Know Thy Dancer – Indrani Rahman


Continuing with the new series “Know Thy Dancer” (click here for first in the series), in this post I am touching upon another pioneer who blazed the stage with more than one dance form. Indrani Rahman. She was one of the leading dancers to spread the Indian classical dances in the west.

I came to know her not for her dancing prowess, but that she was the first to win the Miss India title (She was already a mother by then!) in 1952. Later on, it was the iconic book “Dance dialects of India” written by her mother Ragini Devi (more about the trailblazing American in another post) that showcased the photographs of Indrani’s dance. I think it was her expressive eyes that were bewitching in the book. With passing time, Indrani Rahman and her contribution to Indian Classical Dance became clearer and impressive to me.

Her daughter, Sukanya Rahman, has already published Indrani’s, and her grandmother Ragini Devi’s biography in 2001. In fact, “Dancing in the family” is a good read for those who want to know more about Indrani Rahman and her art. As with any biography there are some archival photos of her in that book.

I did mention that she was the first Miss India and went to Miss Universe 1952, right? Now, the news of Indrani Rahman winning the Miss India was reported in papers as below [1]:

Indian traditionalism was further shocked by the fact that a married woman, Mrs. Indrani Rehman [sic] of Calcutta, was chosen as the winner. As Mrs. Rehman is a Moslem, her participation was especially defiant of custom, since old style Moslem women, particularly wives, are even more secluded than their Hindu sisters. Emphazising the departure from Indian tradition even further, the first Miss India is half American.

See photos from Life Magazine archive where Indrani Rahman features (Hat-tip: eros-dikaios). Click on an image to see full-size.

In fact, the title of winning Miss India was something I understand as she disliked later. To a letter addressed to Mohan Khokar, she says “Don’t ever call me Miss India”. See the collage below, from Ram Rahman’s blog.

Coming back to her dance her daughter Sukanya mentions that [2]

I taught myself the dances from her little match-stick drawings and practised, practised, practised in various rented studies around the city

Little did I know that one day I would stumble upon those match-stick drawings of Indrani Rahman. See a sample below that I had the opportunity to see at the New York Public Library.

Click on image to see full-size.

Click on image to see full-size. Image Courtesy: NYPL Performing Arts Library

Here are some archival photos of Indrani Rahman that are captivating! [3]


Fortunately for us, there are videos of Indrani Rahman’s performances in the styles of Kuchipudi and Orissi. There exists one video of her doing bharatanatyam with her daughter Sukanya.[4] It is a Tillana in Sindhu Bhairavi and Adi Tala that I have not seen others performing, also the choreography did not have the sahitya part. In fact, it was Indrani Rahman’s style to not dance to the sahitya part as

she felt the item was stronger with a rhythmic theatrical exit.

Thanks to Sukanya Rahman who gave this information, as I wondered if the sahitya was left out for sake of brevity.

Not sure if it is the same video is being referred by Shala Mattingly, Kathak dancer, in the Letters to the Editor of Sruti Magazine  [5]

On 19 April there was an evening honoring the memory of Indrani which was held at Asia House in New York. It was a wonderful evening with a reception, followed by tributes and the viewing of three videos of Indrani performing Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi respectively.

I hope it is the same video of the Tillana being referred in the above mentioned quote.

Apart from the above videos, the three Kuchipudi videos of Indrani Rahman that are in public domain are as follows:

The first one is the famous Mandooka/Manduka Shabdam, where Indrani Rahman performs as taught to her by Guru Korada Narasimha Rao. There are two versions available. The first one is during the visit to the erstwhile USSR in 1967. (Hat-tip: Minai) Click on the image to visit the site and scroll to 8:57, where one can see her dance. Also, it is significant that at the end of it one can see her doing a “salamu” as part of the shabdam.

The second longer version is available in YouTube (from her son’s channel) was filmed in California in 1968, a year later in the same costume. Interestingly, it is introduced by Ravi Shankar. Also, the Tanpura is played by Sukanya Rahman. Here also, at 5:48 she does the salamu.

The third video is from the famous Jacob’s Pillow festival in August 1979, 10 years later. Here she is performing a Tarangam. Due to privacy settings, I am unable to embed the video here. Click on the image to visit the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive website where it can be viewed.

Tarangam_Jacobs Pillow

The fourth video is of Indrani Rahman performing in Orissi style, where Guru Deba Prasad Das is playing the mardala. (Hat tip: Minai) This video was recorded in 1958. Also, one can hear her speak! The video takes some time to buffer and play, so patience is required!

According to sources, Indrani probably wore a red saree and a yellow blouse in the above video.

Indrani Rahman’s style of dancing

On the outset, one can clearly see that her costume choices, her style of dancing are distinct from the current Kuchipudi and Orissi dances. Also, the Kuchipudi and Orissi styles are different from what we see today on stage. With respect to Bharatanatyam, both in the Tillana video and in the photographs, she is seen bending the wrist that these days is not followed at all. Also, as mentioned above, the sahitya part in Tillana was never performed. In the Tillana video I vividly remember noticing a seamless grace that flowed in her nritta. While this was shot well into her advancing age, the Bharatnatyam had a certain old world charm, where dancing in abandon was more prominent in the dance.

Other existing videos of Indrani Rahman

There are other videos of Indrani Rahman that are possibly in private hands.

  1. Sukanya Rahman mentions in the biography that Arthur Godfrey came to Delhi and interviewed Indrani for his TV show. [2]
  2. Indrani Rahman was documented by James Ivory in the early sixties, where the video was shot at the Qutub Minar complex in Delhi. [7]

No matter how many videos exist, they picture/document only a portion of an artist’s life. Still, these documented instances portray some of the quirkiness that shows them as more human than larger-than-life image. On a general note, we rarely document the idiosyncracies of a personality and this leads to a hagiographic portrayal of an artist, more so in the case of a dancer. In this respect, Sukanya Rahman’s biography of her mother and her grandmother shows their human side.


Courtesy: New York Times, Dec 3 1961

Coming back to the topic in hand, I bet the following lesser known facts of Indrani Rahman would make you either situp or chuckle. 🙂

  • A common mistake made by scholars and archivists is the spelling of her last name as “Rehman” and not “Rahman”. Hope Indrani’s name is spelled correctly hereafter!
  • She was literally “smuggled” into the USA via Canada in a boot of a car when her mother, Ragini Devi, had to travel from India to Minneapolis.
  • Indrani got married at the age of fifteen in 1946 to Habib Rahman, and came to Calcutta. After her daughter was born soon she started her dance lessons.
  • The first dance style Indrani learnt was Kathak and Manipuri, although at the age of five she had her debut as part of her mother Ragini Devi’s Kathakali performance. Then, she went to Bangalore to study Bharatanatyam with U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi at the advice of Ram Gopal. She had her arangetram in Bangalore.
  • Later, she moved to Madras to study with Chockalingam Pillai.
  • Her “second” arangetram happened on 23rd October 1950 at the Museum Theatre, Egmore. It was attended by T. Balasaraswati, Tara Chaudhary, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Haren Ghosh, and the dance critic Venkatachalam.
  • The portrait made by M F Husain of Indrani Rahman was lost and never recovered, so Husain remade the painting. [6]
  • Indrani Rahman once resorted to send the police to get her costumes delivered as the well known tailor in Delhi was infamously known to be late, always.
  • Indrani Rahman was the one among the firsts to perform more than one style of dance in her performances. Later it became the in-thing and followed by others. Today presenting more than one style of dance by a dancer has vanished!
  • One of the biggest lesser known facts is that Indrani Rahman was not a territorial person when it came to dance. Many of the top dancers in India and in New York area owe Indrani Rahman a huge gratitude. She was famous for presenting an upcoming or talented dancer along with her performances! According The names include: Pandit Durga Lal, Raja and Radha Reddy, Sonal Mansingh, and others [7]. In her own words [8]

    I made it a point to present younger dancers.  I have presented a number of dancers, around 25, in the course of my career, and how I helped them was by including them as guest artists in my show. So whoever came has also to see them [sic]. And it became so, that people began to ask me, whom I was presenting next.

Indrani’s way or style of introducing young artists was quite well known. The question is, who among the current star dancers introduce and include an younger artist/dancer in their performances? 

Some archival photographs found via Google that are interesting.


  1. The New York Times, Apr 5, 1952.
  2. Dancing in the family: an unconventional memoir of three women, by Sukanya Rahman Harper Collins 2001.
  3. Brochure of the “Indian Cultural Delegation to China” 1955, Printed in China.
  4. Bailes clasicos de la India, Inter American University of Puerto Rico. Metropolitan Campus. 1980s.
  5. Sruti, August 1999, pg 3.
  7. Indrani, Obituary by Sukanya Rahman, Attendance 1999, Pg 121.
  8. Curtain Call by Navtej Singh Johar, Attendance 1999, Pg 125.

6 responses to “Know Thy Dancer – Indrani Rahman

  1. That 1958 video of her performing Odissi is amazing because of it’s early date and her importance in the history of Odissi, and having Guru Deba Prasad Das on screen as well is an archival treat! The mention of her bent wrist is interesting–I have always associated that with “incorrect” dancing, but did it used to be a stylistic choice decades ago? And you know what I just realized–the four young women seen dancing Manipuri before Indrani appears in the NetFilm clip look like the famous Jhaveri Sisters!

  2. Hi Minai,

    I agree with you that the 1958 orissi video is awesome. We get to hear her as well!

    The bent wrist is no no these days. I am not sure if that was a stylistic choice then.

    I think too that the netflim clip has Jhaveri sisters.

  3. Hi Pritha,

    Thanks for stopping by. I did not know this information. It was not mentioned in her biography. Any idea where we can watch this? It would be awesome!

  4. Very interesting post! So if I understand it correctly, Indrani Rahman was half-white American and half-Indian Muslim? Yes, if you have a child at teenage age then your body can bounce back well enough for a Miss Universe contest! LOL!
    P.S. Thanks for the shout-out!

  5. Hi eros-dikaios,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Indrani Rahman was half american and half Indian Hindu. Her father was Ramlal Bajpai. Her husband was Habib Rahman, hence the Muslim last name.

    I think you are right in how the body bounces back! 🙂

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