Simkie's Choreography in the Awara Dream Sequence (Hindi, 1951)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013
When I first heard that Uday Shankar's early dance partner Simkie choreographed the famous dream sequence in Awara (Hindi, 1951), I was quite surprised!  That song and dance sequence is one of the most iconic and well-known from the "golden era" of Hindi cinema.  But the real eye-opener was seeing that Simkie's choreography is taken straight from the Uday Shankar playbook as evidenced by the dances in his 1948 dance film Kalpana (which we can now watch in full thanks to!).  A few sources had mentioned the influence of Kalpana on Awara's dream sequence before, but now we can see the evidence for our own eyes.  And what an influence; it's direct and unmistakable! 

Awara's dream sequence is comprised of three segments filmed in three different spaces which Gayatri Chatterjee in her National Award-winning book Awara sees as representing the "Earth-Hell-Heaven triptych."  "Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni" is the name of the song for the first two segments (earth and hell) though some have listed the second hell segment as a separate song "Mujhko Chahiye Bahar." "Ghar Aya Mera Pardesi" is the song for the last segment (heaven).

The "Earth" and "Heaven" Segments

In the first and last segments, the dancers' graceful side-to-side movements, arm postures and trajectories, and hand gestures are clearly directly inspired by Shankar's choreographies especially Kartikeya and Rasa Leela (click on the links to watch them in Kalpana), and these movements are echoed in the "dancing" by lead Nargis as well.  The arm movements the dancers are performing at the beginning of the clip below be seen in Amala Shankar's Manipuri dance, and the spins at 6:24 are also seen identically in Kalpana in a few places.
Left: Awara   Right: Kalpana     Could it be any more obvious!

Instead of doing a comparison video, I've displayed the dream sequence videos below and linked to or described the inspirations in this post.  The first segment runs til 1:07, and the last segment starts at 2:46.  Note: The official clip below leaves out the two-minute introduction featuring some imaginative set design and the introduction of the dancers; the whole dream sequence in its entirety can be viewed here.

Isn't the "South Indian" vibe of Nargis' dance posing and costume starting at 5:32 interesting!  I wish more footage had been included since the Bharatanatyam/Kuchipudi inspiration is obvious and would have added a third "style" of choreography to the dream sequence.  The giant Nataraja statue provided the perfect background! 

"Hell" Segment

The middle segment in which Raj Kapoor's character descends into "Hell" dramatically shifts the style of choreography from slow-paced grace to aggressive, forceful movements, but they are still taken straight from Shankar's creative style and are a testament to his ability to express varied emotions and ideas.  The wide half-seated posture, back and forth movements, and finger-spread hand shimmies all have direct parallels in movements seen in Kalpana particularly the Naga tribal dance and Astra Puja/Sword Dance.

While I had shown in my last post that the "finger-spread hand shimmies" as I'm calling them had inspiration from Kathakali dance from southern India, another blogger made a very interesting connection to another likely source of inspiration: Kecak dance from Bali, Indonesia. The similarities are obvious in not only the individual dance movements but also the way the group is spatially arranged.  I became convinced of this connection after reading that Uday Shankar had visited Indonesia to observe its indigenous dance forms in 1935.  In excerpts from Shankar's diary about the trip, "Ketchok" is among the dances he notes watching in addition to "kabbiyar, "lagon," "krish," and "Wayang Koolit" shadow-puppet play (Abrahams).  Intriguingly, Shankar mentions having dinner with Mr. Spiers.  I wonder if "Mr. Spiers" is a mispelled reference to "Walter Spies" who supposedly was instrumental in popularizing Kecak dance in the 1930s!

Here is a cinematic view of the Kecak dance in the film Baraka.  Shankar's inspiration is obvious!

The Making and Themes

Awara's dream sequence reportedly took three months to shoot and was not formally planned until mid-shooting.  The sets were designed by M.R. Achredkar and a chemist was hired to create the "cloud effect" with dry ice.  Some sources note the sequence's ideas were inspired from some Hollywood musicals of the time (the dream sequence in An American in Paris was allegedly one), but Kalpana gives plenty of set design inspiration all on its own with the grandiose objects, flames, and smoke columns.  And by the way--there are a few sources, including The Hindu, who incorrectly cite Zohra Segal as the choreographer for the dream sequence!

Thematically, the book Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance gives an interesting perspective on the meaning behind the sequence:
"Integrating narrative and lush spectacle, this scene condenses the themes of the film and prefigures the ending. At the same time, it functions as a metacomment on popular filmmaking with its amalgam of"art" and "kitsch" and marks a transition in narrative modes--from romantic realism to melodrama.  Through visual icons and "universal" signifiers, such as a staircase that leads in one direction to an idyllic world represented by a tower set amid fluffy clouds and in another to a hell represented by flames and grotesque statues, the sequence captures in shorthand the social gap that separates the principals and the various conflicts encountered by the hero. Its innovative use of space, perspective, and the movement of bodies visually realizes Awaara's critique of the existing social order as the hero plaintively cries, "Mujhko yeh narak na chahiye; mujhko phool, mujhko geet, mujhko preet chahiye" [I don't want this hell; I want flowers, I want music, and I want love], even while it relocates this critique in the individual."

Dancers - The Little Ballet Troupe, and Helen!

I was very surprised to read in Chatterjee's book that the dancers in the dream sequence were from Shanti Bardhan's Little Ballet Troupe!  Shanti Bardhan was part of Uday Shankar's Center in Almora for a few years before striking out on his own, performing with the Indian People's Theater Association (IPTA), and then forming his own Little Ballet Troupe in 1952.  Another surprise find about the dream sequence: famous Cabaret film dancer Helen was supposedly among the background dancers in what would be her first screen appearance!  Can anyone spot her?

Uday Shankar's Influence on Film Dance

While it has been thrilling to see the impact Uday Shankar had on one of the most well-known songs in Hindi cinema, his influence was not restricted to Awara alone.  V.A.K Ranga Rao in his article "Dance in Indian Cinema" reveals that Shakar's influence on 1950s and 60s film dance was "immeasurable."  While Shankar's only film Kalpana was an unsuccessful flop, his influence on film dance spread through the students and dancers that worked with him during the making of Kalpana and earlier at his novel training Center in Almora.  These dancers "received the kind of allround training that was unthought of in [the] Indian dance world" until then and many of them became "independent choreographers" and worked in cinema spreading "the Uday Shankar turn of limb, taste of aesthetics around" not only in choreography but also visual presentation.  Among them, Narendra Sharma, Sachin Shankar, Zohra Segal, Guru Dutt, and more all choreographed for films.  Researching their work in films seems to have proven Ranga Rao's assertion true which I'll be highlighting in future posts. It seems Shankar's influence on cinema through his trainees is a subject that hasn't received much attention...making it an ideal research project for yours truly!  I'm also happy to be covering Hindi cinema which doesn't get much exposure on this blog. :)


Abrahams, Ruth Karen.  The Life and Art of Uday Shankar.  PhD Dissertation. 
Bardhan, Gul.  Rhythm Incarnate: Tribute to Shanti Bardhan.
Chatterjee, Gayatri.  "The Hero's Fears and Nightmares."  Awara.
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema.
Gopal, Sangita and Sujata Moorti.  Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance.
Ranga Rao, V.A.K.  "Dance in Indian Cinema."   Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last Twenty-five Years


  1. Thanks Minai - great post and I didn't know Shankar had met Walter Spies (who partly invented the Bali-as-paradise idea). You do your research, don't you. Lovely stuff.

    1. Hello colin! I'm happy you discovered I had linked to your insightful post. My brief reading about Walter Spies made me very interested in learning more about what he did in Bali, and I'm even more interested now that you say he was part of the creation of the "Bali-as-paradise" concept. If you're interested, here is the full paragraph where Mr. Spiers name is mentioned in Shankar's journal "June 26 (continued) After dinner, at Mr. Spiers, we went down to his village to hear an orchestra and watch a Joged dance with 2 boys dressed up as girls, and whichever of the spectators they touched with their fans, had to get up and dance with them."

  2. Minai,
    Just a doubt. How do we know that Simkie and Uday Shankar have not dreamed of some of these things together during their long collaboration. There are also stories of Nargis' role in various stages of Raj Kapoor' films. I am prejudiced and may be wrong. I think women get short shift in these matters of credit, though I may be wrong in this instance.

    1. gaddeswarup - That is a good question. From everything I've read, it seems that Simkie stopped working with Shankar by the time he began making Kalpana, so I doubt there was any direct involvement by Shankar. What I'm curious about is what Simkie did in the years after she left, since to choreograph Awaara (and in 1953 Jhansi Rani), she must have stayed in India until the mid 1950s? I'm still trying to piece that together, and I have another post in the works just about Simkie. I was going to include that information with this post but thought it was too much...I try not to do so many huge mega posts these days. :)

  3. I read somewhere that she worked in All India Radio before that. I think one of her colleagues talks about her a bit in the video you uploaded.
    I would guess that it will be difficult to know Simkie's contributions. At least in Nargis-Raj Kapoor case, there is much more material and also films before, with and after Nargis and one can compare the relative merits a bit.

  4. This article
    discusses indirectly Nargis contributions to Raj Kapoor films. I hoped that there may be some thing similar about Simkie.

    1. Thanks gaddeswarup - I had read the All India Radio tidbit on your blog actually, where you posted a quote from Mohan Khokar's book, I believe. Thanks for the article link! I'm not as well-versed in classic Hindi film stars as I should be, so this is very interesting. Apologies for the delay in responding. :)

  5. Thanks Minai but I've also a doubt. When I first saw this dream sequence, a few years ago, I was very surprised by it's French influence. Even the music starts with a French note: Tere Bina introduction (2mn before Lata starts singing) gives me a feeling of Darius Milhaud.

    I've now the strong impression that the authors wanted a western influence and that's why they asked Simkie to choreograph it.

    Regarding Uday influence on Simkie work, I agree with gaddeswarup. It could very well be the other way around. They spent 14 years together dancing, creating and teaching. They were partners and it's probably impossible to say now who invented what.

  6. Hello Minai,

    If Helen is in Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi, my best bet is she is in the center of the screen, facing the camera, at 4:52 of the official clip, or at 2:05 in the slightly better version here: The 1st row is made of 10 young dancers, and for sure, Helen is not one of the other 9 :)

    1. Hello Mel, Your suggestions of French influences in Simkie's work is fascinating! I don't know much about French film/music/aesthetics, but it would make a lot of sense that she would bring her background into her work. I really wish there was more information available about her, but it seems that she firmly closed the Indian chapter of her life and didn't share much about it with others in her later years. I agree that she was probably much more influential on Uday Shankar's work then she gets credit for. And I think you may be right about Helen's identity at that timestamp!

  7. Hello Minai,

    two articles by Anne Décoret-Ahiha give information on Simkie and are available on the Internet. Unfortunately they are in French (sorry). The first one is on Simkie and the other one on Uday. You can access them here:

    Anne Décoret-Ahiha has written a book "Les danses exotiques en France: 1880-1940" (also in French) that apparently gives additional details (I've not read it).

  8. Hello Minai,

    My first feeling when I saw this sequence was far from everything I had ever seen in the Indian cinema. For me it relates much more to the French Impressionist Cinema, Abel Gance cinema for instance, than German or Russian Expressionism.

    I have difficulties to express it and I'm no expert in cinema or art, so it may be better to give you an example: the infinite stairs in the mist that lead to the moon at the beginning of the song is also in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) available here: about 28mn from the beginning.
    In that case, to my eyes, this American sequence is heavily influenced by German Expressionism. It's no surprise since the authors are in fact German and Austrian.

    I have the same kind impression with the Awara Dream Sequence. And when I learned that a French choreographer had worked on it, I felt there was some logic. But I may be awfully wrong :)


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