After the Independence of India and the consequent partition of Bengal, her parents left the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with their three daughters and a son, to start a new life in the city of Calcutta. She was Arati Das, the youngest of the siblings, a 11 year old naïve girl, who had no idea of the city life. As her father was indisposed, her mother had to accept the job of a cook at the residence of a Bengali person in Ahiritola, who provided them a room to stay. Even at that tender age, Arati desperately wanted to do something for the family and often requested a neighbouring woman, a nurse by profession, to get a job for her. With her help and permission from her mother, she was soon engaged as a domestic help in an Anglo-Indian family, staying in Chandni Chawk area.
The family used to follow the European style of living and often threw parties with dance and music. Inquisitive and fascinated Arati used to watch their rhythmic dance from behind the curtains and tried to imitate their moves when she was alone. Vivian Hansen, a singer at the Mocambo Restaurant often frequented the family and sometimes attended their parties. One day Arati took the courage to ask him for a better job and in reply to his query she informed him that she can dance. Vivian did not promise anything, but one day he took her to the Oberoi Grand Hotel. However, as things did not materialize there, he took her to the Firpo’s.
During those days, the Firpo’s was one of the most expensive and sophisticated hotels in Calcutta. The manager, an Australian, asked Arati to show him some dance moves and as he was satisfied with her performance, she was hired with a salary of Rupees 700 per month, which was more than 10 times of her salary as a domestic help. Apart from the salary, she was also provided with food and a bungalow to stay, behind the Great Eastern Hotel. Hindi and English teachers were engaged to make her proficient in those languages and Gloria, a European dame started to visit her bungalow to teach her all types of Western dance, from Hawaiian to belly dance and from Charleston to twist.
On the evening of her first performance, she was guided to the gorgeous Lido room, a huge hall with majestic ambience, to entertain the guests. However, she was utterly shocked when she got her costume before the performance. It was a revealing bikini blouse, which the belly dancers wear. She could not control her emotion and cried, as the dress exposed every part of her body, from legs to arms.
Nevertheless, soon she made up her mind and accepted it as her profession. After that, everything happened, as if in a daze. She danced as if there was no tomorrow. When it ended, the clapping lasted over half an hour and the applause was unbelievable. That was the moment, when the first Bengali cabaret dancer, Miss Shefali was born. She never had to look back.
Gradually, Shefali became synonymous to Calcutta’s nightlife. Every day, lots of people visited her and urged her to work with them. However, she knew that those people want to lure her and one wrong step will take her to the dirty world of the flesh trade. In fact, she wanted to rise in her profession – she wanted name, fame and money. At the same time, she enjoyed the male attention, the accolades, men falling for her, drooling over her. She dated and had affairs, but never had the gut feeling of meeting her Mr Right. Perhaps the only man she loved was Robin, a tall, attractive and married American, who wanted to marry and take her away. However, she refused, as she did not want to break his family.
When the Firpo’s was slowly shutting down, Shefali joined the Oberoi Grand and shifted from the bungalow to a huge flat in Circus Avenue. As a cabaret dancer, she reigned the Grand for long 17 years. In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, she rocked the cabaret space of the city’s nightscape, set the barroom and much else on fire.
Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar often visited the Grand to watch her performance. During those days she mostly used to perform the Hula and then had a little routine fun, when she put a garland on a person, that particular person had to come forward and dance with her on the stage. One day she put it on Uttam Kumar, which made him embarrassed, as he could do only Cha-Cha. Finally, they did twist.
Subsequently, apart from Uttam Kumar, many famous persons belonging to the Tollygunge film industry, including Satyajit Ray, Suchitra Sen, Supriya Devi, Tarun Kumar and many others, became her friends.
In the late 1960s, Satyajit Ray selected her for his film Shimabaddha (Company Limited). She also acted in Ray’s Pratitdwandi (1970) and many other Bengali and Hindi films. Later, Tarun Kumar introduced her to the stage and she appeared in many famous plays like Chowringhee, Ashlil, Samrat O Sundari , Shaheb Bibi Golam and others.
For the last fifteen years, Arati Das is living in a modest two-room flat on Jessore Road, Dum Dum, with Durga, her caregiver. The walls of the flat are still alive with the framed photographs of Miss Shefali. According to Durga, frequent hospitalization has drained away all her money. She has penned her biography, ‘Sandhya Raater Shefali’ ( Shefali of the twilight), published three years ago.