Obituary: Indrani Rehman

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The Independent Culture
AS ONE of India's most vibrant and best known classical dancers, Indrani Rehman performed before heads of state in the Sixties and popularised ancient dance forms for Western audiences. After years of international performances before leaders such as Mao Tse- tung, Nikita Khruschev, John Kennedy, the Queen and Fidel Castro, she settled in New York in the 1970s and became a faculty member of the Juilliard Dance School at the Lincoln Center. She also taught various Indian classical dance forms at Harvard and other leading American universities.

Unlike most classical Indian dancers, Rehman did not specialise in one dance form, but performed several, such as Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi. She was instrumental at home and abroad in popularising Odissi, the dance form that evolved in the eastern Orissa state. She had spent three gruelling years learning it, and she presented the highly evolved Kuchipudi style (which, like most classical dance forms, comes from the south of India) to overseas audiences for the first time.

Rehman's captivating beauty (she was one of the first Miss Indias, in the early 1950s), her grace and breathtaking costumes, fired the imagination of post-independence India and won her state patronage. Among numerous trips abroad in the 1950s and 1960s, she led two cultural troupes to China where she performed before Chairman Mao and the prime minister Chou En- lai.

She also greatly impressed the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who ensured that she was a member of his official delegation on important visits abroad. On one such trip to the United States in 1961 her dancing in New York enthralled President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. Eighteen years later she gave another memorable presentation there - Three Generations of Indian Dance - accompanied by Ragini Devi, her American-born mother and mentor, and her daughter, Sukaniya.

Rehman was born in 1930 in the southern Indian city of Madras, the daughter of Ramalal Bjapai, an Indian scientist and president of the Indo-American League, and Esther Sherman of Petoskey, Michigan. After moving to India in the mid-1920s, Sherman, already an accomplished classical Indian dancer, changed her name to Ragini Devi and in the late 1920s travelled south to Madras to study dance. Here, she created history by becoming the first woman to storm the male-dominated bastion of the Kathakali dance drama form that originated in Kerala state hundreds of years ago, by giving a public performance of it.

All Indian classical dance forms trace their origins to the more than 2,000-year-old Natya Shastras, or "Theatre Scriptures", and strive broadly to portray, through dance, scenes from ancient Hindu mythology. For example the best known, Bharat Natyam, concentrates on complex foot movement and facial expressions with the dancer's body remaining erect, while in Odissi the performer's body is curved and the movements subtly different. The difficulty in learning them stems from the fact that all classical Indian dance genres necessitate decades of intense discipline and dedication, and a serious pupil's life is nothing but a laborious exercise in honing and perfecting bodily movement to a highly evolved art form.

Rehman began learning dance at the age of five from U.R. Krishna Rao, an accomplished teacher in Bangalore, and four years later was taken by her mother on a performing spree to Paris and other European and American cities. At the age of 15 she married Habib Rehman, an Indian who was studying architecture in the US, and she returned home to continue learning dance from acknowledged gurus in the south.

Shortly after independence in 1947 Rehman attracted the attention of India's leading dance and art critic Charles Fabri, a Hungarian Jew settled in India, who promoted her in his widely read columns in The Statesman. He also persuaded Rehman to go to Orissa and learn the little-known Odissi which she is credited with popularising.

Rehman's heyday as India's unrivalled danseuse lasted till the mid-1970s, a period during which she not only achieved international acclaim but was also awarded the Padma Shri, India's highest civilian decoration, and the prestigious Dance and Drama Academy award. In 1976 she moved to New York, where she continued to dance but concentrated more on teaching, and on encouraging and discovering new talent.

Rehman's dalliance with various dance genres led to criticism that she was not a "purist", never having ever mastered the "language" of any one form. Serious critics considered her an excellent ambassador for Indian culture, but for an audience not overly familiar with ancient classical dance. However, critics and admirers unanimously concede that, unlike several contemporaries Indrani Rehman was a highly urbane and warm person, one who generously patronised budding talent, and helped them achieve fame.

Indrani Bjapai, dancer: born Madras 19 September 1930; married 1945 Habib Rehman (died 1992; one son, one daughter); died New York 5 February 1999.