New Delhi: When he was 10 years old, growing up in the Mumbai suburb of Nallasopara, Amit Rokade was installed in front of a television by his uncle Rohan, a choreographer, and introduced to the craft of Michael Jackson. “I don’t remember now which video it was that I saw,” Rokade says. “But like my uncle, I was inspired by Jackson to dance, by his style and his energy.”
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Early on the day he turned 19, Rokade learnt that Jackson had died, reportedly of a cardiac arrest at his home in California. “I didn’t sleep at all after that,” Rokade, now a dancer in his uncle’s troupe, says. “Practically everybody in my troupe started dancing because of Michael Jackson. So everybody’s sitting around crying here, calling each other for support.”
By the time Rokade watched his first Jackson music video— the first of many that he would carefully collect—his idol’s career had already spiralled into decline, the towering successes of Thriller, Bad and Dangerous well behind him. As a creator of pop music magic, Jackson was practically defunct; but as a creative influence, on dancers and musicians as well as on non-dancing, non-musical teenagers, Jackson was surprisingly potent in India, well into this century.
Unarguably, more than any other modern Western musician, Jackson made the largest, most far-reaching impact on Indian listeners. It wasn’t limited simply to Bollywood dance masters borrowing his moves or aspiring composers being infected by his beats. It meant that kids on talent shows or neighbourhood dance contests got—still get— inside a hat and slippery-soled shoes to try the moonwalk. Or that canny pavement poster-sellers in the 1980s and the 1990s, knowing exactly what their customers wanted, hawked sheaves and sheaves of giant, unlicensed posters of Jackson in his trademark poses: shoulders thrown back, hips thrust forward, arms akimbo.
Top of the pops: Michael Jackson, 50, died at his California home late Thursday. Despite a declining following elsewhere and a string of scandals, he remained the undisputed king of pop for his fans in India. Megan Lewis / Reuters
“Most of the time, it was that outfit from Thriller,” remembers Yohann Arya, chief operating officer of Archies Ltd, the chain of gift shops, which stocked licensed Jackson posters right until the poster craze itself died out. “When he was around, he was the ultimate poster that we’d sell. Every single print run would be a sell-out. In fact, those big sizes of posters really took off only because of him. Otherwise I recall only small, poor-quality pictures torn from magazines—including those of somebody else who died today, Farah Fawcett.”
And inevitably, from bedroom walls, Jackson worked his way indirectly into the higher echelons of the Indian entertainment industry. In Chennai, like Rokade, a young Prabhu Deva used to watch Jackson on television and practise his steps alongside. “When Thriller released, that was when I decided to become a dancer,” he says. “People may call me the ‘Michael Jackson of India’, but there can really be no one like him.”
In a statement on his web site, A.R. Rahman, who collaborated with Jackson on a track titled Ekam Satyam in 1999, celebrated his “uncompromising music”. “He pushed the milestone of Pop music to unbelievable levels through the ’80s and ’90,” Rahman wrote. “I am yet to find an artist with that energy, perfection and vision.”
Given his immense performer’s charisma on video, it was no coincidence that Jackson’s popularity in India grew side by side with the spread of television; national broadcasts and colour television began in India in 1982, the year of Thriller’s release. Curiously, while his music reached Indian shores in intact enough condition, the depth of his personal deterioration and the seriousness of his alleged misdemeanours never percolated down quite as efficiently.
Indeed, Jackson’s Indian fans could always be relied upon for plentiful supplies of sympathy. “When he was facing those cases of child molestation in 2003, I composed an anthem of support and uploaded it on my website, expecting probably 10,000 downloads,” says Nikhil Gangavane, a Pune-based photographer who helped found the official Michael Jackson fan club in India, with a current enrolment of roughly 13,000 members. “So far, though, it has had over a million downloads.”
When Gangavane was in the eighth grade, he heard Black Or White and Thriller, and he told his parents that he wanted to become Michael Jackson. “Of course, they said it was an absurd idea—you know what a middle-class Indian family is like,” Gangavane says. “But I do perform music now, and I perform a lot of his music.”
Hearing that an upcoming series of concerts in London would be Jackson’s curtain call, Gangavane had bought tickets to a show on 28 August. “This was my final chance,” he says. “When he performed in Mumbai in 1996, I had my XIIth grade board exams, and my parents said I couldn’t go. That was the most disappointing thing.”
Jackson would perform in India just that one time, as a part of the HIStory World Tour, in a concert organized with the oddest of partners, the Shiv Sena. (“We would like to accept that part of America that is represented by Jackson,” Bal Thackeray was quoted as saying at the time.)
Rokade was too young to attend that concert, but he insists that he knows what the energy and electricity of a live Jackson show must feel like. “He’s the god of dance, after all,” he says. “Even today, when I get on a stage to perform, I think first of him.”
Vidhya Sivaramakrishnan in Chennai contributed to this story.