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Shiamak Davar: 'South Bombay families thought I was the devil incarnate'
India's most successful choreographer practically invented Bollywood dance as we know it, and chats to spirits in his spare time
June 7, 2005. India is playing host to Bill Clinton and the sleepy town of Lucknow is a stop over.
On the menu is the finest Awadhi cuisine and the best dancer India can find to entertain a former U.S. President.
After the performance, Clinton says to the lead choreographer and dancer, “The world must see you!”
Shiamak Davar is a dancer-choreographer-entrepreneur-philanthropist. His schedule is packed through the year with staged live performances at power-packed places like the World Economic Forum at Davos, Indo-Tokyo Friendship Week in Japan, and this year's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
In fact the Government of India summons Shiamak Davar from Mumbai pretty much every time they need to showcase the best of emerging India's contemporary culture.
And he's not up there in front of world leaders doing token Bollywood gyrations.
He's up there dancing a style he invented in Mumbai 30 years ago, when a fellow named Shahrukh Khan was a young, lovestruck upcoming actor courting a dancer in Davar's troupe who would later become the superstar's wife.
They invented a contemporary Indo-Jazz Bollywood genre made up of elements that combine classical Indian with Western jazz. And to give you an idea of scale, for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006 Davar says, "We put up a nice 11-minute show, 400 dancers from my troupe performed alongside 300 Australian dancers trained by us. It was a magical experience."
1980s entertainers clique
Twenty-six years after he began teaching contemporary dance to seven students in a run down Grant Road school, today the Shiamak Davar Institute of Performing Arts (SDIPA) has centers around the world, including Canada, the Middle East and of course India. New centers are coming up in London and New York.
Right now instructors from the Debbie Allen Academy -- a school founded by one of the United States' most important dancers and choreographers -- are in Mumbai training top Indian dancers handpicked by Shiamak Davar in a one-year course at SDIPA.
To work with Allen's academy is to tap into dance history that reaches as far back the movie "Fame" in which Allen starred, the Academy Awards which she choreographed six years in a row and So You Think You Can Dance, a popular television dance competition on AXN, where she is a judge.
Malcom Gladwell, author of "Outliers," argues that an uber-successful person (the outlier) is often surrounded by a set of advantages that propel them to greater glory.
On his site, Gladwell says, "In order to understand the Outlier, I think you have to look around them -- at their culture and community and family and generation."
Born into SoBo old money, with the resources to hone his talent, Davar went off to study at premier performing institutes in London, including the Guildford School of Acting.
On his return, he began to teach dance in 1985, then founded the academy in 1992.
The first batch of seven students was an eclectic mix of the soon-to-be famous in India's entertainment industry. Singer Lucky Ali, model Rachel Rueben and actor Kitu Gidwani were good friends who enrolled to support their friend's endeavor.
"We used to all hang out together, Rachel, Jackie (Shroff), Sunil Shetty…" Davar remembers.
He says their addas in the 1980s were Pastry Palace at Napean Sea Road and the coolest club of their time -- Studio 29 on Marine Drive, inspired by London's Studio 54.
At the prestigious Cathedral School, Davar’s classmates were the present Mid-day MD Tariq Ansari, BBC anchor Nisha Pillai and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
"Fareed was a very quiet guy. I was the complete opposite -- always singing and dancing,” says Davar. Today, he counts among friends, industrialists, media moguls and the powerhouses of Bollywood, including the Bachchans, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan.
Many of these connections may have inspired and driven the young Davar. But the one that seemed to have the biggest impact on his career was his relationship with Shahrukh Khan, through Khan’s wife Gauri.
"Gauri was in one of my classes, a hard-working student who later also joined my troupe," recalls Davar. "Shahrukh would hang around often, waiting for her to finish up. Soon, we got to know each other and he persuaded me to choreograph 'Dil Toh Pagal Hai', my first Bollywood film.”
Khan’s character, the male lead in the film, plays a dancer-choreographer. DTPH, as it came to be known popularly, was a rage. Everyone outside Mumbai knew Shiamak Davar after that.
Quite the outlier
Davar’s grand uncles were the Wadia brothers, renowned producers during the new ‘talkies’ era.
His favorite childhood memories are of those spent with his grand uncle, Homi Wadia and aunt ‘Fearless Nadia’ alias Mary Evans -- the iconic Scottish-origin Bollywood heroine through the 1930s and 1940s.
Mary Evans enjoyed renewed interest recently thanks to a documentary on her life, which was followed by a biography.
In his early years, Davar wanted to be an actor too, his passion for dance developed only in adulthood.
"Growing up, I used to sing and perform for friends and family. I was a legend in my living room!" Davar says.
As if scripted for a movie Davar's filmi background was at loggerheads with his family’s academic expectations.
Davar’s father was a professor at MIT who came back to India to help run Davar’s College of Commerce, set up by his father and Davar’s grandfather, Sohrab Davar.
“My father wanted me to get a degree, after which I was free to pursue my interests,” he says. That’s why, by the time he received any formal dance training, he was well into his 20s.
When Davar was first offered "Dil Toh Pagal Hai," he wasn’t sure if his jazz-infused contemporary dance style would fit in the hip-jhatka-boob-thrust Bollywood mold.
Movie audiences today take the stylized choreography of contemporary Bollywood for granted, but pre-DTPH, tacky costumes, tapori moves and overweight background dancers were de rigeur.
Into that arena Davar introduced his lean and gorgeous troupe dancers.
"People had never seen background dancers like that before. My friends would joke, ‘Hey! Who’s that girl behind Karishma [Kapoor]? Got her number?’” he says.
Soon enrolments at SDIPA skyrocketed and so did demand for workshops and branches across the country.
Davar’s rising personal popularity benefited his academy immensely.
Shiamak Style -- a dance form with soft jazz influences, vibrant Kathak moves and a bit of contemporary fun, glimpses of which we first saw in DTPH, is today, a patented dance genre, classes for which are often noticeable by their long waiting lists.
Riding on his initial wave of success and fame, Shiamak Davar, who once desperately wanted to be an actor and singer, released a pop album with snazzy music videos. "Mohabbat Kar Le" sold 1 million copies -- a spectacular number for a non-Bollywood music genre.
Because of his good looks, popularity and an oft-mentioned interest in acting, many, including Davar himself, assumed he was on his way to becoming a Bollywood star.
But a message from another world would alter his path, guiding him to focus on dance and the academy.
An eccentric Parsi
They say there’s a bit of a mad fool in every genius. Not surprising then that the community of Parsis peculiar to Mumbai, known for their superlative business sense and creativity, are also frequently parodied for their eccentricity.
Davar claims to have had sightings of UFOs since the age of 15. Describing the UFO he first saw to The Hindu, he says, "It was round, had colors I had never seen before, stayed in the skies (over Worli, Mumbai) for a while and then sped out of sight."
He was silent on the UFO-front when we met him, although his staff did share that Davar keeps a close watch on the latest in the UFO world, tracking news reports about extra-terrestrial visitors.
When asked about the success of his multinational dance business empire, Davar often credits God and his spiritual gurus -- the late Khorshed and Rumi Bhavnagari, a Byculla couple. The Bhavnagaris lost their sons in a car accident and communicate with them in the spirit world.
At a crucial juncture in his life, when Davar was contemplating focusing on his singing and acting career, a message from the spirit world advised him to throw himself into expanding his dance training business. Today SDIPA is a global business franchise worth millions.
Like his spiritual gurus, Davar practices auto-writing. He says the most recent message communicated to him through the spirit world was that we are all in a "bad place" today because people give undue importance to money and power.
The 'devil incarnate'
When Davar started teaching dance, only the most brazen enrolled. Even in Mumbai, dancing was considered immoral.
“Students were admonished for wearing leotards or skirts,” he says. “Male students were called gay, and the women were considered fast.”
There was speculation about Davar’s sexual orientation too, despite his having dated the most beautiful women of the time, including model-turned-filmmaker Rachel Reuben and singer Shweta Shetty.
Today, attendees of a SDIPA dance performance will tell you that the auditoriums -- be they in Mumbai or Chandigarh -- are packed with people. There are no celebrities on stage, and the performers are usually a motley crew of children as young as four years old and older dancers well into their 80s.
The performance, which is usually at the end of a course, is staged for family and friends, and in typical desi style, the audience includes friends of friends and their relatives.
“The many influential South Bombay families that thought I was the devil incarnate back then, literally plead with me today to make space for their children,” Davar says, for the popular sessions fill up fast these days.
Or saint Shiamak?
But it’s not all business.
Davar’s non-profit Victory Arts Foundation routinely conducts classes for the disabled at institutes like the Helen Keller and organizes workshops and stage performances for HIV-affected children, with professional costumes, lighting, music and choreography at nationwide events called Dancing Feet.
“Children with dyslexia, cerebral palsy, mental or physical disabilities can enroll and learn, we’ll do everything to bring joy in their lives,” says Davar in his Victory Arts Foundation video. “We never charge them any money.”
Having gained so much in life, he says, "This is the time to give back, and this is the most important time."
Inspired by his work with underprivileged children through the foundation, Davar, now in his late forties, will soon make his directorial film debut.
Children living in the slums are being auditioned for the film, which is about a group of slum kids whose lives are touched by the art of dancing.
At this point, the script for the film is tentatively titled, "A Slumdog Millionaire Goes Dancing" and the project could very well be the defining intersection of all Davar's major dreams.