2 Josie the Dancing Girl
It was the early 1990s and my marriage was looming. The wedding was in Islamabad which would also become my new home, so mum said I could have a leaving party in Bradford. I think she didn’t want to miss out on return gifts from all the weddings we’d sat through, forking out the customary £20 cash gift at each one. It would be great to gather friends to say goodbye but it would be a strange party – without an actual ceremony for guests to witness, I had nightmares about hosting a party where the chicken tikka would be the main attraction. We couldn’t even have much of a sing song since all the ceremonial stuff and the mehndi (the pre-wedding rituals especially for the bride) were reserved for our arrival in Pakistan.
The mehndi parties I’d attended in Bradford were the perfect opportunity for eager mothers to parade their young daughters, potential brides now, hoping to bag a handsome professional, preferably one that owned a semi. So you graciously said salaam o alaikum to numerous ‘aunties’ because you never knew which one was checking you out for a son, a nephew, a neighbour or a colleague! They all had a similar shopping list of course – young, virginal, courteous, respectable family background, a brilliant cook, fair skinned preferably, and still pliable enough for them to mould to their own tastes. All said and done then, weddings just weren’t the place to let rip on the dance floor! Some girls – the bolder and younger ones usually – could get away with doing a few improvised steps to an Indian filmi song, although usually only in a women only setting. The rest of us did the luddi – well, ours was a pared down version of the traditional Punjabi folk dance, very restrained by all accounts. It involved a group of self conscious girls moving primly in a large circle, with lots of innocent hand clapping and not much else!
The place to let rip was on the dance floor at the bhangra nights in Bradford, where you could be sure that your bhangra moves wouldn’t jeopardise a reference for marriage. I was careful to get permission for a bhangra ‘concert’ rather than a bhangra ‘disco’. I hoped mum imagined me sitting gaily in the audience (probably on the female side) clapping along placidly to my favourite tunes, like they did on variety shows on Pakistan Television. My best mate Josie was my partner in crime at the bhangra nights. We would go to St George’s Hall or Queens Hall in the city centre. We’d be boogying away to Golden Star or Alaap, and with me being the Asian one, the crowd on the dance floor would assume I’d taught Josie, while I actually spent all my time trying to mimic her fancy footwork! In fact, Josie had professional training in ballet and was a natural at picking up dance styles. Come to think of it, she introduced me to bhangra in the first place! She’d grown up spending a lot of time with a Sikh family who were friends of her parents, so she’d picked up some old fashioned bhangra as well as a smattering of Punjabi, not to mention swear words!
With the countdown under way towards my imminent departure, I needed some entertainment at my leaving do; something to make it memorable. I couldn’t ask any of my Muslim friends to do a solo dance because people would have found it vulgar. It was one thing for them to have a good boogie in the privacy of our living room, but good Muslim girls, especially those with husbands still to find, do not dance in public. It’s immodest. Dancing in public is akin to dancing for entertainment. Some might even view it as an expression of sexuality, something which we weren’t even supposed to be aware of! I suspected though that our Asian double standards meant nobody would mind if an English woman got up to dance because – well, English women are deemed to have different (lower) moral standards! So I played Josie a clip of ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ from Pakeezah (Pure of Heart, Kamal Amrohi, 1971) and asked if she could copy the choreography. She said she would and promptly sat down with a piece of paper to convert the moves into dance notation, something she’d learnt to do at dance school. We bought some cheap fabric from Bombay Stores and my mum and her friend did their best to replicate Pakeezah’s outfit from the film. We even bought some cheap Indian jewellery to complete the look. On the night, Josie’s dancing was a massive hit. There were so many requests that she ended up performing the dance routine from Pakeezah several times. Of course Josie didn’t believe her values were being compromised in any way. It bemused her that popular dance in a family setting could even be a moral issue.
Josie’s first letter from Bradford reached me a few weeks after my wedding. Someone from my leaving party had recognised her in Bombay Stores, Josie wrote. The girl had asked Josie to perform at her wedding – and best of all, she’d offered to pay £100 for three filmi dances! By the time I returned to England 18 months later, Josie had become quite a celebrity in the north of England. She was so heavily booked up with performances at weddings, parties, melas and variety shows up and down the country, the only way I’d get to see her was to travel with her to the performances.
Josie had built up a repertoire of lively songs with memorable dance routines from Bollywood blockbusters. The majority were golden oldies where the routines were inspired by semi-classical Indian dance, rather than modern day tacky numbers which lacked poise and grace. That’s why we relied on recommendations for films of yesteryear from friend’s mums. Remember this was the early 1990s, an era before iTunes, so if an ‘aunt’ suggested a song, Josie and I would head down to Bombay Stores to hunt for a cassette compilation that included it. If Josie felt the song had potential, we would hunt for the film on video. Sitting through a film like Pakeezah, on the lookout for potential dance sequences was effortless. The entire film was so sumptuously colourful that you barely noticed when a song interrupted the narrative. We also sat through some real clangers, only releasing the fast forward button when someone broke into song. And so it was that an ‘aunt’ suggested a dance from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Master Mistress and Slave, Abrar Alvi, 1962). Knowing now that this film is an absolute masterpiece of cinematography, I’m ashamed to admit that on first viewing, I couldn’t understand how such a sober looking film could possibly feature a gem like ‘Saaqiya Aaj Mujhe Needh Nahin Ayegi’, let alone an unforgettable dance routine to accompany it!
The song was featured as part of a mujra recital in the film, and over time, these were the dances that became our favourites. Mujra recitals took place during a mehfil, an aristocratic gathering of fine poetry and music, with the dance being performed by a courtesan. The courtesan or dancing girl is a popular character in Indian cinema. She usually has a minor role in Bollywood films (as in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam above) and tends to be Hindu. There have only been two celebrated films to feature a courtesan as its lead heroine and ironically in both of these, the courtesan was Muslim. One of these was Pakeezah and the other was a film based on a very famous Urdu novel called Umrao Jaan (Muzaffar Ali, 1981). Both films provided Josie with a number of mujra staples for her repertoire.
You can see from the clips how sophisticated the courtesan was, with a lifestyle far superior than the word ‘prostitute’ implies. In fact, the courtesan had refined tastes, and dressed exquisitely. In her heyday – one hundred and fifty years ago in Northern India, during Mughal rule – she was regarded as an intelligent artist and associated with fine society. She was trained in semi-classical singing and dancing. She earned fame and wealth through her beauty and talents – she wrote poetry and sang lyrics she had penned herself, accompanied by a group of highly accomplished male musicians. She was a cultural geisha I suppose, offering something of a ‘finishing school’ for sons of the gentry – they’d be sent to the courtesan quarters to learn, among other things, poetry and etiquette (for more on this, see ‘Filming the Gods’ by Rachel Dwyer). Far from being a seedy spectacle, the mujra involved the courtesan paying her respects to the gathering of male aristocrats in the form of song and dance. The courtesan would take centre stage, and her male admirers would watch the performance whilst lounging around on beautiful Persian carpets and silken bolster cushions, and smoking Shisha style hookahs.
Admittedly, these accoutrements were in short supply at the weddings Josie was invited to perform at. Alongside the grander occasions in Bradford’s smartest curry houses, many were held in makeshift wedding halls – perhaps a community centre or sports hall in Manningham or Great Horton. Here, the only decoration was the mismatched plastic chairs or posters promoting English and sewing classes peeling off the walls. Yet, it was such a visual feast to see these classic dance routines being performed live, just as I’d seen them in the films. Although her foray into Bollywood dance began as a novelty, Josie’s commitment to the craft transformed her into a credible artist. She imitated the choreography perfectly, matching every twirl or hip swivel, noting the slightest inclination of the head, appreciating the subtlety of each hand gesture, bosom lift and eye movement. When she found certain moves didn’t have a notation mark, then she made up her own language. Where the main dancer was out of camera shot, Josie would improvise, always with the same speed, grace and quick footedness as the dancer on screen. As Josie recognised that filmi dances were influenced by different classical dance forms, each with its own unique mannerisms, she undertook intensive training in Bharat Natyam and Kathak. She would tell me: “It’s like speaking with the wrong accent. You have to be able to dance with the right accent. The normal western way of moving doesn’t fit. The whole pattern of movement has to be in the same culture as the dance.”
Of course it helped that Josie was built like a sturdy South Asian woman, with enough curves in all the right places to amply fill out the closely fitted bodice of her long silk dress that she wore with a churidar pajama. And just like the dancers in Indian films, Josie would couple this with a tight fitting bolero jacket to nip in the waist and further accentuate the bosom. She would use mehndi to stain the palms of her hands and had even learnt to bind her long golden hair skilfully into a matching tasselled paranda (hair accessory), visible through the diaphanous dupatta pinned to her hair. She cast an alluring figure with the ghungroo (bells) tied around her ankles chiming evocatively as she stepped onto the dance floor. The irony was that Josie’s popularity soared because she was ‘a gori’ (white woman). Of course she had a natural talent and she worked bloody hard, but the fact remains that Josie’s English background helped to distance her from the traditional dancing girl taboos. While my community might have frowned upon a Muslim woman earning a living through dancing in public, they respected Josie for embracing their culture, and for offering them a piece of home that they sorely missed in Yorkshire. Whilst this career choice would most likely have diminished a Muslim woman’s marriage choices, Josie was in the enviable position of turning down several marriage proposals from enthusiastic Asian men!
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: RISHI, RAJ AND ROLF HARRIS
PREVIOUS: BRADFORD PAKEEZAH AND ME
Written by Irna Qureshi
06/02/2011 at 2:18 pm
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