Indrani Rahman was born with the proverbial “silver spoon” in her mouth, on 19th September, 1930 in erstwhile Madras (now Chennai). Her father, Ramalal Bajpai, was a chemist by training. His spouse, Esther Luella Sherman, an American by birth, was deeply interested and involved with myriad Indian dance forms. Post marriage, Esther adopted Hinduism and came to be known as Ragini Devi. The paradigm shift came after a fateful meeting with the rajadasi (royal courtesan) of Mysore Jetti Tayamma, who introduced her to Bharatanatyam. Next, she began honing her skills under the guidance of Gauri Amma, a noted courtesan of Chennai. Eventually, Ragini emerged as a celebrated dancer who reached her acme of success and popularity during the 1930s.
It was into this elite, multicultural social milieu that Indrani was born. Her mother taught her to be fiercely independent and liberal minded. She began learning dance in her mother’s company. Aged barely nine, she accompanied her mother who gave scintillating performance in the Americas. Little Indrani started with Bharatanatyam, with the venerated Chokkalingam Pillai as her Guru. Later she moved to Vijaywada, where she learnt Kuchipudi from Korada Narsimha Rao.
In an age, when respectable Indian women hardly ventured out in public unescorted, a young mother participating in a beauty contest was virtually unbelievable!
Love & Personal Life
Unlike most Indian girls of that era, Indrani’s thoughts and views escaped the shackles of social conventions and customs. Therefore it was not surprising when, as a 15 year old schoolgirl she eloped with Habib Rahman, a Bengali Muslim, and a graduate architect from MIT. Interestingly Habib was the Chief Architect of the Government of India. Some of New Delhi’s landmarks including the Delhi zoo and Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi (Raj Ghat) are his creative masterpieces. The duo became proud parents of Sukanya Rahman, an established dancer and Ram Rahman, a well known photographer. The couple first lived in Calcutta, and later relocated to Delhi. Through all the upheavals in her life Indrani’s training in dance continued unabated.
Exploring New Vistas
In 1947, Indrani Rahman was spotted by Dr. Charles Fabri, who greatly inspired and motivated her to move to Orissa to master the indigenous Odissi, which had not seen limelight at that point of time. The graceful dance form lurked in the shadows of temples and royal courts. After receiving rigorous and intensive training from leading exponents like Guru Sri Deba Prasad Das and Mayadhar Mansingh over several years, she emerged as the first professional Odissi dancer. She was instrumental in popularizing it by means of brilliant presentations at various places, both within India and abroad.
The year was 1952. Indrani was 22, a mother of two. However, encouraged by her mother she agreed to participate in the Miss Universe Pageant held at Long Beach, California, USA. There were very few contestants indeed. In an age, when respectable Indian women hardly ventured out in public unescorted, a young mother participating in a beauty contest was virtually unbelievable! Nonetheless, Indrani boldly went to places, very few had gone before. In a bid to attract public glare she appeared in a bikini, accessorized with a bindi (dot) on her forehead and a gajra (floral strand) as part of her hair-do. The spectators were dazed!
India’s Cultural Ambassador
Beginning with the mid 1950’s, the Ragini-Indrani mother-daughter duo, undertook extensive overseas tours, performing in various cities across the globe, enthralling hordes of classical dance lovers. In 1961, Indrani Rahman became the first dancer presented on a national tour by the Asia Society. She performed for the erstwhile US President John F. Kennedy and India’s premier Jawaharlal Nehru, during the latter’s official visit to Washington, D.C.
Over the following decades, she was the Prima Donna at all the official cultural functions, organized when Nehru had foreign dignitaries visiting. The honours list included Haile Selassie, monarch of Ethiopia, Queen Elizabeth II, Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, former Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev, and the Cuban Socialist dictator Fidel Castro. As the story goes, the Ethiopian ruler Selassie was so astounded by her performance that he not only showered her with gold coins but also asked his daughter (present there) to take off her gold belt and gift it to the diva.
Awards & Accolades
For a person of her calibre and status, it was but natural that she would receive ample accolades. She won the Femina Miss India Award in 1952. This was followed by Padma Shri in 1969 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1981, for her lasting contributions in the field of dance.
Her inherent passion for dance took her to places far and near, worldwide. Through her mastery of multiple dance forms she left an indelible impression on the repertoire of Indian Classical Dance.
The Last Years
In 1976, Indrani became a faculty member of the dance division of Juilliard School in New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She settled down in the US and for the remaining years of her eventful, exciting life, taught in various American universities besides travelling extensively.
Indrani Rahman died on 5 February 1999 in New York, Aged 68. Her inherent passion for dance took her to places far and near, worldwide. Through her mastery of multiple dance forms she left an indelible impression on the repertoire of Indian Classical Dance.
A Daughter Remembers
Sukanya Rahman, Indrani’s dancer daughter has vividly and lucidly captured vignettes from her celebrity mother and grandmother’s lives in her biographical creation, titled Dancing in The Family: An Unconventional Memoir of Three Women.