Bollywood choreographer on dancing her way to glory.

East remains East and West remains West, but the twain keep meeting, whatever Rudyard Kipling may have thought when he made his statement. The oft repudiated view of the British author is sometimes reflected in the relationship between Indian classical and Indian ‘filmi' dance, now known worldwide as Bollywood dance — one seen as pristine and the other as incorrigibly adulterated. Here again, the twain have met more than once.

Ask Saroj Khan, queen mother of the Bollywood gharana of gyrations. Today she is preparing to judge and mentor children from the ages of five to 14 in yet another televised dance competition — “Chak Dhoom Dhoom” — coming soon on Colors.

What does she look for in an artiste? “They should be able to carry out the instructions of the choreographer,” she states with her trademark simplicity.

What catapulted her to that exalted slot where doting middle class parents, once scared of the word dance, vie for her to bless their children, was that hit, “Ek Do Teen”, from the 1989 movie “Tezaab”, which she choreographed on Madhuri Dixit. One still remembers Saroj jiving to the podium at award events as she picked up accolades for the choreography of the song.

“Ek Do Teen” was as far from the classical mindset as “Kaanta Lagaa” might be from a Dhrupad recital. But not long back, Saroj Khan appeared before an erudite audience of classical dancers and musicians, on one of Chennai's most hallowed stages, considered the touchstone of classical arts like Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music, and gave a presentation on her brand of choreography. The performance was part of the Krishna Gana Sabha's Natya Kala Conference.

It was a first, inviting Bollywood into this exalted domain. A few eyebrows were raised, and Saroj clearly saw them. If her petite frame gets magnified as she is feted in Bollywood, it looked positively tiny as she submitted to the gallery of greats, “I don't belong here, as I didn't learn (dance) from anybody. I have learnt by watching people like you…”

Meeting ground

By the end of it though, she elicited a standing ovation. Not only did the twain meet, they embraced, as classical dance stalwart and scholar Padma Subrahmanyam leapt on stage to hug her and declared that she could put Sanskrit names from the “Natya Shastra” to every one of the twists and twirls performed by Saroj and her girls.

But this meeting ground is no new phenomenon. If we look at the early products of two of India's biggest film industries — Hindi and Tamil — we often find classical dance forms directly transposed from stage to screen. This thread, continually interwoven with other entertaining elements, reappears strongly from time to time in select commercial films where the classical dance medium is unmistakeable, but Bollywood is so well entrenched that classicists can't help but notice its encroachment on more ‘pristine' turf.

So much so, that when Sharada Ramanathan made her film “Sringaram – Dance of Love” whose backbone is Bharatanatyam and protagonist a devadasi, she picked Saroj as the choreographer, even as she took classical doyen Lalgudi G. Jayaraman as music composer. The director was spot on, as the film got the National Award for best choreography as well as music.

Has Bollywood's choreographic doyenne actually never trained in any classical medium? “Never,” she replies without hedging. And music? “I never felt the need.”

She has worked with few trained dancers among the heroines she sent sizzling onto the screen. “Madhuri was trained in Kathak, Waheeda Rehman in Kathak, and Vyjayanthimala in Bharatanatyam,” she recalls. “In my life, the best dancer I have seen is Vyjayanthimala. Uppar wale ne use sab kuchh diya hai. (God has given her everything). Face, figure, art. One felt satisfied working with her. After that, it was Madhuri.”

As for Sridevi, she has hilarious tales of the “Mr India” heroine's lack of rhythmic prowess. “I still remember the shooting of ‘Maine Rab Se Tujhe Maang Liya'. There were 13 retakes. Finally she came to me and said, ‘Did you think I was a good dancer?' I said yes, Subhashji told me you don't need rehearsal. She said, ‘I'm really be-taali!' We always needed four boys around her to keep her on the beat.”

Would she like to work with more trained dancers? “Kyon nahin,” says the straightforward but never arrogant choreographer. “It's a great help. I might make a mistake.” Mistake? “Yes, like in ‘Dola Re', if I had used the wrong mudras, I wouldn't have got the National Award.” The genial ‘Masterji' as she is addressed by her dance troupe and assistants, therefore, welcomes suggestions and corrections from those she works with.

Genial or not, she is a hard taskmaster. Rehearsals for “Sringaram” would be between 4 and 7 a.m.

Today, however choreography has changed, and she is none too pleased. With cameras covering all angles, “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.”

Stage show

These days she is working on the choreography of “Amrapali,” a stage production on the legendary courtesan. “Feroze Khan, who made ‘Gandhi My Father', is directing it. The choreography and presentation are mine.” The script for the production is due this month, she says. Next month “InshaAllah,” casting will start, and the show will be ready to go on the boards in seven to eight months, she promises. It will debut “either in Paris or the U.K.” says Saroj.

Stating Udaya Bhanu has been shortlisted for the lead role, she says the male dancers are not yet decided. In all 45 dancers will appear on the stage. What inspired her to take up this story, which, on the one hand is perennially attractive to dancers but on the other suffers from the disadvantage of being an oft-repeated theme?

The choreographer is as uncomplicated in her reply as her choreography has layers. “I saw the picture (movie).”

As for choreographing for the “pictures” though, she says she is “not touching” any new projects. “This is a full time job.”