Indian Dances in Western Films about India: Part 2 (The Rare)

Sunday, November 20, 2011
Continuing on from Part 1 of the series, here in Part 2 I've listed those dances that don't quite fit in the upcoming Part 3 (orientalist dances) because although they don't appear particularly authentic there is something truly historically special and rare about them and they deserve a space all of their own. 

The first two sets of dances are not from British or US films but, instead, Germany! I didn't realize that Germany's interest in India dates back to the Romantic Period and the many German romanticists who found inspiration in Indian writings. Not surprisingly, when films became mainstream a century or so later, quite a few German films concerned the subject of India.  The history of "German Indology" is quite fascinating and complex particularly regarding German orientalism (and how it compared to British and French orientalism) and the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany; the book The Indo-German Identification looks like an interesting review of these topics and is previewable on Google Books.  OK, on to the dances!

Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1938, Germany) 

The 1918 German book The Indian Tomb written by Thea von Harbou has had many German film incarnations and keeping track of them gets really confusing!  Let's just say this 1938 version (split in two parts, one Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and two Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb)) directed by Richard Eichberg is the second film incarnation; the third version from 1959 will be lovingly covered in all its bizarre glory in Part 3.  :) Anything and everything you would want to know about the various Indian Tomb films is covered in this great article from some obscure online magazine called Rouge.


Menaka Indian Ballet Dance #1 - I was floored when I first saw this dance by the Menaka Indian Ballet (credited at the beginning as "Das Indische Menaka-Ballet")!  Based on appearance, I'm quite convinced the main female dancer is Madame Menaka herself!  I'm under the impression that it's very rare to find 1930s and 40s dance footage of Menaka and her Menaka Indian Ballet company.  We all know how rare it is to find footage of Uday Shankar, and it seems to me Menaka's dances have even greater rarity.  A bit of background: Madame Menaka, an anglo-Indian woman originally known as Leila Sokhey, had a life very similar to Uday Shankar's.  She was inspired by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova to further Indian dance, apparently was the first to choreograph dance dramas using Kathak moves, her dance company toured the west, and she later founded a dance school.  In the clip below I'm excited not only to simply see footage of Menaka but also that the director actually gave the dance central prominence in the scene instead of letting it serve as a background piece.  Bravo!

So beyond the excitement of simply seeing this dance and the gorgeous costuming and set, what to say objectively about Ms. Menaka (assuming it is her) and her dance abilities?  In this film at least, I'm quite underwhelmed; maybe it's her posture and somewhat disinterested vibe?  And the music- what to make of it?  It sounds very Southeast Asian to my ignorant ears. I find these fusion dances confusing.  They seem more in line (choreography and costumes-wise) with the "modern Indian" dance that Uday Shankar seems to have performed which borrowed from various Indian, Asian and Western traditions and sprang up out of the Bengali renaissance.  However, most writings about Madame Menaka describe her as only dancing Kathak and serving as a critical figure in improving the status of Kathak in India.  Hmmmm...

The dance starts at the end of the video below and then continues in the second video (it will start automatically, as usual!).  Edit: The old videos were taken down, and while the whole film has since been uploaded elsewhere, it appears to cut off the edges of the screen so I've uploaded better versions below.


Menaka Indian Ballet Dance #2 - A few minutes and an alligator-encounter-and-groovy-tiger-fight-scene later, the Menaka Indian Ballet are seen once again- but this time they are shown so briefly it infuriates me!  I feel like yelling at the director to stop filming the man walking and focus the camera on the dancers!  Aghh!! After a brief interruption, the dancers are shown one last time with Madame Menaka and a group of women performing for about 15 seconds.  The dancers' costumes and choreography are clearly inspired by Kathak- the performance is very lovely, albeit much too short!


A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Prash in Hindi, 1929, Germany)

This silent film created by German director Franz Osten and the Indian producer/actor Himansu Rai is special because from what I've read, it was nearly forgotten until the British Film Institute digitally restored it in 2006. I'm guessing the print was confiscated and then languished in Britain (rather than in Germany) because of Osten's conversion to the Nazi party and his subsequent arrest by the British Raj in India in the 1930s. Not only has the film been beautifully restored, but it was screened with a live orchestral score composed by the talented Nitin Sawhney (see a clip here) and is now available on DVD

The clip below is from the very small dance scene in the film.  While the dancing is very brief and unsophisticated, I love the whole atmosphere- the costumes, the set design, the Indian origin of the main characters, and how rare it all feels. While the filmmakers clearly had a goal of authenticity, a review from the Modernism/modernity journal states it best: "the tension in A Throw of Dice is between a palpable sense of place that compels us to view it as evidence of times past, and the romanticism of its portrayal… [it combines] the abstractions of orientalist fantasies with ethnographic attention to detail, providing what a reviewer of the time called a fascinating 'cultural document.'"

I must admit when I first saw the clip and didn't know a new score had been created for it and I assumed the uploader had added the music; I find the music a bit at odds with what's happening on screen... maybe its the strings overpowering the too faint tabla rhythms?  But overall, it's such a treat to see a film that might have otherwise sat in the archives forever!  I would highly recommend browsing two other films that along with A Throw of Dice form the trilogy of Osten and Rai's collaborations; they are available full length on YouTube: Light of Asia (1925) and Shiraz (1928). Gorgeous.


Temples of India (1938, Documentary, Britain)

While in Part 1 I noted I wouldn't include documentaries which usually have straight-from-real-life dances that don't fit the theme of outsider constructions of Indian dance, this documentary (travelogue) Temples of India misrepresents Indian dance quite well and thus must be included!  I found it by happening upon the wonderful site Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire that offers "detailed information [and some video] on over 6000 films showing images of life in the British colonies" and is a collaboration between university academics and archives (including the BFI which restored A Throw of Dice above!).  Though Temples of India isn't one of the small percentage of films/footage available for viewing on the website, the BFI has uploaded it on their YouTube channel!  Yay!!  Everything is on YouTube these days!

The documentary makes its intentions clear as day from the beginning; as the title flashes on screen, dramatic orchestral swellings and rhythms accost the ears, and then the voiceover says, stunning to hear today, "of all the great religions of the world, the strangest is the weird faith of the Hindus."  Seriously?  Even though I think the word "weird" in the 30s had a a more 'supernatural' connotation than it does today, it's clear the filmmakers thought India was bizarre.  According to the Colonial Film site above, the film was one of many professionally-produced British travelogues by the production company World Window.  Temples of India tries to pass itself off as an authentic look at scenes of Hindu temples and worship, but it clearly is more interested in the "exotic factor."  I'm seriously impressed by how beautiful the technicolor looks for a 1938 film! 

Starting around 6:20, the camera slowly moves past some sadhus sitting on the temple steps meditating; as the camera pans away and through the temple doors, the voiceover tells us "and here within the temple is the holiest of the holies, sacred to Shiva, and the dance of destruction."  A male dancer (identified as a "member of the Menaka Indian Ballet" in the credits) in full dance regalia captured amidst gorgeous lighting then performs a dance.  The choreography reminds me of the dances from Der Tiger von Eschnapur above in its mish-mash of hard to identify movements and costuming that are likely inspired from Southeast Asian dances.  While I find the dance beautiful (despite the rough start), the problem is its presentation as an authentic temple dance!  Guess the filmmakers couldn't find any Devadasis to perform for them? :) In any case, it's a treat to see another Menaka Ballet dance and get an idea of what their choreography must have been like!



Alright! Part 2 down, Part 3 to go. And I recently decided I must add a Part 4 that will cover specific kinds of coproductions (especially Russian!). Stay tuned! :D

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this really amazing exploration. I'm in awe of the work you're doing here.

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  2. hi minai
    have u seen this film based on the beijing opera ?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC-_SLiRnJE

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  3. chrism929 - Thank you for the appreciation- I'm glad folks are enjoying it. I'm excited about the remaining series posts, especially the hilarious part 3 and the beautiful dances in part 4... and then I just discovered a particular Hollywood musical choreographer who will have to be the subject of another post... if only I could sit at home and blog all day! ;D

    anon - I have not seen that- it looks like a very involved and interesting film with some nice dance sequences! I'll have to check it out since I am just starting to get more familiar with east/southeast Asian traditional dance. Thanks for the link!

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  4. my dear minaiminai, at the outset let me congratulate you on your discovery of madame menaka.you have excavated a rare treasure that has been lying in some forgotten archive !the indian public at large has no recollection of menaka whatsoever.
    however to set the record straight for the benefit of your viewers menaka devi was born to a bengali father and british mother .her father was p.l.roy the first indian public prosecutor at the hague.menaka had a sister mira devi who would accompany menaka in her dance dramas.madame menaka studied kathak under bindadin maharaj and his student sitaram prasad.she was indeed a cultural giant who reawakened the wests intrest in indian dance with her many dance dramas. she choreographed krishna leela,deva vijaya nritya,menaka lasyam,malavikagnimitram and many other dance dramas. she passed on her baton to her student damayanti joshi and her niece mira devis daughter hima devi. hima kesarcodi gained prominence as a bharat natyam and manipuri dancer.later on she choreographed many dance dramas herself including birth of a nation.

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  5. anon - I'm so happy to see someone confirm my assumption that the woman in that video was indeed Madame Menaka! Thank you very much for the additional information on her and her life. From some searching I see that Bindadin Maharaj was the starter of the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak! Very interesting info, thank you for stopping by!

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  6. it was a pleasure dear minaiminai.you might find this book interesting...its called madame menaka by her student padma bhushan damayanti joshi.its a sangeet natak academy publication.i happen to know so much about menaka because her niece hima devi was my teacher.i was her drama student not her dance student. you should research hima devi kesarcodi as well.you will come across her dance performances that she performed for dutch television in the fifties.they still possess it in their archives.she was truly a very graceful dancer..cheers and good hunting.

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  7. Hello again anon! :) I had linked to that book you mentioned by Joshi (it's cover was the only thing that made me fairly confident in identifying her in the videos) but had missed that it was a Sangeet Natak Academy production! Found a nice image of Hima Kesarcodi here in what looks to be from that tv performance you mentioned.

    If you stop by again anon, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on Menaka's dance style in the video (and her ballet company member in the last video) given that she was so well known for Kathak apparently. Thanks again!

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  8. Dear Minai

    I stumbled upon your site while working on an article about Kamalesh Maitra and the tabla tarang for the Spring 2013 UK-based Asian dance and music magazine Pulse - http://www.pulseconnects.com/

    What an interesting web of information you are spinning!

    It happened that the tabla tarang player, Janardan Abhyankar toured in Europe with Madame Menaka in the 1930s. (The tarang-like instrument briefly seen in the first clip looks and sounds more Dutch East Indies than British Raj.) Abhyankar later became part of R.D. Burman's pool of musicians - a story for another time.

    Der Tiger von Eschnapur clip in which the Indian and the German start speaking around 0.58 is a comedic exchange about what an Indian woman is worth. Two cost an elephant. One half an elephant. The German sighs that he doesn't have any elephants on [bei] him. Nad jokes can work in more than one language.

    Stay bright.

    Ken

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    1. Ken Hunt - Hello! I enjoy Pulse so it's lovely to hear from someone associated with it. Thank you for the excellent information and german translation! Interesting that you identify the tarang-like instrument as more Dutch East Indies in origin since Menaka seemed to be very inspired by Javaenese dances in the Der Tiger film dance. If you haven't seen it already, I wrote an updated post on the films dances and Madame Menaka last month here. All the best, ~Minai

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