Classical Dances from the film Sringaram (Tamil, 2007)

Friday, January 13, 2012
While I featured one song (the exquisite Bharatanatyam Padam piece) from the Tamil film Sringaram in my "Practice Scenes" post a while back, I feel it is high time I feature all of the dance songs from this wonderful film.  I was rewatching all the dances this week and was reminded of how strikingly exceptional they are compared to the vast majority of classical-based film dances (especially of recent years).  I had initially only posted one song from the film in the hopes that it would be released on DVD soon, but it appears that will probably never happen.

About the Film

Sringaram, a Tamil film directed by Sharada Ramanathan, was made in 2005 (and received National Film Awards for that year) but was not theatrically/publically released until 2007.  The film is a period piece about devadasi dancers and focuses on two dancers in particular, Madhura (Aditi Rao Hydari) and Kama (Hamsa Moily), and their struggles with their positions and desires (and feminist ideas!).  Manju Bhargavi also plays a role in the film and dances in a number.  I wrote a long, screencap-filled review of the film here.

What is most striking about the film is its artistry; there are no filmi determents or commercial distractions, and as the film ends you find yourself questioning your understanding of its reality and pondering its characters as metaphors.  The art direction, visuals, lighting, and costumes greatly enhance the beauty and charisma of the period atmosphere. 

The Exceptional Dances

These characteristics of the film carry over into the dances which are notable in having a heavy classical influence in visual appearance and a serious tone. What's disappointing is that while most of the dances have all the trappings of a classical number (authentic costumes, jewelry, and settings), the choreography is not as authentic as one would expect. On some of the numbers I get so excited when they begin just by looking at them (especially the ones with the cotton practice-saris), but as the dance plays out I find myself let down.  Costumes have a way of distracting us from the choreography, don't they!

On the one hand, these dances should be praised to the skies because their authentic look and feel is so rare to see in recent Indian films (the full-length, slow-paced padams especially).  For that reason alone they are absolutely exceptional and can be approached and appreciated from that sole angle. 

On the other hand, most of the dances did fall short of my expectations.  When I learned of Sringaram's noted cast and technicians (music by Carnatic virtuoso Lalgudi Jayaraman, state-award winning costumes, set design by Thota Tharani, unknown and trained classical dancers), I was expecting the film would attempt an authentic depiction of period devadasi life and dance.  I figured it would have none of the faux-classical elements that many filmi classical dance numbers do.  For such a serious "art" film I expected dances that would impress even the most knowledgeable classical dance rasikas in India.  No fusions or modern interpretations- just straight authentic movement and serious art for me to gaze at.  I figured it would finally be the kind of modern film classical dances I've been waiting for.  Something that would outshine almost everything featured on this blog so far.  In sum, I expected the world! :)

And when you have expectations that high, you only set yourself up for disappointment.  Which I was, overall.  In my review of the film a while back, I talked about how I was most bothered by the "staccato" and "punctuated" movements that hit on every beat, which I found repetitive and unsuspenseful. My favorite dance at that time was the temple number and the mother/daughter padam.  But rewatching the dances now, my favorite number is "Three Seasons," an experimental interpretation of Odissi and Bharatanatyam posture fusion that is fascinating to watch. "Yen Nadha Mayam" would be the next with its naturalism, and then in third place the "Mallari" processional number.  I think "Yen Intha Mayam," the solo dance by Hamsa Moili, is the most disappointing dance in the film because of what it could have been.  And "Ninaival Yennai," while beautiful, is also disappointing to me now.  But the "staccato" movements that bothered me before have grown on me, which I think is due to understanding that the "staccato" music accompanying them, a Mallari style, is meant to be that way.

Another angle in critiquing these dances is that one could argue (as Hamsa does) that we don't really know quite know how devadasis of the past danced so who's to say that Hamsa's padam, for example, isn't authentic.  Or one could point out that in the context of the film, the main devadasi characters had become liberated with feminist ideals in the second half which might explain the more "liberated" choreography of "Three Seasons."

I suppose the takeaway message I want to make clear is that the dances in this film are very special!  That being said, if you have expectations like mine they end up being a bit of a let down overall. But I would hate for my phrases of disappointment to be understood in the same way I express disappointment about other, much lesser-quality classical film dances on my blog.  Sringaram's dances are on a different plane, so even the most-criticized numbers stand head-and-shoulders above most everything else you can find in films today.

The Choreographer

So who choreographed these dances you might be wondering? Saroj Khan of all people!  Yes, the Saroj Khan that gave us "Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai" from Khalnayak, "Dola Re" from Devdas, "Nimbooda" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and "Chhaiya Chhaiya" from Dil Se, among many others.  While these are all awesome and imaginative dances, it's hard to imagine they came from the same creative brain that did Sringaram's.  While Saroj Khan won a National Award for the choreography in Sringaram, I can only assume that she got some helpful input from the cast and crew.  All three dancers in the film are trained (Aditi Rao Hydari and Hamsa Moily in Bharatanatyam, the famed Manju Bhargavi in Kuchipudi), and the director, Sharada Ramanathan is a dancer herself and has talked about her love of dance films like Shankarabharanam and Thillana Mohanambal.  Surely Saroj Khan didn't choreograph these dances in a bubble!

At Last, the Dances! 

Note: I have removed these videos from YouTube at the request of the director. 

"Three Seasons" - This is the most "experimental" dance in the film and the most brilliant, I think.  I find it fascinating to watch from beginning to end to see how the postures from Odissi and Bharatanatyam have been fused into something unique.  Such beautiful touches are peppered throughout, like the opening lotus at 1:53 and the following segment where the two dancers play off of each other.  The dancers are Aditi Rao Hydari and Hamsa Moily; Aditi's character is pregnant and starts having labor pains at the end of the dance, in case you were wondering why she looks to be in pain. :)  My eyes rarely stray from Aditi--I think she excels in this dance style whereas Hamsa is better in the classical-based, pure-dance choreography. 

"Yen Nadha Mayam" - The stunning padam featured in my practice post.  Such naturalism in the lighting, acting, dancing, and practice saris; an emotive, calming melody; the feeling that you are gazing into the hidden, private life of these women...just stunning. 

"Mallari" - The term Mallari refers to the type of music played primarily by the nadaswaram instrument during temple processions and apparently also the dance that interplays with it, and that is precisely what is seen and heard in this temple procession number featuring the soulful and powerful instruments of South Indian rituals and a bevy of dancing devadasis!  It's an interesting look at what devadasi roles might have been in processions.  The choreography has that "off and on" quality to it; for a few moments it's beautifully inspired from Bharatanatyam, but then it will take a side turn and suddenly veer in a different direction that pulls me "out of the moment."  A forward lunging move keeps reappearing throughout the number and seems jarring.  It's hard not to gaze at Hamsa Moily the whole time because she's obviously the best dancer of the lot (some of the backup dancers really struggle, especially the one on the left with the pink choli and purple sari :)).  Overall a very unique dance song to see in film with a beautifully-shot processional setting. 

"Yen Intha Mayam" - A solo dance by Hamsa Moily! Her character is performing a piece to impress the visiting (British?) tax collector but flubs right at the end when surprising news is heard about her fellow friend and devadasi. The dance appears authentic at first glance, but as I watch it I can't help but think that if you put the dancer in a different costume, set the pace a bit faster, and replaced the music with a commercial Hindi number, many of the movements would fit right in with something I could see an actress like Madhuri Dixit dancing.  Surely this is Saroj Khan's influence bearing heavily on the choreography. :)  I was hoping to see a lot more authentic and meaningful hand gestures and emotive facial expression, but much of the "abhinaya" here is what I like to call "waving the hands around prettily."  In contrast, the pure dance segments are lovely as Hamsa does best with sharp, crisp, fast-paced choreography.

"Ninaival Yennai" - Aditi Rao Hydari's temple dance starts at 1:16 and continues on and off through the song; she dances with her whole soul in this joyous number which makes for a beautiful viewing experience on top of the already gorgeous lighting, artistic focusing, and temple setting.  It's the least classical number of the bunch and the dance segments could have been longer, but it's still a lovely watch.

As I mentioned in my review, this film has not to my knowledge been released on DVD which is such a shame!  There used to be a trailer on YouTube but the uploader made it private for some reason.  So the only public resource left is the official website which has sort of languished, unupdated.  Maybe if enough of us pester the website contacts they will get the message that there is interest in this film being distributed on DVD. :)

10 comments:

  1. I was also disappointed by Srirangam. It made me wonder why they didn't reach out to a nattuvanar like Udipi Lakshminarayanan who is a superb choreographer. To my knowledge, there has not been a nattuvanar choreographing for cinema since the days of Dhandayuthapani Pillai and Ramaiah Pillai.

    On another subject, I wonder if you or your readers have seen the dance performance in a movie called Villianur Matha? It has a bharatanatyam nagapambu dance with two excellent young dancers and unusually athletic choreography. I am still trying to find out who the dancers were.

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  2. Anon - Please do sign your comments with your name because you have some excellent information and I want to keep track of which comments are yours.

    That said, I am THRILLED with your comment! Did some quick searching on Udipi Lakshminarayanan and I see that he choreographed for film stars! I am currently working on a project to identify all (well, most) of the choreographers responsible for classical-based dances in Indian films, and Udipi is not one I had come across so far so this is an excellent data piece for further research and discovery. I had come across the two Pillai guru's you mentioned; you appear to have some excellent knowledge in this area! I'd love to discuss further, feel free to send me an email and we can chat!

    I have not heard of the Villianur Matha film you mentioned. Quick googling brought results for a 1983 Tamil film of the same name- is that the one you're referring too? If so I will most definitely be seeking it out.

    It's nice to hear from another person disappointed by the dances in Sringaram. Do stop by again and share these wonderful nuggets of information! :)

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  3. I do not know of UL choreographing bn for films, but he is a nattuvanar I respect (and he is Prabhu Deva's guru).

    Dhandayuthapani Pillai choreographed for Bhukailas which you have written about, as well a number of other movies. (He was also SriVidya's guru).

    Yes, that is the Villianur Matha I meant. It is a mediocre low-budget religious movie with really nothing to recommend it besides this impressive dance sequence. I assume the dancers must have been well-known because they are just too good not to be.

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  4. hello again anon who won't tell me his/her name. :D I found a very interesting article at the Times of India that said Udipi was employed as a dance composer at Gemini studios and was Sivaji Ganesan's favourite teacher! How interesting, as I didn't think Sivaji ever did any classical-based choreography... I only recall his Tandav from some film.

    I'll be on the lookout for the Villianur Matha film you mentioned- thanks again for the recommendation and info.

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  5. Hi Minai,
    SRINGARAM will be out in the market on DVD by June, 2012.

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  6. We were informed. We are not holding our breath (the royal we) hehe

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  7. Ragothaman - Thank you for the information. I had just learned that from rameshram who is acquainted with Sharada Ramanathan. I'm hoping some promotional material and/or clips from the film/dances will officially be posted because there is simply nothing out there anymore to review/comment/critique on.

    rameshram - I wouldn't speak for me on that! :) I'm excited it will finally be distributed for folks to purchase and see, but I suppose until it really happens I shouldn't get my hopes up too high. :)

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  8. "purchase and see"

    how bad it is? :D

    no the royal we includes me myself and Irene ;)

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  9. what about videos... i am keen to watch but cant find.... can someone help??

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    Replies
    1. The director has announced a coming DVD on her Facebook page but I'm unaware of it actually being released to-date.

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