The celestial beauty

Art historian Sunil Kothari finds in the scrapbooks of Indrani Rahman a life dedicated to dance.

June 11, 2015 07:08 pm | Updated 07:08 pm IST

Indrani Rahman with John F. Kennedy.

Indrani Rahman with John F. Kennedy.

Very few know that Bharatanatyam and Odissi exponent Indrani Rahman’s husband, the renowned architect Habib Rahman had met her as ‘a dancer’ in New York, where her American mother Ragini Devi was presenting small dance cameos using Indian dance techniques. Habib Rahman was a 29-year-old Bengali Muslim from Calcutta. He had graduated from MIT with a master’s degree in both engineering and architecture. Dark and handsome with long wavy black hair, Habib was selected by Ragini as ‘God of Spring’ for The Indian Dance Theatre she ran in New York in 1945.

Since Habib was a Muslim, for Ragini Devi presenting the Hindu dances, his name had to be changed to Ritu Raj, meaning Prince of Spring. Habib’s dancing skill were limited to style, a la Uday Shankar waving his arms standing in the centre and Indrani and other girls moved around him with flowers. And of course the dark handsome Ritu Raj received rave reviews in the newspapers!

Indrani and Habib fell in love and against all opposition from Ragini Devi and her Indian husband Ramlal Bajpai. They got married on 11th May 1946. Indrani was pregnant. They returned to Calcutta to Habib’s home during the pre-partition year.

After independence Habib got a job as West Bengal’s Chief Engineer. Going through with Ram Rahman, their son, at his residence, the meticulously maintained scrap books using Marwari khatas, used for writing accounts, Indrani had pasted several clippings and copies of letters, reviews and brochures of her performances of Bharatanatyam in Calcutta and elsewhere. What struck me most were the photos of hers for Miss India contest. Building up her career as a classical dancer she was apprehensive about participating in Miss Calcutta contest, which led to Miss India contest, which she won and became the first ‘Miss India’. Later on she was sent to New York and California. There she was along with other beauties! The accompanying photo was for LIFE magazine which Ram had preserved. Indrani was offered film roles but she was adamant and refused all offers and stuck to classical dance.

In one letter dated 15th January 1953, to dance historian Mohan Khokar, the copy which she had pasted, there were references to her modelling for Lipton tea: “Please never mention to me or any one about that atrocious film of Liptons. I did it long ago to raise money for dance studies and have bitterly regretted it ever since. There is nothing I can do to stop its circulation. At least my name is not on it.” She did not paste those Lipton ads and one of reclining coyly on a mattress declaring to the nation: “Dunlopillo is the most comfortable cushioning in the world’ Ram said laughingly.

I wanted to collect information and rare photos of Indrani learning Odissi (then it was known as Orissi), from Debaprasad Das. It was in December 1957 at her Sujan Singh Park residence (before the Sangeet Natak Akademi in April 1958 had organised All India Dance Conference) Guru Debaprasad Das had given a lec-dem before Charles Fabri, Kapila Vatsyayan and many other dignitaries. We chanced upon that and Ram identified those who were present there.

Of course during the Inter-University Youth Festival Odissi was performed by Priyamvada Mohanty, watching that Indrani was interested in learning Odissi. In one of her notes she mentions that she was invited to attend a dance festival in Bhubaneswar. She had met poet and Professor Mayadhar Mansingh, father of Lalit Mansingh who became the Ambassador to USA.

Prof Mayadhar Mansingh arranged for Indrani to see performance by a young Debaprasad Das which she liked and invited him to teach Odissi to her in Delhi. It was a historic lec-dem in her house where for the first time many saw Debaprasad Das demonstrating Odissi. Art Critic Charles Fabri wrote most enthusiastically about the discovery of Odissi as an ancient dance form. Indrani’s learning it, few numbers then, as the repertoire was limited, and taking Debaprasad Das abroad with her, she placed Odissi on the world map!

I saw demonstration of Odissi and also performance by one Jayanti Ghosh from Cuttack during the Dance seminar in April 1958. Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattanaik, the poet, dramatist, and scholar had read a learned paper on Odissi for which Debaprasad and Jayanti Ghosh had performed. Earlier I had only seen a small booklet ‘Orissi Dance’ by Kalicharan Pattanaik in Bombay University library, with photos of Priyamvada Mohanty.

My odyssey of Odissi dance started from then as I met Babulal Doshi, a Gujarati Vaishnav from Cuttack who had brought Kalicharan Pattanaik, Debaprasad and Jayanti Ghosh and accompanists for demonstration for the seminar to Delhi. We both being Gujjus, spoke in Gujarati. He invited me to come and stay and research and write about Odissi during vacations at Cuttack at Kala Vikash Kendra, an institution he had established to train Odissi dance to young children and girls. But more about it in future.

For the first time in Bombay at Regal Cinema Indrani performed Odissi on Tuesday the 23rd September 1958, which I saw. I wrote in Gujarati Janmabhoomi newspaper a review. I had sent her the review with English translation, and that was pasted with date in her scrap book! I was thrilled. I did not expect that I would ever find it. I had written to Ram in my e-mail about it!

Indrani was a beauty and was compared to ‘celestial apsara in Indra’s court’, by Rita Chatterjee ( Ritha Devi) who also used to write reviews for The Times of India in those years. She too was mesmerised seeing Odissi and started learning Odissi from Guru Pankajcharan Das.

Indrani with her natural beauty and graceful movements brought a whiff of fresh air. With her world tours she made Odissi popular. Soon Yamini Krishnamurty, Sonal Mansingh, Rani Karna, Madhavi Mudgal and others followed the suite and started learning Odissi. Indrani’s pioneering work shall always be remembered gratefully by the dance aficionados.

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