Saroj Khan became a member of the Cine Dancers Association (CDA) at the age of 10, as a group dancer for the film, Howrah Bridge (1958). Her first song was ‘Aiye Meherban’, and she was paid 4 annas for 8 hours of dance. She passed away today morning at the age of 71, as the brand ambassador of the same association, fighting for its unity, and the dignity of the background dancer. She announced free education for girl children of background dancers, and half the registration fees for progeny of CDA dancers, while still fighting for increasing the wages.
The last I saw her, at a press conference of the CDA last year, I was struck by how much the dancers adored her, swarming around her car as it parked, hovering over her feet demanding blessings, recording her movements on their Instagram live with running commentary of adulation, and rushing up the stairs to keep pace with her elevator so they can greet her once more when she gets off it. It was never Saroj-ji, always Master-ji, and due to the overcrowding of the room, dancers took turns, alternating their smoke-breaks and discussing her words outside. There was a bit of melancholic humour in her statement, that she will stand in line with the background dancers, looking for work, if bad times befall her. She looked weak, draped in her shawl, and spoke softly.
Starting off as a background dancer behind cine-icons Madhubala and Vyjayanthimala, she moved up the ladder as an assistant to the choreographer B.Sohanlal (whom she married at the age of 13), and ended up becoming a choreographer herself.
Once churning out choreographed songs, a dime a dozen in the late 80s and 90s, the favoured foot-tap of Madhuri Dixit (‘Ek Do Teen’, ‘Dhak Dhak’, ‘Maar Dala’), Sridevi (‘Hawa Hawai’, ‘Mere Hathon Mein’), Aishwarya Rai (‘Ramta Jogi’, ‘Barso Re’), and the one who gave Shah Rukh Khan the open arm gesture in Baazigar, the movement in the 2000s towards faster tracks, with quick cuts and less literal dance steps (Khan often used dance as a means of translation, you could almost re-construct the lyrics from just looking at the steps), dried up her work. The last song Khan choreographed was ‘Tabah Ho Gaye’ for Madhuri Dixit in Kalank (2019).
The recipient of 3 National Awards, for her work Devdas (‘Dola Re Dola’) in 2003, Srirangam (all songs) in 2006, and Jab We Met (‘Yeh Ishq Haaye’) in 2008, she was also the first recipient of the Filmfare Best Choreography Award for ‘Ek Do Teen’. It must be noted that though Filmfare Awards have been around since 1954, the Best Choreography Award only began with Khan’s win in 1989. (Khan, with 8 wins, holds the record of most awards in this category.) Her iconic steps, and attention to expression (“Per nahin chala sakti, toh kam se kam face toh chalana,” Kareena Kapoor Khan reminisces her taunts), have etched songs into cultural memory, some of the dancers I spoke to wondering if they would ever be choreographed by her.
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Master ji always told me… perrr nahin chala saktiii toh kam se kam face toh chalaaaaa. That’s what she taught me… to enjoy dancing, smile and smile through the eyes. There can never be another… Dance and expression can never be the same for us actors and for everyone who loved her… Love you master ji. Till we dance again… RIP 💔 #SarojKhan
She ended the CDA press conference gesturing to the audience, “Yeh sab mere bachche hain, inko maine dance sikhayi. Poochon har ladki ko, pakad pakad ke dance sikhaaya hai.” There were loud hoots and claps as they all stood up, the plastic chairs jostling, making way for her to leave as she waddled off, pressing her hands on the heads of dancers touching her feet.
She passed away from a cardiac arrest, and is survived by her husband Sardar Roshan Khan, son Hamid Khan (aka Raju Khan) and daughters Hina Khan and Sukyna Khan.