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Beijing bends it like Bollywood

Chinese girls are moving on from ichak dana to kajra re in a growing obsession to dance like Bollywood, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Sep 20, 2009 18:22 IST
Reshma Patil

Zhang Sisi
Zhang Sisi
Zhang Sisi or Sapna teaches Indian dance in the Chinese capital.
Across the red dining table, Zhang Jun or Shanu opened her album of newspaper clippings to a small yellowing report in the Hindustan Times edition of April 12, 1981, headlined: Chinese feet and kathak beat.

The woman who first brought Bollywood moves and Indian classical dance to Beijing --- and trained hundreds of Chinese dancers from 1957 to last year --- is now an agile 74-year-old. One afternoon in her 18th floor apartment in Beijing, we watched her favourite recordings of dances she choreographed for Chinese national television, that made Chinese girls aspire to move their hips like the heroines in Hindi movies.

The story of how Bollywood jhatkas became an obsession in Beijing and the mainland began in 1954 during the Hindi Chini bhai bhai days.

Zhang was then a teenage classical Chinese dancer touring India with a cultural delegation. She learnt basic Indian classical dance that year, but bilateral relations soon went downhill and it was only in the 1980s that she could return to India on a scholarship. She returned eight times.

A dance Maharaj named her Shanu. She was the first Chinese dancer to learn Indian classical dance in India, and break a leg while she was at it. She hobbled on crutches for weeks in Delhi after a man pushed her while hopping off a bus. Letters would reach home after a month’s delay. On summer nights she slept outdoors and pined for the three-minute calls saved for days like Chinese New Year.

She came back to China a celebrity teacher for the elite Beijing Dance Academy where parents began sending five-year-olds to train under her. Often, she waived the fee. Private classes to learn Indian dance in Beijing now cost the hourly equivalent of Rs 700-1,050.

Communist censors allow the import of only about 20 foreign movies a year for theatre screenings, so audiences depended on her shows on stage and China central television (CCTV) to glimpse the glamour of Bollywood. For special CCTV shows with backdrops of the Taj Mahal, her students wore ghagra cholis and danced to steps copied from Parasmani (1963) and Umrao Jaan (1989). A Chinese singer who didn’t understand Hindi sang the songs for the television dances remixed to a faster beat.

"I don’t like modern movies," says Zhang. To this day, Chinese mothers want their girls to dance to old Hindi songs shown on television. Latest Bollywood DVDs are rarely available in China, where girls who still talk about watching Asoka and Devdas on Chinese television may surprise you by suddenly saying dola re.

Kathak student and classical Chinese dancer Yu Feifei studied Indian dances for a year in Delhi. By October, she will open her own dance studio to teach a mix of Bollywood and Indian classical dance to Beijingers. "I’ve choreographed two dances from Asoka," she says. "I’ll tell my students to please learn classical dance also."

"Some Chinese girls think Bollywood dance is belly dance," says classical dancer Zhang Jinghui or Cindy, who has taught Bollywood dancing to about 20 students at home since last year. There’s no estimate of such home run Bollywood dance classes, but when you introduce yourself as an Indian in China, Chinese girls are likely to ask if you can teach Bollywood dance.

Cindy learns kathak at the one-year-old India Culture Centre, where the Indian teachers don’t speak Chinese and the students barely speak English but manage to learn by simply copying the teacher’s moves.

Like all professional Chinese dancers studying Indian dance, Cindy knows the market demand. In August, her latest students were two six-year-olds who wanted to learn Bollywood dance for a school performance. Cindy taught them to dance to ichak dana, but her older students have learnt basic moves from Devdas and Guru.

The culture centre resounds with the sound of ghungroos on Chinese girls wearing salwar khameez. The teachers say the Chinese professionals mastered in six months what Indian students learn in three years.

Professional dancers
Professional dancers Yu Feifei, Zhang Sisi, Song Jing, Zhang Jinghui and Wang Yanan learn kathak at the year-old India Culture Centre in Beijing. HT photo

"Mera naam Sapna hain," says Zhang Sisi, who remembers watching Noori as a child. "Many people said I looked Indian, so I was inspired to study Indian dance," said Sapna, who teaches Indian classical dance in an international art school in Beijing.

On September 25, the Australian musical Merchants of Bollywood will come to Beijing. But there’s always the less costly option of watching Hou Wei, 27, sing and dance to Kajra Re or Aaja Nachle in an Indian restaurant or a private party in Beijing. The India fan born to parents who performed the Peking Opera, barely understands Hindi but sounds Indian when she sings.

Today’s Chinese girls who don’t aim to be Shanu --- who learnt a six-year curriculum in 100 days in India --- drop by Hou Wei’s house for a crash course in Bollywood dancing for parties and college shows.

Manasi Saxena, a recent expat from Meerut, teaches Indian dance moves to three Chinese girls at home. "My baby learns Indian dance very fast," says Xia Wang, who sends her daughter Niu Niu, 5, to dance every Saturday.