There is something dreamlike about the choreography of Chalte chalte, a tawaif’s ode to an unseen admirer in Pakeezah. The kathak is unusually languid, Meena Kumari’s gaze is distant, her movements minimal. In all this stillness, it is up to the two women dancers flanking her to keep the momentum.

Dressed in white to counter Kumari’s dazzling red anarkali, the two move in unison with infinite grace and artistry. They own the visual magic of the song as much as the star of the scene.

“The two dancers are crucial to our experience of viewing that song,” said kathak dancer and researcher Siddhi Goel. “Their swirling, swaying movements that land so perfectly on the off-beat tempo; the highly skilled execution of the choreography of Gauri Shankar – all these elements come together to create the hauntingly beautiful effect the song has on us.”

Meenaxi and Leela in 'Chalte chalte' (Pakeezah, 1972).

Who were these artistes, described as “background dancers” in cinema parlance? And like them, who were the legions of performers in kathak choreographies spanning mujras, qawwalis, stage shows who contributed to the history of cinematic dance in India but whose stories are rarely told? Who trained them? How did their film careers evolve?

These dancing figures put in “enormous unrecognised, uncredited labour,” said Goel. “Perhaps that’s why till today we can feel the powerful energy of their work.”

The anonymity of these dancers is among the several factors that drove Goel’s fascinating and wide-ranging research into the place of kathak in Bombay cinema. Backed by the India Foundation for the Arts, it covers a little over 100 years of Hindi cinema and is a bid to understand the economic and creative labour force the industry draws from the kathak ecosystem. It starts with the entry of courtesans; maps the arrival of traditional gurus as choreographers and trainers; the rise of dancing stars, background dancers and dance assistants; and ends with the form’s relevance in contemporary Bollywood. She has been presenting her findings over the last six months in lecture demonstrations, illustrated talks and on Instagram.

Ubiquitous presence

Traditionalists might baulk at calling cinematic dance in Bollywood – an unabashed hybrid of classical footwork and abhinaya, folk and theatrical forms and, of course, the demands of the director/producer and box-office – kathak. But there was a time when the dance form was integral to the business of the Hindi film industry.

“Kathak’s presence has been ubiquitous in Hindi cinema, both on and off screen,” said Goel. “It lies deeply in the body of its actors. In its early years, directors often referred to the ada, style and mannerisms of well-known courtesans as reference points for their leading actresses. It dictated how the popular cinema heroine played shy, sad, or expressed love. So much so that it became mandatory for actors to know some kathak so their acting and dancing skills improved. Leading producers like Raj Kapoor would send their new talent to be groomed by kathak guru Gopi Kishan prior to their film launch. Almost all leading actors and actresses, right from Madhubala, Meena Kumari to Alia Bhatt, learned kathak as part of their actor training. Apart from dancing, it is used as a grooming tool for the actors, to add an overall sense of finesse.”

The minutiae of her investigations into kathak choreographies yields a treasure trove of details: for instance, the fact that much of Pakeezah’s artistry was rooted in Rajasthan’s kathak, theatre and folk traditions brought to Mumbai by migrant artistes, such as composer Ghulam Mohammed and Gauri Shankar. Or that even the great cabaret masters of Bollywood like PL Raj had some training in kathak.

But it was Goel’s investigation into the lesser-known dancers that proved the most challenging. There was next to nothing about them in Bollywood chronicles. They were often not listed in the credits and the memory of those who witnessed those eras is fuzzy. The mystery around them had calcified so much that even the most tenacious probing sometimes barely made a crack or two.

To identify the Chalte chalte duo, Goel trawled through hours of IMDB data and interviewed several surviving actors and others, especially character actor Anjana Mumtaz, who as a teen hung around the sets of Pakeezah to watch her guru Gauri Shankar at work. But in the end, she got only a few answers: the one on the right was possibly Meenaxi (Meenakshi) or perhaps Sujata and the one on the left, Leela. They were kind, protective women, Mumtaz told Goel, who made sure she was looked after on the sets and it is likely their screen names hid their Muslim identities (this was the case with Meena Kumari too).

Minoo Mumtaz in 'Saqiya aaj mujhe' (Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, 1962).

“I primarily started researching ‘extras’ as a curious fellow dancer,” said Goel. “When you see a good dancer, you want to know more about them, it is exciting. It felt important to know what I could of the person to understand the world I was researching. Those personal stories are revealing of greater details of that time period.”

Of the women dancers she researched, some were known names, but many were not: among them, Jeevankala, Rani, Alka Noopur, Bela Bose, Roopamala, Hira Sawant, Minu Mumtaz, Lakshmi Chhaya, Jayashree T, Kumkum.

Only a few of them could rise from the depths of obscurity. Padma Khanna, trained in the Benares gharana, became famous for her raunchy cabaret number from Johny Mera Naam, Husn ke lakhon rang. But she began her career as the body double for an ailing Meena Kumari in that last, most dramatic mujra in Pakeezah, Aaj hum apni – she was the veiled face, the bloodied feet dancing over glass shards.

Kumkum in 'Chali pee ke nagar' (Mirza Ghalib, 1954).

The most radical rise was of Saroj Khan – she went from a child artiste to a bit dancer to an assistant and then a choreographer, who in the 1990s pretty much changed the face of Bollywood dance. But most others danced and lived in anonymity.

‘Khula naach’

Kathak’s central place in Hindi cinema was almost a given. When movies first appeared in the first decade of the 20th century, hereditary dancers and musicians offered a natural pool of accessible talent. And since kathak was the primary dance form of the tawaifs, it became visible in cinema as early as 1919.

“In a mujra scene by Miss Gohar (also referred to as Gohur) who plays a courtesan in Bilwamangal (a devotional on the life of Surdas) you can see some elements of kathak – such as the chal (types of walking) and some abhinaya,” said Goel. She also points to the use of kathak in the Tiger of Hastinapur made in Germany in 1938, featuring dancers such as Madame Menaka and Gauri Shankar, who was the main choreographer in Pakeezah.

By the 1930s, with the anti-nautch movement peaking, tawaifs had started spilling into other performance arenas – recording studios and concert recitals, for instance. After that, as the demand for their expertise grew, the migration of kathak dancers and gurus to cinema became inexorable.

Sitara Devi in 'Sautan ke ghar' (Aabroo, 1968).

The first of the dancing stars likely was the charismatic Sitara Devi. At the beginning of her career, she danced live at cinema halls to entertain audiences between silent film reels. Christened “dance queen” by Rabindranath Tagore at age 16, she was one of the stars of the Benares gharana. It was her nephew Gopi Krishna who revolutionised cinema dancing by challenging the traditional norms of kathak. He understood the needs of the camera, the screen and cinema audiences, says Goel.

“His daughter and dancer Shampa Gopi Krishna told me he wanted to eat up space,” said Goel. “He would do jumps, squats, splits and cover space with his body while dancing. He enjoyed the pure expression of the body, without his body being restricted by the grammar of the dance form.”

There is a reason why kathak melded so easily into cinema unlike other dance forms – known as khula naach (free dance), its format and repertoire are easily expandable. This leaves room for experimentation, an opportunity Bollywood grabbed with both hands. It experimented wildly with kathak but some fundamentals of the form remained, such as the interpretation of song lyrics in multiple ways, a practice commonly referred to as bhav batana in kathak. Its fast paced footwork is also a staple of cinematic dance.

Bela Bose and others in 'Kahe tarsaye' (Chitralekha, 1964).

Fraternity on the sets

The needs of the screen and audiences were something that four Jaipur gharana brothers – B Sohanlal, Hiralal, Chinnilal and Radhesham – understood perfectly. Sohanlal choreographed some of the most iconic cinema dances of the 1950s and ’60s on actors such as Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rahman. If you randomly look up any of the immortal dance songs of this era, it was likely choreographed by him. “The brothers made the classical palatable and profitable,” said Goel.

The one choreographer who stuck closest to the traditional form was Lachu Maharaj. His work in Mahal, Mughal-e-Azam, Kala Pani and Pakeezah (he choreographed one song for the film – Thade rahiyo) always carried the delicacy of the Lucknow gharana.

One of cinematic kathak’s most premium spaces was in films that scholar Ira Bhaskar describes as Islamicate in her book Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema, co-authored with Richard Allen. These were the Muslim socials such as Mere Sanam and Mere Mehboob, Muslim historicals such as Mughal-e-Azam and Jahanara, and Muslim courtesan films such as Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan. In these films, you spotted the background dancers often – as tawaifs, court dancers and qawwali singers.

'Baharon ki mehfil suhani rahegi' (Benazir, 1964), choreographed by Lacchu Maharaj.

Among the surviving dancers of that era is Jeevankala, now 78, who Goel interviewed. She, along with Nalini Chodkar, performed the peppy Hansta hua noorani chehra in Parasmani. Trained in kathak by Balasaheb Gokhale, Jeevankala had links with Marathi cinema and stage, and led the troupe “Jeevankala And Dancing Party”. Minu Mumtaz, trained in multiple forms by her father Mumtaz Ali, was almost a fixture in Guru Dutt films of the 1960s and she danced in some of the most memorable tawaif sequences such as Dil ki kahani rang layee hai (Chaudhvin ka Chand) and Sakiya aaj mujhe neend nahin (Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam). According to Goel, she too had begun as a performer in “Mumtaz Ali Nites”, her father’s dance troupe.

“Very often they entered films to help their families deal with some kind of financial crisis – Minu Mumtaz, Saroj Khan and Bela Bose, for instance,” said Goel. Some of these dancers also stepped in to assist their gurus. For instance, Rani, who lit up the screen with her dancing – Dekho bijli dole with Asha Parekh (Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon) and Ja mein tose nahin bolun with Jeevankala (Sautela Bhai) are superb examples of her talent – was known to help her guru Gopi Krishna in rehearsals and film shoots.

Kathak was one of the many skills these dancers had. All of them could switch with ease from a kotha to a nightclub floor on the sets, says Goel. As Bela Bose told presenter Tabassum in a TV interview, versatility was not an option for dancers like her.

Jeevankala and Rani in 'Lagi nahin chute' (Sautela Bhai, 1962).

There is a heartwarming side to the stories of these dancers, says Goel: they created an informal supportive network, often giving each other a leg-up wherever possible, suggesting a name here, offering tips for better camera angles there. Life on the margins was tough but it was not without camaraderie.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.