Purists might describe him as more of a businessman than a dancer. But in terms of the sheer number of boys and girls that train at his academy every year and the amount of money he makes, as a result, Shiamak Davar is India’s most successful male dancer

Shiamak does not choreograph dances, he creates masterpieces. The glory and limelight is the culmination of his brilliance in choreography, which is well deserved. Every song choreographed is a manifestation of creative intellect at its very summit. ‘Sole to Soul’—the motto by which Shiamak abides is an ever-growing inspiration for his troupe members for whom Shiamak is an omnipotent entity, their quench for creative inspiration.

Okay. Now we know.

Middle-80s and the new leisure spaces are creating a demand for new skills. It’s no longer enough to schmooze and booze. You need to be able to dance and look like you enjoy it. You need to do more than shift from foot to foot, while waving your hands desultorily.

Middle-90s and the cult of the body means you have to flaunt it if you got it.

For the decade in between, the elite and the upper middle class in Mumbai turn to Shiamak Davar to teach them how to trip the light fantastic. Jazz ballet classes are de rigeur for a new generation of people who want to look good in mini skirts and in strobe lighting.

A marketing success can be defined as the right need satisfied at the right moment. Shiamak Davar, whose descriptor-of-choice is `performer’  (Translation: actor, dancer, dance teacher, singer, choreographer) was the right man at the right moment with the right offering. He taught Mumbai’s upper middle class to dance.

At the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai, mecca of the amateur performers of the city, the buzz is alive and well, thank you. Davar’s assistants hover around him like acolytes around a high priest. The performers go through their motions. The students (mostly female, from six to 60) giggle, whisper, twitch and hum. The teenage audience settles down with popcorn-crisp enthusiasm.

The entire congregation springs to life when Shiamak, microphone in hand, strolls into the hall. They clap, hoot, shriek and yell Shiamak’s name chanting it, turning it into a rhythm, a drumbeat. He’s a star, an idol here. Some of his students are visibly smitten.

“He doesn’t encourage them,” his spokesperson tells me as we chat about the effect he has on young people. “But he does encourage them to better their lives by making the most of what’s available. He’s always helping people sort out their problems, and not just by preaching,” she adds.

The dancers are from the Shiamak Davar Institute for the Performing Arts, India’s most successful dance school. Started in 1992, it now has  13 centres in Mumbai, 7 in Delhi and 4 in  Bangalore.  It is so popular that despite a fee of as much as Rs 2,900 for a three-month course, as many as 9,000 students enrolled last year to learn everything from Jazz, Hip-Hop and Salsa.

A teenager complains that his dance routine does not help impress the girls at discos. There’s no space to extend his arms and do the sleek jazz-like moves. “Oh, we’ll take care of that,” Shiamak grins and the hall resounds with laughter.

Enough to turn you sceptic. Is this dance?

The week-long Summer Funk Show performed recently by a thousand students in eight cities at the end of their annual six-week summer course shows you what this is about. The students have been coached to be graceful, confident and professional in their approach. Prior to the performance of a group, Shiamak talks about some of his “special” students from that group: the mentally challenged, the HIV-infected, a cancer patient, the older and overweight ones. Extra effort is invested to make them feel accepted in the class. “We encourage them to build their confidence, and try to inculcate values like discipline and commitment in every student,” says Anisha, one of the tutors at SDIPA.

And so forget about dance in its purer forms, as art, as text, as the space in which the imagination expresses itself in the body. The SDIPA is part self-help class, part finishing school. It’s a grooming school for the younger generation and a fitness centre for the overweight. If you are rich enough and want to lose weight in the privacy of your home it will even send you a personal trainer.  “We don’t reject anyone because they cannot dance,” Shiamak says, adding that a being good human being is more important to him than anything else. “Good dancers with an attitude problem really don’t find any sympathy here.”

Backstage, in the green room, Shiamak talks between mouthfuls of a subzi-roti roll. His core group dancers sit around him, as always. It’s easy to like Shiamak Davar. He seems unpretentious, down-to-earth and comfortable in his skin.

The dressing table has a makeshift pooja corner with photos of Shirdi Sai Baba and his spiritual guides, the Bhavnagari brothers who have departed this world but seem to want to stay in touch. “They call me their younger brother,” he mentions with a smile. Twenty-five years ago, he would have a recurring dream about a wise old man. Few months later he chanced upon a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba and things fell into place.  Existence was directing him to Shirdi. So he became a Sai bhakt.

 

Around the same time, he read about Khursheed Bhavnagari. Her two young sons were killed in an accident, but she had since managed to establish communication with them. Shiamak was fascinated but didn’t want to ask people for her contact number. Instead, he just looked at their picture and wished that he would meet them. Four days later, he found himself being introduced to the Bhavnagaris at a friend’s house. That added a new dimension to his life which he describes in some detail on his website:

Shiamak may never forget that very moment when he first placed foot at the Bhavnagri’s residence at Byculla. He felt a strong yearning, an intuition that now leads him to the pinnacle of his life. It started off as an intrigue and has become his belief today. Time went by as Shiamak mastered the art of auto-writing, suddenly every aspect of his life, every situation was pregnant with awareness. This then gave birth to a being who was now enlightened, in touch with his soul and a staunch believer of spirituality. His spiritual guides Vispi and Ratoo and confidantes Rumi(now in the Spirit world) & Khorshed Bhavnagari, parents of Vispi & Ratoo have been leading him constantly through his quest for spirituality.

The soul is omnipotent, a manifestation of the true spirit. The body is a simple existence which one discards like old apparel after death. The spirit soars to the heavens to regain its true existence; it may then take another form to return to Earth, its learning ground. Reincarnation, Realms, UFO’s these phenomena do exist and Shiamak has witnessed a UFO himself, thus he mentions—“It is rather egoistic to believe that there is no life beyond planet Earth. Step out of your niche and realize that a magnificent galaxy may behold life which mankind is  oblivious to.”

Auto-writing is an art of communicating with the dead. The auto-writer is believed to have the ability to communicate with the dead, listen to what they have to say and faithfully write it down. Shiamak is proficient in that art now and offers his service free to people who believe in this and want to communicate with someone deceased. This is the aspect of his life, he says which is `most satisfying’.

 

Dance is what has brought him fame and fortune.  But  Davar says he had absolutely no desire to teach dance. He wanted to be an actor who would sing his own songs, like they would in the 30s and 40s. His grand uncle was Homi Wadia, of  Wadia Movietone fame, so it ran in the family. “But who would give me a chance?” he asks. As an aspiring actor, Shiamak went to London for a course in acting and singing at 18 where he chanced upon a dance class in progress and was spellbound. “Suddenly there was this organized structure called Jazz, which I had no clue about. They had a lot of technique, which I had none of. I would dance with friends in discos.” He promptly joined the dance class and in a matter of weeks was “good enough to perform in the first row,” which must be an achievement because he mentions it with a hint of pride. “The other dancers were trained from the age of seven or eight with a base of ballet,” informs the quick learner. In any case, he came back home within three months out of sheer homesickness.

When he consulted his spiritual guides about career options, they advised him to start a dance school. After much hesitation and deliberation, he relented. There was always the family-run Davar’s College of Commerce to fall back on, but it didn’t sound appealing.

Shiamak’s fortunes changed with the dance class. He began the class with seven students, of which five were family. But with these humble beginnings, he learnt perseverance. Before long, his dance school grew from strength to strength. He was actively pursuing theatre with Alyque Padamsee and Sharon Prabhakar. He played the lead role of Danny in Grease, the MC in Cabaret and Che Guevera in the new version of Evita and choreographed three musicals: Othello, My Fair Lady and Cabaret.

With time Shiamak developed his very own style of dance. It’s neither classical, nor jazz, and it definitely isn’t ballet. So what is it ? “Jazz movements flow outward. It allows absolute freedom so one can release a lot of energies, just like modern dance. Ballet involves leg-oriented work and the energy is more controlled. It is more orthodox, more stereotyped. Classical dances are also restricted so that teaches discipline. In my dance, there is freedom. I use a bit of Kathak and a bit of modern dance and fuse them to create the best release factor,” he says by way of explanation.

Inculcating this spirit of freedom in young people, he believes, keeps them from channelling themselves into self-destructive addictions. So in 1993, in a bid to spread his message, he hosted a fitness and dance teleserial on Zee TV called Body to Body, Soul to Sole. A year later, he choreographed Aishwarya Rai’s fusion dance at the Miss World pageant, which must have truly impressed Subhash Ghai because he woke up to Shiamak when he was filming Taal, his own attempt at making a musical.

In 1997, he made a foray into the Hindi film industry when he choreographed the songs in Dil To Pagal Hai, for which he won many choreography awards, including the National Award. Neither could Shiamak have boasted of having a roster of filmi students, his most famous one being Gauri Khan. SDIPA even offered Bollywood style dance sessions around this time, which were pretty much a hit.

Later Shiamak sang the title track for the movie Jhoot Bole Kauwa Kaante where one saw him dance with a crow.

“I’ve always loved Hindi films but I’ve never been into Hindi music. I’m still not into it. I love some songs but my kind of music is Broadway music or jazz,” he observes. We talk about his experiences with Bollywood stars and the rumours we hear about their attitude. “Nobody gives me attitude,” he says. “Shah Rukh, Madhuri and Karisma would always turn up on time for their rehearsals. Even Amitabh Bachchan is so humble. We hear all kinds of stupid gossip from the film rags,” he says.

He’s just glad he has been working with “good people like Yash uncle and Adi” (that’s Yash and Aditya Chopra) who allow him his freedom to visualise the entire song, when he’s choreographing it.

His success in the Hindi film industry gave him the confidence to pursue his first love: singing. As a child, he had learnt to play the piano by ear. He was always inclined to releasing a music album, but he finally debuted in 1995 with Survive. In the following year, he sang ‘Come on Raju’ in Hindi and Marathi at the National Games, at the insistence of Sharad Pawar and Suresh Kalmadi. “I actually managed to sing in Marathi,” he grins.

This experience gave him the courage to release his first Hindi album, Mohabbat Kar Le (1997) which he says went multi-platinum. Over the years, he has been invited for performances around the world. Even in smaller Indian towns, he draws larger crowds than other performers do. He has performed wherever he possibly could, going by his list of performances that runs into 17 pages. But the one that made history in the Indian music circuit is his performance with Sting. Shiamak performed his popular ‘Jaane Kisne’ (from Mohabbat Kar Le) with the legendary Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ at the Channel [V] Music Awards in Delhi. That was one of his many dreams come true.

“I’ve always loved Hindi films but I’ve never been into Hindi music. I’m still not into it. I love some songs but my kind of music is Broadway music or jazz”

Although he insists he didn’t pitch for it, that he is no ‘marketing guru’, it is difficult to think of someone who has parlayed a limited range of talents into an industry. The Shiamak Davar version of dance is not breaking new ground, not creating waves. It is simply helping people lose weight and gain social acceptance. It gives them a taste of the limelight, a chance to participate in that all-Indian dream of  being on stage, of being applauded.

Shiamak Davar is a brand. It might even need some hologram protection. Many dance classes in small towns masquerade as a branch of the prestigious dance school. This upsets him tremendously. He wonders if they teach well because his tutors undergo a special training programme. “You can damage your student’s body. Imagine what karma that will be,” he mutters in disbelief.

The Parsi dance teacher from Napean Sea Road believes in the traditional Hindu concept of karma. In charity. That the universe is made up of pure energy. That living beings are energy systems. That energy is created, shifted or transformed at every moment. And that life exists even on other planets.

All of which may seem a little off-the-wall but what do you know? It works.

 

Photographs by Ashima Narain