When I first heard that Uday Shankar’s early dance partner Simkie choreographed the famous dream sequence in Awara (Hindi, 1951), I was quite surprised! That song and dance sequence is one of the most iconic and well-known from the “golden era” of Hindi cinema. But the real eye-opener was seeing that Simkie’s choreography is taken straight from the Uday Shankar playbook as evidenced by the dances in his 1948 dance film Kalpana (which we can now watch in full thanks to Pad.ma!). A few sources had mentioned the influence of Kalpana on Awara‘s dream sequence before, but now we can see the evidence for our own eyes. And what an influence; it’s direct and unmistakable!
Awara‘s dream sequence is comprised of three segments filmed in three different spaces which Gayatri Chatterjee in her National Award-winning book Awara sees as representing the “Earth-Hell-Heaven triptych.” “Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni” is the name of the song for the first two segments (earth and hell) though some have listed the second hell segment as a separate song “Mujhko Chahiye Bahar.” “Ghar Aya Mera Pardesi” is the song for the last segment (heaven).
The “Earth” and “Heaven” Segments
In the first and last segments, the dancers’ graceful side-to-side movements, arm postures and trajectories, and hand gestures are clearly directly inspired by Shankar’s choreographies especially Kartikeya and Rasa Leela (click on the links to watch them inKalpana), and these movements are echoed in the “dancing” by lead Nargis as well. The arm movements the dancers are performing at the beginning of the clip below be seen in Amala Shankar’s Manipuri dance, and the spins at 6:24 are also seen identically in Kalpanain a few places.
|Left: Awara Right: Kalpana Could it be any more obvious!
Instead of doing a comparison video, I’ve displayed the dream sequence videos below and linked to or described the inspirations in this post. The first segment runs til 1:07, and the last segment starts at 2:46. Note: The official clip below leaves out the two-minute introduction featuring some imaginative set design and the introduction of the dancers; the whole dream sequence in its entirety can be viewed here.
Isn’t the “South Indian” vibe of Nargis’ dance posing and costume starting at 5:32 interesting! I wish more footage had been included since the Bharatanatyam/Kuchipudi inspiration is obvious and would have added a third “style” of choreography to the dream sequence. The giant Nataraja statue provided the perfect background!
The middle segment in which Raj Kapoor’s character descends into “Hell” dramatically shifts the style of choreography from slow-paced grace to aggressive, forceful movements, but they are still taken straight from Shankar’s creative style and are a testament to his ability to express varied emotions and ideas. The wide half-seated posture, back and forth movements, and finger-spread hand shimmies all have direct parallels in movements seen in Kalpana particularly the Naga tribal dance and Astra Puja/Sword Dance.
While I had shown in my last post that the “finger-spread hand shimmies” as I’m calling them had inspiration from Kathakali dance from southern India, another blogger made a very interesting connection to another likely source of inspiration: Kecak dance from Bali, Indonesia. The similarities are obvious in not only the individual dance movements but also the way the group is spatially arranged. I became convinced of this connection after reading that Uday Shankar had visited Indonesia to observe its indigenous dance forms in 1935. In excerpts from Shankar’s diary about the trip, “Ketchok” is among the dances he notes watching in addition to “kabbiyar, “lagon,” “krish,” and “Wayang Koolit” shadow-puppet play (Abrahams). Intriguingly, Shankar mentions having dinner with Mr. Spiers. I wonder if “Mr. Spiers” is a mispelled reference to “Walter Spies” who supposedly was instrumental in popularizing Kecak dance in the 1930s!
Here is a cinematic view of the Kecak dance in the film Baraka. Shankar’s inspiration is obvious!
The Making and Themes
Awara‘s dream sequence reportedly took three months to shoot and was not formally planned until mid-shooting. The sets were designed by M.R. Achredkar and a chemist was hired to create the “cloud effect” with dry ice. Some sources note the sequence’s ideas were inspired from some Hollywood musicals of the time (the dream sequence in An American in Paris was allegedly one), but Kalpana gives plenty of set design inspiration all on its own with the grandiose objects, flames, and smoke columns. And by the way–there are a few sources, including The Hindu, who incorrectly cite Zohra Segal as the choreographer for the dream sequence!
Thematically, the book Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance gives an interesting perspective on the meaning behind the sequence:
“Integrating narrative and lush spectacle, this scene condenses the themes of the film and prefigures the ending. At the same time, it functions as a metacomment on popular filmmaking with its amalgam of”art” and “kitsch” and marks a transition in narrative modes–from romantic realism to melodrama. Through visual icons and “universal” signifiers, such as a staircase that leads in one direction to an idyllic world represented by a tower set amid fluffy clouds and in another to a hell represented by flames and grotesque statues, the sequence captures in shorthand the social gap that separates the principals and the various conflicts encountered by the hero. Its innovative use of space, perspective, and the movement of bodies visually realizes Awaara’s critique of the existing social order as the hero plaintively cries, “Mujhko yeh narak na chahiye; mujhko phool, mujhko geet, mujhko preet chahiye” [I don't want this hell; I want flowers, I want music, and I want love], even while it relocates this critique in the individual.”
Dancers – The Little Ballet Troupe, and Helen!
I was very surprised to read in Chatterjee’s book that the dancers in the dream sequence were from Shanti Bardhan’s Little Ballet Troupe! Shanti Bardhan was part of Uday Shankar’s Center in Almora for a few years before striking out on his own, performing with the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), and then forming his own Little Ballet Troupe in 1952. Another surprise find about the dream sequence: famous Cabaret film dancer Helen was supposedly among the background dancers in what would be her first screen appearance! Can anyone spot her?
Uday Shankar’s Influence on Film Dance
While it has been thrilling to see the impact Uday Shankar had on one of the most well-known songs in Hindi cinema, his influence was not restricted to Awaraalone. V.A.K Ranga Rao in his article “Dance in Indian Cinema” reveals that Shakar’s influence on 1950s and 60s film dance was “immeasurable.” While Shankar’s only film Kalpana was an unsuccessful flop, his influence on film dance spread through the students and dancers that worked with him during the making ofKalpana and earlier at his novel training Center in Almora. These dancers “received the kind of allround training that was unthought of in [the] Indian dance world” until then and many of them became “independent choreographers” and worked in cinema spreading “the Uday Shankar turn of limb, taste of aesthetics around” not only in choreography but also visual presentation. Among them, Narendra Sharma, Sachin Shankar, Zohra Segal, Guru Dutt, and more all choreographed for films. Researching their work in films seems to have proven Ranga Rao’s assertion true which I’ll be highlighting in future posts. It seems Shankar’s influence on cinema through his trainees is a subject that hasn’t received much attention…making it an ideal research project for yours truly! I’m also happy to be covering Hindi cinema which doesn’t get much exposure on this blog. :)
Abrahams, Ruth Karen. The Life and Art of Uday Shankar. PhD Dissertation.
Bardhan, Gul. Rhythm Incarnate: Tribute to Shanti Bardhan.
Chatterjee, Gayatri. “The Hero’s Fears and Nightmares.” Awara.
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema.
Gopal, Sangita and Sujata Moorti. Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance.
Ranga Rao, V.A.K. “Dance in Indian Cinema.” Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last Twenty-five Years.