Kumari Kamala Dancing in the Documentary "Bharata Natyam" (1954)

Saturday, March 10, 2012
I'm so excited about this discovery that I feel like shouting from the rooftops that I have found footage of non-film Bharatanatyam by Kamala in the 1954 Indian Films Division 12-minute documentary Bharata Natyam directed by Jagat Murari!  She is the featured dancer that demonstrates the characteristics of Bharatanatyam (accompanied by a boring English voiceover) such as styles of gaits, hand gestures, head and neck movements, footwork, and then demonstrations of short segments of the various pieces of a Bharatnatyam concert (Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, Tillana).  There is a slight jerkiness at times that I address at the end of this post.  Here it is, the video featuring the illustrious Kamala also known as Baby Kamala/Kumari Kamala/Kamala Lakshman/Kamala Lakshminarayanan/etc!


Isn't it wonderful?  What a treat to get to see Kamala dance and perform in some ways that we would never get to see in her film dances; not only isolated movements of specific body parts but also how she performs specific common Bharatanatyam pieces such as the Alarippu without all the editing and shifting angles of film dances.  Incredible!

I first learned of the video while re-reading through the excellent articles about Kamala from Sruti magazine posted at Kamala's dance school website.  Reading through all the detailed descriptions of Kamala's excellence in the Vazhuvoor style of Bharatanatyam made me feel sad that I would probably never get to see a video of her "pure" Bharatanatyam outside of films and check it out for myself. One of the articles discussed some factors behind the decline in Kamala's popularity and the lack of interest in documentaries about her during her later prime years and then noted:
“The Films Division of the Government of India had taken a short black and white film on Kamala’s dance, way back in the fifties.  Within a duration of about 25 minutes the film covered all the items from alarippu to tillana, more as a documentary on dance and dance techniques than on the dancer.  By the seventies Kamala had scaled new heights in the art and was in peak form.  A film done with sensitivity to the art and the artist at that time would have been invaluable to the generations to come.”
Since 2012 has been the year of dance discoveries and unearthings on this blog, I thought I'd take a stab at seeing if I could find this fifties documentary somewhere online.  As I looked at the "Search Videos" section of the Indian Films Division Website and navigated to the "Indian classical series" section, I saw a listing for "Bharat Natyam."  Could it be?  As the video began I thought "naw.. it's in color and the release date says 1980.  Bummer."  AND THEN...


UNBELIEVABLE! This treasure has been languishing on the internets virtually unfindable by the lack of Kamala-related keywords! And it was certainly not filmed in 1980; I'm going to believe the British Film Institute who dates the film at 1954 which better matches the Sruti description above.

Paying close attention to how Kamala moves has been fascinating. The "bani" or style of Bharatanatyam that she trained in and became iconic of was Vazhuvoor--so named after her guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. The Sruti article "Flag-Carrier of the Vazhuvoor Bani" (Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, Page 4) explains the style is notable for its "fluid grace, eschewal of angularities, brisk tempo, intrinsically musical sollukattu-s [vocal rhythmic syllables]...emphasis on an extraordinary suppleness of body and limbs and for its use of sculpturesque poses."

These characteristics are evident while watching Kamala in the documentary.  She differs from other Bharatanatyam performers I've seen (especially ones from the crisp Kalakshetra style) in how the movements blend into one another, the rounded grace instead of sharp and jerky postures, how far she reaches into movements, and just how light and "quick on the feet" she moves.  She makes it look so effortless!  And I adore her natural and inviting smile.


There are a few times in the video where she leaps and propels herself forward, a movement that I am mesmerized by.  It reminds me of this arresting image and tribute to her in Sruti magazine:


So what a find eh! I've uploaded the video above to YouTube to get it tagged and identified so others can enjoy this bit of history! Unfortunately, the source file on the Films Division website is really small and in one of the crappiest video formats (.wmv) which is probably why there is some jerking and hesitating, especially near the beginning. To make things worse, YouTube stretches the tiny video to fit the player so the quality is even more blocky than the original. Watching it here on this post is actually better because it reduces the size and resolution a bit.  Maybe someday I'll find a better copy with the kind of quality the recording of Kamala deserves!

5 comments:

  1. The Films Division of India has produced documentaries on all the recognized Indian classical dance styles, most of which are viewable on their website. However as you mentioned, the video resolution is tiny and terrible. For a Bharatanatyam aficionado such as yourself, I would recommend viewing Aum Namah Shivaya, as well as documentaries on some individual artistes such as Mallika Mallika Sarabhai, Komala Varadan, Padma (Subramanyan) and Kalakshetra (about the acclaimed Kalakshetra dance school). You can preview some of the videos at http://www.filmsdivision.org/new_movie.php

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    1. Thank you ray - I had looked through the other offerings on their website for any dance-related content, but I had missed the Aum Namah Shivaya (Om Namah Shiva) and Kalakshetra documentaries so thank you for mentioning those! The Kalakshetra one seems hidden from the search results so I especially thank you for noting it with that link.

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  2. I am overwhelmed by the documentary. I have seen Kumari Kamala dancing several times when I was a kid once I had gone to her house and had the opportunity to dance for her as she sang I will never forget those moments. She is my Manasika Guru.The greatest award I received was when after 2 decades when kamala met my brother and was introduced as Bhagynath's son she immediately asked about me and and spoke about my dance with appreciation.Vasishta navaal brahmarishi pattom that is how i felt. There is only one Kamala and can never be replaced for centuries to come.Thank you for the posting

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  3. Minai,
    "Vasishta navaal brahmarishi pattom" means the rare praise one hears from someone great. Vasishta (sage) was a brahma rishi and he calling someone a brahma rishi is totally un heard of, until Vishwamitra came. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishwamitra#Conflict_with_Vasistha

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  4. vidhubala - Hello! That's a wonderful story, thank you much for sharing. She sang for your dance and remember you after all that time? You must have impressed her. :) I'm sure you've probably seen my many other posts on Kamala, but if not do take a look. There is even video of her dancing from a couple years ago.

    Ragothaman - Thanks for the clarification and info!

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