Rediff.com
Print this article

When my mother danced for Chou Enlai and the Dalai Lama

Last updated on: July 26, 2019 20:09 IST

No one on that glittery occasion could possibly have imagined that the Chinese were conspiring to invade India, nor could anyone have predicted that the seemingly benign Dalai Lama was plotting to flee Tibet and seek asylum in India.
A fascinating excerpt from Sukanya Rahman's must-read Dancing In The Family: The Extraordinary Story Of The First Family Of Indian Classical Dance.

IMAGE: After she won the the Miss India title, Indrani Rahman became a leading exponent of Indian dance, bringing the magic of Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi to the West. This is a 1949 photograph shot by her husband Habib Rahman. All Photographs: Kind courtesy The Rahman Family Collection

The downside of my mother's rising fame in the dance world was her frequent absence from home; the upside was the decidedly global ambience that was now infused into our daily lives.

Ulan Bator, Sinkiang, Bucharest, Yerevan... these were no longer merely place names in the atlas, but places from where we received postcards, letters and gifts.

Conquering the world with dance was almost as grand a passion for her as performing.

The day she received a phone call from the ministry of culture inviting her to participate in a tour to China, Mummy went berserk with excitement and came perilously close to losing her life.

To celebrate this forthcoming tour, and perhaps to soften the blow of yet another spell away from home, she offered to treat me to a Chinese lunch at Nirula's in Connaught Place.

On our way to the restaurant, driving along Curzon Road in a four-seater autorickshaw, she noticed her good friend, writer and dance critic V V Prasad, riding on a scooter in the opposite direction.

"V V, I'm going to dance in China! I'm going to dance in China!" she leaned out and screamed across the street to him, to catch his attention.

Luckily one of our fellow passengers grabbed on to her, snatching back the palloo of her fluttering magenta silk sari seconds before it was sucked into the spokes of the auto's wheels.

Her enthusiasm turned out to be justified, since the Chinese government rolled out the red carpet for the troupe of artists from India and showered them with lavish hospitality.

 

IMAGE: Miss India Indrani Rahman, second from left, with Nargis, Raj Kapoor and Bombay Mayor S K Patil 1952.

The opening performance in Beijing was attended by Mao Tse-tung, Chou Enlai and their visitor from North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, who, according to reports in the press unbuttoned his Mandarin-collared jacket down to his undershirt and applauded heartily all through the program.

The evening ended on a delectably high note with Chou Enlai hosting a traditional Chinese banquet for the delegation of artists.

Soon after Mummy's return from the two-month long tour, our drawing room began to resemble a Chinese curio shop.

Indian handloom cushions and bedspreads were replaced by brilliantly coloured silks embroidered with dragons, chrysanthemums and peonies; a carved wooden lamp with painted glass panels and red tassels was placed on top of an ornate rosewood table.

The walls were plastered with Chinese ink drawings of horses, wispy water colours of coniferous trees and ethereal mountains veiled in swirls of mist, photographic silk portraits of Chairman Mao alongside portraits of my mother's new heart-throb, Chou Enlai.

Those were the days of 'Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai': Indo-Chinese brotherhood and friendship.

The slogan was borrowed from a song composed by our old friend Harin Chattopadhyaya.

IMAGE: Indrani with then Chinese premier Chou Enlai at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, 1955.

The Delhi Gymkhana Club, a staid relic of the British Raj, was the unlikely venue for an official government reception that cemented this brotherhood.

Often the setting for ballroom dances and children's fancy dress parties, the main hall was, on that particular evening, taken over by Prime Minister Nehru who was playing host to a trio of dignitaries from China and Tibet.

For this occasion my mother was outfitted in her Chinese finery: a long black and gold brocade cape over her silk sari.

When Panditji, ever chivalrous to beautiful women, spotted her, he grabbed her by the elbow and whisked her off to meet the dignitaries.

I followed, nervously clutching onto my mother's cape.

The chief guest turned out to be a tall, striking bushy-browed Chinese gentleman who strongly resembled one of the portraits decorating our drawing room wall.

I could practically hear Mummy's heart explode as Chou Enlai leaned down to her and graciously mumbled something about recalling his meeting her in Beijing and seeing her dance.

Standing on either side of the Chinese premier were two young Tibetan monks who, my mother later whispered to me, were the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

Their heads were shaved and they were dressed in sleeveless maroon robes and canvas sneakers.

The dignitaries spoke little, but smiled serenely throughout the evening.

No one on that glittery occasion could possibly have imagined that the Chinese were conspiring to invade India, nor could anyone have predicted that the seemingly benign Dalai Lama was plotting to flee Tibet and seek asylum in India.

IMAGE: Washington DC, 1961: Indira Gandhi, Shobha 'Fori' Nehru whose husband B K Nehru was then India's ambassador to the US, Indrani Rahman, then US President John F Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

One unforgettable night, prior to a performance she was giving at a music conference in Banaras, I was recruited to assist backstage.

It was my job to make sure no one would disturb Mummy while she prepared for the performance.

The transition from everyday face to stage face was a tricky one.

One ill-timed knock on the greenroom door while she applied her elaborate eye make-up could break her concentration and put her in a foul mood for the rest of the evening.

She had a set of pre-performance rituals which seldom varied.

I watched as she methodically draped her costumes over a chair in the order of items on the programme.

Then she laid out her ornaments and cosmetics on the dresser, and placed her ankle bells and some dried rose petals in front of an image of Ganesh.

Just before starting her make-up she stuck several sticks of Mysore sandalwood incense into an empty miniature bottle of Remy Martin and lit them with a match -- both bottle and matches, mementos from tours abroad, were of sentimental value.

And then, as if in a trance, she waved the slowly uncurling, delicately scented smoke over costumes, jewels and ankle bells before leaving them to burn in front of Ganesh, the auspicious elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and is worshipped by artists before each performance.

IMAGE: Indrani Rahman at the Miss Universe contest at Long Beach, California in 1952.

It was my responsibility as well to ward off strangers seeking autographs, free passes, and photographs.

Alas, what transpired during the Banaras performance was beyond my control.

Right in the middle of a physically and mentally demanding Varnam, an overly ambitious press photographer leaped up on stage, stood between my mother and the audience and began to snap away.

My mother stopped dancing, silenced the musicians with the palm of one hand, raised an eyebrow to heaven, spewed out the most effective American expletives in her vocabulary, then grabbed the fellow by his collar and dragged him into the wings.

Reliable sources later reported that the petrified photographer headed straight for the railway station and jumped on the first train out of Banaras -- presumably in search of a new profession.

This unfortunate incident was not held against me.

In fact my stage duties soon extended to playing the tanpura, an easily strummed, long-necked gourd instrument whose four strings provide the hypnotic drone essential to Indian music.

IMAGE: Indrani Rahman at the Miss Universe Contest at Long Beach, California in 1952.

One unfortunate evening in November 1956, my musical and backstage duties almost came to an ignoble end.

Mummy had been invited by Nehru to dance before Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Each dignitary's visit to Delhi included a formal State banquet followed by a cultural programme in the Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Since security was tight, there were no unsavoury characters for me to fend off. It was my first time inside Rashtrapati Bhavan, so I took advantage of the few moments before the 'house' opened to admire Sir Edwin Lutyens's architectural masterpiece.

I strolled onto the makeshift stage and with my mouth wide open and my head up to the ceiling, gaped at the fine crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings and frescoes on the high ceiling.

Suddenly there was an ear-shattering explosion with glass flying all over -- then darkness.

I had inadvertently walked right into the long set of footlights and tripped over them.

When the President's bodyguard, dressed in crisp red tunics and gold and white turbans, leapt out of nowhere to supervise the clean-up and removal of glass from the VIPs' front-row sofas, I was certain they had come with orders to haul me off and lock me up in the palace dungeons.

To my astonishment and relief there was, instead, genuine concern as to whether I had been hurt.

But aside from wounded pride, I was unscathed.

IMAGE: Indrani Rahman, left, with her mother Ragini Devi (who was born Esther Sherman) and daughter Sukanya Rahman, right, at the Three Generations Performance, New York University Theatre, September 29, 1978.

Moments before the imperial entourage, led by President Dr Rajendra Prasad, Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sardar Patel, were to make their entrance into the ballroom, several standard floodlights were hastily plugged in and the show went on.

The soothing strains of the opening alaap, performed by an instrumental trio from All India Radio who were sharing the programme, soon smoothed out many frayed nerves.

Nehru sank comfortably into the sofa, his chin dropping to his chest as he launched contentedly into his legendary post-banquet snore, blissfully ignorant of the little drama that had preceded his entrance.

I was relieved my clumsiness had not marred my mother's performance.

It might have actually enhanced it, since there was more cosmic fire than usual in her Natanam Adinar, the dance in praise of Shiva.

In her signature piece, Sariga Kongu, as the mischievous child-god Krishna, she offered Haile Selassie and Nehru (who had been nudged awake by his daughter) balls of butter which she then teasingly popped into her own mouth.

A foot-stomping, fast-paced, intricately patterned Tillana ended the programme and brought the notoriously restrained audience of bureaucrats to life with their applause.

Instead of leading Haile Selassie on to the stage to greet the artists, as was his custom, Nehru shouted to my mother to step down into the audience.

The diminutive emperor, with his frizzy beard and elongated head, bowed stiffly before my mother and put into her hands some Ethiopian gold coins.

Standing next to the emperor was his tall, regal-looking daughter who was wearing a heavy silver belt with a gold crest.

He whispered something to her. She immediately removed the belt which her father then handed over to my mother.

The emperor's lavish gifts momentarily eclipsed her memory of happenings earlier in the evening.

However, a respectable period of time elapsed before my next encounter with any international royalty or heads of state at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

My mother picked someone else to play the tanpura when she performed for US President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.

I was recruited back into the troupe when she danced for Richard Nixon and by that time I was less overwhelmed by the grand surroundings.


Excerpted from Dancing In The Family: The Extraordinary Story Of The First Family Of Indian Classical Dance by Sukanya Rahman, with the kind permission of the publishers, Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd.

 

SUKANYA RAHMAN