All About Kamala's Sister Rhadha - The Other Dancer in Bhakta Kuchela!

Saturday, April 21, 2012
On a couple posts I’ve featured a lovely, rare “twin” dance from the 1961 Malayalam film Bhakta Kuchela starring Kumari Kamala and an unknown dancer.  There was a suggestion the unknown dancer might be Kuchala Kumari (of Konjum Salangai fame) who was credited in the film, but she looked different enough to still leave me curious of the Bhakta Kuchela dancer's identity.  Well my friends, I’m so excited to confirm that the unknown dancer is none other than Kamala’s younger sister, Rhadha!  Here is the dance; Rhadha is the shorter dancer on the left at the beginning, and apart from her occasional asynchrony with Kamala I think she does a great job:


I had read about this Rhadha person accompanying her famous sister Kamala (and other sister Vasanthi) in a film and on stage, but wasn’t able to find much other information. As I reread the excellent articles about Kamala from Sruti magazine, a look at some of the pictures of her sister Rhadha connected that distinctive nose to the girl in Bhakta Kuchela, but I couldn’t say for sure. When I tracked down the article about Rhadha, “The Dancing Heart,” written by Rhadha's close associate Sujatha Vijayaraghavan in issues 279 and 280 of Sruti magazine, the pictures it featured confirmed 100% that the Bhakta Kuchela dancer was indeed Rhadha! Just take a look- it’s unmistakable:

Left: Sruti Magazine    Right: Bhaktakuchela

All About Rhadha

While it was thrilling enough just being able to find some of the film work of Kamala’s younger sister Rhadha, the discovery became even sweeter when I learned that Rhadha is an award-winning dancer in the Vazhuvoor style of Bharatanatyam who still dances, teaches, and choreographs to this day!  So why does it seem she was so little known until recently?  Perhaps The Hindu says it best, noting that until fairly recently Rhadha “languish[ed] in virtual anonymity in the shadow of sister Kamala who was the guaranteed applause getter.”

"The Dancing Heart" article is an excellent read for getting a broad picture of Rhadha's life (and can I just say how much I LOVE Sruti magazine? I might have to write a post of devotion soon).  Rhadha, who has also been called R. Rhadha, Smt. Rhadha, and Guru Rhadha (that second "h" in her name came about when she consulted a numerologist at a low point in her career), seems to have been born on December 31, 1941, and started off as a child dancing a bit in some films and later on stage with older sister Kamala and younger sister Vasanthi. Curiously, other than “a few jatiswaram-s and padam-s” and some items while traveling on trains with Kamala's entourage, Rhadha was never systematically taught by Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai (Kamala’s famous guru) and instead learned most of her Bharatanatyam directly from her sister Kamala who was a “strict taskmaster” to Rhadha and other sister Vasanthi. Rhadha was, essentially, “Kamala’s first student.”

While I had read about Rhadha and Vasanthi performing with their sister Kamala in the Sruti articles about Kamala, I had the impression that their inclusions were fairly random and not a regular affair.  But "The Dancing Heart" article revealed that the sisters, particularly Rhadha, were quite involved in Kamala's performances.  "The sisters danced at many official receptions for dignitaries like Dwight Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth II, Chou En Lai, Marshal Tito, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan."  Rhadha danced with Kamala on her tours to such countries as Japan, Malaysia, and the U.K.  At one point Rhadha learned vocal music and even "gave vocal support to the lead singer for Kamala's performances."  What I'm not clear on is if these tours were billed only as Kamala performances and the sisters just provided supporting dance roles or if the tours were billed as "Kamala and her sisters" and the sisters actually had solos.  Other articles have given the former impression. 

It was revealing to read about problems within the family; Kamala's divorce apparently left her "shattered," and when she remarried she moved away from her sisters and became isolated and alienated from them.  Kamala performed solo (and Rhadha and Vasanthi as a duo) for some time until things were later apparently  patched up with her sisters.

From Sruti Cover, Issue 279
Rhadha seems to have started coming into her own once Kamala permanently moved to the US and some of Kamala's former students switched to Rhadha’s care. She must have impressed some folks in the dance world because suddenly the Music Academy “offered her a performance opportunity in its mid-year series.” An observer called it “vintage Kamala,” and she was soon invited to be featured in a dance festival a few months later. The ball then started rolling! “Soon Rhadha was flooded with requests from mothers to take their daughters as pupils.” Her insistence on one-on-one teaching and strict adherence to the Vazhuvoor tradition were notable. By 1987, she was invited to present the dance-drama Nauka Charitram which garnered further staging invitations from sabhas and was even telecast by Doordarshan and released on DVD. Over the last three decades she has produced and choreographed many dance-dramas and taught many students at her dance school in India, Pushpanjali.

But her greatest honors perhaps came in 2007 when she was awarded both the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Aacharya Choodamani (Sri Krishna Gana Sabha) award. Her dance performance at the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards Festival earned praise. At the age of sixty-five, she danced with such energy and skill that she “put youngsters to shame.”

Everything I’ve read of Rhadha paints her as a tireless performer and humble artist who simply loves to dance with a passion.  And what kudos go to Kamala for teaching and shaping such a wonderful artist!

Rhadha’s Film Work

From the Sruti article and videos I’ve seen, here is Rhadha’s known filmography, though I'm sure there are some more songs floating around out there:

Vethala Ulakam (Tamil, 1948; aka Vedala Ulagam) – Her debut around the age of 6; dragged a chariot as a toddler in the Pavalakkodi sequence
Penn (Tamil, 1954) – Danced as a beggar girl
Vilayattu Bommai (Tamil, 1954) – Danced in the song Kalai Chelvame Vazhgave
Sivangangai Cheemai (Tamil, 1959; aka Sivagangai Seemai) – Played one of Kamala’s friends; danced in the song "Kannangarutha Kili" and had a couple short speaking parts (Edit 11/12 - She also danced with Kamala in Kottu Melam Kottungadi)
Bhakta Kuchela (Malayalam/Kannada, 1961) – Danced with Kamala in "Vikrama Rajendra" song
Chenda (Malayalam, 1973) – Danced with sisters Kamala and Vasanthi in a number choreographed by Muthuswamy Pillai. Kamala has mentioned the film’s name as Chenda in an interview or two, but I have seen only the songs from that film and the sisters' dance was no where to be found. Perhaps they perform a dance as part of the film and not in the songs?
A Doordarshan Play (Ananda Thandavam?) – She played the role of a dancer and danced a “Khamas tillana” in a 1980s “Doordarshan play produced by Krishnaswamy Associates.” In looking at their website, I’m guessing the TV serial she starred in was Ananda Thandavam. If only I knew where to buy the VCD outside of India!

Other than the Bhakta Kuchela video featured at the beginning, the only other videos from the list above I've been able to find are Rhadha's dance and speaking parts in Sivagangai Seemai!  Here they are:

"Kannam Karutha Kili" - Rhadha is the dancer on the left singing to her sister Kamala on the right; it's a very sweet performance with humorous group choreography excellent, crisp print quality. And it's a Kamala dance never featured before on this blog? Yay! 

Rhadha's Speaking Parts - Google Video has the whole film up, and Rhadha can be seen starting at 27:07 as the girl to the right of Kamala who speaks a few lines.  Edit 11/12 - Apparently Google Video deleted all of its old hosted uploads! Cwy!

In 2010, Rhadha released a DVD titled Bharatanatyam The Vazhuvoor Tradition in which she demonstrates "the adavu-s (basic movements) and part of some of the well known items of the Vazhuvoor repertoire."  I'm very interested to get a hold of this DVD and see the almost 70-year-old in action!

Not to Be Confused With...

Researching Rhadha and her sister Kamala has revealed some strange coincidences!  Regarding Rhadha, there is another former dancer also named Radha (Viswanathan) who is easy to confuse with the Rhadha of this post!  The other Radha (Viswanathan) was coincidentally apparently Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai's first disciple and danced with Kamala in the film Meera in the Bala Meera/Krishna dance before later switching to singing.  Weird! But it's Kamala for whom strange coincidences abound.  Her first marriage and second marriage surnames were really similar: she was first Lakshman, then Lakshminarayanan.  To top that, her first husband R.K. Laxman married another woman named Kamala after his divorce with "our" Kamala!  So now there is another "Kamala Lakshman!"  (Wouldn't that be weird, to remarry someone with the same name...)

 Sources and More Information

8 comments:

  1. Radha vishwanathan is known to the post 1980 gneration as the old lady that sang along with M S Subbalakshmi (the star of Meera who later became a famous carnatic singer) in such classics as the Vishnu sahasranamam (sloka) and her famous version of the Annamacharya kritis (sriman narayana et al).

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  2. Seems to be a different person though she too danced with Kamala in a film (from the Wikipedia article on Radha Viswanathan) .

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  3. rameshram - Thanks for the info, I had never heard of her before and didn't know how well remembered she was. The Hindu article that I linked to in my paragraph about her discussed at length her times with MS.

    gaddeswarup - rameshram was referring to the Radha Viswanathan (indeed a different person) I talked about in the "not to be confused with" paragraph. Isn't it weird that there was another Radha who also trained under Ramiah Pillai and also danced with Kamala on film! Too many weird coincidences in that family. :)

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    1. no problem gaddeswarup - I just figured you overlooked it. :)

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  5. Minai, as you know, a little while back, I was dazzled by Kamala myself and I wanted everyone to know that she was the best dancer among the Golden Age cinema dancing stars. I also read articles in Sruti and tried to find out a lot about her accomplishments and her history. But I didn't ever get anything close to the amount of information you have, about not only Kamala but also her family, nor was I able to find anything close to the number of film scenes... I don't know how you do it!

    I have mentioned to a couple of people that Kamala teaches in a dance school on Long Island (and at one time, if I saw correctly, was even on the faculty of Stony Brook - maybe still is). And they've said that I should try to go out and meet her, interview her. But I'm not great at that sort of thing, and I wouldn't know what to say. You, on the other hand would be the perfect person to go out and interview her. If you're ever in the New York/Long Island area... I'd be happy to come along and help with that project, too. :)

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    1. Richard - I have been so lucky and blessed in coming across a number of VCDs, resources, and online friends that led me to all these wonderful Kamala finds! How did people do anything before the internet! I'm glad I wasn't born 50 years ago when none of this was a possibility. :)

      Wouldn't meeting Kamala be amazing! You know, I actually wrote to all the email contacts I could find at Kamala's dance school, once almost a year ago and then a couple months later, and I never got a single response back. I wrote primarily with the intention of wanting to let Kamala know that there are some bloggers here that love her work and have found a bunch of her old rare film dances... I figured it had probably been a long time since she has seen many of them. But, no response! I recently found the email address of her son that lives in the US, but I'm too timid to write not knowing if he's still close to Kamala or not. I like this idea of tracking Kamala down though and interviewing her! Though I think if I ever came to New York I would be irresistably drawn to browsing through the wonderful stuff y'all have in your libraries there! Heaven! :) But your comment has inspired me- maybe I'll gather some courage to try again to contact Kamala. And if you try too- maybe they'll get the message and finally respond! :)

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    2. Hear Radha Viswanathan here: http://easyjams.blogspot.com/2012/05/ms-subbulakshmi-sri-venkateswara-balaji.html

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