I remember meeting Saroj Khan at filmmaker Satish Kaushik’s sangeet party. The image of her dancing on the occasion is alive in my mind. Believe me, she had everyone’s attention as she danced away. From the way her eyes lit up, to her graceful moves, it showed that she was a passionate dancer. A key point to remember is that unless you love yourself and the way your body moves, your dance will not come alive. Sarojji knew that—she always appreciated her hand movements and the way her body reacted to music. It’s difficult to mention Sarojji in the past tense.
When she started off in the industry, choreography was a male-dominated field. She fought for her place among the men and became a force unto herself.
Still from Chane Ke Khet Mein, Anjaam (1994)
The current breed of choreographers owes her so much; she paved the way for them. [Until 1989], Filmfare Awards did not have a category for Best Choreographer, but she brought about the change with her outstanding body of work. It was because of her that the film industry started recognising choreographers.
Sarojji changed the definition of dance in Bollywood. She had assisted B Sohanlalji for several years, including on the song Hothon Mein Aisi Baat [Jewel Thief, 1967], and had learnt the nuances of Kathak from him. So, the influence of Kathak often reflected in her work. She was the only choreographer who brought the kanak and adaa of Kathak to Bollywood.
I have never seen any other choreographer employ the mukha abhinaya. It is a classical word that denotes facial expression. Whenever she worked with Madhuri Dixit or Sridevi, one could see her employing this technique and saying a story purely through the use of expressions, smile and eyes.
Madhuri Dixit with Saroj Khan during dance rehearsals
[In 2007], Sarojji was roped in to choreograph songs for the Tamil film Sringaram, which was centred around Bharatanatyam. They have such accomplished choreographers down South, but the makers offered the film to Sarojji because she was armed with sound knowledge of the dance form. She did a wonderful job with the movie.
Only she could marry the sensibilities of the Hindi film dance with taal and andaaz of classical dance. With her passing on, I will miss the Indian flavour, folk element and classical tadka that she brought to her songs. It’s truly the end of an era.
In the years preceding her Bollywood debut, Sonam Kapoor learnt Kathak under my guidance. Sarojji was choreographing a song for Sonam in her debut film, Saawariya . Before she began working on the song with Sonam, she asked me if she could see her dancing skills. She joined us during one of our sessions at Sonam’s home, and said to me, “Dikhao kya sikhaya hai tumne.” When Sonam [performed a set], she was quite impressed. Then, true to her purist style, she said, “Abhi koi abhinay bhi karke dikhao [show some expressions too]”. It showed that the steps aside, she was more interested in knowing ki chehra bolta hai ki nahin.
Sarojji was a brave and powerful woman who was ahead of her times. She captured the sensuousness of a woman so wonderfully in Dhak Dhak Karne Laga [Beta, 1992]. The Sailaab  song, Humko Aaj Kal Hai, is etched in my mind. With her smooth movements and graceful body language, Madhuri [Dixit] beautifully depicted the passion and longing of a woman. One can see Sarojji’s genius in that song. She knew how to convey passion on screen with subtle and beautiful gestures.
Still from Barso Re, Guru (2007)
Her choreography of Barso re Megha in Mani Ratnam’s Guru  is another splendid example. Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan] looked so graceful as she married free style with folk dance for the song. Sarojji also beautifully wove in folk elements within Bollywood dance steps in Chane Ke Khet Mein [Anjaam, 1994]. As a woman, Sarojji knew how to depict female sexuality aesthetically and gracefully.
As told to Uma Ramasubramanian
Uma Dogra is a Kathak soloist, choreographer and teacher. She trained under Pandit Durga Lal, the Kathak Maestro from the Jaipur Gharana