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, “In this dance theater piece, Metiabruz, a forgotten corner of a forgetful city, is a metaphor for the habitations of poetry.”
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.
P.S. (10/13): Minai’s blog is back, and the present post delves into a few things mentioned above. The post is a full survey of Film Kathak Choreographies of Birju Maharaj, and it contains several references to books by Pallabi Chakravorty. (The prior post, which marked the blog’s return, was about Birju Maharaj Dancing Kathak In Khayal Gatha.)