Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Remembering the Film Bharatanatyam of the Late Adyar K. Lakshman

When I learned the sad news yesterday that the Bharatanatyam Guru Adyar K. Lakshman has passed away, my mind immediately went to his excellent choreography in Indian cinema. Since it still seems that not enough people are aware of it, I thought I would show his two film choreographies again here and honor his work which has been preserved in film for us to cherish all these years later.

I had first learned of Guru Lakshman's choreographies in cinema when I read the Sruti magazine profile on him in Issue 320 (excerpt here) that noted he "directed and choreographed dance sequences from three art films - Subba Sastri, Hamsageethe and Ananda Tandavam."  While I have not been able to locate Ananda Tandavam, I was thrilled to learn this week that its dance starred Savithra Sastry in the lead and the film was supposedly in Tamil and released in 1987! If anyone has seen this dance or knows where to find a copy, please let me know!

Guru Lakshman's choreographies in Subba Sastri and Hamsageethe are, I would argue, among the absolute best (perhaps the best!) serious Bharatanatyam captured in Indian cinema. The treatment of the dances is very different from most other film classical dances with the minimal editing, equal focus given to expressive and pure dance, crisp and authentic lines and movements, and the extended length--all signs of intentional respect and care for the dance segments by the director and editor, and I'm sure Guru Lakshman was the core reason the dances turned out so well.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Classical Dances in Recent Indian Films - Including Sattriya and Kootiyattam!

While I've been mostly looking back in history as I've blogged about Indian film dances for the past few years, a number of films have released in recent years with songs or scenes featuring classical dance forms. Having collected enough for a robust post and also making some great discoveries this weekend, I'm excited to take a break from research and share what the classical movie dance world has produced recently. I'm sure I've missed some—do let me know of any others!

Vara: A Blessing (2013, Coproduction) - Screened at various film festivals since it's debut but apparently not commercially released in theaters or on DVD, Vara: A Blessing has been described as "a visually stunning exploration of the cross between spiritual devotion and bodily temptation that incorporates hypnotic use of tradition Indian dance and music" and as a work "Accented by mesmerizing bursts of classical Indian dance, haunting vocals, and vivid Hindu fantasyscapes..." With choreography by the accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran, music by Nitin Sawhney, and sumptuous visuals and effects by the crew, the dances as seen in the few clips available online make the film an absolute must watch. It's not an Indian film since it's directed by the Bhutanese lama filmmaker Khyentse Norbu with help from various countried folk, but it is set in India and was made with many Indian actors, so it is perhaps a Bhutanese/Indian/international coproduction.

This is the clip that took my breath away and has me aching to watch the film. In it, the main character Lila (Odissi dancer Shahana Goswami) dances Bharatanatyam under the nattuvangam of her mother Vinata (Geeta Chandran), the village's last devadasi. Based on Variety's review of the film which describes how the tribal leader tries to "pimp out Lila" while finding a match for a woman's son, the man staring at her as she dances is likely either the son or the tribal leader. Like him, I can't keep my eyes away from Shahana's face which registers constant emotion and danger that is enhanced by the lighting design and shadows. The entire clip has an ominous, creepy tension. Thanks to Ragothaman for pointing out this clip from Chandran's Facebook page.

Click image to link to video - embedding not allowed

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Manipuri Dance in Indian Cinema and the Beautiful Dances in Sanabi (1995, Manipuri)

Reading about Manipuri Dance in books about Indian dance, especially those written pre-1990s, has always been quite entertaining to me. There is a distinct exoticised "othering" seen in statements like "the Meities, a people of slight build with slanting eyes...are a deeply sensitive and artistic race..." [8] and "The country abounds in myth and legend...since earliest times, the people have shown an innate love and a gift for expressing their emotional and religious fervour through dance and music." [2]. The dances are described in glowing but simplistic descriptions laden with pleasantries.

A refreshingly-different perspective on Manipuri dance is offered by Faubion Bowers in his 1953 book The Dance in India. Faubion had an interest in Asian dance and drama and was one of the early and well-known Asian Studies writers starting in the 1950s (and was instrumental in the preservation of Japanese Kabuki). In this excerpt Faubion departs from most other writers of his day and argues that "Manipuri dance" as it was known outside of Manipur at that time and as popularized relatively early by renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore was a complete misrepresentation, and of excited interest to this blog he also covers its popularity and misrepresentation in Indian cinema:
“[Rabindranath] Tagore hoped that by transplanting the dance from Manipur to India proper he would have the secret of regenerating dance throughout all India.... Shortly after his visit, Tagore installed a dance teacher from Manipur at Shantiniketan, an all-India school of arts in Bengal. Apparently Tagore was too definite about the use he wished to make of Manipuri dancing and too opinionated as to what he thought the art of dance should be in general. He selected bits and pieces of the teacher’s instruction and molded them to fit his own romantic dance-dramas. By simplifying the dance he made it possible for his students to be dancers and brought the art well within their reach. What became known as “Manipuri Dancing” was actually this Tagorean simplification and its latitude of interpretation. During this arid period of India’s recent dance history, this Manipuri-cum-Tagore style swept the country. People responded to its soft, flowing, unintellectual, and restful style. Mathematics and perfectionism in classical dancing had until then precluded the entry of amateurs into the dance field. Tagore’s Manipuri dancing filled a vacuum and answered the cry of amateurs.

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.