Remembering Miss Shefali, Kolkata’s Cabaret Queen Of The 70s

Not many of those who formed Ms Shefali's major fan base would probably be in a position today to articulate her glamour and charm.

But in the history of Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was known in her time, she has been immortalised.

Ms Shefali, or Arati Das, was one of Calcutta's most famous cabaret dancers in the 60s and 70s, who passed away on 6 February 2020. In her long list of fans were director Satyajit Ray and renowned Bengali actor, Uttam Kumar.

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Arati was born in pre-partition Bangladesh in 1944 and her family moved to Calcutta after Partition. With very little money at their disposal, her mother worked as a cook, whereas Arati joined a household as a domestic help.

During her time with the family, Arati picked up dancing while watching guests dance at parties thrown by her employers.

It is here that she met Vivian, who was a singer at Kolkata's Firpo's Hotel. He promised her a job and brought her to Firpo's, a regular haunt for the city's rich and famous. She was hired as a dancer.

Speaking about her first day as a dancer at Firpo's famous Lido Room, Das, in an interview to The Telegraph in 2012, had said:

“I still don’t know what I did. I was in a daze. But people clapped non-stop after my performance. I was taken into a huge hall called the Lido Room. I have never seen such grandeur in any hotel in Calcutta, even now it’s unmatchable. I was given the costume before my performance. I cried when I wore it. Every part of my body was exposed, from my legs to arms. It was a bikini blouse, something that belly dancers wear. Then I thought, okay, this is my profession and I must not feel bad.”

While at Firpo's, Das picked up a number of western dance forms like the cha-cha-cha, belly dance, blues and the hula.

Soon, Arati Das transformed to Miss Shefali, with fans coming from far and wide just to catch a glimpse of her at Firpo's or The Oberoi Grand, where she also performed later.

Such was her popularity that if she were late to a show, her fans would vandalise the venue.

Actor Uttam Kumar was known to be a big fan of her hula sequences.

From dance bars at posh hotels, Das soon dabbled in cinema, as her fame and popularity grew. She was cast by Satyajit Ray in the movie Pratidwandi (1970) and Seemabaddha (1971).

Speaking about her experience with Ray, Das had said in The Telegraph interview:

“Manik da (Ray) had seen me perform at Grand, perhaps. He sent a person called Anil one day. Anil told me Dada wants to meet me. I went with him to his residence. Manik da looked at me and said, ‘There’s a role, would you like to do it?’ I said, ‘Yes’. Then he asked, ‘Shefali do you smoke?’ I lied, and said ‘No, I don’t’. I was scared to admit that I did! He told me I had to smoke for the character. And he said, ‘For this role, you have to open your blouse’. I said ‘Okay, not a problem’. My only request was that he give me the script beforehand. So he sent me the script and I learnt my lines like a parrot.”

Also Read: Remembering Satyajit Ray: The Rare Master of All Trades

Shefali's role in Pratidwandi as a nurse led to a protest by nurses who were offended that "someone like her" was cast as a member of their profession.

Ray had to famously issue a media statement to quell protests.

While she was desired by many, Shefali led a lonely life. She often spoke about her relationship with American national Robin Rootland who had proposed marriage to her. She rejected his proposal to keep her parents happy and chose a life of singlehood.

Shefali's funeral too, revealed nothing of her glamorous life. But in the conscience of Calcutta, she shall always rest as the prodigious dancer who kept the entire city hooked to her every move.

(With inputs from The Telegraph)

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