Classical Dances from the film Swathi Thirunal (1987, Malayalam)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Back in my favorite practice dances post and favorite color dances post, I listed two lovely classical dances from the 1987 historical film Swathi Thirunal.  Unfortunately, the upload quality was quite terrible, grainy, and hesitant.  Since then I've gotten a hold of the film and am happy to not only present those two dances in much better condition but also show a third compilation of practice dances of which very few have been seen online before.

First, a bit of history.  When one reads of the history of Mohiniattam dance, two figures are often considered to have been instrumental in ensuring the survival of the dance form to the modern day.  The first is Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja of the princely state/kingdom of Travancore (roughly modern-day Kerala) in the early 19th century, whose patronage of many forms of classical music and dance at his court helped Mohiniattam survive.  Kerala's Department of Culture has a nice website dedicated to the life and music of Thirunal.  The second figure is Vallathol whose founding of Kerala Kalamandalam in the 1930s revived the dance after a period of decline.

The first figure, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, is obviously the subject of the film Swathi Thirunal which was directed by Lenin Rajendran.  The film focuses not only on Thirunal's poetry and music compositions but also Sugandha Valli, the Bharatanatyam (or more accurately Thanjavur-originated temple) dancer whom the king reportedly fell in love with and undoubtedly had influence on his artistic leanings.  The character of Sugandhavalli is performed by the actress Ranjini (who starred opposite Mohanlal in Chithram), and Anant Rag plays the part of Swathi Thirunal.

As expected the film features quite a few short dance scenes as well as two dance songs (a thillana and a padam).  I have so much to learn about 19th-century classical dance forms in Travancore and how Bharatanatyam from Tanjore/Thanjavur interfaced with Mohiniattam, how exactly Mohiniattam evolved... as made clear in my post on Devadasi-like dances the subject is vast and rich! 

Here are the three dance clips from Swathi Thirunal in quality as good as I could get it; I chose not to crop the black bars out because it degraded the resolution too much.  Enjoy!

Dance Scenes Montage - This montage features all of the classical dance practice scenes in the film in the order they appeared.  We can clearly see how the king is enamoured with Sugandha Valli starting from when he first sees her teaching students outside the window followed by increasingly private performances.  My favorite parts of the montage are (1) :25 where Ranjini shows off how quickly she can move and (2) 4:58 which features Ranjini dancing to kathakali-rhythm fusion music along with some movements inspired from Mohiniattam and Kathakali. 

Thillana Dance - The exciting competition dance!  It may not be very authentic, but the choreography just keeps going and going!  Lots of pure dance with fast movements.  The song ends with a brief scene of dance practice.

Alar Saraparithaapam - A slow, languid padam performance made all the more gorgeous and raw by the sari without the blouse. Swathi Thirunal looks on and steps in to provide her some gorgeous vocal accompaniment mid-way, and then we see her perform a Mohiniattam-inspired piece in a dream sequence.  So pretty! I wish there was more 'proper' Mohinattam in the film.

Overall I find the choreography in the film less authentic than I'd hoped and trying too hard to impress via fancy hand and arm movements. Apparently the famous Bharatanatyam duo the Dhananjayan's had been originally asked to do the choreography but declined.  Given their excellent work in the Kannada film Hamsa Geethe, I bet Swathi Thirunal's choreography would have been even better with their direction.


  1. I have been reading your blog for some time... I
    very much appreciate your analysis. I have passion for Carnatic music--- though of late developed taste in Mohiniattam which I guess is an offshoot of Bharata Natyam. Actress Ranjani who acted as Sugandhavalli in the movie 'Swathi Thirunal' inspired & as a matter fact introduced me to this wonderful dance form developed by Vadivelu together w/ maharaj Swathi Turunal.

    That's it for now. //GOPAL//

    1. Hello Gopal! Mohiniattam is such a graceful dance form isn't it. You might like this clip of mohiniattam in a film--I'm not sure what film it is, but it's lovely: Thank you for your comment. :)


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