Saroj Khan passes away: The innovative choreographer reinvented form to make dance widely accessible
It is perhaps easy to draw great dance out of great dancers like Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi. But Saroj Khan made even the heavy-footed dance with abandon.
"Dance is poetry in motion" is a phrase most of us are familiar with and have heard at some point in life. The majority of us, born with two oblong feet and an inflexible spine, however, can only appreciate the linguistic beauty of that claim. We understand poetry, but we struggle to understand the kinetic beauty of motion and lateral movement. After all, how can we possibly understand the rhythmic abandon of a body while being confined in one that refuses to let go of that stiffness. It requires, therefore, an artist, a painter of motion to convey and communicate that feeling. But an artist does not just convey, they find a way to say the inanimate, the unspoken, through a language they themselves create. Saroj Khan, who died on Friday at 71, did not just choreograph sensuality — something she will be most remembered for — but also eccentricity.
Dance is one of those obscure things that most of us can only consume in awe. To understand, and more importantly, detect its influence, you really ought to go through it, try its impossibly imagined variations. There is a limit to what the human body can achieve, to the way it can manoeuvre, and therefore, there is a cap on the imagination that dance can be garnished with. The trick and challenge therefore, is not to push boundaries of physical limit, but invent within them, a language.
I was born and raised through Bollywood’s era of dance, the era of Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, the era that probably redefined the female form in Hindi cinema, before it was shredded and dragged every which way by global influence. This is not to say that Saroj Khan only reasserted history or repurposed the old. Khan, instead, rewrote the vocabulary of dance. There was a trace of Anarkali from Mughal-E-Azam, her elegance, in the way Khan saw Madhuri, but her version had broken free, unshackled by the weight of ritual. Khan’s was a dance instead, of the emancipated.
While it is Khan’s partnership with Madhuri that will deservedly be remembered and eulogised, to someone like me, who identified more with the arrhythmic, and often queer pelvic thrust, Sridevi was the one to look up to. Madhuri’s 'Ek Do Teen' is of course a classic, for it centres a woman without overly objectifying her, but it was really 'Hawa Hawai,' the oddball Sridevi song from Mr. India that introduced me to Khan’s versatility. 'Hawai Hawai' is an outlier in the pantheon of Indian choreography. It replaced the myth of the female shape and terse elegance with the playfulness of a more innocent, childlike persona. The chimp-like steps, the self-effacing inflexibility of the movement registered with me a new notion of dance. I had always assumed dance required the seriousness of an academic, even to infer the takeaways. It was fascinating but it also felt alienating to people like me. Shammi Kapoor, and his histrionics, were well in the past. Women had up, until 'Hawa Hawai,' only been attached to that orderly, serious idea of dance.
It is perhaps easy to draw great dance out of great dancers like Madhuri and Sridevi, but to get something out of someone as heavy-footed as Sanjay Dutt in 'Tamma Tamma,' is no small accomplishment either. The song illustrates Khan’s ability to redefine the art, slice it open for somebody as lumbersome as Dutt to fit in and enjoy with a certain degree of abandon. 'Tamma Tamma' is probably the first song I attempted some secretive dancing to — only because its pelvic thrust, the off-shoulder heave, all restricted dance from proving elective or elusive. If Dutt could do it, with a modest degree of grace, perhaps so could I. The fact that Khan put Madhuri, the delicate diva she herself had christened, in a faux-leather chest duet with Dutt, was evidence that Khan could not only experiment but also understood the vagaries of an art that most people, through their lifetimes, can only watch from a distance. Dance, as if she wanted to say, ought to be practiced by everyone.
That said, Khan, her rise in cinema, her revision of the female form, placing it left of its previous objectified self is what she will be most remembered by. To someone not as able as Madhuri and Sridevi, like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for example, Khan invented a more inexact manual in 'Barso Re' from Guru. Khan outpaced and outgrew the influence of the choreographer in the industry, so much so that the sorry box-office dud Kalank, was underlined solely, by her reunion with Madhuri.
Filmfare introduced the award for choreography in 1989 to reward Khan, thereby braiding the idea of Bollywood as a precursor to a wider litany of 'song and dance.' We know now, and casually surmise our cinema with its roots in the musical, but only after Khan arrived in our lives, did we begin to understand the physicality of what we were saying, the larger-than-life place that dance held in our lives. Khan made history, but she also pointed to the future, eternally intertwined with the human form, and the many eccentric movements and postures it can assume.
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