Some months ago, I purchased a very interesting book, Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, written by Anna Morcom. It is full of fascinating information, and I recommend it highly. It is basically an academic work, though, and I think there are quite a few places where the writing is a bit too academic for a general audience. On the other hand, there are some extremely well written parts, including her discussion of Pakeezah, which appears within the Introduction. Within this part, I especially appreciate the way she describes and analyzes the progression of the dances.
I have been meaning to quote from that Introduction for a while. (I thought that I had, but maybe only on Facebook, since my searches of my own blog aren’t revealing anything.) I have also wanted to return to posting about Pakeezah in general, because it still stands out as my favorite film from the ’70s and one of my favorites of all time.
And then somewhat more recently, our friend Tom posted superb video clips of all of the main Pakeezah songs. (I say the main songs, because there are also excellent songs within the background music, but they are not recognized by people nearly as much.) I have been informed that there might be even better versions out from him sometime in the future, but I can’t imagine how they could be better, actually.
Now, as many people know, it is the 43rd anniversary of Meena Kumari’s death. There is a lot to remember Meena Kumari for, but I think that when most people think about Meena Kumari on her death anniversary, for many reasons, the first thing that they think about is Pakeezah.
So, putting all these ideas together, I have decided to post Anna Morcom’s descriptions of the scenes and songs and illustrate them with Tom’s videos. I thought it would make for a nice tribute this year, and I hope that others agree.
As Sahib Jan becomes increasingly alienated from and ashamed of her life as a courtesan and moves instead toward “Suhagpur,” her mode of performance becomes increasingly disembodied. Inhin logon ne le liya dupatta mera (“It is those people who have taken my dupatta”), the song she performs before finding the letter, is carefree and flirty and she dances with an innocent abandon.
The next song, Thade rahio oh banke yaar re (“Stay awhile, handsome friend”), is much less light-hearted. In the song, she enacts an imaginary meeting with a lover who is present only in her mind. The song is never finished as a male audience member fires a shot part-way through.
Later, she performs Chalte chalte (“While walking along”) for the client who will take her out in a boat. Although the song is rhythmic and very danceable, she performs largely abhinay, expressive gestures with the upper half of the body while seated on the ground. This could be described as a partial dance and one that is embodied to a lesser degree. Later during the song, she gets up and dances in a curtailed and restrained way, faltering at one point. In contrast to this, two other courtesans dance energetically throughout, highlighting her distance from the scene.
Morcom then writes about half a paragraph on Sahib Jan’s actual meeting with the hero, Salim, and, especially, the emotional changes that take place. It’s too bad that Morcom skips over mentioning two excellent songs in the film, but it seems that she is mainly concerned with discussing the progression of the dances (and this is, after all, a book about dance). So, she moves right into her analysis of the climactic dance:
[S]he confides her feelings to her friend, seemingly resigning herself to her courtesan life in which she is a “living corpse” – body and soul disembodied to the point of a form of death. The sense of death and disembodiment is made complete in the finale, Aaj ham apni duaon ka asar dekhenge, “Today we shall see the outcome of our desires, the meaning of our dreams.” Halfway through the song, she smashes a glass lantern and dances on the broken glass, destroying her dancing feet, and with them her courtesan/performing/defiled body and persona.
Morcom writes quite a bit more about Pakeezah, but I think I will stop here, having finished the particular tribute that I wanted to post. I will probably return to Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance another time, and then, I will review the book a little further, hopefully without excerpting or quoting from it excessively (though I am tempted to do so, as you can see).
P.S. By the way, just a few weeks ago, on March 10, another person in this film actually celebrated a birthday, and she is alive and well (as far as I know), at the age of 66. That is Padma Khanna, Meena Kumari’s dancing double in “Aaj ham apni…” She presently lives in New Jersey, where she runs the Indianica Dance Academy.