It was with some sorrow that I read of veteran actress Kumkum’s passing. She was 86 I understand and that is a good age. I hope her years out of the limelight were happy and carefree and I hope her death too was easy on her.

She may not have been a superstar like Nargis, Suraiya, Meena Kumari and Madhubala but she was nevertheless a presence. In the premiere of the film Mother India as staged in Dev Anand’s Kala Bazaar you can see the kind of welcome that Kumkum gets when she steps off her car at Liberty Cinema in Bombay. It also gives you an idea of what cinema then was – the crowds lining up, the stars arriving, the howls of delight from the audience and of course the black marketeers! Who can imagine such a world? The moment when Kumkum arrives is in the video below at roughly 0.59

Mother India Premiere as pictured in Kala Bazaar

Though I have not seen any movie of hers where she had a significant role as an actor, I have enjoyed several of her dances. It was said that even Helen held her in some awe. Her Kathak training meant she was unerring on the beat and matched her movements with facial expressions. You can see it in most of her dances – the way she keeps miming, practically every second.

I must have first got to know of Kumkum through Guru Dutt’s films. She was in CID, Mr & Mrs 55, Aar Paar and Pyaasa. In the last she has a decent acting role as the streetwalker with whom Johnny Walker is in love. I am linking Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar Laaga Teere Nazar, sung by Shamshad Begum, from Aar Paar here

Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar

The song Madhuban Mein Radhika is immortal and made Mohammed Rafi and Naushad immortal too. Forgotten is the film Kohinoor (1960) starring Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari in which this number features and Kumkum is the one who dances for it. Oh by the way, practically everyone involved in this song including Kumkum, was Muslim and yet the song was on Radha and Krishna. You can view it here and it will give you an idea of her dancing skills.

Madhuban Mein Radhika

One of my favourite films is Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954) starring Bharat Bhushan, who, probably because he wears a beard throughout is not so bad as he usually was in acting. His luck was such that he had the best songs anyway. Suraiya was the heroine and magnificent in acting, dialogue delivery and above all singing. Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have remarked that she brought Ghalib’s works alive in the film, and she did. Anyway there is a scene where the character portrayed by Suraiya is to be married off to the local Kotwal and Kumkum leads a group dance at the event. This is among my favourite songs and you can see the way she emotes even as she dances. The song is sung by Shamshad Begum, another favourite of mine.

Chali Pee Ke Nagar

When I once played this to my friend VAK Ranga Rao he remarked that while this song was great, Kumkum was even better in the number Chalke Chanda Ka Paimana (sung by Asha Bhonsle) from the film Bhagam Bhag (1954). This was one of those crazy comedies apparently with Kishore Kumar and Kumkum in the lead, one of many that she paired with him in. I have not seen it but I must agree that this has Kumkum at her dancing best.

Chalke Chanda Ka Paimana

Who can forget Reshmi Salwar Kurta Jaali Ka from the film Naya Daur (1957)? I have written on this film earlier but this song did not feature in my article. This is purely an item number, the kind that Kumkum specialised in and here she is pitted against a formidable partner – Minoo Mumtaz. Unlike Kumkum, Minoo Mumtaaz, our own Royapettah girl and sister to comedian Mehmood was a natural at dance with no formal training. And she is handicapped by having to play a male. She is however no walkover. But you can see Kumkum’s Kathak training clearly in this song. This number is also unique in that there is a third, and equally great dancer, namely Vyjayanthimala, watching the performance!

Reshmi Salwar Kurta

I have not seen Kaali Topi Laal Rumaal (1959) but I just love this group dance for the song Daga Daga Vai Vai Vai sung in the super-fresh voice of Lata Mangeshkar. The whole scene is fabulously animated and while everyone dances, as they did in many Kumkum songs, she outclasses them all. The beginning where she effortlessly catches the stick of the man in the Pathan dress is itself enough paisa vasool.

Daga Daga Vai Vai Vai

I am sure there are many more Kumkum songs but these are top of mind, which I feel are what ought to comprise a quick tribute. This is after all not a Kumkum biography. Most people strangely remember her for being the daughter-in-law in Mother India. Not a classic beauty but with abundant talent, she was one of the many gems that made the Hindi cinema of the 1950s and 1960s a many-splendored thing. I cannot say she will be missed as she remains alive through her films and their dance numbers.