Found: Sharon Lowen's Odissi Dance in Swarnakamalam (Telugu, 1988)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012
In my post on Bhanupriya's classical dances in Swarna Kamalam, I noted to my astonishment that there was supposed to be a scene in the film after Bhanupriya's "Cheri Yashodaku" hotel number where American-born Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen danced Odissi!  None of the copies of the film I'd seen (EVP DVD, Universal DVD, TeluguOne's YouTube upload) included Lowen's dance.  I couldn't imagine why it would be cut out, and I promptly put the scene on the top of my "holy grail" list.

I'm happy to announce that the scene has been found, and it's all thanks to commenter and friend Gaddeswarup who graciously took the time to have the scene converted and sent to me (thank you!!) after discovering it.  I'm so excited!  Take a look (note: the quality is fairly low, and there is a short glitch near the beginning) (EDIT: Better-quality version linked below March 2014, see old video for reference):

Bhanupriya's irritated head-bob at Venkatesh (I'll refer to them by their real names) starts out the number on a humorous note, but it quickly shifts tone to reveal a thoroughly classical Odissi performance by Sharon Lowen framed by an idol of Lord Jagannath.  Her performance is intercut with shots of Bhanupriya dreaming of dancing Odissi herself (which is at odds with her consistently-irritated expression throughout the performance).  Bhanupriya's attempt at the s-shaped Tribhangi posture at 1:55 is extremely stiff compared to Sharon's gracefulness.  There's something about Sharon's performance that seems to be not in top form here and almost as if they have her dancing too quickly.  I like some of her other TV performances a little better (see the end of the post).  But for an outsider, I think she does a fantastic job.

The late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, legendary in the performance and reconstruction of Odissi dance, is credited as one of the dance directors. I presume he choreographed Sharon's number only because all the other songs have other credited dance directors.  Initially, I wondered if he was seated somewhere among the musicians (or reciting the vocal syllables), but surely the director would have focused the camera on him a few times if he was.  The musical composition Sharon dances to is beautiful and gentle.  Sharon says it was composed by the late  Bhubaneswar Misra (a prolific composer of Odissi music) who called it "the only time he had been able to fully orchestra his composition."  Clearly, this number had the participation of some of the best artists in the Odissi world at the time.

I've always found Sharon Lowen quite fascinating.  For one, she's a white chick (like me) who became deeply involved in Indian dance.  But more importantly, unlike many "Westerners" who come to India to train in various classical dance styles, Sharon has made India her second home for over 30 years and has dedicated her life to the practice of Odissi, Manipuri, and Chhau.  But most crucial of all, from everything I can gather, she is well respected in India for her dance ability and was/is considered one of the leading dancers of Odissi.  She trained under Kelucharan Mohapatra and has toured the world extensively.  And she practically passes for Indian with her enormous, expressive eyes and dark hair.

But Sharon Lowen's involvement in Swarna Kamalam and the inclusion of Odissi dance in the film has been puzzling to me.  Swarna Kamalam is a Telugu film about the classical dance tradition of Andhra Pradesh, Kuchipudi.  While Orissa and its classical dance Odissi is only one state away, my impression has been that Odissi doesn't have as much traction in Andhra as Bharatantayam from neighboring Tamil Nadu does.  Curiously, at Sharon's 2010 TED presentation "Transformational Story Telling Through Dance," she was introduced as "so well recognized within India for her craft that she was featured as herself in an award winning Telugu language film where her character inspired the film's heroine to honor her own culture and traditions."  Were audiences in late-80s Andhra Pradesh familiar with Odissi dance and Sharon Lowen?  The film itself paints her as well known.  When Sharon's character is first seen, she is asked amidst the clicks of a photographer, "How is the response to Odissi in the south?" and she responds, "Very good. People really respect fine arts in the south."  Then Venkatesh introduces Sharon by her real-life name to Bhanupriya and describes her real-life origins and dance, as if he knows her personally!

While Andhra audiences may not have been so familiar with Odissi or Sharon Lowen, it appears K. Viswanath (who directed a series of pioneering South Indian films on classical art forms) was familiar.  Sharon said Viswanath searched "for a dancer to inspire his Swarna Kamalam heroine to value her inherited dance tradition" and invited her to play herself in the film.  After a bit more research, I noticed some of Sharon's connections to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.  Three years before Swarna Kamalam's release, Sharon gave an Odissi performance (accompanied by Kelucharan Mohapatra) in Hyderabad and many other Indian cities as part of her international "Festival of India-USA" tour.  In 1988, the same year as Swarna Kamalam's release, Sharon says she was a member of the advisory board created to establish the "Sarojini Naidu School of Visual and Performing Arts" at the University of Hyderabad (aka Central University, Hyderabad), and she appears to have maintained relations with the school given she was a visiting professor there [ article no longer available] many years later in 1996.  Were these activities what made her known to K. Viswanath?  Or perhaps earlier associations with him brought some of these opportunities to her?  In any case, her association with Hyderabad is very interesting given the cities she most associated with were in Orissa and her home in New Delhi.

Sharon's participation in Swarna Kamalam greatly enriched the film's dance content.  The song "Shiva Poojaku," though it features mostly vaguely classical-inspired dancing with a few segments of Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam, Manipuri, and Odissi-costumed dancing, appears to be shot mostly around Bhubaneswar, Orissa at such locations as the Bindu Sagar tank at the Lingaraj temple and the Shanti Stupa on the Dhauli Giri hills near Bhubaneswar.  The Orissa emphasis is curious because at this point in the film Sharon Lowen and her Odissi dance have not even been introduced yet!  But I'm sure that Sharon Lowen's involvement and her Orissa connections had something to do with the locations and dance styles. :)

What I like about Sharon Lowen is that she seems to have a very realistic and level-headed view of India and Odissi dance free of exoticism.  Regarding her first travels to India, Sharon once remarked, “I didn’t feel I was entering unfamiliar territory. I didn’t come here like a wide-eyed tourist looking for monuments and elephants. I had a fairly good knowledge of Indian history and art. And, I chose Manipuri (she later trained in Odissi and Chhau) since I had learnt a little bit of it during my college days and was fascinated by it.”

Last, there is an interesting parallel between Sharon Lowen and another "Western" dancer named Illeana Citaristi, who came to India about the same time as Sharon to learn similar dances.  Like Sharon, she also worked in the film world and got a national award for her choreography in Yugant (1995) which featured some modern works but also two delightful Odissi dance practice numbers.

More Videos of Sharon Lowen

Heroines of Kalidasa - Sharon Lowen - National Program of Dance

Odissi by Sharon Lowen (80s-90s British TV)
Sharon Lowen Odissi Part 1, Part 2 (80s-90s)
Introduction to Indian Classical Dance (filmed a few months ago)

Sources and Further Reading (official website)
"Perspectives of Chhau by a Performing Artist, by Sharon Lowen" at Chhau Dance Sangam
"Sharon Lowen, the Dance of Discovery" (Michigan Today)
"For the Love of Odissi" (The Hindu)
"Destined to Dance" (The Hindu)
"Portrait of an American as an Indian Classical Dancer" (The Tribune)
"At Home, but far from Home" (The Financial Express)
"Life Prospers When People Live in Peace" (The Hindu)
"So Many Parallels in Our Life" (The Hindu)
"Classical Indian Dance Concert at UVM" (University of Vermont)
"Philosophies/Methodologies/Pedagogy - Training Students in the Classical Performing Arts of India" by Sharon Lowen
Review of Swarnakamalam at Cinema Chaat
Review of Swarnakamalam at Marapuraani Chitralu


  1. Oh that is lovely - thank you so much Gaddeswarup and Minai for sharing! Temple

    1. Thanks Temple! Isn't it great? I'm so happy to have finallly found it. :)

  2. i think it is Venkatesh who is dreaming about Bhanupriya dancing the odisi not the other way around.

    1. Anon - You might be right now that I'm watching it again with that in mind. Especially given how they focus on Venkatesh first and how irritated Bhanupriya looks, it seems very plausible. :)

  3. Thank you Gaddeswarup and Minai Minai...I have been searching for this bit for ng.l

    1. Glad you are enjoying the video. I relinked it to a version that is available in more places worldwide.

  4. Hi, just saw your site and am touched at the research you have done on me. Easy to answer a few of your questions.Shooting of Swarna Kamalam was well under way and director K. Viswanth had not yet settled on a dancer whose performance would inspire the heroine to value her own classical tradition. He considered all the top dancers of the day no one seemed to fit the part until he saw my morning Doordarshan interview and decided I was perfect, a respected artist who was not born into the tradition but had chosen it.He first wanted me to learn Kuchipudi which would have been a treat to spend a month with Venpati-ji, but I felt that something out of style might appear and also I did not wish to be known as a Kuchipudi dancer when I was not. He graciously decided that this would be the introduction of Odissi to the film going audiences of Andhra.The choreography was done for me by my guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra in Toronto, Canada where he was on tour and I travelled there from Michigan where I was visiting family to have him condense an 18 1/2 minute ashtapadi to 7 1/2 min. Again, I was reluctant to have the music recorded in Chennai as I was not aware of musicians who could properly record Odissi, so the music and my dance were recorded in Bhubaneswar and he naturally made use of the time and travel to have some location shots of Venky and Bhanupriya there as well. Bhanupriya's dance shot in Kashmir with various styles was basically choreographed by Guru Gopi Krishna, though K. Viswanath asked me to add a classical touch to mudras and movements here and there, as well as teaching the Manipuri and Odissi bits. It was an absolutely wonderful experience from start to finish working with such a great director and fine actors.Sharon Lowen

    1. My goodness, I never expected to hear from the great Sharon Lowen herself--what a wonderful bit of luck I have had! I’m so happy you found my blog post and my featuring of your beautiful Odissi dance in Swarnakamalam (uploaded by the channel “Telugu Filmnagar” to my delight!). You’ve answered many of my questions and the Odissi/Odisha connections in the film make much more sense now, in context. :) I didn’t realize Bhanupriya had a dance shot in Kashmir—I bet you’re referring to the song “Andela Ravamidi” which has snowcapped mountains in the background as does the song “Ghallu Ghallu” which I assume was also filmed in Kashmir. I love knowing that you also assisted a bit with the mudras and movements in “Andela Ravamidi” (where you also appear on screen) and likely as well in “Ghallu Ghallu.” Thank you for confirming Gopi Krishna’s choreography of those songs (and I’m assuming it’s the famous dancer Gopi Krishna of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje fame). Friend of the blog Gaddeswarup had translated Swarnakamalam’s screen credits for me some time back which identified the following “Nritya Darsakulu” for the film’s dances: Gopikrishna for “Ghallu Ghallu” and “Andela Ravamidi,” Seshu for “Akasamlo” and “Kottaga Rekkalochhena,” Uma Rama Rao for “Koluvai Unnaadea,” Seenu for “Sivapujaku,” and K.V. Satyanarayana for “Aangikam” and “Cheri Yasodaku.” At the end of list was Kelucharan Mahapatrao credited only as the “Music Director.” After this, I realized that films often have multiple choreographers, even though sometimes one person will take all the credit, and the credits are not always accurate. :) I have to admit, even though it was not your form of training, I would have loved to have seen you dance Kuchipudi in the film! :) How wonderful though that you participated in the filming of Swarnakamalam because your dance was preserved for us to enjoy all these many years later!

  5. many thanks for bringing out this Cassidy, lovely to watch Sharon in the film and great to hear from the lady herself on the film - lots of respect to the graceful lady/dancer !

    1. Hello anantha - Agreed! Good to hear from you.

  6. I had the good fortune of watching an Odissi dance presentation by Sharon Lowen on the 25th December, 2015, as a part of the 64-Yogini Festival in the precincts of the ^64-Yogini Temple at Hirapur near Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha (earlier Orissa). Selected posts of my Blog 'A Banker's Garden' had been just published with the same title. It contains a piece on Sharon Lowen, titled 'An American Odyssey'. I met her before her performance and presented a copy of the book to her. She was very happy to receive it. In the blank space under this piece, she wrote "Thank you for including me in your garden. I am happy to be in India and Odisha, which is my 'Karma Bhoomi'."

    Then she asked a person standing nearby to take our photo, with her holding my book, in her ipad. Later she e-mailed those photos to me.

    It was indeed a memorable occasion for me.

  7. Earlier also, I had watched the Odissi dance performance by her at the International Odissi Dance Festival at Bhubaneswar.

    1. The Gardener - How lucky you are to have seen her dance so recently and back in 2012 when you published your "An American Odyssey" post on Sharon. Your story of her actions during and after meeting you is heartening--I love
      to hear of well-known people acting so graciously. She seems like a genuinely wonderful person!

  8. Oh my God !
    This is just so surreal !

    The scene : a hungry infant is awake in the middle of the night, crying out for milk. Now what if he's fed a few drops of amrtham (nectar of the Gods) rather than milk ?
    That is me now!!

    Have a load of work to be turned in tomorrow, and that is why am still up at this unearthly hour past midnight.
    As it's been quite a while since I heard these golden melodies, I tuned in.
    Wasn't satiated. Wanted to have a break and felt this craving to watch Smt.Sharon Lowen's song !
    The regular search string brought on just the audio jukebox varieties and so I typed in "Swarnakamalam Odissi video song" !
    One thing led to another and I landed here!

    When am in such a rush now, it wouldn't do justice to say anything about Dr.KV now.
    Or the wonderfully mesmerizing dance portrayals he brought out, or the great Sharon Lowen.

    Suffice it to say that I have had the great privilege of watching her performance (bhaava & gracefulness personified!) a couple of times - sometime in the late 90s.
    And here I am, reading your series thesis!
    And reading her own answer tidbits to fill in some of the gaps!

    Am doubly, triply.... 'multiple'-ly blessed ! THANK God.

    Dear Cassidy, a big bow...
    With all cheers and applause - from the world of classical dance artistes and enthusiasts like.
    I should visit again, and tell my friends too. This space you created is so soothing.

  9. Now that is a lovely comment! So glad you enjoyed the read, and yes I still can't believe Smt. Lowen herself graced my blog with her presence. I am so blessed. Take care!


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