Today I am writing this piece with a heavy heart — this article is a tribute — a tribute to a wonderful and highly talented folk artiste who left us a few days ago to follow a better and more beautiful path. Though this journey came to him a lot sooner than expected, leaving the dancers and artistes the world over in a state of shock, nevertheless, it is said that those who God loves dearly, he calls them to unite with him sooner than others.
Sunday morning brought with it tragic news for the artiste community of Rajasthan when they heard about the death of Queen Harish, the famous award-winning folk dancer of Jaisalmer. Harish, 38, famous as Queen Harish, met with an accident during the early morning hours en route from Jaisalmer to Jaipur. The driver dozed off and their SUV rammed into a parked truck near the village Bilara in Jodhpur district. Harish was accompanied by eight other members, who were travelling for an event. The Bilara police station reported that, “Their vehicle rammed into a stationary truck which left Harish, Ravindra, Bhikhe Khan and Latif Khan dead, with five others injured in the mishap,”
Queen Harish was known for his Rajasthani folk dance, especially his acrobatic moves and belly dancing. Harish is survived by his wife and two sons, who are six and 10 years old. Queen Harish, who started his career at the age of 13, has performed across the globe. He was unique and totally different — his sequinned Rajasthani attire with heavy makeup was his signature style.
Harish also appeared on several TV shows, including India’s Got Talent and many Bollywood films as well, including Prakash Jha’s film Jai Gangaajal starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and also The Accidental Prime Minister, which starred Anupam Kher as the former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. He also mesmerised guests from the world over at the talked about wedding of Isha Ambani in Jodhpur. The grace and elegance of Queen Harish was totally unmatched, so much so that even Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was mesmerised by his unique ability to match steps on high beats. “Dance is my life and children are my inspiration,” Harish often said and he proved it when he made the cute Aradhaya Bachchan dance along with him at the Ambani’s pre-wedding celebration.
Various luminaries including former chief minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje and current chief minister Ashok Gehlot has condoled the deaths of the artistes. “The death of four persons including the famous artiste Queen Harish in a road accident in Jodhpur is very sad. Dedicated to the folk art and culture of Rajasthan, Harish gave a new identity to Jaisalmer with his different dance style. His death is a big loss to the field of folk art,” Mr Gehlot said.
A native of Jaisalmer, Harish Kumar was popularly known as Queen Harish and his shows comprising of various folk dance forms like Ghoomar, Kalbelia, Chang, Bhawai and Chari among others were very popular. He was one artiste who had put India on the global map and had gained worldwide recognition for his folk dance skills.
I feel truly blessed that just a day before the fatal accident, Queen Harish and me had a heart to heart talk, where he spoke about his very difficult, yet beautiful journey and of course, his future plans. I also want to thank all his wonderful friends from the world over who came forward and gave me lots of his photographs and performance images. Katrinaji, Davey Mitchell and Arnaud Azzouz — this would not have been possible without you all — thanks a million. Today I want to share with you all that the effervescent Queen Harish spoke to me about with a smile on his face yet tears in his eyes. Here is his last interview ever:
How and when did dance become a part of your colourful life?
When I stepped into my teens is when I got into this magnificent world of dance. I was all of 13 years of age when dance beckoned — and mind you, it was due to the death of my mother and father, just a few months apart. My mother died of cancer and my father passed away six months after she left us. I was the only man in the family who could earn money and feed all the others (with a smile on his face) — but no regrets at all about that.
Tell me more.
I belong to the colourful and bright desert city of Jaisalmer — this culturally rich and beautiful city in Rajasthan is where many tourists come, and folk art and dance are the main attractions for tourists here. Every restaurant and resort in Jaisalmer provides folk music and dance shows to tourists for entertainment. A friend suggested that I do this job in the evening to get enough money for the family and that was also the only way to continue my school education. I would go to school from 12 to 5 pm and then dance from the evening till late night.
Why did you choose to specialise in Rajasthani folk dances only?
(Smiling) I did not choose the folk dances — the folk art chose me. I knew dancing, but not really folk dancing — learning the traditional folk dances was a big challenge for me, but being an avid dance lover, I was happy to face this challenge too. Mostly, the audiences were Europeans or other non-Indians. People from educated families did not want to take up dance as a profession — there were only tribals or gypsies who would dance for entertainment.
Why did you choose to dress as a woman and dance?
People only wanted to see women dance. Having a fully decked-up woman on stage was in great demand for a show — all folk musicians wanted the same and that was also the so called tourist fashion. For me, wearing a woman’s costume for the first time was a memorable experience of my life. Ahh! The smell of make up and the lipstick — oh I just loved it. After I was dressed up, I felt like the most beautiful person in the world (laughs). The costume of the Rajasthani bride was very heavy and since it had so much shine and glitter, it reflected on me and I felt like a bride myself. The heavy ghunghroo was kind of really hard the first time — I remember my legs shivering and being in deep pain while people clapped and cheered.
And then the struggle began, didn’t it?
Yes. I had to face a lot of struggle for making it in the world of dance, seeing a man dressed in a woman’s avatar is comic for many people. Films have made it even worse, I must say. To top it all, as I am living in a small city, it has been even more difficult. I guess people in bigger cities like New York, London or even Mumbai or Delhi have it a bit easier. I was from a middle class family and nobody was a dancer in my family. So it was shock after shock for people around me, and to add to the grief, I was dancing for tourists at night — that was a kind of “shame job” and was looked down upon by one and all.
I was a good student — an intelligent student, but that was not enough to get my family and me food and to stay alive when it was super cold during the winters. No one, just no one came to help me in my hard times (smiles). I was totally disheartened and hurt. So I decided to bring money to my home and give a good life to my sisters and continue my school education. But I would often hear people laugh and make nasty and bad comments about me, because of which I did not really want to go to school. I found solace in music, in dance and in the artiste community only. I felt that upper and middle class people were not for me — my place was with the poor and the so called low class people only.
How nasty did people get and when did you realise that dance was more than just a passion for you?
I would hear bad words daily and experience people make jokes about me. First, it began with people talking behind my back but soon they started insulting me on my face. Abuse, rudeness and insults became a part of my daily life — almost like a prayer (laughs with tears in his eyes). Hijara, meetha, chakka, gud — all these comments became so common for me — these words would echo in my ears all day long and in the evening, with music and dance, I would find peace. That is when I realised that dance had become my passion, my life and I could not live without it.
Within a short time you became a dancing sensation?
About two years into dancing, I started getting a lot of work — shows in big cities — but when the time came for my first international tour, I had to say no because I could not leave my sisters alone for long — they were alone with no man in the house and it is unsafe to keep young girls alone at home for long. But many of my artiste friends told me that I was making a wrong decision because very few lucky artistes get a chance for an international tour of six months. But thank God for my luck, the event got postponed and the company again offered me to join the tour and this time I asked my masi and bua (aunts) for help in taking care of my sisters and took up the first European tour — and then, there was no looking back for me.
(Laughs) Aache din aaye (Good times came around). When I returned, people were looking at me differently — suddenly there was respect, dignity and admiration for the same hijara, meetha, chakka (laughs). Thanks to news coverage and the media, I was all over Rajasthan and people’s minds started to change about me and my danceform.
Now you have students from the world over who come to learn from you.
I feel fortunate that people come from far and wide to learn from me. I feel truly lucky and blessed. I also travel to many countries conducting workshops and trying my best to popularise Indian folk dances. I always request students to come to India, to Rajasthan, to Jaisalmer and experience the rich culture and tradition of my country. This is the least I can do for my country and towards the roots of my art.
From films to television to the Ambani wedding, you have danced almost everywhere, but which has been the most memorable show so far?
(Thinks deeply and smiles) The most memorable experience was performing for the Football World Cup in Paris, France. And yes, it was the worst one too, because the same day my knees got hurt while dancing and I was terribly sick yet dancing while on tour.
What’s next for Queen Harish?
I request all to always keep supporting Queen Harish. I want to see myself in the next season of Bigg Boss, sharing my wonderful life with the people of India and I really wish that one day a movie is made on my life.
Before we said goodbye, Queen Harish said, “Sandipji, God, who is sitting above, is always watching and observing each and every one of us. I have always believed that if we have a good, clean and clear aim in life, God will always help us and I have seen that happen to me. You know, a few times I have seen him and heard him talk to me while I danced — the experience was divine.”
Well, I am sure today Queen Harish is dancing, performing, mesmerising and enthralling at a better place and in front of the most divine audience. We surely won’t be able to see this super-talented artiste in the Bigg Boss house but I do hope that a film is made on his eventful life. Here is wishing Queen Harish peace and may his creative soul keep dancing forever.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore, is a World Book Record holder, a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with three National Excellence awards and one National Achievement Award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org