Muthukumara Pillai On Screen in Kannika (1947), and Other Nattuvanars in Indian Cinema

Saturday, November 28, 2015
Thanks to two YouTubers who have uploaded songs from the 1947 Tamil film Kannika in the past few months, Bharatanatyam dance history aficionados can now witness on screen the nattuvanar Kattumannar Koil Muthukumara Pillai (1874-1960, also known as Muthukumaran or Muthukumarappa, of the village Kattumannarkoil aka Mannargudi or Kattumannargudi) at the age of 73 playing the role of a nattuvanar in the song "Natanam Adinar":

Muthukumara Pillai can be seen at 1:14, 1:58, closeup at 2:55, and 3:51 onward
(the lower quality version includes 2 more seconds where he begins to speak, but it's cut off!!)

How do I know it's him? I had read a while back in the September 1993 Sruti magazine feature on Muthukumara Pillai (for brevity, MKP) that when he was in Coimbatore from 1944-1947 teaching exercises and dances to young boys at a drama company, he "came in contact with Pakshiraja Studios and trained the proprietor Sriramulu Naidu's wife Saroja for her lead role in the film 'Kannika' [and] Muthukumara Pillai himself too made a brief appearance in the film." When I watched the recently-uploaded songs and compared the nattuvanar's appearance with known photos of Muthukumara Pillai, it was clearly him! Compare these stills from Kannika with a photo of MKP that I featured in my post on Muthuswami Pillai and that must have been taken in the late 1930s which were the years the young man on the right, Muthuswami Pillai, trained with MKP.

Left: Kannika  Right: Muthukumara Pillai [credit: Mohan Khokar]
This Kannika footage is incredible because Muthukumara Pillai belonged to the oldest generation of nattuvanars whose hereditary artistic practice was discovered in the twentieth century transformation of what we today call Bharatanatyam. What's more, he along with his contemporary Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai (also known as Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, from Pandanallur village, for brevity MSP) are often remembered today as the two top-ranking gurus and nattuvanars of their generation who trained most of the first non-hereditary Bharatanatyam dancers who spread and popularized the art form far and wide. The two of them each trained such legends as Ram Gopal, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mrinalini Sarabhai, and Kamala Lakshman.

Found: Rangam (Malayalam, 1985) and Shobana/Mohanlal's Bharatanatyam and Kathakali Dances!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rangam, one of the holdouts from my "holy grail" wish list, has finally been uploaded to YouTube! Thanks to cram for informing me of this lucky discovery! As I had hoped, classical dance (Kathakali and Bharatanatyam) serves as the backdrop to Rangam's plot, and no more than 15 minutes go by before dance is seen again either in the background or as a centerpiece. Most exciting of all, there are lots of my beloved dance practice sequences scattered throughout the film!

Rangam is part of the rash of classical arts films that swept South India in the late 70s to 90s starting largely with the success of Sankarabharanam (Telugu, 1979). Rangam seems to be one of the earliest Malayalam films to follow the trend, and it was followed by other similar classical dance/arts films in Malayalam like Swathi Thirunal (1987), Kamaladalam (1992), Swathi Kiranam (1992), Rajasilpi (1992), Devasuram (1993), Manichitrathazhu (1993), Parinayam (1994), and Kaliyattam (1997).

Now on to the dances! I made a comment on the video at YouTube that lists all the dances in the film by category, so if you go there you can click on any timestamp of interest and it will whisk you away to that timestamp on the player. Here are my favorite dances from the film...

Bharatanatyam/Mohiniattam Dances

Video of Jack Cole Performing "Hindu Swing" in Hollywood Palace (1965)

Saturday, July 4, 2015
In my 2011 post on the "Father of Modern Jazz Dance" Jack Cole, I had included a production still of Cole dancing on the American TV show Hollywood Palace (1965). The image captured an important performance for Cole fans and historians because unlike the tight Bharatanatyam inspirations in Kismet (1955) for which Cole was behind the camera choreographing, the Hollywood Palace image captured a performance featuring Cole himself on screen dancing and, given the choice of costuming, likely featured choreography even closer to the Bharatanatyam source than usual.

I assumed the Hollywood Palace footage was lost or locked away in some LA archive somewhere which would be a shame since the extant visual footage of Cole himself dancing in frame is limited and mostly shows him outfitted in American-style clothing with the exception of a brief and tantalizing clip of him in Indian-inspired dress. But my pessimism was misplaced. Thanks to YouTuber Alfred MrDance, we finally get to see the Hollywood Palace footage! I first discovered the clip in its posting at the "Jack Cole, one of the greatest choreographers and dancers ever" Facebook page with different music overlaid. Inquiring by comment referred me to the original video on YouTube. Here it is in all its rare glory:

Film Classical Dances of Manju Warrier (She's Back!)

Sunday, May 3, 2015
Manju Warrier (official website)
Manju Warrier is back and dancing in films again with a fantastic Kuchipudi-based dance in the Malayalam film Ennum Eppozhum released in March! I am beyond delighted. Some time ago I had remarked that Manju Warrier and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy were the only two impressive female classical dancers in recent Indian cinema. But Manju's problem was that she only danced in a few Malayalam films in the short years she was in the film industry and then abruptly left in 2000 when she married the actor Dileep. Difficulty awaited anyone who attempted to track down her film dances online which made Manju a neglected subject on this blog.

When Ragothaman of the Bharathanatyam and the Worldwide Web blog notified me of his discovery of Manju's performance in Ennum Eppozhum, I thought it would be the perfect time to dust off my long-coming post and take advantage of the increase in Malayalam films available online.

Manju's film classical dances are always a large notch above the rest because her training clearly shows through no matter how "filmi" and hybridized the choreography, presentation, or editing style. Her body geometry and precise movements are a pleasure to watch. Comparing her to the mature Lakshmi Gopalaswamy, Manju's only problem is that in her early film dances as a teenager she showed a lack of polish particularly in her abhinaya which consisted almost entirely of a plastered and unwavering smile and also in some of her lines which occasionally weren't quite perfect.

Trained in her youth in the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam (studying at the same institution as fellow film dancer Vineeth) as well as in Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam, Manju studied Kuchipudi more seriously in recent years under Geetha Padmakumar (Vempati Chinna Satyam's style) and performed her debut arangetram in 2012 after not having danced in public for 14 years. She's back!

Manju's Classical Film Dances

Ennum Eppozhum (2015, Malayalam) - "Dhithiki Dhithiki Thai" - After featuring Manju in a dance competition in his 1996 film Thooval Kottaram, director Sathyan Anthikad brings her back for her film dance comeback—a solo Kuchipudi stage number in his film Ennum Eppozhum. While it leans much more classical than most Indian cinema dances, it still has that filmi touch with the copious editing cuts, out-of-place isolated hand gesture closeups, and bits of prettified quick-choreography. But the number makes up for its shortcomings with lovely lighting/backlighting and Manju's seemingly clean and self-assured lines in some of the adagulu inspirations. Compared to her earlier films, Manju seems to be an entirely different dancer here. She actually has more than one facial expression, and her movements are much more relaxed and graceful. Some media articles and reviews misidentify the dance form as Bharatanatyam, but it's definitely Kuchipudi notably in the lively springiness, occasional mouthing of the words, and the classic Kuchipudi arm movements at :27 and :41 among others.

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