Yesteryear models reunite with 'Godmother' of fashion choreography

India's top models from the 70s and 80s reunite with Godmother of fashion choreography Jeannie Naoroji, who tells them what she always did, smile and pull the chin up

On stage are: Interior designer and noted aesthete Kavita Singh, film actor Deepak Parasher, dance director Salome Roy Kapur, jewellery designer Marianne Rao, cancer survivor Esther Daswani, actor and artist Kiran Juneja, fashion choreographer Lubna Adams, actors Pheroza Modi and Nandini Sen, business professional Nandini Kamdar (nee Naqi Jehan), luxury brand marketing professional Adrianne ‘Anna’ Bredemeyer and businessman Asgar Jehan. Off the stage at Tata Theatre, NCPA, actor Zeenat Aman quietly absorbs instructions. Almost all of them are beauty contest winners, models, actors and activists — the nation’s first harvest of ambassadors of beauty and elegance.

Jeannie flanked by Lubna Adams (left) and Dolly Thakore (rear centre)
Jeannie flanked by Lubna Adams (left) and Dolly Thakore (rear centre)

What Jeannie Naoroji sees: young models who need to be repeatedly told to, "Zip the lips, girls. Focus." or "Models shouldn’t talk." or "Did I tell you to speak?"

Jeannie Naoroji, 90, choreographs Kiran Juneja at a rehearsal for the awards night fashion show. Pics/Suresh KK
Jeannie Naoroji, 90, choreographs Kiran Juneja at a rehearsal for the awards night fashion show. Pics/Suresh KK

The scene is the rehearsal for Fashion Rewind, a show that finally took place last Wednesday. Jeannie was awarded the Laadli Lifetime Achievement Award for Fashion Design and Choreography. "The awards celebrate women in the field of media, arts and advertising. Past recipients have included Zohra Sehgal and Shaukat Azmi. This year, it’s Jeannie," says Dolly Thakore, national co-ordinator for the 7th National Laadli Media and Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity. "We choose women who are leaders in their field and over 90 years of age," she adds.

Zeenat Aman (in green) worked with Jeannie even before she won the Miss Asia Pacific title in 1970. Behind her to her right is Salome Roy Kapur
Zeenat Aman (in green) worked with Jeannie even before she won the Miss Asia Pacific title in 1970. Behind her to her right is Salome Roy Kapur

Jeannie, at 90 years and eight months, is a veteran choreographer of over 4000 shows stretching from the mid 1950s to early 1990s. Those were shows before there were fashion designers, or even an Indian fashion industry. "It was more like entertainment with a dash of business thrown in," says Anna. "There would be a room or an exhibition where a cloth mill would showcase the latest wares to buyers. We would have a show with clothes made from that same fabric. It was more a tamasha and we did our own hair and make-up."

Former model-turned-actor Deepak Parasher strikes a pose
Former model-turned-actor Deepak Parasher strikes a pose

Jeannie became the director of these shows because of her interest and experience in dance movement. Born in Karachi in undivided India, she studied ballet up to the week before her wedding in 1951. In 1954, she was involved with raising funds through shows for the National Association for the Blind and the Maharashtra State Council for Women. "We had to do a fashion show for the institution. Someone saw me dancing to music and asked me to choreograph fashion shows," she says. "And that’s how it began."

Fashion aboard ships
The assembled cast has been reminiscing about those shows, which were mini adventures. Paced as entertainment, they would supplement a fabric trade show. The mills used the event as live expositions of their new products. Calico and Hakoba Mills held travelling shows. There was an adventure on a cruise liner that sailed up and down the river Rhine in Germany where shows were held twice a day. Then came a memorable trip to Moscow for a textile exhibition which was supposed to last four days, but stretched to 25 days. "We almost lost Sam there; his heart belonged to Russia," Jeannie says.

She’s talking about veteran stage director Sam Kerawalla. He’s here too, handling the lights and production for the awards like he has for 40 years. Handling music production in place of Sam is old friend and collaborator, Sarosh Bhabha, is his son Kaizad. "Can you believe it, he passed away just in February," says Jeannie. "We worked together for more than 40 years." Kaizad began accompanying his father when he was 10 and was present on that Rhine trip. He grew up in the company of all the women present on stage today, which explains why they maternally pat his cheeks and ask about his recent elective surgery. In the background, Sam and Salomé break into a jive. Marianne ‘Dalda’ Rao (nee D’Souza), Pheroza Modi (nee Cooper) and Esther Daswani mock glide, pace like seductive tigresses and goof about. Asgar Jehan, an old dance partner of Salome’s, takes former beauty queen and fashion writer Meher Castellino’s place as they practice entries. He walks with feminine grace as the girls hoot. Esther calls out to Jeannie, "Don’t grow old before your time, Jeannie!"

You haven’t changed
Jeannie theatrically counts to 10 sitting in the front seat of the audience. "One must count to 10 before retaliating to a rude person. You girls have become too clever for me," she yells. "Jokers. I am not amused at all."

That’s Jeannie, each model says. Feisty, professional and a yeller. "I’m too old! I can’t be scolded like this!" laughs Kiran. "She thinks we are still 18," says Esther. But nobody says that to her; they do as they are told.

Each of them has walked for Jeannie though the 60s, 70s, 80s and the 90s. Salome began as long back as 1968 and worked with her till 1977. Zeenat worked with her before she won Miss Asia and after and during the time. "I learnt to walk the ramp from her, which helped me win an international contest and put me on the path to movies," says Zeenat. She, like all the others, has taken out time from a busy schedule to rehearse for the show. "I think if anyone has contributed to your growth, it’s nice to acknowledge it," she says, presumably speaking for everyone.

With her knowledge of dance movement, Jeannie would choreograph the shows resembling mini ballets. There would be three or four sections, showing Indian wear, casual Indian wear, casual western wear and perhaps some avant-garde designs. "We would open with an aarti or a namaskar and then move about occupying the stage, striking poses. It was not just walking up and down [like it is now]," Jeannie says. This format is being replicated for the tribute show that her former colleagues have put together. Designers Wendell Rodricks, Neeta Lulla and Rudra Kapur of Burlington have offered to design the costumes.

To all of them, Jeannie is unchanged — she still dresses in a monotone and a flourish of a trendy accessory — a scarf then, an ikat jacket now with a co-ordinated headscarf. Thick framed glasses match the black rock entwined in a silver ring in one hand, which matches a gunmetal band on a finger in the other. Her earrings are black buttons. Her decisions are made in a split-second. "No, not this music; try the other," she barks. When asked whether she doesn’t like it, she says, "It’s not a matter of liking; it should match the clothes." To the models she instructs, "Glide girls. Raise your chins. Remember you are showing off the clothes. Anna, please put the bag down, be a model. Make a sensational pose. Smile! Smile out of your hair, out of your body."

"This is what we wanted," says Salome. "To bring the old Jeannie back."

Out of the theatre, the girls recall her as a mother hen, always wanting to know if your personal life was okay, whether they were comfortable in a strange land and eating well. She forked Lubna’s career into a new direction with a backhanded compliment. "This was in 1991 or ’92," Lubna recalls. "About six or seven days before a show, Jeannie’s daughter called me and said, ‘My mother is ill and can’t do the show. She has said you will do it.’ I didn’t know anything about choreography and said so. Her daughter replied, ‘If mother thinks you can do it, you can do it.’ So I directed and walked the show. After that, I grew in that direction."

The crew had grand plans of celebrating Jeannie’s life with giant picture backdrops, flowery speeches and tokens of
affection. Jeannie doesn’t want to know about all that. "It’ll get a bit boring if you keep talking about Jeannie Naoroji," she tells Dolly, who is working on the script to fill the time between costume changes. "Why don’t you talk about the models, instead."

To journalists writing about her she repeatedly says, "Don’t overdo it."

To the world at large, she says, "I am in my element when I say something rude."

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