Shirin Vajifdar: She had courage to study dance at a difficult time

Shirin studied under the great maestro and went for further training in dance to Madame Menaka’s Nrityalayam dance institution at Khandala.

In my last column, I shared with readers the history of Madame Menaka, the pioneer who placed classical Kathak dance on the world map in the year 1933 and onwards. In this column, I would like to share with you the story of three young dancers from the Parsi community who dared to learn dancing. Jeroo Chavda, niece of Shirin Vajifdar, said: “In those years, it was very difficult to learn dance for young girls from the Parsi community whose parents were from the small town of Valsad. In the early 1930s it was inconceivable for a young girl from the Parsi community to take to classical dancing. There was no parental support. The girls were given free lodging and boarding and school education from a Parsi orphanage. It was inconceivable that with that background they dared to learn dance. Today’s young generation of dancers can never understand that there was stigma to learn dance, which is not the case today”.

Shirin Vajifdar displayed great courage to study dance from Jaipur gharana doyen Sunderprasadji, who had moved to Mumbai, and started teaching Kathak to the Poovaiah Sisters from Coorg, who had settled in Mumbai. Shirin studied under the great maestro and went for further training in dance to Madame Menaka’s Nrityalayam dance institution at Khandala.

Her contemporaries at Nrityalayam were Damayanti Joshi, Shevanti Bhonsale and Vimla. Shevanti later on joined Ram Gopal’s troupe. During those years, from Kolkata, young Manipuri guru Bipinsingh had joined Nrityalayam to teach Manipuri. There was another Kathakali teacher and dancer, Krishnan Kutty, who taught Kathakali. Shirin studied all the three forms and with excellent memory mastered the complicated bols, mnemonics of Manipuri. Shirin used to tell me as an aside that at that time, “The young gurus who had joined Madame Menaka’s Nrityalayam at Khandala wanted to impress her over that they knew a lot of difficult mnemonic syllables and taught us to memorise them. I was the beneficiary and would show off Manipuri bols, which pleased Guru Bipinsingh a lot!”

Madame Menaka had started choreographing dance dramas with the help of Kathak gurus Gauri Shankar and Ramnarayan and Pandit Ramdutta Mishra. She included young dancers in those dance dramas like Menaka Lasyam and Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitram. Madame Menka used Manipuri and Kathakali dance forms for a court dance in celebration of King Agnimitra’s victory over enemies. Shirin was thus exposed to early attempts at creating group works.

She taught dance to her two sisters Khurshid and Roshan and they started performing together as the Vajifdar Sisters. They were often threatened by the Parsi community to disrupt their shows throwing eggs and stones, but Shirin was not afraid and carried on receiving support from the elite section of the Parsi community.

Shirin and her sisters were contemporaries of the Poovaiha Sisters, Sitara Devi, Tara Choudhary, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Shanta Rao, Vyjaynthimala and Ritha Devi and were quite well known. They were often invited to give performances for charitable causes. They gave private tuitions to young girls from their community when dance became acceptable as an art form. As a teacher, Shirin was a strict disciplinarian, recall her students, and among them was the bright dancer Sunita Golwala who later on moved to London. Another student was Jeroo Mulla who also studied under her.

Shirin was married to Dr Mulk Raj Anand, the celebrated author, founder and editor of Marg quarterly magazine. Khurshid was married to renowned painter Shyavax Chavda and Roshan married Dr Hiranmay Ghosh, a chiropractor and later on settled at Kodaikanal. She won a Government of India scholarship and went to study Bharatanatyam under Chokkalingam Pillai in Chennai and won fame as a brilliant Bharatanatyam dancer.

In 1954, Shirin was invited by film director Kishore Sahu to choreograph a dance sequence for his film Mayurpankha, for which Khurshid and Roshan danced for a duet sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle. The music was composed by Shankar and Jaikishan. The film was sent to the Cannes Film Festival and was awarded the Grand Prize.

In 1955, a big delegation of dancers and musicians was sent to China in which Shirin and Guru Krishnan Kutty along with Indrani Rahaman and several other dancers were sent. Shirin used to perform with Krishnan Kutty, the mythological story of Mohini and Bhasmasura, which was quite popular, and for which Mulk Raj Anand had written the script.

In those years, video or YouTube were not known. Therefore, there are no recordings of Shirin and her sisters dancing. Films Division had made one small documentary of Shirin’s Bharatanayam dance which is now lost. Only rare photographs are with Jeroo Chavada, who has kindly lent us for publication. She has studied dance from Shirin and has kept the memories of her alive.

I came to know Shirin by 1957, by that time she had retired from performing. I met Dr Mulk Raj Anand during the same year. Mulk often invited artistes and writers at his 25, Cuff Parade residence. I used to attend the soirees, meeting painters and writers. Mulk encouraged me to write on dance on and suggested me to attend the All India Dance Seminar at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi in April 1958. It was a historic dance conference where Mulk also introduced me to Roshan Vaijfdar, who was to present a paper on nayikas and Gita Govinda. Shirin had joined us and we met Devika Rani and Russian painter Nicholas Roerich’s son Svetoslav Roerich, whose “muse” was Roshan. He had also done a few portraits of Roshan. Shirin and Mulk were very close to Devika Rani and Svetoslav Roerich.

In Mumbai, I often visited Mulk’s residence when I was assigned to write a book on Bharatnatyam for Marg. Shirin was a gentle person and always kept a low profile. She was writing her autobiography and would sometimes read a few paragraphs which were quite moving in terms of how the sisters suffered humiliation when they took to dancing. She would sometimes tell interesting stories about Ram Gopal, who used to stay at Oceana building on Marine Drive. She would recall about him as a most charismatic and handsome dancer with the gift of gab. He would invite the sisters to learn Bharatanatyam from him.

Shirin was invited by the editor Shamlal to write reviews on dance for the Times of India. By then I was writing reviews for the Evening News of India. Shirin and I used to attend many dance performances together. She had a vast range of references, having seen many dancers and dance forms. She kept all her reviews carefully in a scrapbook and advised me to keep a copy of my reviews. She was very meticulous. Her approach was to encourage young dancers and wrote encouragingly about Yamini Krishnamurty, Sonal Mansingh (nee Pakvasa), Kanak Rele (nee Divecha), Protima Bedi, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kum Kum Mohanty, Shobha Naidu and also other dancers from the South. Her approach was of constructive criticism. Dancers still remember her kindness and have in their collection those reviews written by her.

We used to visit Lonavala on weekends, where Mulk had a bungalow. I spent many weekends with them. Shirin would often speak of dancers like Indrani Rahaman who was her favourite and a close friend. She was fond of the Jhaveri Sisters and traditional gurus Mahalimgam Pillai, Govind Raj Pillai and Kalyasndaram Pillai. By temperament she was a happy dancer, having performed and seen the best of times. As a partner of Mulk, she was a gracious hostess. She never asserted her status as his wife or as a dancer.

I used to call upon her after leaving Mumbai for Kolkata as a Professor of dance at Rabindra Bharati University and later in Delhi at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. After Mulk’s passing away, she had moved to a small apartment where Jeroo looked after her. During the past few years, she was not keeping well. I used to tell her to complete her autobiography as it is a valuable document of dance history of her pioneering work. Hopefully Jeroo Chavda would get it published. Shirin will be much missed by her large group of admirers and dancers.

Shirin passed away at the ripe age of 92 in Mumbai. Whenever someone would write on the state of dance criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, the reviews by Shirin would be the most important source of material for such a project.

The writer is an eminent dance historian

Published on Asian Age