, and so she died in poverty.
By the way, the aforementioned Top Yaps article included Meena Kumari in the list of stars who died “penniless and forgotten.” But I don’t think Meena Kumari really belongs there. She may have reached a condition of unexpected poverty (not to mention misery) and she did not have the chance to see how much her legend would grow after Pakeezah came out. But I can’t imagine that she was ever all that forgotten, and if she did, indeed, reach a state of poverty, it certainly wouldn’t have lasted if only she’d survived. (If anyone feels very differently about that, let me know!) But the woman who sang such beautiful music in that same movie – that is, Rajkumari – had undoubtedly been poor for a long time and had been much more forgotten, and she deserved so much more than what she had at the end! Let the moral of this story be that this is not a just world (a thought that I may have suggested in this blog at some time or other before).
*Note (about a month later): The article on Zarina Begum in The World of Apu (which I had combined and revised from two blog posts) can be found here.
Over the past several months, I have been returning a lot to a CD that I made some years ago of a downloaded copy of the soundtrack to Shehnai (1947). I do not remember exactly where I downloaded this from – I might actually have brought in songs from different sources and put them together. But I am glad I downloaded this, because it has become one of my all-time favorite soundtracks as well as one of the CDs/MP3s that I listen to the most.
The Shehnai soundtrack has a lot of great songs that caught my attention when I first listened to it. These include “Hame Kya Pata Tha, Maar Katari Mar Jaana,” which contains one of my favorite vocal performances by Amirbai Karnataki, and the very famous “Aana Meri Jaan Meri Jaan Sunday Ke Sunday,” which is known for its then-pioneering fusion of Indian music with western music (and the jazzy parts in this one are fantastic).
The song in this film that actually hooked me in most during my more recent listens is “Chhuk Chhuk Chhaiya Chhaiya, Sone Ki Machhariya.” The parts in which “Chhuk Chhuk Chhaiya” are repeated over and over completely got stuck in my head (yes, it became an ear worm!). The singers in this number include two whom I have not heard so much about, Mohan Tara and Binapani Mukherjee, as well as the more recognizable Meena Kapoor. Together, they are quite charming, and the picturization is at least as charming. In fact, it stands out in my mind because, as some people out there know, I have been something of a Rehana fan for a few years, and here, as in a few other scenes from Shehnai, she looks positively adorable.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find good-quality clips from Shehnai, which is too bad, because several of these classic song sequences are very memorable visually as well. (In addition to containing some of the best appearances of Rehana, they also contain great scenes with Dulari and some very special appearances of Mumtaz Ali. And by the way, the director was P.L. Santoshi.) I also have never been able to find a truly watchable version of the entire film. I have seen one version posted to YouTube, but the video quality isn’t very good and, anyway, to be truly watchable as a film for me, it would need English subtitles – and I will be very surprised if I ever find this film with English subtitles! Nonetheless, I continue to search around now and then to see if I can find better Shehnai videos, and that is how I found this very interesting video about the Poisar River, in the Kandivali neighborhood (or Kandivli, as it is spelled in the video), in Bombay/Mumbai.
The main message that I got from this video is that, no matter how badly preserved some of these old films might be, some of the environments in which they were made have deteriorated even more. At the end, we are given ample visual evidence (of pollution and decline) to support the caption on the screen that declares:
Filmed in 1947, the film Shehnai mirrors a handsome past of a river that once was. The clean, fragrant, and sweet waters have long since lost their spirit. Today, the Kandivli ‘nullah’ bears an ominous look.
And perhaps this can also be taken as an ominous message about what has happened to the environment in general.
This video was unique among the ones that I usually find centered around old film songs. I did not expect it to bear that message at the end. And I confess, after watching this video, I am going to be more conscious about the environment in my favorite vintage film scenes, wondering more not only about what river or forest or street I’m looking at, but what might have happened to it in the 60, 70, etc., years since.
The video credits Amrit Gangar for “concept and realization,” but it also grants “Grateful Acknowledgment” to a few other people, including Maxie Rodrigues and Joe Fernandes, who are also mentioned and quoted in the description below it. (The video was posted by an apparent relation to one of those people, Elton Rodrigues.) I am unclear about what all of those mentioned people did, but I would like to thank them all for contributing to this moving and interesting little documentary – which, by the way, also contains a clip of the song sequence that is as good as any on YouTube (meaning, of course, that I am still looking to find one that is in better shape).
P.S. I should note that this video is not completely current. It was posted in 2012, and according to a caption in the video, the latest scenes of the Poisar River (the ones in which it looked “ominous”) were filmed in 2007. So, I looked for a more current document showing this river and I found one from within the past six months. Unfortunately, as I suspected, this article from the Hindustan Times reveals that it now looks even worse.
If you would like to contact me, e-mail to chardsinger [at] yahoo.com. I also have a Facebook timeline, where I have been spending too much time. (But it is only partially like this blog in terms of subject matter.) Anyway, especially if you know me somewhat, and you are on Facebook, you might want to connect there. Send an e-mail so that we can talk more about it and maybe exchange URLs to "friend."