Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bharatanatyam in Sri Lankan Sinhalese Films and in Sri Lanka

While on a zealous search to see what kinds of dance could be found in the cinema of Sri Lanka, India's island neighbor to the south, I was completely perplexed when I stumbled onto this Bharatanatyam-based dance in the 1965 Sinhala film Hathara Maha Nidhanaya:

Start :53

My cursory understanding of the history of the ethnic Sinhala-Tamil conflict and civil war in Sri Lanka made the dance unfathomable to me! The film is in Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka, and the staging of the dance is clearly referencing national pride given the image of the Sri Lankan island and national flags (different from today's style) placed prominently in the background and acknowledged by the dancer (and very reminiscent of many Indian film dances in front of the image of India, such as Vyjayanthimala in Penn). The audience of young, mixed-gender school children indicates a respectable, common setting, and the dancer's clothing is very Sinhalese in style (according to a Sinhalese acquaintance).

Despite all of this, the dancer is performing choreography inspired by Bharatanatyam, the dance associated with the minority Tamils, along with what appears to be some Kuchipudi influence such as the backwards anchitam movement of the feet on the heels! And to add to the confusion, the jewelry she wears with her Sinhalese dress is the traditional Hindu temple jewelry of a Bharatanatyam dancer (edit: I've since learned that the headdress is not exclusive to Tamil culture in Sri Lanka). I would have expected to see Bharatanatyam dance in the less-developed Tamil-language cinema of Sri Lanka, but I certainly would have never imagined seeing it in a Sinhala film and especially not in a scene depicting national pride which by that time was apparently well-equated with the majority Sinhalese Buddhist culture and Kandyan dance. Browsing through the rest of the film, the dancer only seemed to appear in this song and there was no indication she had any context in the film that would explain her dance and its stylistic choices.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Article "Screendance in Indian Cinema" and Thoughts on Film Dance

Last week saw the end of the fourth Naada Bindu Festival—a three-day residential arts retreat at the Chinmaya Naada Bindu gurukul for Indian performing arts in Pune. The festival features a number of dance and music performances, lecture-demonstrations, and other activities. Ramaa Bharadvaj, whose "Reminiscences of a Disciple" personal article on Kamala I posted back in 2011, is the director for dance at the Chinmaya Naada Bindu and she "conceptualised, designed and edited" a journal for this year's festival titled Rasikatvam. I had the honor of being invited to write an article for the journal on the topic of classical dances in cinema culture, and I chose to write specifically about the advantages and distinct pleasures that screendance offers to audiences of Indian dance. My submitted article was edited somewhat and given a snazzy layout for the final printing. Images of the article are at the end of this post and it can be viewed in its entirety here.

I wrote the article as a beginner to the topic of screendance, and as I read some published literature on the subject it became clear that the growing field is rich in thought-provoking theory with ample room for further analysis and scholarship. The sources I found the most exciting and comprehensive and would recommend to anyone interested in this subject are first Harmony Bench's review essay in Dance Research Journal, and then the two books that Bench reviewed: Screendance: Inscribing the Ephemeral Image by Douglas Rosenberg (especially chapters 1-3; brief Google Books preview) and Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image by Erin Brannigan (previewable on Google Books).

Reading these sources has changed the way I view Indian dance as captured in cinema and by the camera, and a spark has been lit in my mind about the advantages and pleasures the format offers to Indian dance forms. I'm not sure that I really got to the heart of my excitement in my basic and dryly-written article, but it provides a basic overview of the advantages of Indian dance on film and some interesting food for thought.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Meeting and Interviewing Kamala! And a Rare Video Find at the NYPL!

Get out of the way people, dance nerds coming through!
Last week I had the pleasure of taking a dream trip to New York City and visiting the hallowed walls of the place that has for years beckoned me with its unparalleled collection of Indian dance treasures...the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts! For so long I have been fantasizing about the trip but it always seemed a bit out of reach until fate coalesced and I found an opportunity to get away. I met up there with fellow Indian dance research/archive nerd extraordinaire Ragothaman and we proceeded to voraciously power through the NYPL's Dance Division holdings with anxious excitement! Can you believe it—I held in my hands the personal notes and photos of Simkie, Indrani Rehman, and more.

But the most stunning find happened right after arrival on the first item Ragothaman and I viewed. It was an item in the catalog that had intrigued me—a 3-minute film reel titled "two Indian dancers" with location and date unknown and the coy description "Performance of East Indian dance, possibly Bharata natyam. A dance by two women (the second dancer, at stage right, is only intermittently visible on film) is followed by solo dances." My mind went wild with possibilities! It could be anyone in the video!

The NYPL staffer set up the silent film reel for us in the private viewing room and as the first few frames of the darkly-lit, grainy recording flashed on the screen we couldn't believe our eyes! It was footage of Kamala and her sister Rhadha dancing Bharatanatyam on stage, in color, in the late 1950s or early 1960s! Kamala could be seen relatively close-up at times, her abhinaya on display as she mouthed the words of the song. The short film reel opened with Kamala and Rhadha performing an alarippu, followed by Rhadha doing a jathiswaram, then Kamala dancing a kirtanam/varnam. The segments were short clips that were hastily edited together and when both sisters were dancing together Rhadha was often unseen outside of the frame. The costumes were in blue and pinkish-orange for Kamala and dark green and orange for Rhadha. The clip seems to be the only extant footage of Kamala's early stage Bharatanatyam outside of cinema, and seeing Rhadha joining her is a rarity! The guess of the date is based on how similar Kamala and Rhadha look to their performance in the film Bhakta Kuchela which was supposedly released in 1961. Oh how I wished I could take just one single screencap of the film reel for my readers, but recording and photography of any kind in the film viewing room was strictly prohibited.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Uday Shankar, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn in Utah!

While browsing through the Utah Digital Newspapers website (mostly public-domain material, woo!), I was surprised to learn that Uday Shankar, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn all performed multiple times in Utah, my current U.S. state of residence, between 1911 and 1962!

That Uday Shankar performed here was most surprising of all. In all my past reading and research about Uday Shankar, I had never read a reference to him or his company performing anywhere in the Intermountain West region of the United States. Very little details about Shankar's touring schedules are available, and for a long time I assumed his company only performed in big cities like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles because those were the only ones briefly mentioned.

General details of Uday Shankar's tours are outlined in the writings of Mohan Khokar and Ruth Abrahams. Nearly all of the performances in the U.S. by Shankar's company were sponsored by the renowned impresario Sol Hurok who first saw the group perform in Paris. Uday Shankar's first company (comprised of family, friends, and Simkie) first toured the U.S. in 1932-33 and 1933-34. Uday Shankar's second company (with new choreography and dancer additions Zohra Segal and Madhavan) performed in the U.S. in 1936-37 and 1937-38. After a return to India, the opening and closing of the Almora Center, and the release of the film Kalpana with little commercial success, Shankar and his third company (entirely revised with dancer addition Amala Shankar) returned to the U.S. in 1949 for a 10 week tour and again in 1951-52. The company's last performances in the United States took place in 1968.

Ruth Abrahams' dissertation on Uday Shankar is the only source I've found that gives specific details about Shankar's tours. A 1933 touring schedule on page 147 reveals that beyond the expected big cities, the tour included stops in places like Cleveland, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Springfield, Missouri; Birmingham, Alabama; Waco, Texas; Tuscon, Arizona; and cities along the coastal pacific northwest and California. Abrahams notes, "The magnitude of the tour effort is remarkable to consider when one reflects on the circumstances of the times, the lack of convenient transportation, and the sheer bulk of personnel and baggage. Amenities, both professional and personal, were schizophrenic in effect—sometimes luxurious, but more often minimal, and the company was hard put upon to locate decent, affordable restaurants and housing. Usually, they just ate and slept on trains between concert dates." I wonder if the company encountered difficulties in their Deep South performance in Birmingham. When Indrani Rehman and her troupe performed in Louisiana almost three decades later in 1961, the troupe was refused admission to two restaurants due to racial segregation [14].

Source: Utah Daily Chronicle [12]
It wasn't until I took a stroll through the Utah Digital Newspapers website that I discovered Uday Shankar and his company performed in Utah at least three times in the 1950s and 60s. The company performed first in 1952 at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake City and then in 1962 gave two performances—one at the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City and another at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. The picture on the right is from an article announcing the Kingsbury Hall performance, and I don't believe I have seen it anywhere else! A 1962 tour is not explicitly mentioned in Abrahams' or Khokar's descriptions (Khokar just says Hurok sponsored Shankar's tours several times from 1949-1968), so this discovery adds to the knowledge base about Shankar's touring schedules.