- Dr. Sunil Kothari
October 3, 2017
Book 'Kathak' by Dr. Sunil Kothari, published by Marg
Shirin Vajifdar, 92, passed away in Mumbai peacefully on September 29, 2017.
She was a pioneer among Parsi community to take up classical dancing in early 1930s. She and her two sisters Khurshid and Roshan performed together as Vajifdar Sisters. Shirin studied Kathak under Jaipur gharana maestro Sundar Prasadji and later on studied further Kathak and other styles like Manipuri and Kathakali at Madam Menaka's Nrityalayam at Khandala, near Mumbai.
Facing opposition from the Parsi community for taking to classical dancing, Shirin continued to dance and trained her younger sisters. They used to perform together in Mumbai on many occasions. Shirin used to tell me that they were often threatened by her Parsi community that they would disturb their performances by throwing eggs and stones! But she was not afraid and did not care. There were others who supported her.
Her contemporaries in Nrityalayam were Damayanti Joshi, Shevanti, who later partnered Ram Gopal, Vimala and among gurus, Guru Bipin Singh under whom she studied Manipuri and Krishnan Kutty, who taught Kathakali. In Mumbai at that time, Poovaiah Sisters were also performing Kathak. Sitara Devi, Tara Chaudhary, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Shanta Rao, Ritha Devi were Shirin's contemporaries. Later on Shirin and Krishnan Kutty's troupe performed dance dramas with mythological themes like Mohini Bhasmasura for which libretto was written by Dr. Mulk Raj Anand. They also travelled abroad. When the first delegation of dancers and musicians was sent in early fifties to China, Shirin and Krishnan Kutty along with Indrani Rahman and several other dancers and musicians had travelled together.
Shirin started training Roshan when she was very young. In those years, the three sisters learnt many dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Manipuri and Mohiniattam. Shirin and her sisters were often invited to perform for charitable causes. When she grew up, Roshan chose Bharatanatyam and won Govt of India scholarship to study further under Chokkalingam Pillai and later on staying for seven years in Bangalore, studied under Kittappa Pillai and became a well known Bharatanatyam dancer. She later married Dr. Hiranmay Ghosh, a Chiropractor and settled in Kodaikanal. Khurshid was married to renowned painter Shyavax Chavda, whereas Shirin was married to Dr. Mulk Raj Anand.
I came to know Shirin well when I started working with Dr. Mulk Raj Anand for Marg magazine. They used to stay at 25, Cuff Parade, Colaba, in Mumbai. After she retired from an active dance career, Shirin used to write for The Times of India as a dance critic. I had started writing for The Evening News of India and we used to attend several performances together. I used to visit their residence often. She allowed me access to her vast collection of books on dance. I remember she had lent me Sol Hurok's biography, The Impresario, which was quite a fascinating book, giving information about Uday Shankar and his troupe when Sol Hurok arranged their international tours all over America.
As a person, Shirin was gentle and social. She had phenomenal memory of the bols of Manipuri she had studied at Nrityalayam under Guru Bipin Singh. Her dance reviews were constructive as she had many terms of references having seen several dancers. Dr. Mulk Raj Anand's house was always full of artists, writers, and often musicians and dancers were invited to his soirees. Shirin used to look after them as a gracious hostess. Shirin used to teach Kathak to select few students at the residence. Among them, Sunita Golwala was a bright dancer. She later on settled in London. Another student was Jeroo Mulla. Shirin's own niece Jeroo Chavda, aka Jyoti Chavda, daughter of Khurshid and painter Shyavax Chavda, also studied under Shirin.
Shirin was invited by film director Kishore Sahu in 1954 to choreograph a dance sequence in his film Mayurpankh, which was performed by Khurshid and Roshan, for the song rendered as a duet by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle: "Yeh barkha bahar soutaniya ke dwar..." - this season of rain bothers me like another woman my beloved fancies. Written by Shailendra, the music was by Shankar-Jaikishan. The film was sent to Cannes Films Festival where it was nominated for Grand Prize.
In Mumbai, Shirin was close to the Jhaveri Sisters, Gurus Mahalingam Pillai, Govindaraj Pillai and Kalyanasundaram Pillai. Reminiscing about earlier dance scene, she would tell us about Ram Gopal staying at Oceana building on Marine Drive and inviting Shirin and her sisters to study Bharatanatyam under him. He was, according to Shirin, the most charismatic and handsome dancer with a gift of the gab. Shirin was also very fond of Indrani Rahman.
Through her reviews in those years, Shirin encouraged up and coming dancers like Sonal Mansingh (nee Pakvasa), Kanak Rele (nee Divecha), Vani Ganapathy, Protima Bedi, and young dancers participating in Kal-ke- Kalakar festival organized by Sur Singar Samsad. When she saw Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his disciples Sanjukta Panigrahi and Kumkum Mohanty, she fell in love with Odissi. She was equally fond of Vempati Chinna Satyam, the great Kuchipudi guru, and was full of praise for his disciples Sobha Naidu and a bevy of Kuchipudi dancers from Chennai. Dancers valued her words and suggestions. Sometimes Shirin used to read some paragraphs from her autobiography mentioning how she and her sisters had gone through difficulties in life. It is a valuable document giving readers an idea of how dance was looked down upon earlier, and how Shirin and her sisters had to suffer humiliation. But things did begin to change and she felt rewarded when dance was accepted in society.
Shirin was meticulous and carefully kept all reviews in a scrap book. She taught me to keep a copy of each review I wrote. She used to type and make corrections before sending the reviews to The Times of India office. Jeroo, aka Jyoti Chavda, has kept them well as she has Shirin's incomplete autobiography. She is planning to publish it after carefully going through it and also illustrating it with rare photos.
With Shirin's passing away, Indian dance world has lost a veteran, pioneer dancer and a warm human being. She was quite self-effacing. Married to celebrity and internationally renowned author like Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, she always kept a low profile. As Parsi community has a unique sense of humour, she had one, and often used to regale us with jokes. I had kept in touch with her after moving to Kolkata and whenever I visited Mumbai, I made it a point to meet her. Last year when I visited Mumbai, Jeroo told me that Shirin was not keeping well, so I could not go to meet her. I shall miss her as she was a close friend. We two had spent considerable time together watching the dance scene in Mumbai and I have happy memories of those years.
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic, Padma Shri awardee and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.
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