Bollywood in Britain

Tales of being British, Pakistani & female in Bradford, set against classic Bollywood

Posts Tagged ‘Courtesan

12 Another One Bites the Dust

It’s refreshing that Pakistanis should have a hackneyed view of British life. This explains why my relatives were oblivious to our poverty stricken reality of the Canterbury estate, and imagined I had abandoned a luxurious first world existence in Bradford in 1990, for married life in Islamabad. “All the men carry walking sticks and wear bowler hats to work,” my father-in-law would assert habitually. “I saw it on TV!” Alas, this idyllic 1960s scene from Mary Poppins didn’t quite resemble our ramshackle lives in Bradford. Little did our relatives realise that mum left the house at six in the morning, and walked the four miles home from the sewing factory every evening to save on the bus fare. But then, living on home soil with no experience of being a minority, what would they know about being spat at by little old ladies with blue rinses, or being told to “fuck off back to where you come from.” Nor would they have understood the sardonic wit of our blessed neighbour, Mr Graham, who enjoyed tormenting mum with his plans to dig her grave.

Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem palatable to focus on the differences between us lowly immigrant folk and proper English people. How could we bring ourselves to admit to our relatives, that life in Britain had required us to broker our emotional wellbeing, for the sake of family economics? This is why we peddled a more alluring lifestyle, one that was almost aspirational. Besides, it felt good for once to be ranked among the British. So, if my relatives wished to set me apart as a ‘Britisher’ on the basis of something as superficial as my distinct accent, then so be it. The very notion of mum addressing our milkman with a friendly ‘love’ was already a standing joke among the extended family. Now, it was my Yorkshire lilt that commanded their attention. Why on earth did I wreak havoc on the diction epitomised by our Queen Elizabeth and indeed Julie Andrews? Why did I choose to flatten my vowels? Why did I willingly overlook all the ‘t’s in any word and leave out the ‘h’ from the beginning of ‘holiday’? They loved hearing about my school, located at the top of Little Horton Lane which, much to everyone’s amusement, sounded more like ‘Li-ulor-un-learn’ in my Yorkshire dialect. “That sounds more like French,” they would joke, since the language I spoke wasn’t the version of English they’d been taught at school.

There was an irony in this humour. I’d assumed that I would feel a sense of belonging in the embrace of my extended family, into which I had now married. I had high hopes for a new life in Islamabad, somewhere I would feel secure and self-assured as part of the mainstream, instead of meekly trying to modify my ways as a minority. Having married my uncle’s son, I was naturally very much part of the family, but I was also very much the ‘Britisher’. I was regarded as different, somehow foreign, and something of a novelty. My matter-of-fact British manner was at odds with how things were done in Pakistan. I was considered ‘bholi’, a bit simple, open to manipulation, and therefore something of a liability. I was clueless about observing the confusing rules of formality or ‘takalluf’, where one thing is said but something else is meant. So, I would embarrass everyone by checking with guests if they fancied tea BEFORE putting the kettle on, which would lead to an immediate refusal from the guests even if they were gagging for a cuppa. No! The thing to do was to make the tea WITHOUT checking, and then wait for the guests to protest that they didn’t want any, before insisting that they drink up lest they offend their hosts!

It was my mastery of the local protocol and household chores which filled the letters I sent home to Bradford. Meanwhile, letters from my sister and my mate Josie would be crammed with breathless gossip about mutual friends, as well as updates from Eastenders, Sons and Daughters and the all-important Top 40 countdown. As our correspondence continued, new characters were introduced and it became impossible to keep up with the soap storylines. My excitement about learning who was riding at the top of the charts also diminished when the letters mentioned music acts that I’d never even heard of. As our terms of reference began to change, I started to feel more and more disconnected from my old life in Bradford.

It was probably in the autumn of 1991 that my severance from British culture was most marked. My father-in-law held up the latest edition of the Gulf News supplement to check if I was interested in the cover story. I nodded eagerly as a picture of Freddie Mercury caught my eye. He was wearing a pink suit, holding a vintage microphone with a long stand, ready to rock, with the headline “Farewell Freddie”. Queen must have split up, I thought, and they’re announcing dates for a farewell tour. As I located the article, wondering wistfully if they’d include Roundhay Park among their dates, I realised the singer was dead. As I took in the shocking news, I wondered if I was the last person on earth to be hearing it.

I needed to reflect on the magnitude of the cover story, but my anguish merely bemused those around me. There was no use trying to explain what Freddie Mercury meant to my generation. It’s not that they don’t have pop stars in Pakistan, but how do you explain the Freddie Mercury phenomenon to someone that hasn’t even heard of Bohemian Rhapsody? My father-in-law mockingly offered to organise a ‘Khatam-e-Quran’, a recital of the Quran to bestow blessings upon the deceased. As my thoughts turned to Bradford, I knew mum would have understood. Life in Britain had forced her to cultivate a rudimentary knowledge of popular culture. To her credit, she was so familiar with the regular cast of Top of the Pops that suffice it to say, she’d have invited Boy George in for a curry, had he miraculously turned up at our door! It was mum that educated us about The Beatles the day John Lennon died. I’d largely ignored the talk in the school playground that day. Then, mum walked in from work and promptly announced: “We have to watch The News today because John Lennon’s died and I knew him!”

I’d left Queen singing ‘I Want it All’ a couple of years earlier on Top of the Pops in our lounge in Bradford. Now Freddie Mercury was no more and I didn’t know what had happened in between. How was it possible for someone so invincible to disappear like that? I wasn’t even a Queen fan but I still needed to understand how the drama had unfolded. I imagined Queen’s hits being played back-to-back on the radio, special news bulletins on TV, live pictures showing crowds gathered outside the singer’s home, with tributes pouring in from the world of music and beyond. Alas, it was all out of my reach. Phone calls to Bradford were exorbitant, and strictly reserved for matters of life and death, although this obviously didn’t extend to the passing of rock gods. I felt unsettled by the idea that I couldn’t discuss with any member of my household, the story that was likely to be on everyone’s lips back in Britain. With friends out of reach, there wasn’t even a stranger at the bus stop, with whom I could have a cursory chat about a favourite Queen song, to help process the shocking news.

The last time I’d felt so powerless about events in Britain was during a holiday in Islamabad as a teenager in 1985. Someone dragged me out of the kitchen to watch ‘Khabarnama’, the Pakistani equivalent of the 9 o’clock news because they were reporting a serious fire at Valley Parade football stadium. Bradford was burning and I had a two minute news bulletin to make sense of the story. There was barely time to point out the familiarity of Manningham Lane to my family. On that occasion, just as now, I could do nothing but wait for word from Bradford. Sure enough, my sister’s letter arrived a few days later. It had already been written and sealed before she learnt the news, but given the magnitude of the story, she had written in a corner on the back of the envelope: “Freddie Mercury just died. Will write more soon.”

No Bollywood song captures the sense of dislocation and ache for home that I bore during the autumn of 1991 like this one – ‘Yeh Kya Jagan Hai Doston’ (What is This Place, My Friends?) from the sublime Umrao Jaan (1981, Muzaffar Ali). Rekha plays a highly cultured courtesan who is kidnapped as a young girl from a respectable family. She tries repeatedly to escape her tainted profession, but is unable to. When she is forced to flee the brothel where she has earned many admirers, she joins a party of refugees, performing poetry en route to earn her keep. At one such performance, she finds herself back in the neighbourhood from which she was kidnapped. The courtesan senses the presence of her birth family as well as their looming rejection, thanks to her sullied reputation. Yet, Umrao Jaan’s yearning to reach ‘home’ is palpable in every faltering step.

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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

PREVIOUS: A SUITABLE HUSBAND

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

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