Who is Roshan Vajifdar? Many young dancers will surely wonder. Tracing the life story of the once famous Bharatanatyam dancer who now leads a quiet life in Kodaikanal

At 82, Roshan Vajifdar Ghose is an epitome of grace and beauty. I found her accidentally through a friend and it took some time before I was allowed to meet her. When the interview finally happened, Roshan was every bit a charmer and extremely friendly. “I can’t sit for long,” she said, and ended up giving a breezy recount of her life.

Attired elegantly in white and looking gorgeous in ethnic ornaments, she showed me exquisite black-and-white profile photos, those of her performances and in the company of Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr.Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Dr.Rajendra Prasad, and UN Secretary Generals, prime ministers, film stars and dancers of yore.

Articulate and expressive, she spoke nineteen to a dozen on her first love, Bharatanatyam, besides Mohiniattam, Kathak, Manipuri, Kathakali, music and veena, paintings and antiques. It is not difficult to imagine how she must have held the audience under her spell.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, she hogged the headlines. Today, Roshan lives in her “own world of memories, spirituality and sadhana.” “I am a recluse now,” she says “If Gods brings people to me, I happily meet them. But on my own I don’t go out anywhere now.”

Roshan gave her last performance in Mysore in 1992. The same year she joined the Kodai International School and taught dance till 2007. “These days children no longer take up dance to become professional dancers. Everybody stays focussed on academics and dance is an additional hobby but tweaked with lot of interesting innovation and fusion,” she says.

It was along with her two sisters, Shirin and Khurshid Vajifdar,that Roshan came out of Mumbai’s anglicised Parsi community mould. From childhood the trio exhibited an unusual love for Indian classical music and dance. They defied the taboos, trained in multiple classical dance forms and gave extensive performances in India and abroad in a career that lasted over four decades.

Unusual career

Shirin, who married Dr.Mulk Raj Anand, was the pioneer in learning all schools of dance and it was she who first started training Roshan when she was seven. The sisters trained in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Kathakali and Mohiniattam. It was an unusual career for those times, when dancers trained extensively in only one or two styles.

Roshan Vajifdar earned a national scholarship in Bharatnatyam and studied in the Indian Institute of Fine Arts, Madras, for two years learning the intricacies from Chokkalingam Pillai, the son-in-law of natyaguru Meenakshisundaram Pillai of Pandanallur School of Dance. In 1955 she gave her arangetram in the presence of then Governor Shri Sri Prakasa. Later, she gave several performances at The Music Academy, Madras, in the presence of national and international dignitaries.

Turning over the yellowing clippings in her meticulously maintained scrap book, she remembers being immersed in dance. “Of all the dance forms, I felt myself with Bharatanatyam. It made me understand abhinaya, philosophy and corresponded well with the meditation of my heart, body and mind.”

Roshan lived in Bangalore for seven years and trained under Meenakshisundaram Pillai’s nephew, Kitappa Pillai. During her stay here she also became the muse of Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich, husband of her friend the actress Devika Rani. He frequently painted Roshan in life-size portraits, many of which found their way to the covers of Illustrated Weekly, Femina, Dharamyug and several other magazines. Many of these paintings are now in the State Museum of Oriental Arts, Moscow, and the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad, Bangalore.

Reviews of her performances praise Roshan not only for the finesse of her movements and expressions but also the beauty of her costumes, colour combinations, jewellery, and choreography, all designed by her sister with an eye for detail. Once Roshan married Dr.Hiranmoy Ghose, a renowned chiropractor from Mumbai 30 years elder to her, he managed her programmes.

Shifting base

The couple shifted to Kodaikanal and Dr.Ghose started helping her with her own compositions. Says she fondly, “He was a kind-hearted practitioner who used 80 per cent of his earnings in treating poor people and helping the needy. He was also interested in performing and fine arts and had a very impressive collection of paintings and artefacts bought from all over the world.”

It was a relationship perhaps akin to that of M.S.Subbulakshmi and her husband T.Sadasivam. Dr.Ghose helped Roshan with her 90-minute non-stop composition called “Pilgrimage of the Soul” based on Meera bhajans. “My first performance was scheduled at Pondicherry and my husband said you can not be at the mercy of musicians. So we did something very innovative. We recorded Meera bhajans sung by Gujarati singers.”

Her next composition, “Gita Govindam”, also worked successfully in a similar fusion of Odissi music and Bharatanatyam movements. “Audience liked it even when I did Bharatanatyam without Carnatic music,” says Roshan. It prompted her to prepare for the next composition based on Tagore’s work. While she was visiting Shantiniketan for the new project in 1982, her husband passed away following a car accident. Roshan abandoned the idea and her public performances went into limbo, though her son, Prasanna, tried to step into his father’s shoes.

“I never planned my life. But God always gave me what I needed,” she says.

All the sisters were known to have a hypnotic stage presence. With Mrinalini Sarabhai, Rukmini Devi, Tara Chaudhary, Kerala Kalamandalam Chinnammu Amma, Ritha Devi, Vyjayanthimala, Kanak Rele, Indrani Rehman and Shanta Rao as contemporaries, the Vajifdar sisters represented India in international festivals and won praise the world over.

Roshan has also peeped into the film world. She gave a dance performance with her sister in the 1954 Kishore Sahu film Mayur Pankh to the famous duet by Lata and Asha, “Yeh barkha bahar soutaniya ke dwar…” Her beauty and talent fetched her many acting offers but she declined them all.

Even at her age, Roshan betrays a zest and ebullience. Arthritis limits her mobility but the movements of her fingers and hands and her facial expressions are captivating. She ends with one small plea. That “dance is aradhana and its purity should never be lost.”