My Favorite (Black and White) Classical Indian Film Dances

Sunday, September 26, 2010
I have spent the last month or so on a mission to find each and every single instance of Classical Indian Dance in Indian films.  Given my enjoyment in making long, meticulous lists, this has been a most satisfying adventure!  Guided by some fellow bloggers posts, friends, loved ones, and sheer Google-Fu, I’ve discovered some beautiful dances and even a few seemingly-rare gems along the way.

Commencing with this post today, my next series of posts will be about classical dances in Indian cinema: lists of my favorites, twin dances, informal practice scenes, humorous dances, dances featuring men, Tandav dances, lesser-seen dance forms, spectacular dances in general, and more! This is actually what I originally envisioned my blog to be but never had enough time to explore until now.

This post focuses on my most favorite classical film dances from black and white Indian films.  There are many dances that I enjoy (and that will be highlighted in future posts!), but this post focuses on my top 11 that I love to watch repeatedly and that either keep me spellbound or immensely entertained. Old black and white films are such a pleasure to watch because I feel as though I'm discovering “lost” treasures and songs nearly forgotten.

Of course, as I noted in my Indian Classical Dance Extravanganza video, these dances are not “pure” classical dances but rather the filmy variety.  What I love about film dances is the energy the camera generates through angles and editing as well as the beauty visualized through costume and set design.  There’s just something magical about dances seen on screen.

And now, the list in order of affection:

Jalsaghar (Bengali, 1958, Dir: Satyajit Ray) - This nearly 8-minute dance, my friends, is what I wish more Kathak performances in films looked like!  The dancer is Roshan Kumari, a well-known Kathak artist, who danced in a few other Hindi or Bengali films like Jhansi Ki Rani, Mirza Ghalib (see below!), Waris, and Basant Bahar.  I love the way that her skirt gently floats back down after her fast chakkar spins; it's unfortunate that her eyes are obscured by the shadows in the print.  The most magical part begins at 6:50-- I find myself holding my breath as the rhythm (and the ghungroo bells) speed faster and faster and faster, the beautifully-repetitive Hindustani music beckoning me to lose myself for a few moments. 

Arundhati (Oriya, 1967) - “Abhimanini” - Odissi dancer Minati Mishra gives a lovely performance here mixing Odissi and Bharatanatyam movements.  She can be seen most clearly in the last third.  The English subtitles are a bonus!  Since Odissi dancing is so rare to see in Indian films, I was over the moon when I discovered this gem.  The s-shaped Tribhang posture is so gorgeous.

New Delhi (Hindi, 1956) - “Kanhaiya Tori Murli” (and the preceding dance scene) -  It’s so lovely to see such nearly-pure classical Bharatanatyam in a film song; I’ve been told Vyjayanthimala is performing a classic Alarippu (thanks Ramesh!), which is one of the first things Bharatanatyam dancers learn.  A shortened clip of this has been on You Tube for a while, but the one I’ve posted here also includes the full “Kanhaiya Tori Murli” song that directly follows it which includes at the very end a short segment of classical dancing again- not to be missed!
Video starts at 34:50

Chori Chori (Hindi, 1956) - Thillana dance - Here Kamala Lakshman performs a Bharatanatyam piece set against a lovely background and lighting scheme.   I was first introduced to the dances of Kamala Lakshman through Richard’s Dances on the Footpath blog.  I’ve been surprised that she’s not as well known as Vyjayanthimala yet she was such a huge star and instrumental in making Bharatanatyam popular and respected through cinema.  Richard wrote a nice blog post about her here

Narthanasala (Telugu, 1963) - "Jayagana Nayaka Vigna Vinayaka"- L Vijayalakshmi (aka L Vijayalaxmi) is a dancer I see a lot in classic Telugu films performing pseudo-classical.  Her dancing in “Jayagana…” is perhaps the most classical that I’ve seen her get, and I find the way NTR directs her and even “dances” a little himself very charming and fun.  Apparently, Nartanasala was a huge hit during its day and remains a classic.

Neethipathi (Tamil, 1955) - This song features a common dance theme from the period--what I call a “twin dance” in which two young women dance the same movements opposite of one another.  I happened onto this song accidentally when I was looking for more information on Kuchalakumari, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer who danced in many films (and was the dancer opposite Kamala Laksham in the Konjum Salangai dance competition song).  There are some beautiful classical movements, and the dancer on the left is completely delightful in her emoting.  The dancer on the right reminds me a bit of L. Vijayalakshmi with her sweet-as-sugar face; anyone know who the dancers are?  I’ll have another post later on these “twin dances” in Indian films.

Video starts 3:05

Padikkadha Medhai (Tamil, 1960) - “Aadi Pizhaithalum” - What starts out as a delightful Bharatanatyam practice scene between two children turns into a… “wait, who is this dancer!!”  When I first saw this song I was immediately reminded of Vyjayanthimala and her quick movements and facial expressions! I soon learned the dancer was EV Saroja, a trained classical dancer.  While the song quickly turns to a folksy dance, I’m so charmed by the beginning that it finds a place on this list.

Shiv Bhakta (Hindi, 1955) - "Kailaashnath Prabhu Avinaashi" - While this song is less classical than many of the others, I am so charmed by Padmini’s grace and beauty that it finds a place here.  I can’t keep my eyes off of her and her expressive face, and I love the way she embellishes the choreography.

Mirza Ghalib (Hindi/Urdu, 1954) - Another dance of Roshan Kumari makes the list!  Unlike in Jalsaghar, this song only lasts just over a minute, but it is another wonderful Kathak piece.

Maro Charithra (Telugu, 1978) - "Vidhicheyu Vintalanni" -  These last two songs feature none other than Kamal Hassan!  His classical dances in the Telugu film Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli in Tamil) are well known, but I had no idea that he also did some short classical-like dances in two black and white films in 1978 (thanks Ramesh for the tip!)!  The song Vidhicheyu begins with a home practice scene involving sufficiently tight bell bottoms; Kamal dances again briefly at 1:22 and then resumes again for the finale at 3:43 which is endearing and makes one wonder: “just how does he dance with those tight pants!“

Nizhal Nijamakirathu (Tamil, 1978) - The tight pants make a showing again here where Kamal dances for some children while his thick-spectacled admirer looks on.  Can’t really compare it to dances like Vyjayanthimala’s above, but it’s so much fun (and deserves a wider audience!) that it belongs here on the list. 
Video starts 4:06

And that wraps up the list, though I will say it was agonizing deciding which songs were my top favorites.  I'm excited to discuss all of the other lovely songs in themed-posts coming soon!


  1. I was so excited to see that you had another post up! I love this ongoing education in dance on film.

    "Sufficiently tight bell bottoms" expresses it perfectly. It's weird to think that Kamal Hassan's career has included BW films and crazy special effects extravaganzas like Dasavatharam.

  2. I like your blog this great videos about dance in films great i hope to see more videos and regular updates in your blog.

  3. dustdevil - I'm so happy to hear that you are enjoying my posts and learning something from them! Yes, Kamal has had quite a varied career hasn't he! I'm just discovering some of his old devotional Malayalam films which are quite funny, such as this song with Sridevi: :)

    Telugu News - Thank you for the comment and encouragement.

  4. Minai, many thanks for the mentions and references! And now I'm going to take those as license to make a very long comment here. :)

    Let me say first that I could put at least half of the above clips on my own list, though there are of course so many to choose from.

    As you know already, that dance from New Delhi probably is my favorite Vyjayanthimala dance, and we had some discussion under my post of clips for Vyjayanthi's birthday (Aug. 13) about how it is indeed a classic Alarippu. At one point, I found someone on YouTube who was posting lessons in Alarippu step by step (which I posted in comments) and it was a lot of fun connecting it to the New Delhi dance, possibly because it was a perfect match; I didn't see any "filmi" variations in that segment.

    And thank you for wondering, as I have, why Kamala Lakshman isn't better known these days. :) I do think she was an even better dancer than Vyjayanthimala (and might still be :) ), and Padmini was too. So, I am glad you included dances from both of them that were among their best.

    And, of course, I have to agree about the Roshan Kumari dances - both of them!

    I guess the most conspicuous way that I would differ in my own list is that I would have to include Sitara Devi and her nephew, Gopi Krishna. I like Kamal Hassan (or is it Haasan?), but I think Gopi Krishna was the greatest male dancer by far. For favorite black-and-white dances, I would also take the timetable a little further back, into the '40s and maybe '30s (there are really nice examples to be found on YouTube from these decades also).

    I am looking forward to the other themes coming up. You mentioned "twin" dancers, and I'm hoping to see a couple of dancing duos I know of who were real sisters even if they weren't twins. :)

    I also wanted to mention a "twin dance" that I was looking at over and over last week that came from Pakistan. (I figured, you might miss it since it was from Pakistan. Also, it's usually listed for the great singers, but I think it's great for the dancers too!)

    Here is the full dance in two parts - with part 1 focused exclusively on the dancing, part 2 more on the classical musicians - from Baji (1963):

  5. Oh I think Minai did leave out pakistani films from the ambit of her search (but that's a lovely mujhra, Richard! ) and you'll also notice that she's gone light(imo) on the Pakeezah-Devdas-reena roy- kind of kathak- mujhra dances that Indian films were full of at one point in time(maybe the late 50's and early sixties) . i think it has to do with the genre ambivalence of a mujhra. Is it a classical dance ? or is Kathak the classical version and mujhra the more entretainment version? I think personal preference vice, I would include lavni, mujhra and Kuchipudi as their own category of popular stage dances which had a classical bent to them,but going by traditional definitions It's a deliberate choice people make when they include a satyajit ray film kathak performance but not a song from..say Devdas, and that's fair enough ..

  6. Richard - Thank you for your lengthy comment!

    It was indeed difficult to choose which films to include, especially since I was very caught up in what "is" and "isn't" classical.

    I'm guessing that the Kamal Hassan songs weren't part of the imagined half in your list? ;) I always have to mix things up and throw in some curveballs (as I am, after all, as much a fan of classical dances as I am kuthu!). :D Though I agree that Kamal is not the greatest dancer; of recent times, I am especially fond of Vineeth much more (because he is so technically sharp).

    I wasn't able to find any good examples of male classical dancing in black and white films; if you have any recommendations (esp. of Gopi Krishna!) please do send them my way! I've seen a few of his color dances (beyond JJPB), but none of his black and white, if I remember correctly.

    I have heard of Sitara Devi but have never seen any videos of her dancing! Would love to get some title recommendations if you have any.

    And that dance you posted is wonderful! I love that one dancer has a skirt (and is gorgeous nonetheless) and the other a pajama-style outfit. Definitely adding that to my list.

    Yes, my "twin dances" post definitely includes Sai-Subbalakshmi! I learned about their identity first through your blog- I will probably need a refresher course in who is who so expect more hits from me! :)

    Ramesh - You are very right in that I've avoided the Pakeezah-style dances in favor of pure-dance pieces in the world of north Indian dances. I've always focused on dance much more than the music, and not knowing the language makes it even harder to appreciate slow, interpretive numbers.

    I have a dislike for Mjra's mostly because of the way they are often presented in film. They seem repetitive and start to look the same. I lean towards the opinion of your latter statement- that that Mujra is the entertainment version (at least in film) of Kathak.

    I'm really fascinated by Marathi Lavnis as we've been discussing because they at first glance look purely classical but end up being a hodgepodge of all sorts of different styles.

    Do you really consider Kuchipudi a "stage dance with a classical bent"? :)

    I guess it all comes down to how one defines "classical."

  7. Very interesting answers to my comment, Ramesh and Minai!

    Ramesh, I was contemplating exactly the same thing with regard to murjas - would classical mujras be considered classical dances? But Minai, you said yourself that you weren't focusing on pure classical dances; it's all influenced by the "filmy" element, and I don't see classical mujras as departing from classical dancing in such greater a degree. And I love mujras! Oh, well, we don't have to have the same opinion on that. (But I am glad you liked the two-dancer Pakistani mujra that I mentioned. :) )

    I myself didn't know that kuchipudi wasn't considered a classical dance, and I admit I don't know anything about Marathi lavinis. (I probably don't really know anything about Marathi dance at all. To me, Marathi dance is Sandhya.:) )

    Minai, if you ever want to find dances by one of my favorite dancers on my blog, just use the search engine on the bottom right. But I'll pick out a few to post in comments here...

    You could search anywhere for Sitara Devi's famous dances in Roti. But here's an amazing one that a lot of people don't know about, with a stronger classical kathak quality (albeit in an otherwise far from classical setting :) ):

    By the way, the fact that that clip contained Kumkum reminded me that there is one dance of Kumkum's that I think would be near the top if I did a favorite B&W classical list:

    ...Or I could include any of her other classical dances from Kohinoor. I think she was a reallly good classical dancer and it's too bad she didn't stick with that more.

    Gopi Kirshna... Well, my favorite is from Parineeta:

    And then there's the dance he did with Vyjayanthimala:

    He also did some tandavs in South Indian films... Maybe one in Bhookailas? (Not 100 percent sure of that.)

    Speaking of tandavs, since you mentioned doing a tandav themed post, I wanted to let you know about this one with Kamala Lakshman:

    Anyway, hope you like those, and I'm looking forward to your next posts!

  8. Richard - Oh my goodness, thank you so much for the rec's! I have never seen that Arpan dance - the atmosphere of it is fantastic!

    What's really funny though is that I had coincidentally enough discovered all of the other dances you posted last week (except for Aa Bhi Jha) but apparently am having a hard time remembering (must be I've got waaaay too many songs on my master list)! Maybe it was the blue tint in the Parineeta song that made me forget it was indeed black and white. ;) But I am SO so happy you listed the Aa Bhi Jha song because I completely forgot it had that kathak ending. Will definitely need to include it in a post coming up!

    I'm not sure how I missed that Sitara Devi is your favorite dancer or your posts on her dances. Clearly I have some catching up to do!

    And that Kamala tandav is amazingly good- when I first watched it I couldn't quite make out it was Kamala but decided it was after seeing enough closeups. And I've heard there's a gopi krishna tandav in Bhookailas too, but I can't find it online for some reason. Will have to keep searching!

    Regarding Mujras, I will admit I am really picky (and probably biased towards south indian dances) when it comes to kathak-based dances! In general, I tend to judge a dance's "classicalness" based upon the "vibe" I get from it, or rather asking myself is the dance focused on the beauty of the dance/music/lyrics or on femininity/eroticism and such. Just my personal categorization. :) I will note that I mentioned the paragraph about my picks not all being classical more as a "disclaimer" for those that might yell "THIS isn't bharatanatyam young lady!" :) But I did consider most of my picks classical in the way I define it. :)

    We're long winded tonight aren't we all! I am way too blessed in the comments department tonight! thank you all! :)

  9. Hey!! donn't stop being long winded! I was enjoying myself! :)

    Minai, I was looking at it as the following: The serious dances of the three major cultural centers of india were reflected in popular dances from these three places, so , Kathak had its mujhra, Bharatanatyam had kuchipudi and lavani developed as an offshoot of mujhra and bharatanatyam (all the feet moements and the mudras of lavni are like the bharatnatyam moves). Odissi served both as popular and classical dance for the region.

    As to definition of "classical" I would go by the intent of the dance, the intent of the dancer and the intent of the audience , to classify the dance form as classical. if all three were to project the dance and the theory behind it, then I would call the dance classical. if even one of these three had other motives (such as entretainment ..or to project the performer's physique..or even religion(IMO) then the dance would be non classical(and thus I would say odissi, and sattriya dances were not classical until very recently where they (mostly because of guru kelucharan) moved the setting to secular and the dance to a more classical danceform and a less religious one,

    The differentiating between classical and folk is bot easier and more difficult, IMO. easier because the difference is very similar to the difference between classical music and pop . more difficult because some indian popular forms really ought to be classified as classical , even though they are now called pop(the baul music comes to mind). IMO If there is a teachable theoretical base and a body of work to fall back on, which are definitive standards of the genre, the form can safely be classified as classical.

    But mostly people go by the method you have used, minai, and sniff out classical from pop...and go with their cultured gut.

  10. I just had a shorter-winded comment to add this time :) , but it seemed to disappear, so I'll try again - hope this doesn't appear twice! :)

    Minai, re. your comment, "I'm not sure how I missed that Sitara Devi is your favorite dancer"... Possibly because I never said she was. :) For all factors, including how much I like watching the dancer, how many dances of hers I've enjoyed, how much I like her screen persona, and how much I like her as an actress, too, I would have to say Padmini. For how much she impresses me with dancing abilities alone, I would say Kamala. Like you, for as long as I've been a fan of the dances in Indian cinema, I have favored "southern" dances - or one southern dance, bharatanatyam. But kathak has been growing on me. :)

    Ramesh, that's an interesting method for distinguishing whether a dance is classical. But I'm going to look at again a little later - I'm not really awake enough to think that much right now. :)

  11. Enjoyed the post. Roshan Kumari is fantastic. Have you seen Vyjayantimala's various classical dances in the "mere watan se achha koi watan nahin hain" song from Ladki (1953)? (The film is Penn in Tamil.) I love that one. And Kamala in Naam Iruvar, 1947 (aaduvomey palli paaduvomey) is wonderful. And, of course, Sadhona Bose in the Court Dancer (1941)--after watching that, I fell in love with the Manipuri style.

  12. Ramesh - That's a very interesting point about the major cultural centers and their dance offshoots. I love your method of defining classical, though including the audience's intent in the mix makes it complex; most film classical dances are there for the purposes of entertainment even though they are centered on the dance and theory of movement itself (the ones that are good, anyway).

    Richard - Oh I see! I misunderstood how you had referenced Sitara Devi in your comment. I was surprised I had missed such a big preference! I'm reassured from your comment that I do indeed have your preferences straight. :)

    Nivedita - I have seen the first two dances you mentioned- they are indeed wonderful. And thank you so very much for mentioning the Court Dancer film! I vaguely remember hearing about that some time back but don't think I ever watched the songs (luckily they are on YouTube)! What a great find and rare eastern Indian dance style to see on film!

  13. minai,

    I was defining classical dances, and not those in films, which as you say, all have an entertainment component to them.

  14. Great job putting all the dance videos in one place! BTW, the actors featured in Neethipathi are E.V. Saroja and as you guessed right, L. Vijayalakshmi (albeit looking very young, probably not more than 15 years old)

  15. Anon - Oh, the other dancer is E.V. Saroja! I would never have guessed that, but now that you've said it I can definitely see it! And it's nice to hear another confirmation that the dancer on the right is indeed L. Vijayalakshmi! It seems this is quite a rare dance of the two of them before they "made it big" in Tamil/Telugu films. Thanks for the info! :)

  16. Hi,
    What's your opinion about ?

  17. Latha, Wish I could help! I can't think of an exact match, but my initial hunch is to look into Hindi films with Kamal Hassan in them.


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