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W+K’s ‘Motherland’ explores the ‘item number’

The 12th issue looks at the item number right from the high-camp of Helen and all the taboos she embodied, through to the high-gloss choreography and sinew of her present day counterparts

BestMediaInfo Bureau | Delhi | August 11, 2014

Motherland-Item-coverThe twelfth issue of Motherland tackles a hyper-local phenomenon: the item number. Right from the high-camp of Helen and all the taboos she embodied, through to the high-gloss choreography and sinew of her present day counterparts, there is nothing more Indian than the item number. These song and dance sequences form one of Bollywood’s most defining characteristics, and have evolved from coy, suggestive numbers into unapologetically explicit, provocative sequences.

Motherland is a quarterly magazine on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures. Each issue focuses on a single theme, and explores that theme through essays, art, photography, and reportage. Featuring up-to-the-minute visual material, fresh faces and original voices, the magazine covers and uncovers new Indian trends and talent.

Motherland is founded, edited, art directed and published by Wieden+Kennedy Delhi.

The latest issue traces the path of the ‘item’, starting with a piece by Keerthik Sasidharan, in which he looks at the song and poetry of courtesans, a tradition that mixed religion with sensuality into the medieval item numbers of the Godavari-Kaveri delta. Elsewhere, Shoaib Daniyal considers whether its roots lie in the tawa’if culture of Islamicate North India during the 18th and 19th centuries, exploring when and how item numbers replaced the ‘mujraa’.

Debojit Dutta writes about the item boys of Marathi theatre, the Nachya of the Tamasha folk tradition, while in another piece Akshaya Pillai travels back in time to unearth the very first Indian dance cameo in a German film from 1930. Aayush Soni writes about the changing aesthetic of the item number, and its transformation from cabaret to Chaiyya Chaiyya, while Michael Edison Hayden reveals the struggles of India’s vast legion of transgendered minorities, seen through the eyes of two girls whose struggle to become female has been a difficult one, tied in with India’s seamy underworld of massage parlours and prostitution.

It also looks at the forgotten item girls of Tamil cinema, Gulzar’s lyrical tryst with the item number and take a fond look at that most classic of sexy cinematic sequences: the wet sari scene through the lens of Bharat Sikka.


This issue also stars a photoessay by Udit Kulshetra that documents the nautch girls who entertain visitors to the Sonepur cattle fair, and another by Aishwarya Arumbakkam, in which she plays with the one-dimensional stereotype of the item girl, fleshing them out into real women.

At a time when these cameos, so disconnected from the plotlines of the films in which they appear, turn into speeding juggernauts of hype and publicity, we’re taking a look back at the origins of the item number and onward to its future.

Launched in August 2010, Motherland is available on and at premium newsstands in Delhi and Mumbai. The magazine is also on sale through a network of more than 110 partner outlets across 25 cities in India. These partner stores include: Bombay Electric (Mumbai), Evolv (Delhi, Pune, Chennai), CMYK (Delhi, Mumbai and Pune), Play Clan (Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kochi, Chennai, Pondicherry), Good Earth stores (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad), and specialist magazine stores internationally.  A complete list of stockists is available on our website at

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