True Life

The Dancing Engineer

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A self-taught dancer, Harihar Dash is the boy you can’t take your eyes off in a jazzy new TV commercial. Open traces the unreal career graph of the engineer from Behrampore

Even if you mute AR Rahman’s funk, it is difficult to peel your eyes off the boy in the green shirt. Indeed, you marvel at the pretty young girl’s resolve as she turns away, sadly it has to be said, from that boy with the liquid moves in the new commercial for a telecom service. Such is the spell cast by 25-year-old Harihar Dash, an electronics and telecommunications engineer from the town of Behrampore in Orissa, who has never had a dance lesson in his life. This might well be the unreal life graph of many a reality show contestant in India, from unnoticed-gawky-talentedness to YouTube stardom, but almost none of these shooting stars has made it in the obvious, splashy, impossible-to-ignore way that Dash has.

It all started, as many of these crazy stories do, with a man called Michael Jackson. “Smooth Criminal, I love that song,” says Dash, in confident English that takes me by surprise. Behrampore or not, he could be the fuzzy-haired, capri-clad, indisputably cool boy who lives above my South Delhi apartment. “I started dancing to Smooth Criminal in front of my mirror after my matriculation exams. I love Michael, I like Black and White (sic) too, but Smooth Criminal is my favourite dance number,” he says. “I would dance by myself in front of the mirror. There were no dance schools in Orissa, there still aren’t any probably. And my parents would never pay for dance class.” Dash kept dancing, though, graduating from Michael Jackson to what he calls ‘popping and locking’. “I was crazy for popping and locking,” he says. What’s that, I ask. “They are hip-hop and street dancing moves,” he explains happily, as if I were a particularly attentive student. “I read up a lot on the internet and learnt that popping originated in the 1970s from a man called Sam Soloman who founded a band called the Electric Boogaloos.” In the absence of formal training, Google and YouTube became his gurus. “I saw some Japanese poppers on YouTube. They were awesome. This is a form of dance called animation popping. I watched and downloaded loads of videos, started practising, and realised that I could actually do this stuff.”

Dash’s parents, though, were not impressed. “They wanted me to be a doctor or engineer. I too thought dancing was only a hobby and I’ve always been a serious student. I sat for all the entrance tests, got through and enrolled for a BTech in electronics and telecom at the Biju Patnaik University of Technology,” he says. “I never bunked class,” he adds earnestly, “I worked hard on my studies. I was quite good, actually, and I enjoyed my course. At the time, I thought I would graduate and get a job like my parents expected me to. I danced at college functions. I represented my college at inter-college meets. And for three years in a row, I was university champ. There are more than 80 colleges in the university, so that got me thinking: maybe I could think of doing something with my dance. Some of my friends said I should try out for the reality shows.”

His parents wouldn’t hear of it, though. “They have never supported my dancing,” he says drily, “and they were dead against the idea. Finally, I cut a deal with them. I would try the reality shows for a year and if it didn’t work out, I would get a job. I had to convince them but they agreed.”

“First, I tried out for Dance Premier League on Sony TV. I made it to the east zone final. Next was Dance India Dance, where I was in the top 57. These shows were a good platform but I didn’t make it to the final stages where you really get personal attention from the choreographers and get noticed by the judges. My year was almost up and my parents were asking me to look for a job. Then came the audition call for India’s Got Talent,” he says dramatically.

This, clearly, was the big one. Log on to YouTube, and a search for Harihar Dash will throw up over 200 results. Most of these videos are from his performances on the reality show India’s Got Talent and have registered thousands of ‘views’. “I had been working on my moves when the call came, and by then I had added a crucial element to my dance: Bollywood tadka. I did my popping and locking to the song Mar Jawaan from Fashion, and one-and-a-half-months passed in a blur. I made it to the finals and stood fifth out of nine contestants.”

“Before I entered India’s Got Talent, I had five friends on Facebook. Now, I have had to open another account because you can’t have more than 5,000 friends on Facebook. Once, I didn’t check my mail for five days and I had 977 friend requests pending,” he chuckles unselfconsciously. 

It was the YouTube videos that got Dash noticed. Adrian Miller, chief creative officer of J Walter Thomson, New Delhi, who made the ad, says, “We knew we wanted a performer for the role, but we weren’t sure what type. We scoured YouTube looking for the right person and we found Dash dancing in India’s Got Talent.” Airtel’s CEO Sanjay Kapoor too noticed Dash on YouTube.  “One day, I got a call from a girl from JWT in Delhi who said they wanted me to shoot for an Airtel ad. I had no idea what JWT was, so I looked it up on the internet. I saw their website and realised how big they were. I called back and said yes immediately,” he recounts. “The shot was scheduled for Prague. But I didn’t have a passport and I needed one in two weeks. It was the time of pujas, and all government officials were on leave except the Behrampore SP. I pleaded with him so much that he asked me whether I was a terrorist. But he gave in finally.”

As it happened, Dash actually danced to no music at all. Rahman’s tune was not ready, and bizarre as it sounds, Dash performed in the middle of the street to the music playing in his own head. He was instructed to do a mix of popping and ballet. And he did. “We shot for two days. The wake-up call was for 5:30 am and it was freezing. My costume was just a pair of jeans and a thin green jacket. But when I started dancing, I somehow forgot the cold. But after one day, I asked them to please play some music. Even slow music would do, but it is funny to dance like that, nah?”

Airtel confirms that Dash is the sole Indian to be featured in its rebranding campaign, besides the work of AR Rahman, that is. Dash himself realised this only after he came back and Airtel held a press conference to unveil its new ad splash. “It is big, no?” he asks. 

Now, this boy who never attended a dance class in his life is holding a dance workshop, which has had so many people signing up that he’s having to plan another one to accommodate them.  And for that, he’s acquired a personal assistant.