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Bollywood is indebted to them

Manjari Chaturvedi

Manjari Chaturvedi   | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

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‘Begums and Baijis of Bollywood’ traces the women pioneers of the film industry

“When Deepika Padukone produces a movie today, everyone applauds her. But imagine owning a production house in the pre-Independent era, how empowered and courageous a woman must be to do that? Jaddan Bai did it at a time when other women were in purdah and barely even got out of home. She was a visionary of her time but, sadly, has been forgotten by the very industry she contributed towards.” exclaims Manjari Chaturvedi.

A dancer and a chronicler of the lost women artistes of the last century, Manjari Chaturvedi has dedicated her attention towards rediscovering forgotten female stalwarts of Indian history. Her current show, ‘Begums and Baijis of Bollywood’ is a part of her Courtesan Project, which traces the journey of women artistes who were never given the recognition they deserved owing to their background.

The production narrates the journey of women who laid the foundation of Hindi cinema. The production will predominantly share the stories of four supremely talented women artistes: Jaddan Bai, Mukhtar Begum, Jahanara Kajjan and Begum Akhtar.

“The women who were part of Hindi cinema when it started were largely a part of the tawaif and baiji tradition. They were singers, dancers or artistes of what was called the kotha who made the transition onto the silver screen. But, unfortunately with Bollywood being strictly patriarchal, these women were not recognised.” she explains and questions, “While you have an award in the name of Dadasaheb Phalke, you don’t even hear the mention of these women who in fact gave Bollywood the very things which made it popular around the world — music and dance!”

Manjari Chaturvedi

Manjari Chaturvedi   | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The danseuse is full of stories of these stars of a bygone era. “Jahanara Kajjan was a superstar of her time. In fact, her face was plastered all across the UK for selling everything from powders to creams.” she states and adds the reason behind the reasons for their complete invisibility in the annals of history when she says, “They were looked down upon as they came from the tawaif tradition which incidentally was the British way of thinking. They equated them with prostitution and never gave them the respect they deserved. These were artistes who spent decades perfecting their art. Just because of their backgrounds, they were bracketed and Indians too started to look at them through the eyes of the British which further added to the stigma attached.”

While the artistes are forgotten their art still survives. The 90-minute theatrical dance production will recreate iconic songs sung by these artistes. The list of songs which showcase their prowess is long and legendary: from ‘Hamari attariya’ (last pictured on Madhuri Dixit) which was from the repertoire of the tawaifs and was immortalised by Begum Akhtar to the evergreen ‘Mohe panghat mein nandlal’ which was a thumri sung by Indubala who learnt it from Gauhar Jaan or the timeless ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’, which was taught to Farida Khannum by her elder sister Mukhtar Begum, the lyrics might have changed but the essence remains the same.

“Their music touches our heart but we refuse to acknowledge the contribution,” rues Manjari before adding, “We all know the songs but not the stories behind them. There was a strong gender bias created based on their personal histories. Akthari Begum Faizabadi had to become Begum Akhtar while Siddeshwari Bai became Siddeshwari Devi for respect. These women kept entire art forms alive.”

(Begums & Baijis of Bollywood - The First Women of Hindi Cinema will be staged at Shilpa Kala Vedika on January 17; 7 pm - 8:30 pm. Entry by invitation)

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 10:22:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/bollywood-is-indebted-to-them/article30575670.ece

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