Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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

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 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

More:
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

SharonLowen.com (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

6 comments:

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

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

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

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    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. :)

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

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

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