When the veteran Kathak exponent Saswati Sen speaks about Satyajit Ray, life turns into a challenge of balancing contradictions. One moment, she revels in nice nostalgia, waxing eloquent about the joys of dancing to a Pandit Birju Maharaj thumri, Kanha main tose . Next moment she is all wistful talking of Ray and how she last met him in the intensive care unit barely a few days before he passed away. Every now and then, she takes control of her emotions to talk lucidly about her initial foray into the world of Kathak, and how it finally led her to work with the great film-maker. Often the veil slips, and she can barely control her tears. Then she lapses into the present tense when talking about how Ray took care of all the niceties, the nuances of a classical song in the film, how he spoke to her father, a medical practitioner, to persuade him to allow his daughter to work in cinema, which was not considered such a laudable career option back in the 1970s. Of course, she talks of Maharaj ji too, just as she beautifully encapsulates how the film-maker and she joined hands to persuade a perfectionist like Maharaj to agree to one rendition of Kanha main tose…
Blessed with a photographic memory, 44 years after she worked in Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), Saswati Sen recalls the experience like a girl who had just laid her hands on the most beautiful doll. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
You were studying to be a doctor in Aligarh Muslim University. How did you end up working in “Shatranj ke Khilari”?
Yes, I was studying medicine. There were so many incidents which got intertwined. My whole family on my father’s side is full of medical practitioners, very senior doctors. My Tauji [paternal uncle] had a nursing home near Tilak Bridge in New Delhi. His wife was a top gynaecologist. My father was a senior doctor too. Being the first child, it was instilled into me like a mantra from the beginning that I had to become a doctor. Whosoever asked, what will you do after growing up, I would say, “I will be a doctor like my father.” My father, uncles, everybody was hoping I would be a doctor. But destiny had other plans.
Then how did you choose to be an artiste?
We used to have a helping hand, Joku bhaiya , at home [in Delhi]. He used to stay in the outhouse in front of our house. He used to play banjo in the afternoon. He had no training but had music in mind. He would play, Tan dole mera man dole . I would go to his room in the afternoon. He would play and I would dance. I was called Sapna at home. He would say “ Sapni, naach ” [Dance, Sapni]. He tried to persuade my mother to arrange formal education in dance for me. My mother put him down, saying, nobody in the family had learned dance. One day, he found out that there was Bharatiya Kala Kendra. It had a Kathak wing. Shambhu Maharaj ji and others were there. But it was not a teaching institute then. They just used to perform dance dramas. It was close to our home. We could go there by cycle. After a lot of hesitation, my parents took me there. Reba Vidyaarthi ji was teaching there at the junior level. She was then unmarried and called Reba Chatterji. She turned out to be a fellow Bengali.
It must have touched a chord?
Yes, it must have touched a really good chord. I was put under her tutelage. She was my first guru. She was trained under Shambhu Maharaj ji and his father Achchan Maharaj ji also. Every now and then she would invite Shambhu ji to come and bless the children learning under her. He was my father’s age. I did not know Birju Maharaj ji then.
But is it not true that Birju ji used to quite like your performances even in the initial days? The seeds for the “Shatranj ke Khilari” partnership were probably sown back then?
He may have seen me, but he did not know me. He used to live nearby. Pratap Pawar ji , Birju ji and others used to hang around. Some day, they used to pass stray remarks when I would be going for my class. I used to feel very uncomfortable. Once, I ran to complain to Didi [Reba], saying, those guys are no good. She came out, asked the guard. She did not realise I was talking about Maharaj ji . I said one of the guys is the leader of the gang. He sits at the top, others stand around him.
My entering the dance world was like entering a totally alien world. We did not even know how to touch the feet like an artiste. We did not know how to hold one’s ear, show bhakti [reverence] towards a guru. I did not know the concept of guru-shishya .
Soon, I joined a more professional course and one of the criteria was to learn under a senior guru. Didi took me to Maharaj ji [Birju]. I hid behind her dupatta . I was scared. I was just 13-14 then. I went out and told her, “This man is the leader of the gang I spoke about! He is not a good man.” Didi tried to drive some sense into me. It went on. I used to go to the class and just cry there. A fellow dancer counselled me. Finally, one day, Maharaj ji told me to go back to Reba Didi. After a couple of months, I apologised and then there was no looking back.
Then who introduced you to Satyajit Ray? Was it Birju Maharaj?
There is an interesting story. Back in the 1970s, there used to be a film festival at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi. Satyajit Ray was on the jury almost every year. Once, I performed for about five minutes at the festival. Dada [Ray] saw. When he thought of making Shatranj ke Khilari , he needed proper information on Kathak. He was known to be a perfectionist. He came down to Kathak Kendra and spoke to Maharaj ji about planning a group dance and solo performance in Shatranj ke Khilari . He asked him to talk of his father and grandfather, about the stories he had heard about Kathak, how people used to sit in the durbar . Maharaj ji had performed in the Rampur nawab’s place, also at Raigarh maharaj’s place. He had heard many anecdotes. Dada would come frequently to listen and imbibe the ethos of the times. Then he got down to selection of thumri s. Maharaj ji sang some 20 thumri s for Dada. Finally, they decided on this bhairavi, Kanha main tose hari …. They spent hours together.
What was your family’s reaction to signing the film? It is one thing to perform on stage, and quite another for cinema.
Yes, yes. After Dada had selected the thumri and the group, he kept asking Maharaj ji , “Woh ek ladki ko dekha thha Vigyan Bhawan mein . I need that girl.” Maharaj ji could not understand as I was not a professional dancer then. Finally, Dada said, “I have seen her at the film festival. I think, she is probably a Bengali.” Then Maharaj ji understood. I was brought before Ray. He immediately said he wanted me for the film. Maharaj ji was apprehensive about my family agreeing to the offer. But Dada told me to take him to meet my father immediately.
So, your father agreed happily?
I was in a daze. I told Dada, my father would stop my dance training completely if they got to know about films. My mother opened the door. She almost fainted looking at Dada. He wanted to see my father who was at his clinic then. He said, never mind, I will wait, and he asked for a cup of tea and some pakoda s. He was such a simple man. I was like a daughter for him.
When my Papa came, he initially refused. He said, nobody in my family would agree. He said his elder brothers would object, as it is his daughter was learning dance. But Dada said, he was ready to go to Calcutta to meet his brothers. Then my father sought two days’ time. Dada assured him about the unit, saying it was like a family for him. People had worked together for 20 years. He assured him about my safety too, saying, “My wife is there on the sets too.” He invited my parents to the sets. Then my father agreed.
Did he go to attend the shooting?
No, my father was busy. My mother escorted me. But what an experience it turned out to be. We were shooting in Tollygunge. The shooting was long, but my dance sequence took only three days.
What were Ray’s tips to a newcomer like you?
He said, “Beta, do not think it is a film. You dance like you do on stage. I will put up my camera the way I need. First day, I will just observe you.” He would sketch out the sequence with line drawings. Then show it to Maharaj ji . He asked me to dance two-three times but told me not to think of the camera. Just dance normally. To make me comfortable, he would even arrange an audience for me. Beginning with Utpal Dutt to Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Aparna Sen, they would sit there as it was Dada’s first Hindi film, that too in colour. It had created a stir already. When I would perform, they would all say “wah-wah” to make me feel that I was giving a live performance and not dancing for a film.
That was the magic of the film-maker.
Yes, that was. Dada was concerned about all the little details. He was so meticulous. Once a curtain needed to be put up by a junior artist. He was a short guy. He would move around with a hammer and a stool to reach the top. Dada saw it from a distance, and told him, “It is not your job, I will do it. God has made me so tall for this job only.” The artist was shivering. But Dada believed everybody was like family. He was such a great man, loving and simple.
I believe Shama Zaidi designed your costumes in the film?
My costumes, jewellery, was all authentic as Dada did not settle for anything less. He even wanted a rare chandelier for the dance performance and gave it in writing to get the chandelier that no damage would be done. He got royal costumes from Nawab sahab’s place.
Maharaj ji would tease me, “ Baap re ! You are laden with diamonds and platinum. Let’s run.” But seriously, even when I had to go to the wash room, I had two people following me.
How was it to be with Victor Banerjee and Amjad Khan in the sequence?
Oh, it was wonderful. Victor was very young. It was challenging for him too. With Amjad bhai , it was great fun. He would sit with Maharaj ji and say, “Maharaj, why have you made me Krishna? I am used to be a Gabbar with a gun. But you have given me a flute.”
Amjad Khan gave a memorable performance in the film. He had a little dance sequence, too.
He had a few bhav . He played a nawab. As a nawab he was not supposed to perform as such, just hold a hand here, an anchal there. Or convey something with his eyes. But that feeling, that ada for it, was beautiful. Amjad bhai even sang Tadap tadap rain guzri in the film.
Yes, how did Ray convince Amjad Khan to sing a classical song, totally removed from his “Sholay” image?
Amjad Khan used to sing for us. Dada had come to know about it. He asked him to sing in the film. Amjad bhai would come to Maharaj ji and sing for him. He would ask him to correct him. Dada was so concerned about Amjad playing Wajid Ali Shah that when Amjad had an accident, he waited a year for him to recover. He said he wouldn’t make the film without him.
Birju Maharaj is known to be a perfectionist, as was Satyajit Ray. They must have got along well.
I will tell you an interesting tale. Once, Dada was recording a thumri by Maharaj ji . Every time, he would sing, Maharaj ji would not be satisfied. It went on for a long time. One retake, then another, then another. At times, half a song, at times, almost full. More than 30 retakes had been done. Then Dada called me. He said, “I know he is a genius. I am also never satisfied with my work. But if I continue with such retakes, my film will never be completed.” So he told me he would give me a signal when he liked a particular rendition of Maharaj ji , then we all were supposed to join Dada in praising the song! Accordingly, once he signalled to me, I burst out saying, “Wah! Wah! Maharaj kamal kar diya. ” And the song was recorded. Dada was such a person. He had his ways.
Did life change after the release of “Shatranj ke Khilari”?
When Ray came to meet my father, he had assured him that it would be a clean song. And he told him, the day the film releases, the next day your daughter will be a household name in Bengal. It turned out that way. Overnight, I was recognised. Many years later when I went to Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Devdas , he recalled my dance performance in Shatranj ke Khilari and said he was in love with me at that time. I said you ought to have told me then. Even now when I see myself today on the screen, I say, what beautiful conception. Dada shot it so nicely.
Your interaction with Satyajit Ray was limited to “Shatranj ke Khilari”?
No, Maharaj ji and I would go to meet him whenever we were in Calcutta. I remember his old-style staircase, his drawing room, his books. After so many years, when he was not well, and admitted to hospital, I went to see him. He was in ICU. I stood outside, peering from a little opening in the door. Dada noticed it. He signalled to the nurse to call me in. I said, I don’t want to disturb him. Finally, I went inside. He held my hand in his hand, and asked, “Why weren’t you coming in? [breaks down] You are like a daughter to me.” He was so simple, such a genius. There are very few people like him in the world.
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