As part of ‘The Courtesan’ project held at Shilpakala Vedika, Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi presented Begums and Baijis of Bollywood, a tribute to the many unknown great artists of the past
For the last 10 years, Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi has been working relentlessly towards bringing out the contributions of many unknown women performers, who have been wrongly and derogatorily defined as tawaif, nachnewali or ganewali.
“I’ve always wondered about the immense contribution of many great women Bollywood artists such as Jaddan Bai, Mukhtar Begum, Munni Bai, Gauhar Jaan, Indubala Devi, Begum Akhtar, Kajjan Bai and Rajkumari. Most of these singers were trained in classical music by well-known doyens of Hindustani classical music. Some of them were also trained in Kathak by the top Kathak gurus. It was their misfortune that there were no big programme halls for public performances or internet to showcase their talent. Instead, they performed in mehfils, courts of Nawabs and kings during important occasions,” shares Manjari.
At Shilpaka Vedika, Manjari Chaturvedi choreographed dance moves for many of the haunting melodies of these great singers and presented them in an aesthetic manner, receiving a standing ovation from the appreciative audience.
She then danced in gay abandon to songs such as Mohe panghat peh nandalal, Aaj jane ki zid na karo and Hamari attariya peh aaja reh sawariya, bringing out the essence of peace and sublime love.
A legacy forgotten
Emphasising on the unknown singers and dancers, Manjari talks about how it is virtually unknown that Gauhar Jaan was specially invited to sing a duet with Janki Bai of Allahabad in the coronation of King George V at Delhi Durbar in the year 1911.
“Yet, what did she and many like her get in return besides the tag of tawaif, nachnewali, ganewali, etc.? No wonder that none of their prodigies wanted to take up singing or dancing as a profession or for that matter even reveal their relationships with these stalwart performers for the fear of social stigma,” laments Manjari.
She went on to explain how studying the life and times of these performers has truly changed her approach to dance. “While learning Kathak, we had many compositions on Salami tukda and Peshkar ki amaad in our syllabus. I am very sure these words signify salutations as a part of the courtesan culture. These women performers have given so much to the world of music, dance and poetry that many modern movies still re-create their songs and poetry,” she adds.
However, sadly, most of them died in poverty. “Worse, there are hardly any ‘commemorative awards’ instituted in their name. The immense contribution of all these performers and their strength in respective art field was drowned in the gossip that surrounded their personal life. I have also started organizing seminars to involve academicians and other performers to understand and focus on these aspects. Even in Hyderabad, there were many such eminent performers such as Mah Laqa Chanda Bai, Taramati and Premavati, whose works need to be understood, appreciated and respected by the society,” says Manjari.