During the 1970s, post the Bangladesh Liberation War, refugees fleeing from Bangladesh took refuge in Kolkata. The 1970s was a witness to political chaos – the National Emergency of 1975 prompted radical changes to Bengal’s political arena with a left-front government coming to power.
The cultural politics of Bengal swayed between traditional ideals of sexual morality and revamped progressive and anti-capitalist conceptions. In the middle of this, Kolkata opened its doors to cabaret culture in popular bars on Park Street.
Cabaret culture was British colonialism’s byproduct in India. Foreign troops stationed in Kolkata during the second world war were primarily responsible for the growing live music scene of the state. Since cabaret was viewed as ‘obscene’ by the general Indian population, local women kept themselves away; the performers were generally European or Anglo-Indian women.
It was a time when most European dancers were leaving India when 11-year-old Arati Das, the youngest of three sisters of a refugee family from East Pakistan, Bangladesh, started working as a domestic help in an Anglo-Indian household in Chowringhee. Enamoured by the elite parties in the household and plagued by poverty, at the age of 13 she landed at the Firpo’s Lido Room on Park Street, the poshest restaurant of the times in Kolkata.
Young Arati, unaware of what cabaret meant, when inquired and scolded by a police officer issuing her a licence responded that she’s not answerable to anyone who’s not paying for her upkeep. Living in a society that denied women rights to livelihood and occupation while simultaneously morally policing them, Arati Das started her journey as ‘Miss Shefali’ — the iconic cabaret queen of post-colonial Calcutta with a salary of Rs 700 a month at Firpo’s.
In a career that lasted more than two decades, she trained in ballet, Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Miss Shefali appeared in many films, including two of Satyajit Ray’s films, ‘Pratidwandi’ and ‘Seemabaddha’. She went on to star in plays as well, ‘Samrat o Sundari’, ‘Saheb Bibi Golam’ and ‘Ashlil’ to name a few.
“I knew I had the body. My chest, my waist, the limbs, my hair, in fact, my smile or the throwaway look could stop heartbeats...Yes, I used to do cabaret at hotels, but no one could touch me unless I wanted it. It was clear; watch all you want, look wherever till I am on the floor but don’t you dare touch me,” Miss Shefali had revealed in her autobiography.
Miss Shefali was not unaware of her power to bring the city to a standstill. Throughout her career, she subverted the patriarchal society that commodified her and danced on a floor that threaded the double standards of morality, modesty, disrespect, agency, politics, coercion and choice.
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