Film Classical Dances of Roshan Kumari

Saturday, December 8, 2012
I’ve found two new Roshan Kumari film dances online! One seems to have not been available for public view until recently thanks to Angel (Basanta Bahara) and the other shows her dancing pure Kathak in a Films Division documentary (Kathak) that I've uploaded.

I’ve blogged before about her exquisite Kathak in Indian cinema, but I’ve never done a dedicated post and thought it was high time.  For a nice overview of Roshan Kumari’s background, I recommend a visit to an informational page about her created by one of her students, Mukta Joshi.  I also recommend visiting Richard's post about her at his Dances on the Footpath blog, where I'm quite sure I first learned about Roshan.

I want to get straight to talking about her exquisite Kathak.  What I love most about her style, and what is featured in most of her film dances, is her explosive nritta (pure, non-interpretive dance).  Most of the Kathak found in Indian films tends toward the courtesan/Mujra style of Kathak with a focus on abhinaya (expressive interpretation), lyrical poetry, and a slower pace to show off the dancer's feminine charms.  In cases where the pace quickens to feature footwork and spins, the dances still aren't up to par and the dancer's lack of lengthy Kathak training usually shows (or in the case of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, the dancer (Gopi Krishna) is clearly trained but "spices up" the dance for film so much that it strays from classical Kathak).  Film Kathak often features close-up shots of the dancer's footwork, but it's almost always a shadow of the real thing.  There are a few film dances, however, that are gleaming exceptions to the rule in their presentation of rhythmic, technical Kathak, and the star of this style is undoubtedly Roshan Kumari.  She is responsible for the best technical Kathak in Indian cinema, I say! 

Roshan's dance style was certainly a product of her training in the Jaipur gharana (style) of Kathak.  Sunil Kothari describes the central feature of the style as “an astounding quality of rhythmic wizardry” that is “austere,” “forceful, and virile” as opposed to the Lucknow gharana which has more focus on delicacy and beauty. Likewise, Kothari described Roshan’s recitals as “scintillating, forceful, and vigorous revealing the salient features of Jaipur gharana" with an "element of delectable precision in her nritta.”  Roshan was well-known for her taiyyari (technical prowess) and passed the skill along to her students (Singh, Kothari).  While many critics were impressed by her energy and skill, some saw her style as more “austere” with “understatement more than overstatement even in the abhinaya sequences” (Thought), and one reviewer went as far as to call her "inexpressive."

Given how I seem to prefer the geometrical flourishes and rhythmical wizardry of "pure dance" in many styles of Indian classical dance, I absolutely love Roshan Kumari’s style and find her film dances simply enthralling.  Such precision in Kathak is rarely seen on screen!  I will now present all of her film dances that I am aware of, including the two new ones that I am excited to present: Basanta Bahara, and the Films Division documentary Kathak.

Roshan Kumari's Film Dances

Jalsaghar (“The Music Room,” 1958, Bengali) – The jewel in Roshan’s film dance crown is certainly her dance in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar.  According to Pallabi Chakravorty, Roshan performs a "trivet," a fast-paced dance item popular in the Jaipur style but rarely performed today.  Her dance in the film, set in 1920s Bengal, is the final of three concerts of impressive music and/or dance hosted in the music room of the central character of the film, a Zamindar (land-owning, feudal aristocrat) whose place in society has faded (Hossain) and who “pawns the family jewels to keep up with the opulence of his ancestors and with his rich upstart neighbour” (Rajadhyaksha).  Roshan begins dancing at :44, but the musical introduction is required watching to set the mood.  Her effortless, grounded chakkar spins at 2:08 are the perfect antithesis of most Kathak seen in film (and did you notice they're so fast the flowers in her hair fall down at one point!). This dance is simply sparkling, and the way it slowly builds to the climax is nothing short of spellbinding.

Mirza Ghalib (Hindi, 1954) - This historical film is set in the time of the “magnificance of the court of the last Mughal” and follows the romance of the Indian poet Mirza Ghalib and a dancer (Worldcat).  Roshan Kumari’s dance seems part of the display of riches and artistry in that period of the court and is quite similar to her dance in Jalsaghar though much shorter.

Basanta Bahar (Bengali, 1957) - In many descriptions of Roshan Kumari, she is said to have danced in a few Bengali and Hindi films, one of which is Basant Bahar.  It turns out it is not the 1956 Hindi film Basant Bahar but the Bengali film of the similar name, Basanta Bahar, directed by Bikash RoyThe “a” makes all the difference. :)  At first I thought it might be a remake, but a commenter over at Richard's blog noted it has a different plotline.  Roshan's performance appears to be part of a montage with architectural images from various regions of India and faces overlayed on the screen.  Her style here is much more loose and freeform but with the same speed one expects of Ms. Kumari.  The number is filled with lots of delightful touches, like the sharp way she throws her dupatta off her shoulders or the beautiful extensions she makes.  With her loose hair and less "textbook" costume, she looks so much younger than her other film dances even though they were filmed around the same time.  We finally get to see some nice closeups of her sans the shadows of Jalsaghar!  I sense that some of her spins are sped up with editing since they look much too fast to be real.   Her performance ends with a shot of her controlled, blazing footwork.

Kathak (1970) – Films Division Documentary - This is the other new dance of hers I found!  Roshan appears at 12:04 following an explanation of how the coming of the Mughals transformed Kathak by emphasizing abstract dance and adding things like the pleated skirt and the “salami” gesture at the start of the performance (where the hand raises towards the forehead).  Technical, abstract dance was her forte so this placement is not a surprise.  The documentary also features the performances of Damayanti Joshi, Uma Sharma, Sudarshan Dheer, and Shambhu Maharaj.  The quality is not great, but it's out there for public view with keywords!  Updated embedded video September 2019 with a much better quality version uploaded at the Films Division youtube channel, yay!

Parineeta (Hindi, 1953) - Here we have a double-whammy with Roshan Kumari and Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna as peformers! Gopi Krishna wows with his effortless turbo-spins (as I call them!) and Roshan has delightful form in the way she holds herself.  At first it seems like the song will stay in a simple, folk realm, but at 2:15 it shifts into a beautiful display of technique.  I love the way Roshan's voluminous skirt folds open as she spins, and the head-to-toe pan shot of each dancer as they perform their footwork is a nice touch. A surprisingly wonderful number!

Two other films Roshan is said to have danced in are Waris and Jhansi Ki Rani, though I’ve watched both and could not see her (though for a time I thought she might be in Jhansi Ki Rani but decided against it; see my pictoral comparison in this post).  Perhaps there were Bengali versions of these?  I've also read a few comments online claiming she was in a couple more songs but none have actually been of her.  She also supposedly choreographed from some films like Lekin, Sardari Begum, and Gopi, but I'll be confirming that in my upcoming choreographer series still in progress. :)

Chakravorty, Pallabi. Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India. 2008.
Hossain, Razeeb.  "The Music Room." South Asia Journal.
Kothari, Sunil. Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art. 1989.
Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Paul Willemen.  Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema: New Revised Edition. 1999.
Singh, Shanta Serbjeet. Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor. 2000.
Thought. Volume 25. "Roshan Kumari and Kathak".
Worldcat. "Mirza Ghalib."


  1. Figures... I found the Kathak documentary through my YouTube page and I said to myself, "This is great, I've got to post this on my blog!" and then I realized that it was from one of your YouTube pages and I thought, better check that Minai blog to see if she posted it already, and sure enough...

    I am so delighted to see this Roshan Kumari page... One of these days, we are going to have to find some dancer(s) that we don't agree about. :)

  2. Minai,
    I did not enjoy these that much. These days, I look for artistic expression in Pakistan since there was more repression there. I noticed a series 'Payal Aur Sargam' banned during Zia's time which have some Kathak type dances by Naheed Siddiqui. There is some nice music too and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan's singing. For a layman like those dances seem more graceful.

    1. So this is jaipur gharana. This is why. Dance is not that much gracefu

  3. Richard - Hehe! Happy you enjoyed the documentary as much as I did. While the quality is really terrible, it is a nice overview of the dance form and explains some common terms, which I liked. And it shows that Roshan was still in top form years later!

    Gaddeswarup - So you're not a Roshan Kumari fan eh? :) I looked up Payal Aur Sargam" on Google Video and was amazed to see that it is the source of many of those great Nahid Siddiqui clips that tripmonk0 has on his channel! Amazing, I will have to see what other new clips might be there. I agree that Nahid is more graceful than Roshan (Nahid is positively charming!), and I agree with Roshan's critics regarding her lack of facial expression. How do you always find such amazing links and bits of information?! :) I am off to view new Nahid clips!!

  4. Minai,
    It is all your and Richard's influence. I used to dislike Bharata Natyam as a kid but found some of the more likeable dances through your presentations. There was a nice kathak type dance in a Pakistani film and I assumed that it was difficult to kill such a tradition and searched. I still am not a fan of Kumari Kamala (though I like the Tandav dance) or Noor Jehan(I like some of her songs) and usually go for what is easy on the eye or the ear and what i can enjoy without specialized knowledge. I love that first dance of Padmini in pardesi where the whole body, particularly the eyes, speak.

  5. Interesting conversation developing here. :) Swarup, I go to Pakistani films a lot for music and dance. I do so, though, not because there was more repression there, but because there is so much good stuff to be found there, especially in the films from the '50s and '60s. But I did so at first because I was following Noor Jehan, looking for her everywhere I could find her, especially during the period before 1962, when she was a singing star and not just a playback singer. I don't understand how anyone could NOT find her easy on the ears! (And on the eyes, at least in the early days...)

    I look to Pakistan a lot more than India for certain contemporary fare too. On my Facebook timeline, I have a lot of Pakistani fusion music and pop music. I think Pakistan has done far better than India in fusion and pop music lately (though I am not sure if that is stuff either of you are looking for right now...). I also find some contemporary Pakistani films to be much more interesting than anything coming out of Bollywood nowadays. (I liked Bol quite a bit.) And for a long time, I have been fascinated by the not-so-respected Pakistani dance scene of the stage shows, the stuff known as contemporary murjas. (Ah, but some of that dancing is quite good. My favorite stage show mujra dancer, Megha, is actually well classically trained.) This scene is notorious for its "vulgarity," but actually, most of it is far less vulgar than many contemporary dances in Bollywood films and music videos. (But I'm talking about the videos I've seen that come from TV; perhaps it is a bit different in the houses of Heera Mandi.)

    But back to more respected stuff... I agree about Nahid Siddiqui; she is great.

    I would have more to say, but have to run right now...

  6. Richard,
    Dave Brubeck supposedly said
    "In an interview with Jazz Journal International years later, Brubeck acknowledged again that his encounter with Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan had significantly changed the way he approached his music. “His influence made me play in a different way,” the pianist said. “Although Hindu scales, melodies and harmonies are different, we understood each other…The folk origins of music aren’t far apart anywhere in the world.”"
    I guess when things are formalized, systematized and classified the distance from the folk origins increases and laymen like me are lost. Of course, this may not account for individualty, originality, diversity etc but human developments in different parts of the world seem often similar. I would guess that things which appeal to a lot of people in one region or a group have a chance of appealing to people elsewhere.

  7. Pakistani Rock music mixes the Gazal and british rock in a creative way that almost(but not quite ) mirrors Bollywood film music. Some of their riffs are indeed original and if not for the fact that the beatles style rock and roll is now dated and the purview of senior hippies, Pakistani rock could easily have taken over the world.

    Almost ALL other pakistani music is pretty much ALL Indian music in genre and content.Nustrat, for instance is old hat to indians who listened to quawwalis (there's a quwwali at the beginning of the shyam benegal film Junoon, that would easily be a NFAK song) Their Classical music finds an echo in Indian hindustani classical music, their suufi/religious music is almost exactly the same as Indian sufi/quawwal.

    I would go so far as to say much of AFGHAN (pashtoon) traditional music is very indian in its nature. Iranian and tajik traditional music have more central asian roots.

    Part of the problem when talking about pakistani music is that they don't have a genre identity(as far as I can make out) their musicians find their place almost seamlessly among indian classical musicians or in indian films. Often their audiences are the same as the audiences for indian film music, even in pakistan. so one is reduced to talking about INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS from pakistan, of talent.

    Not that that's a bad thing..I for one am very happy when Adnan sami or Strings make it into Bollywood and blend their rock albums into bollywood soundtracks.

  8. Interesting discussion y'all! I don't have much to add regarding the music parts, but I'm enjoying reading all your thoughts. A few comments:

    Gaddeswarup - Do you remember the Pakistani film that had the Kathak dance you liked? Was it this song from Waadah? I'm having deja vu with this conversation...were you the one that posted about that song? Or maybe it was Richard? I can't recall, anyway, it's an interesting watch.

    Richard - I had not known about Noor Jehan before reading some of your posts about her - it's wonderful that you've given her so much attention.

    Rameshram - What is classical music known as in Pakistan?

    My contribution to this discussion about Pakistani music and dance is this, which some/all/none of you may find interesting. Apparently the branch of Kathak that spread in Pakistan (after the dance revival, 1930s-50s) was the Banaras Gharana (the lesser known after the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas). In the Banaras line, Pandit Gopal is said to have made Kathak popular in Punjab before Partition, and apparently after Partition most of the teachers and dancers of the Gharana moved to Pakistan. One of Gopal's students was Ashiq Hussain who was supposedly a famous film star in Pakistan and taught many dancers like Kumudini Lakhia, Krishna Kumar, and Sunayana Hazarilal (whose interviews serve as the source for most of this information). I haven't researched much further than this, but I'm very curious if Ashiq Hussain danced in any Pakistani films in the 50s and 60s. I had started researching this a while back... I believe Ashiq was credited in the 1956 film Intezar... but I moved onto some other topics and now I'm a bit rusty. I will revisit the subject later on my upcoming post about Gopi Krishna and confusions with the Benaras Gharana. If any of you have run across information about Ashiq/Pakistani film Kathak, I'd love to hear about it. :)

  9. The politics of names is beyond my interests...but I believe that each element of classical music in pakistan is known by its splinter name (Quwwali, Sufiana, Mujhra etc. ) While there are some remenants of the indian style court muisc (shastriya sangeet , the Pt Bhatkhande (1860-1939) documented classical music revival..based on the earlier Pt Venkhatamakhin's (popularly thought of from the 18th century) re do of south indian music ) Pakistani Classical singers gravitated, after independance to the more popular styles (gazals) or film music. I would go as far as to claim that there is no "hindustani music" style classical music establishment in pakistan (the indian counterpart is populated by people like bhimsen joshi, jasraj and Pt Bismillah Khan) independant of the component branches of folk and religious music.

  10. Very interesting conversation, indeed, and too much to follow up on! I will have to get back to much of this another time, if at all. :)

    Ramesh, for a while about five to seven years ago, I was very interested in the genre that some of us called "Indian electronica," stuff that began a long time after Beatles-style rock. Going just a little further back, for Indian fusion music, I was into the Asian Underground in the early '90s, some of which managed to fall into the modern Bhangra genre later on. Also, when I got into M.I.A.'s global fusion in 2006-07, I got interested in the fusion of folk music and hip-hop that occurred on the subcontinent, especially stuff in the south... But recently, I've found the return to rock in Indian/Pakistani fusion music to be very refreshing (in the way that old often becomes new again). And anyway, it's not really fusion music in the sense that The Beatles were.

    I've enjoyed much of the material that I've found from the Coke Studios show. I find the videos on YouTube and I don't know much about the context, but I find this stuff to be quite innovative. Some of this fusion music actually reminds me of global Goth bands such as Dead Can Dance. I've always said that DCD and other global Goth music helped to lead me on the way to my enjoyment of '40s Hindi film music, and I think there is a connection. (Although I guess I followed the line of influence backwards, but that's often how modern westerners end up doing it.)

    I don't doubt that Pakistani music is very much the same in general as North Indian music, just like Pakistani food...

    I once had a Pakistani girlfriend, for about five or six months, in the mid-late '90s (she'd spent her first 28 years in Pakistan, but just a few in NYC, on her student visa), and I blame her for some of my musical affinities. Though she never wanted to bother naming the artists; she just played these tapes and let me search out the names, etc. But that's an aside... What I wanted to say is, in order to support some of her expenses while earning a Ph.D. in microbiology, she set up her own little catering business for what she called "Pakistani food." But whenever I tried it, I tasted Indian food. :)

    Anyway, getting back to the present subject... It's maybe because of Coke Studios that my mind has been more focused on Pakistani rock. Also, I am a fan of the political protest group Laal and I have learned that there is a very interesting left wing protest rock movement in Pakistan. Probably, it is not very big, but it flies in the face of expectations and stereotypes that have arisen here in the west regarding all things Pakistan.

    I guess, though, that that ties in with what Swarup was saying, that the often more repressive nature of Pakistani society makes certain cultural products or movements seem more interesting (by contrast?) when/if they're coming out of Pakistan (as opposed to India).

    But then there is Sufi culture, which I think is much more prominent in Pakistan now (no?), which seems to always have had a tendency toward acceptance and abandon...

  11. Richard,

    you may be interested in a couple of my earlier blog posts on Paki rock. (mostly youtube vids but most of them can lead you to other vids by the same groups and can be quite the journey of discovery if you are in mod for it. also the two selections there cover the range of the various types of pakistani rock music (and you'll notice that time stopped for them at british punk (ie no punk no nirvana, no dancehall, no millenial muisc....)

  12. Minai,
    Yes, I did mention that Wadah dance once before. My experience of songs and dances is mostly at the level from cinemas, harish as, school functions etc I watched in villages before 1954. Watching films was cheap those days, started with one and half annas for the floor where it was mostly kids and laborers with lots of tobacco smoke. After that it was mostly a life of mathematics and I do not have specialized knowledge of any art form. But whenever I watch these things, I still wonder how the ordinary people with whom I watched films those days would react to the performances. Villages were not that homogeneous. You had some people with knowledge of classics in Samskrit(Samudrala, K. Viswanath...) came from one of the villages I grew up. One also had some graduates who returned to the villages since they did not want to work under somebody, I remember borrowing Brothers Karamazov from one such person and then there were village libraries. Those days most of the telugu film personalities came from villages and probably they knew what appealed to villagers. Anyway, that is the sort of background to some of my queries. I am surprised and pleased that more knowledgeable people sometimes respond and I feel that I am learning which may be an illusion.


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