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Shiamak Davar: The world at his feet

Widely acknowledged as the guru of contemporary Indian dance, and proud founder of the largest chain of dance schools in the country, Shiamak Davar appears to have it all, on the surface. But dig deeper and you discover an unfulfilled dream, writes G Sampath, who met the dance magnate in his office

By G Sampath for DNA

He may have spent a lifetime cavorting with the glamourous elite of Bollywood, but Shiamak Davar’s studio frontage is decidedly unglamourous. Tucked away under the Mahalaxmi bridge in a narrow, muddy lane, it looks like another godown in a long row of grimy, unmarked, windowless warehouses. The warehouses belong to Mumbai’s top book distributors, and the several auto-repair outlets that seem to have colonised this area. Nestling between stockpiles of new books and stockpiles of new car parts is the studio and office where the guru of contemporary Indian dance sits, dances and does business.

Stepping inside, you find yourself at the corner of a huge, rectangular hall. The flooring is smooth, shining parquetry. The walls are decorated with trophies, certificates, and figurines in various poses of modern dance. One entire wall is an end-to-end mirror. I deduce, correctly, that the mirrors are there not for some orgy of narcissists, but to enable immediate evaluation and correction of dance postures and steps. High on the walls, where you can’t reach them, are photographs of Shiamak with every Bollywood star you can think of — from Shah Rukh to Hrithik to Shahid Kapoor, Preity Zinta and many more, indicating that he’s been around for a long time.
At the far end of the room, on what seems to be an abandoned workstation lies a glass butterfly. Above the butterfly, on the wall, is a poster of Shiamak adrift in the air, his knees bent, arms raised, rendering so perfectly the shape of a butterfly, that for a moment you think, if the soul of a butterfly were to enter the human body, this is how it would look.

Of angels, souls and God
Speaking of souls, Shiamak, 48, is a firm believer in the spirit world. On his desk are two very, very fat volumes — in Braille — of a book called The Laws Of The Spirit World by Khorshed Bhavnagri, his “guru of 28 years”. The first thing he does when we meet is to hand me a copy of the book (not the Braille one) and extract a promise from me that I’ll read it.
He starts talking about his guru. “I always knew that there was more to life besides eating, making love, and going to work,” he explains. “And when I met her — I was 20 then — my whole life just opened up in front of me. I learnt from her about life after death, about the soul. I do believe in life after death, you know, I do believe in angels, I do believe in God.”
He has a habit of pushing his hair back as he talks. He appears different from what you see on TV; he’s bigger, taller, and not so thin. He looks like what Andy Garcia may have looked like if he’d been born in a Parsi family.

Bringing Jazz to Bollywood
From the world of angels and God, I nudge him in the direction of something more earthly — his career in dance. “People say I am the guru of contemporary and modern dance in India because I changed the genre of movement and the whole choreography scene — be it the costumes, the set, the styling, and even the bodies of my dancers. I made people realise that dancing can also be this way.”
Modesty is a rare trait in Bollywood and evidently Shiamak doesn’t suffer from that weakness. Besides, he has every reason to rest easy about it, for he is an immensely successful man. As a dancer and choreographer, he is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of the Jazz movement in India who has spawned innumerable imitators; he is credited with introducing Bollywood to modern dance through his choreography in films such as Dil To Pagal Hai, Taal, and more recently, Dhoom 2 and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. As a dance teacher, he runs more schools than anyone else in India, with around 100 centres across the country. As a businessman, his dance-based commercial empire traverses continents and sectors. As a choreographer, he has designed shows for events such as the IIFA Awards, the World Economic Forum, the Opening and Closing Ceremony of the Asian Games (1989), and the IPL closing ceremony in South Africa this year. He has made inroads into the television domain as well, with Jhalak Dikhla Ja (JDJ).

The dancer and his demons
And yet, for all his success, and his professed spiritual connectivity, Shiamak comes across as a profoundly restless man, as someone who, deep within, isn’t really impressed by all his achievements. And his sense of being unfulfilled comes to the surface when he talks about his youth, a time when he was hailed more for his acting and singing ability than even for his dancing.
And then you realise what’s eating him up from inside. In a country, and in an industry that doesn’t really care a hoot for male dancers or choreographers, the big game in town — the biggest game in town — is to make the cut as a Bollywood hero. Who gives a damn how well you can dance? Can you dance AND act? That’s what matters.
For 25 years, Shiamak has believed, and known, that he can act — he has proved it time and again on stage, most memorably in Alyque Padamsee’s Evita. “People who’ve seen me in my musicals realise that, my God, he can act as well. But only the theatre circles know this.” Yet, in all these years, for all his proximity to Bollywood, Shiamak hasn’t managed to break into acting. Till date, he has acted in all of one film, Little Zizou (2009), and take a guess what role he got. He got to play Shiamak Davar.
And he has seen much younger men — not even men really, just overgrown boys who’ve bulked up their muscles in the gym — come to him with three left feet, learn dancing from the master, and with perhaps as much skill in acting as he does, if not less, go on to become superstars. Look at Hrithik, look at Shahid — both students of Shiamak. And what must be difficult to swallow is that both are considered by many to be better dancers than actors.
So what’s stopping Shiamak from donning the greasepaint and painting B-town red? “My Hindi,” he says, an unmistakeable note of agony in his voice. “I can’t speak Hindi well. I am taking lessons and improving it, but it’s going to take a long time. This is one reason why I can’t do Hindi films.” But c’mon, his Hindi can’t be worse than Katrina Kaif’s? If she can act in Bollywood, why can’t he? “Well, she can say one line and then cut; third line, and there’s again a cut. That won’t work for me.”
The irony is that Davar’s Hindi was one of the biggest selling points on TV, in the dance show JDJ, with lots of people tuning in as much for the comic relief it provided as for the dances. “I made a complete fool of myself,” he remembers. “People would stop me on the street and say, ‘Shiamak, we love you in JDJ, we love your Hindi; we had so much fun just laughing at the way you speak it; we’d wait for you to speak.’ Pretty soon my Hindi became a USP, and I got offers from TV shows where they wanted me to speak the same Hindi.”

Yeh to Shiamak ka copy hai!
While his Hindi is one source of angst, another is the legion of imitators who copy his moves and pass them off as his own. But he is training himself not to get upset over it. “Certain choreographers copy my style, my presentation ideas, my costumes, they copy everything, which is fine; but the sad part is, I can’t put those ideas in my next film, as before I can do that, they’ve already taken it away. I would perform something new at an award function, and they would take it and put it in a film; I would get a shock seeing all of my ideas in a film. But I’ve got used to that. I am happier now because the public understands that people are trying to copy Shiamak. They say, ‘Array, yeh to Shiamak ka copy hai!'”
Shiamak also feels strongly about the way dances are shot and edited in Bollywood today, and believes they undermine the very objective of choreography. “If you look at the dances of Helen, for example, the shots would be very long, so you got to properly see the dance. Today the dance no longer exists as much as it did before. They keep cutting and editing every five seconds. If people today really want to show choreography, they have to show the dance, show the movement. But mostly I find that whatever movement they do show is very repetitive, everything looks the same.”
At the moment, Shiamak has on his hands the film Aladin, for which he is the choreographer. He still continues to train the Miss India finalists every year, before they depart for the Miss Universe competitions, and he travels a lot, what with dance centres to supervise in Toronto, Vancouver, Dubai and Melbourne. For someone who, in his early days, had to suffer “humiliating” taunts of being “effeminate” because he dared to dance, that too in leotards, the grand-nephew of Fearless Nadia has come a long way. So what if he can’t speak Hindi — isn’t dance a far more universal language? And who speaks it better than Shiamak Davar?