Swansong of Miss Shefali: Remembering the Cabaret Queen of Calcutta
"She could cause riots"
For those of us who grew up in the Kolkata of early noughties, the city always faced the blame of being a remnant of the past, a declining metropolis defiant of change. It was the city known for its shutdowns, power shortages, and afternoon siestas. Maybe that's why it was difficult for us to imagine a glamorous Calcutta in its full glory, with its gorgeous nightlife.
But living in Kolkata also meant a regular nostalgia trip to a time not lived, only heard of. Those gold-tinted days pasted in depleting family albums even generated contempt at the city for not being the livewire nightlife destination our parents and theirs looked back at with misty eyes and gin-drenched enthusiasm.
Park Street and its adjoining areas used to host fabulous cabaret shows in the same decade that poets like Shakti Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Malay Roy Choudhury, and Sunil Gangopadhyay were burning up another floor with their words.
From 'Luscious Lola' to Pam Crain to Trincas and Bollywood legend Usha Uthup, Kolkata’s bars and hotels signified the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption the 'Bengali Babus' have been scoffed at for by the city conservatives. Till this day, Park Street houses some of the relics of that vanished, gregarious Calcutta in the form of Mocambo, Trincas, Moulin Rouge, and other age-old pubs.
Miss Shefali, aka Arati Das, was probably— in Usha Uthup’s description —‘the last of the Mohicans’. The youngest of three sisters of a refugee family from East Pakistan, she shot to fame as the first Bengali cabaret dancer in the legendary Lido Room at Firpo’s Hotel on Chowringhee. In the late-’60s, she even managed to catch the eye of the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who cast her as herself in an iconic cabaret scene in the 1971 film, Seemabaddha (Company Limited).
The iconic dancer and enchantress to a generation breathed her last in her Sodepur residence in relatively reduced circumstances. She was 77 when her kidney ailment got the better of her, after living away from the public eye for years.
Her journey from a single room house to the most glamorous hotels is almost apocryphal at this point, courtesy a beautiful autobiography called 'Shondhyaraater Shefali' (the flower of the fragrant nights) which came out at the twilight of her life.
She started her dancing career at the age of 11, when she asked a guest at the house she worked at as domestic help, to get her a better job. As her interview, she had to show off her moves to the Australian manager of Firpo’s hotel - one of the fanciest in the city. Her life changed from thereon. She picked up various dance forms like Hawaiian to belly dancing to blues, charleston, can-can, and twist. She defined cabaret, of cabree for Calcutta.
Night after night, Miss Shefali, in her glittery or floral outfits, would bewitch the rich and the elite while challenging the middle-class 'Bhadralok' values of the society. Maybe that's why the society at large did not miss any chances to defame her once she stopped performing at the Oberoi Grand in the ’80s. A sense of ignominy followed her in the latter part of her career due to the Bengali middle-class morality.
"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. I could stop the Calcutta intoxicated on night, even if for a moment....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.
In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, the 'Firefly of Calcutta' said her parents accepted her profession, "and perhaps that’s why I became so famous. I told Ma and Baba that I was not doing anything dirty."
The legend of Miss Shefali did not end with her retirement from hotel dance floors. Instead she filled halls regularly leading plays like Chowringhee, Rangini, Ashlil, Samrat Sundari, and Shaheb Bibi Golam among others.
"But people looked down upon me on stage. They would pass comments and yet come to see me! But I felt satisfied. After all, so many people saw me on stage. Not everybody could afford Firpo’s or the Grand," said Shefali with a smirk in 2012.
Her hula moves were so popular at one point, it's said that she could cause riots outside the Sarkarina theatre. From Ray to matinee idol Uttam Kumar, her charm and moves had enthralled an entire city for more than two decades. But her quick, shimmering fame and even quicker fading away from public celebrity embodied Calcutta then, and Kolkata now.