Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women, a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

Through her latest book, Usha Iyer provides an in-depth and discursive study of the history of the labour of producing on-screen dance — from the 1930s to the 1990s — and how over the years it has produced unique constructions of gender, sexuality, stardom and spectacle in and around the realm of Hindi cinema.

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya January 02, 2021 09:50:56 IST
Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women, a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

Cover of Dancing Women, featuring a still from Guide (Vijay Anand, 1965)

Every year the Hindi film industry churns out at least a dozen dance-based songs, most commonly known as "item numbers", which then go on to become dance anthems for the year, and are played at clubs, parties, marriages, festivals. While the creative, cultural and commercial aspects of the said music numbers have had several changes over the years, the fact that Indian audiences have a strong association with dance in cinema remains intact. In a way, both dance and cinema in South Asia exist in a symbiotic relationship, and for the longest time, it has been through women's bodies that we have witnessed the various manifestations of the said relationship. From Vyjayanthimala and Helen in the 1950s to Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit in the 1990s, the dancing stars have had a strong influence on the material and cultural production of Hindi films.

Usha Iyer, assistant professor of film and media studies at Stanford University's art and art history department, through her latest book, Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema, provides an in-depth and discursive study of the history of the labour of producing on-screen dance — from the 1930s to the 1990s — and how over the years it has produced unique constructions of gender, sexuality, stardom and spectacle in and around the realm of Hindi cinema.

Iyer spoke to Firstpost in an email interaction where she talked about how her book Dancing Women came into being; the histories and theories associated with Hindi film dance, and how they shaped both cinema and cinema production in Bombay. Edited excerpts below:


When and how did you come about with this idea of working on a book on Indian film industry's dancing women? What or rather who were your major inspirations?

I had always loved Hindi film song-and-dance sequences, growing up on a steady diet of Chayageet and Chitrahaar in the 1980s and a large collection of cassette tapes and records zealously compiled and curated by family members (who would have pitched battles on Saigal vs Pankaj Mullick, Geeta Dutt vs Lata Mangeshkar etc). But it wasn’t until I was doing my PhD in Film Studies that I considered writing about these cinematic “attractions.” While most people associate popular Indian cinema and now Bollywood with big-budget song-and-dance spectacles, there is little scholarship on dance in Indian cinema or on film dance more generally. There is a lot of excellent work on music in popular Indian film, but I wanted to consider the less-examined impact of dance not just on the Hindi film narrative but on questions of labour, training, and expertise, which in turn would shine a light on the various bodies that work to produce the final spectacle of Hindi film dance.

I wasn’t interested in mapping film dance along questions of taste, that is, in producing an account of the “great dancers” of Hindi cinema (though some of the celebrated ones like Helen, Vyjayanthimala, and Madhuri Dixit do play major roles in the book). Rather, the aim was to understand how dancer-actresses and other film-dance workers participated in and produced major shifts in the film industry, how on-screen dance reflected and propelled social changes in the visibility of women in the public sphere, and the relationship between dance and film technology. One of my major driving areas of focus was the pleasure we experience in watching dance numbers (why they make our hair stand on end, our fingers snap, our toes tap), and equally, the joy and pride of performers and other film personnel in their work. This led to an examination of collaborative experimentation and creativity, which is often erased when we tell a history of cinema only through particular directors and stars.

Because dance is so centrally an embodied knowledge, I took up dance training for the first time ever, learning Odissi with Guru Rashmi Ranjan Jena at the Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi. Only through the lived experience of sharply aching legs, and recognising the hours of practice required to capture the nuance of a mudra (gesture), or the years of training it would take to perfect a glance or a neck movement, did I come to appreciate that issues of training, rehearsal, and virtuosity would be central to my examination of the legacies of dancing women.

Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

(Right) Usha Iyer and the cover of her latest book Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema.

A lot of your research is based around the time when documentation of the off-screen dynamics in a film set was rather too sparse. Could you share with us your entire process of research, the timelines of this project and how did you accumulate all the information?

This project started nearly nine years ago when I began research for my PhD dissertation. I turned to a variety of sources over the years to piece together these “corporeal” histories of Hindi cinema’s dancing women. I looked at memoirs and autobiographies of Sadhona Bose, Modhu Bose, Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, Helen, journalistic reports and reviews (including articles authored by dancing women like Azurie), song booklets at the National Film Archives of India and at the British Library’s Endangered Archives, films and TV shows (like The Saroj Khan Story, Baaje Payal etc), Doordarshan and Sangeet Natak Akademi archives, among others.

I interviewed Waheeda Rehman and Madhuri Dixit in person, which was very illuminating as our stars are rarely asked questions about how much they trained and rehearsed for a particular hit song, or the specifics of their collaboration with cinematographers, choreographers, costume and set designers, music composers etc. They were delighted to be asked about their work rather than the routine questions about rumoured liaisons and the like. Their faces lit up as they remembered especially complex dance moves and as they recounted the extensive labour of everyone on a film set engaged in producing a dance number.

Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

(Left) Azurie in the song booklet for Bhen ka Prem (JK Nanda, 1935) | (Right) Song booklet of Kumkum the Dancer (Modhu Bose, 1940)

In the book, you coin this phrase - 'choreomusicking body' - where you talk about how an on-screen dancing body is a culmination of many bodies from choreographers, playback singers, musicians, directors, cinematographers, editors, and set and costume designers. Would you want to elaborate on this and maybe explain this with some examples?

Researching dance numbers for years made it evident that it isn’t just the talent of the on-screen dancer/s and or the music that makes them so scintillating, but that many bodies trained in many aspects of filmmaking together produce the on-screen performing body. I describe this as a multi-bodied choreomusicking body that draws our attention not only to the on-screen performers’ gestures, but also to off-screen music production, art direction, costume, makeup, and other industry practices. Thus, the choreomusicking body may be composed of the conjoining of the playback singer’s voice, the on-screen performers’ moves (including those of the “background” dancers), the choreography team, the music director’s composition, the often-nameless musicians who produce the instrumental soundtrack for the number, the carpenters and painters who construct the set for the dance number, among many others. Suddenly then, when we watch a song-and-dance sequence, we experience the approximately 3-6 minutes of it on screen but also become attuned to recognising the process behind it simultaneously. This way, we see and experience as well the weeks and months that sequence took to rehearse, for the music to be composed and recorded, and even further, we see the years of training each of those professionals went through.

When we move further back, what also comes into view are the knowledges, the caste practices, and labour histories of professions that deeply inform popular cinema, including those of hereditary dancers and musicians, devadasis, tawaifs, baijis among them. The choreomusicking body gives us then a profoundly multiscalar sense of the various corporeal practices over time that come to be manifest in that one song-and-dance sequence.

As an example, consider the choreomusicking body behind the Helen-Vyjayanthimala dance-off'Aye Hai Dilruba' in Dr. Vidya (1962). Not only is this dance number animated by these two scintillating dancer-actresses, but it also bears the imprint of the playback singers, Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle, the film’s producer, Mohan Segal, who studied dance at Uday Shankar’s India Culture Centre, and worked at Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatres as actor and choreographer, and also, significantly, the film’s unusual costume designer, Yadugiri Devi, Vyjayanthimala’s grandmother. Not only did she accompany her granddaughter on film sets, but she also began to participate in the industry as a costume designer. Additionally, she introduced to the Bombay film industry the Kathak-trained choreographers, Sohanlal and Hiralal, who defined the form of Hindi film dance for decades. Dr. Vidya marked the debut of the film’s dance master, Sohanlal’s assistant, Saroj Khan, who would make the figure of the choreographer rise to prominence nearly twenty-five years later with her 1988 dance number, 'Ek Do Teen.' Thus, the choreomusicking body makes apparent the labour of numerous visible and unacknowledged bodies to excavate deep, interlinked stories of industrial practices and networks, shifting our focus away from singular figures of history-making.

Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

(Right) Vyjayanthimala in her debut film, Vazhkai (AV Meiyappan, MV Raman, 1949) | (Left) Vyjayanthimala in Penn (MVRaman, 1953)

What were the earliest traces of dance in Indian films? Also, how did the entire idea of incorporating a dance number in a film come about in the first place? In fact, how were the dance sequences shot during the silent era?

In a section titled, “Pre-Playback Dance in Indian Cinema” in the book’s introduction, I discuss some of these questions. While many of the earliest films from the subcontinent are lost, their titles, such as Dancing Scenes from the Flower of Persia (Hiralal Sen, 1898), Dances from Alibaba (Hiralal Sen, 1903), and Dancing of Indian Nautch Girls (Elphinston Bioscope, 1906) reveal an interest in capturing dance movement on the new recording medium of celluloid. In Raja Harishchandra (DG Phalke, 1917), the surviving remake of DG Phalke’s 1913 version of the same film, considered to be the first Indian narrative film, we see an instance of devotional singing and dancing, while Phalke’s later films, Lanka Dahan (1917) and Kaliya Mardan (1919), feature more elaborate dances. Group dances in these early silent films draw from folk dance idioms to produce a sense of community. The presentation of these dances is quite static, with a fixed camera and very little editing producing a frontal, play-like tableau effect. However, by the time we get to the late silent film, Diler Jigar (Gallant Hearts, GP Pawar, 1931), dance sequences are rather dynamic, for instance, a sequence in which when the heroine, Saranga (Lalita Pawar) dances toward and away from the camera to generate dynamism within the frame, and where, despite the absence of sound, we get a sense of rhythm from her movements, her tambourine and a drum, and the frequent intercutting between shots at varying camera distance. Diler Jigar adds dance to the mix of swashbuckling action to generate a hectic spectacle of attractions that would come to define the masala film form of popular Hindi cinema.

With the introduction of sound in 1931, the song-and-dance sequence was publicised as a standard attraction of popular film narratives. Like the early talkies in Hollywood, many 1930s’ Indian films were marketed as “all talking, singing, dancing” films. For instance, advertisements for the first sound film, Alam Ara (Ardeshir Irani, 1931), describe it as “100% talking, singing, dancing.” In addition to talking and singing, dance promised the added dynamism of moving bodies and synchronised sound. In reality, most of the sound films made between 1931 and 1935 (when the playback system was introduced) featured very static song-and-dance sequences since image and sound had to be recorded simultaneously, which restricted the movement of performers, who had to remain static when they sang into hidden microphones. But with the introduction of the playback system in 1935, when songs began to be pre-recorded and played back while the actors “lip-synched” the lyrics for the camera, actors had greater mobility, which eventually enabled the production of elaborately staged dance numbers. Additionally, it enabled, by the 1940s, the separation of acting and singing so that a set of off-screen playback singers (also known as “ghost voices” until the late 1940s) became the voice for a range of actors, some of whom came to prominence for their dancing abilities.

One often wonders why dancing in films, primarily, has always been the forte of the women, or rather has always been reserved for them? We know that in the early years of Indian cinema and theatre, it was mostly men dressed as women who would take the onus of singing and dancing to entertain the audience, but nevertheless, they were female characters. Could you throw some light on this? Is there any relationship between societal conditioning, the optics of performing arts and the commerce of it?

Unlike Hollywood, where Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire continue to be held up as exemplars of film dance, in Indian cinema, women were the primary performers of dance until the late 1990s. Across various global performance cultures though, the female figure is often constructed as the agent of spectacle, with dance numbers acting as a showcase for the female form, costume, makeup, set design. The figure of the nautch-girl from the dance salon and theatre made her way into Indian films’ production of spectacle as well.

I propose in the book a body-centred taxonomy of song-and-dance sequences that differentiates between song sequences and dance numbers, which helps us see the gendering of each of these categories. While the romantic duet in the Hindi film typically features the central heterosexual couple, elaborate solo dance numbers are almost always exclusively a space for female performance. Now, these can be and often are only discussed as displaying the female body for the male gaze, especially in the case of the vamp or the item girl. But rather than brush off dancing women as passive and fetishised showgirls, if we pay attention to labour, skill, and training, we begin to take notice of the performers’ authority and virtuosity, which prevents a reduction of the leaping, swinging, shimmying dancing woman to a mere fetishistic image, and allows for the dance number to be also read as a celebration of female mobility on- and off-screen.

If one were to chart major milestones in terms of Hindi film dance what would they be? How has dancing in films evolved or metamorphosed over the years?

We can think of milestones in film dance along various vectors, including of technology and of performance, which in turn also influence each other. Some of the major technological milestones include the coming of sound, the invention of playback, the introduction of colour stock (showcased initially by shooting only dance numbers in colour, like in Nagin (1954) and Aasha (1957)), increased camera movement through tracks and cranes and now drones, and special effects. The dance number is a major site for experimentation with new technologies.

Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

(Left) Poster of Kishore Kumar-Vyjayanthimala-starrer Aasha (MV Raman, 1957) | (Right) Song booklet cover for Kalpana (Uday Shankar, 1948) Image via National Film Archives of India

Alongside the techno-spectacle of the song-and-dance sequence, I plot other pivotal moments that define the Hindi film dance number – including, in the 1930s-1940s, the appropriation of classical dance by middle- and upper-class and caste practitioners; the canonisation of dance forms in the 1950s-1960s, which creates the binary of the classical-dance-trained heroine and the “Western”-dance-performing vamp; and the collapse of the coy heroine–salacious vamp binary with Saroj Khan, Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit in the 1980s-90s, which provokes outrage, and extended censorship battles.

In Hindi films the lead actress was often associated with terms such as 'virtuous', 'pure', 'sacrificing' et al; they would often sing in moments of sadness, bereavement or would be seen romancing the hero. The dance sequences were often reserved for the vamp or in some rare cases the heroine (mostly in the state of inebriation). How and when did the concept of a dancing heroine happen?

This again is part of the taxonomy of song-and-dance sequences I mentioned above. Hindi cinema created a moral binary between the restrained heroine and the salacious vamp, with the former often performing song sequences with no dance moves, or romantic duets with minimal movement, and the latter gloriously gyrating in big-budget spectacularly staged dance numbers, what I refer to as production numbers. As more upper-class and dominant-caste women started training in dance from the 1930s and 40s onwards, and brought these dance-trained bodies to cinema, films featuring such leading ladies, for instance, Sadhona Bose, Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, Padmini etc, had to create narratives that showcased their newly-acquired dance skills.

Because of the continued discourses of censorship and spectacle around the female dancing body, Hindi cinema has to constantly negotiate the heroine’s dance movement vocabulary, even when A-list actresses perform item numbers today.

Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

(Left) Helen dancing on the song 'Piya Tu Ab To Aaja' from Caravan (Nasir Hussain. 1971) | (Right) Meena Kumari dancing on 'Inhi Logon Ne' from Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972). Images via screengrab

Drawing from the previous question, how important was it to have dance as a skill or talent in an actress' bio? We know for instance Vyajanthimala or Waheeda Rehman would play the lead roles and were excellent dancers themselves, while at the same time a Madhubala (in Mughal-e-Azam) or a Meena Kumari (in Pakeezah) would have someone else dance those intricate steps. Yet, the overall effect would be the same for a viewer. What role did an actress who could also dance play in the film's creative process?

Unlike in Bollywood today, when most aspiring actors need to have dancing skills and some training, often in Bollywood dance studios and classes, in earlier periods, this wasn’t such a set requirement for film heroines (and definitely not for male performers). By considering the on-screen performance as the product of a choreomusicking body, we become alert to ghost or shadow figures who are often pushed to the background. For instance, the Anglo-Indian backup dancer Philomena’s legs replaced Madhubala’s legs in some films. In Pakeezah’s final dance number, 'Teer-e-Nazar Dekhenge,' Meena Kumari’s Kathak footwork on broken glass was performed by her dancing double, Padma Khanna. Thus, even when we see a singular performer on screen, we become aware of how that figure folds in the limbs, torsos, and gestures of many other bodies, with cinema stitching all of them into a figure of dance spectacle.

As for the influence of dancer-actresses on the films they performed in, I argue that they alter the film’s narrative to accommodate their dancing bodies, which occasion elaborate show numbers and hence change the figuration of the female protagonist, who exceeds the demands of playing a lover, wife, sister, mother etc. Films featuring dancing heroines like Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman and others often are self-reflexive commentaries on female stardom itself. Additionally, in terms of the production cycle, through the concept of dance musicalisation, I propose that the inclusion of a dancer-actress in a film often altered the music composed for it so that it would respond to her dancing skills and bodily comportment. The dancer-actress thus impacts the choice of music composer, playback singer, song lyrics, musical influences (Western, Indian, classical, folk, etc.), and the structure of the musical composition (melody, beat, vocals and instrumentation, solo and chorus sections).

In one of the chapters, you talk about the "revival of classical dance forms, which involved an appropriation of the cultural practices of traditional performers like devadasis and tawaifs by upper-caste, upper-class performers" and how it shaped the corporeal bodies of Hindi cinema during the colonial era. Would you like to share with us some insights from your study of the dancing stars of 1930s-40s and while doing so what has been your observation of the role of gender and caste politics in shaping the corporeal histories of Indian cinema?

The 1930s and 40s are a critical period for studying women’s participation in dance and in cinema as, during this period of high nationalism, all these cultural forms were under great pressure to address and appeal to a bourgeois audience. Starting from the anti-nautch movement in the 1880s, British and then elite Indian reformers concertedly marginalised traditional dancing communities, and usurped music and dance performance as “respectable” for middle-class, dominant-caste women to learn and perform publicly. Later these come to be canonised as “classical” and “folk” dance forms by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. So, while this period has been hailed for the greatly increased visibility of women in the public sphere, we must remember that the participation of dominant-caste and elite women in various professions was earned at the cost of the erasure of other public women, who were the repositories of culture through their expertise in dance, music, and poetry.

Through the bhadramahila (“cultured lady”) Sadhona Bose and the “dancing girl,” Azurie, I trace the many cultural negotiations at work around dancing women on film in these decades. Rather than read them along the binaries of heroine and vamp, bhadramahila and sex siren, I present them as artistic pioneers who participate in a global circuit of entertainment economies and co-choreograph new mobilities in this late colonial period.

A rather interesting aspect of your research is also the close study of the corporeal bodies who are behind the dancing stars — from the almost-forgotten dance masters to independent and acclaimed choreographers. Could you talk about the shift in the definition of movement vocabulary in Hindi cinema? How did we move from the signature styles/gestures/looks of the stars (for instance Shammi Kapoor’s Elvis quiff and head jerking, or Jeetendra’s quirky jumps and twists) to planned, rehearsed and choreographed dance routines which bore an impression of a star-choreographer pair (for instance Madhuri Dixit-Saroj Khan)?

I’m glad you found this interesting. The book’s investment in capturing the collaborative networks that produce film dance meant that I had to make visible the bodies whose labour is rendered immaterial, including the courtesan, the vamp, numerous nameless “background dancers,” and the offscreen choreographer. While dance masters like PL Raj were key to the production of the seemingly spontaneous dance moves of an actor like Shammi Kapoor, they remained entirely behind the scenes, with a fleeting mention in the credits. It was Saroj Khan, with the first Filmfare award for choreography for Tezaab (N Chandra, 1988), who radically shifted our understanding of choreographic labour. She made visible the work of the choreographer in imagining and conceiving the dance, collaborating with the music team, and often directing the song-and-dance sequences.

With Khan, choreography came to be recognised as carving out dance performance as a separate modality of movement that redefined the contours of the star and the fan body. In Chapter 5, I analyse how Madhuri Dixit and Khan developed hook steps around a particular body zone in each song, redefining the performative repertoire of the Hindi film heroine, and as co-choreographers, produced a moving cinematic and social history of the past three decades through their circuit of creative labour.

Usha Iyer on her book Dancing Women a deep dive into the material and cultural production of dance in Hindi cinema

Dixit and Khan rehearse dance moves on Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa

Lastly, after having studied the dancing bodies of the past so closely, where do you see the future of dance in Hindi cinema? Do you anticipate any major changes in the years to come?

I conclude the book with some brief reflections on how Hindi film dance has changed since the 1990s. Now, when dance has become a prerequisite for female and male stardom, the dancing Bollywood body is manufactured even more overtly through a multiplicity of means rather than just through the performer’s skills. Shyama, an actress from the 1940s and 1950s, remarks on the difference between the filming of dance in that period and today: “We used to dance the entire mukhda and antara in one take. Nowadays, actors do one move and cut, just a small move of the head, and cut.” Shyama’s observation highlights differences between figural dancing, where the dance is primarily produced through the on-screen dancing body, and the mechanical construction of dance through cinematography, editing, and special effects.

Saroj Khan had remarked about contemporary choreography: “The entire raw stock is brought to the editing table and the song put together there. We used to put camera angles according to the movement; now you can choose whichever angle you want. There’s nothing much for the dance master to do.” I think there’s still a lot of interesting stuff happening around film dance including choreographers turning directors, the item number phenomenon, and most significantly for me, the explosion of avenues for participatory fandom where fans from various regions, far removed from film-making capitals, perform their favourite dance moves on new media platforms such as TikTok, and on television dance competitions etc. Bollywood dance numbers are choreographed in conversation with these fan practices now, and the hybridity of popular Hindi film dance is foregrounded and celebrated more than ever before as these dancing bodies participate in new circuits of reception and consumption.

— All images courtesy of Usha Iyer.

— Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema released in October | 2020 | Paperback: Rs 2880 (9780190938741) | Oxford University Press

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