Found: Devayani's Classical Dance in America Ammayi (1976, Telugu)

Sunday, August 19, 2012
Yay! Another dance from my Holy Grail post found!  This time it's Devayani's Kuchipudi-esque dance in the song "Ananda Tandavamade" from the 1976 Telugu film America Ammayi (American Girl), a remake of the 1975 Tamil film Melnaatu Marumagal.


TeluguCinema.com's excellent retrospective on America Ammayi (removed from site but viewable through the Wayback Machine) and interview with Devayani give details in her involvement with the film.  She was approached for the role by director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao after he saw her debut arangetram dance performance in Madras (Chennai).  Since she was trained only in Bharatanatyam, Devayani learnt Kuchipudi from the eminent Vempati Chinna Satyam (who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago).

While Devayani says Vempati Chinna Satyam was one of the dance directors for the film, she says her dance in Ananda Tandavamade was composed by Sree Satyanarayana (I assume she means KV Satyanarayana who also was involved with films like Swarna Kamalam and Srutilayalu), and assistant Shoba Naidu (well-known disciple of Vempati Chinna Satyam).  While she clearly has training in Bharatanatyam with the crisp way she holds herself, I find her upper body really stiff and her extremely long arms look lanky and awkward at times especially with the overly-fast pace she's been given.  Her ballet training seems to show through, particularly in the way she gracefully moves her arms and hands, and the light "skipping" movements of the feet look a bit unnatural.  Every so often there seems to be some Bharatanatyam moves snuck in for good measure.  Overall, though, I think she did a nice job.  I love the setting of the Nataraja Swami Temple of Chidambaram, and its architecture and karana sculptures are used to wonderful effect.  Isn't it wonderful to see a white woman in an Indian film performing traditional dance, and doing it fairly well, rather than the trope of the exoticised scantily-clad gori backup dancer.  And most of all it is wonderful to finally be able to see this dance!

Devayani and the "French Wave" in Bharatanatyam

So who is Devayani? Originally raised in France as Anne Chaymotty, she trained in Ballet when she was young and fell in love with Bharatanatyam after seeing the Kalakshetra dance sequence in Louis Malle's Phantom India.  She started learning Bharatanatyam first in France through Amala Devi (of Ram Gopal's troupe) and fellow French woman Malavika (originally Christine Clien) who learned the dance in India.  Then she traveled to India on the Indo-French Cultural Exchange Programme scholarship and studied under Kanchipuram Ellappa and more fully (for three years) under Muthuswamy Pillai who introduced her arangetram (and later she studied with a few others like Kalanidhi Narayanan, Swarnamukhi, Yamini Krishnamurthy).

Devayani and Malavika were part of a large number of French nationals who traveled to India to learn Bharatanatyam and largely returned to France.  Almost all of them seem to have learned from the traditional nattuvanars Kanchipuram Ellappa and V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai.  According to Sruti's feature article on Muthuswamy Pillai (Issues 319 and 320), the trend first started with Menaka (originally Verushka) who learned from Ellappa and Padma Subrahmanyam and continued her training with Muthuswami Pillai after Ellappa's death.  "Menaka was followed by an unbroken line of students from France, who came to India with the sole purpose of learning from Muthuswami Pillai" and who took Indian names permanently even after they returned to France.  Said Muthuswami Pillai humorously, "You see, they used to come in hordes, some fifty or sixty tourists.  All of them hopped, skipped and jumped as a group (ellaamaa kuthikkum) maybe for two months or fifteen days or even a week.  And paid me according to the number of classes."  But then Pillai found that some among these hordes were especially dedicated and made Bharatanatyam their full-time profession.

The wave of French students marked the beginning of a distinct second half to Muthuswami Pillai's teaching career, one which saw him inspired to create new adavus and movements, especially when his last and most prized disciple, Dominique Delorme, arrived in 1987.  In 1990, Pillai was awarded the "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" award (somewhat similar to the Indian Padma Shri) which he traveled to France to receive.  He passed away from ill health in 1992 at the age of 71 leaving a legacy of a new style of Bharatanatyam.  Heads up - I'll be focusing on the first half of Muthuswami Pillai's career on my post about him in the coming soon (I promise!) Remembering Choreographers series.

"Padma Shri" Devayani

What's interesting about Devayani is that she did not just learn the dance in India in the '70s, star in a film, and return to France.  She was awarded the Indian Padma Shri in 2009, and the reason seems to be based on how she has spread knowledge of Bharatanatyam through performances (not only in France and India but over many countries in the west) and through positions like Artist In Residence through the Arts Council of Great Britain (she was the first "Asian dancer") and her selection as "the only representative from India invited to participate in the World Culture Open at Seoul in South Korea recently" (The Hindu).

The most important factor of her Padma Shri award seems to be that she has made India her home, a fact which was highlighted in her inclusion in the 2008-09 Incredible India campaign.  While the campaign noted she was "one of the foremost exponents of Bharata Natyam in the world," Devayani steps it up a notch on her website with the assertion that she is "the foremost exponent of Bharata Natyam."  I highly doubt the dance community in India considers that last statement true!  The thing is, the fact that she admits that in the '90s she began performing fusion dance (apparently combining Bharatanatyam with Ballet and Arabic dance) and the Orientalist vibe I get from her website and Narthaki.com interview leads me to believe that she's followed a different path than someone like, say, the American Sharon Lowen who performs Odissi/Chhau/Manipuri and also had a role/danced in a Telugu film (Swarnakamalam, though her dance is cut from all prints I've seen).
Melnaatu Marumagal

For comparison, here is the Bharatanatyam dance song from America Ammayi's inspiration, the 1975 Tamil film Mel Naatu Marumagal, that I featured on a previous postThe American character was played by an actual American girl who is rumored to have studied at Kalakshetra. I think she does an excellent job.



More Information/Sources

French, Not Foreign (The Hindu)
Natyacharya V.S. Muthuswami Pillai (Sruti, Issue 319 and 320)

16 comments:

  1. She dances as if she's afraid that her free flying, twirling upper limbs will crash into her boobs and cause atomic explosions :D

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    1. Ha! That's hilarious. Her boobs are sort of...accentuated...in that tiny costume they've got her in. ;)

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  2. Just met your blog thru your post on Jack Cole and commented and put you in my reader. Even though I am old and disabled, and never had cable and have only seen a few free bollywood films that were on youtube, I stayed with them because of the song and dance. So when I saw this dancer, at the temple, I identified with her if I had been healthy and at such a temple I would have
    wanted to try every position I saw the temple carving's doing. I am going to enjoy going to the film links on your blog. Thank you so much.

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  3. Dear Nadine is that you,

    We all like you and think its awesome youre discovering dances and love on the interwebs!

    Now Step away from that keyboard! Youre dangerous!

    love etc..

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  4. NadineisthatU - I like your enthusiasm. :) Aren't YouTube and similar video-sharing sites phenomenal in how they have brought the world into our computer screens in an instant! Enjoy perusing my blog - if you have any comments or questions feel free to ask.

    rameshram - Hey, who is "we"? Speak for yourself sir! :)

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  5. minai,

    What? you don't like nadine?! :D

    kidding... we all like you nadine, and that includes me( the royal we)

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  6. Dear MinaiMinai, I have discovered on youtube a comment about the foreign dancer in Melnattu Marumagal. Radha Anjali (famous dancer and dance teacher from Vienna)recognized her - she is Laurance Pourtale of France.

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    1. Hello B.Natalia! Thank you for the comment! I always appreciate it when others pass along valuable information like this to me! I saw that same comment a while back and actually contacted Ms. Anjali for some more information. How fascinating to find that Laurance was French (not American) and was once a partner of Kama Dev/Kamadeva who had studied with Ram Gopal and toured with Vempati Chinna Satyam! I had drafted up a post about these finds, but unfortunately my recent posts took precedence. I hope to get to the kamadev post soon! Hope to see you around again, thank you again!! :)

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    2. Oh! you have something lined up about Kamadeva? Cool. :)

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  7. MinaiMinai,I am looking forward to your post on Kamadeva. Your blog is a real treasure house of information, I admire your work.

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  8. Hi, could you identify the two girls in Louis Malle film dated 1969? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWPIylNm4jc

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    1. Hello Aniruddha, I don't believe I've ever read anything about the identity of those girls before (or if I did I've forgotten where!), though I'm sure someone in the dance community knows. The problem is finding that bit of information! I'd love to know, especially if they continued dancing, because they are so talented and engaging to watch.

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  9. Thanks....I agree I too was interested if they continued dancing....as you may know, their teachers on film hail them as the best and the brightest at the school then....in any case it's a good feeling that your blog may come up with that info some day....thanks again and I hope you'll keep doing this fantastic work that you do...

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  10. I am happy to inform you that I have found who they are- Indira PP Bora and Jayashree Narayanan....That means both went on to become accomplished dancers....

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    1. Thank you! The name 'Indira PP Bora' sounds so familiar to me, but if I knew of this identity before I must've forgotten. She looks today so much like she did when she was in Malle's film! How fascinating that she is Assamese and after learning Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi was an instrumental part of the recent recognition of Sattriya dance! This article at The Hindu says that Rukmini Devi would have Bora perform a Sattriya item when she was part of Kalakshetra's tours in the 1960s and 70s. I'm not able to find out much info about Jayashree Narayanan's life, but her Facebook page has some rare photos from Kalakshetra. Thank you again for letting me know you identified these dancers!

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