Saturday, March 9, 2013

Film Kuchipudi Dances of Sobha Naidu

Sobha Naidu (aka Shobha Naidu) is one of the big names in Kuchipudi dance.  She "sprang on the dance scene in 1969" and "became synonymous" with the style of the late, famed Kuchipudi guru Vempati Chinna Satyam (Kothari).  Her pictures abound in books on Kuchipudi and Indian Classical Dance, and among the many awards she has received is India's Padma Shri civilian award in 2001 in recognition of her contributions to Kuchipudi dance.  Clearly her life has been dedicated to the dance form, and she has been the principal of the Hyderabad branch/affiliate of Chinna Satyam's Kuchipudi Art Academy since 1980. 

A while back, I had done some research to see if Sobha had ever danced in any films and did not find any evidence.  In interviews and articles, Sobha makes it crystal clear that she purposefully stayed out of films completely (implying dance and choreography) to maintain her singleminded dedication to Kuchipudi dance.  She says many offers from famous directors came her way, like Siri Siri Muvva, Sankarabaranam, Hamsageethe, but she refused them all, even returning a blank check offered by filmmaker Nagi Reddy who she says then declared his respect for her "dedication to classical dance."  Sobha relates how Rukmini Devi Arundale attended her arangetram and was so pleased she made Sobha promise that she "would never succumb to the lure of cinema and would strive to stay a classical dancer" throughout her life (The Hindu).  Sobha adds, "Actually, I had already made that decision as a young girl, but Rukminijee reinforced the resolve by insisting on a promise made by placing my hand in hers!" (Deccan Herald).   

Sobha in Abhimanavanthulu
So imagine my surprise today when I read a reference to Sobha dancing in the 1973 Telugu film Abhimanavanthulu!  The reference was found in Shankar Venkatraman's book Thiraiulagil Isai Kalaignargal (Musicians in Cinema) which dance enthusiast and "Bharathanatyam and the World Wide Web" contributor Ragothaman graciously translated for me (thank you!!).  After some further research, it is clear that Sobha Naidu most definitely did participate in films!  While she certainly didn't abandon her dance career for the glamor of the cinema world, she did dance in Abhimanavanthulu and was an assistant choreographer for America Ammayi.  Surely that counts as participating in films--and not only participating behind the scenes as a choreographer but also up front and center as a solo dancer!  While I've only found two examples, it makes me curious if there are others out there!

Abhimanavanthulu (Telugu, 1973) - "Eppativale Kaadura"

At first I wasn't sure if the dancer in this song was Sobha because her face looked much thinner and slightly different than in later pictures.  But a quick check of the credits (thanks Gaddeswarup for the Telugu translation!) revealed three names listed for the dances: Kumari Shobha, Vempati Chinna Satyam, and Sundaram-tara!  Since Kumari means "young woman" (similar to "Kumari" Kamala) and Shobha was Chinna Satyam's student at the time, I think there is no question that it is Sobha Naidu in this dance.  What convinced me 100% was the shot of Sobha at 2:26 where her face tilts upward and looks so reminiscent of her later appearance.  Sobha was supposedly born in 1956 and would have been around 17 in the dance.  The music, overall choreography, and costume are definitely filmi-ized and have similarities with many other presentations of so-called "Kuchipudi" in Indian films, and the number seems more concerned with flitting about from one fast-paced statuesque movement or pose to the next with constant edits.  There are definitely elements of Kuchipudi throughout, but I'm surprised that someone like Sobha wasn't given more authentic and difficult choreography.  Still, the way she holds her torso and limbs show clear evidence of dance training and nimble flexibility.  What stands out here is her bright, joyful face, which is something always captured in the pictures of her later in her career which find heavy rotation in books on Indian Classical Dance and Kuchipudi.



America Ammayi (Telugu, 1976) - "Ananda Tandavamade"

Last year I did a post on this film and the Kuchipudi-esque dance for the song "Ananda Tandavamade" by the Frenchwoman Devayani.  In an interview for the website TeluguCinema.com, Devayani revealed that while Vempati Chinna Satyam was one of the choreographers for the film, the song "Ananda Tandavamade" was choreographed by "Sree Satyanarayana" (likely KV Satyanarayana, or maybe Devayani really meant Chinna Satyam?) and "his then-assistant Smt. Shoba Naidu."  Sobha's participation is visually confirmed in this still from the set of the film (she is second from the right, next to Vempati Chinna Satyam).
From TeluguCinema.com
Here is the dance by Devayani with co-choreography by Sobha.  I can see some affinities with the dance above which is expected as Vempati Chinna Satyam and Sobha were associated with both film dances.


 Denial and Kuchipudi in South Indian Cinema

The denigration and rejection of "films" and "film dance" by many Indian classical dancers has always been of interest to me especially since there are very beautiful and authentic classical numbers in Indian cinema along with the not-so-great.  I've been working on a post for the past few weeks that highlights some of the fascinating insights of scholar Rumya Sree Putcha in her doctoral dissertation "Revisiting the Classical: A Critical History of Kuchipudi Dance."  Putcha's dissertation is one of the few academic writings I have read that gives scholarly analysis to traditional dance in Indian cinema, and she delves even deeper to a subject that receives almost no coverage at all: Kuchipudi dance in South Indian cinema!  Putcha shows that despite the subject being left out of or glossed over in histories of Kuchipudi and Kuchipudi gurus, Kuchipudi became known in the arts-hub of Madras through the film choreography of Kuchipudi gurus.  Their work in films “circulated” Kuchipudi “movement vocabulary” and “played a pivotal role in establishing Kuchipudi's cultural cache.”

Putcha notes that in interviews with Chinna Satyam and some other Kuchipudi artists, Chinna Satyam's "involvement in the film industry was always glossed as a transition phase, generally with a tacit apology...that it was a purely economical move to choreograph for films before he became popular as a teacher."  The reason I wanted to make this post about Sobha Naidu is that she seems to have a similar attitude but takes it a step further by completely denying any involvement in the Indian film industry.  I find this seeming denial surprising since both the film dances she associated with were also the work of Vempati Chinna Satyam whose film work is briefly acknowledged by others.

It took finding a rare printed book and a little digging, but as shown above, we now know that Sobha Naidu most definitely participated in film dance!  And look what her participation has made possible today--the availability of footage of her dancing from very early on in her career, all thanks to the way feature films are distributed and stored in multiple prints/copies (as opposed to privately-filmed video that often ends up wasting away in an attic somewhere).  Even though the dance is not completely "authentic Kuchipudi," it shows us her style and energy and is an archived visual record.

Stay tuned for my post about Putcha's fabulous dissertation and Kuchipudi in South Indian cinema...hopefully the first official post for my much-delayed "Remembering Film Choreographers" series. :)

14 comments:

  1. Minai,
    Apparently about 500 families migrated to Tamilnadu after the fall of Vijayanagar empire and still practice s part of Kuchupudi dance dramas Bagvat mela. In Andhra the names 'Kuchipudi bhabavatam' and ' kuchpudu bhagavatulu' are common though I do not really know what they mean. Do you any information on the Kuchpudi tradition in Tamilnadu. There is a bit here with some links
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melattur,_Tamil_Nadu

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  2. Minai
    I posted a query on oldtelugusongs and Ragasudha Vinjamuri confirms that the dancer is Shobha Naidu
    http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/oldtelugusongs/message/2723
    I think Ragasudha is also a dancer living in U K now.
    About your query about the denial, I do not know the answer. For a long time acting in films was not considered respectable. Before that dancing. These probably varied from area to area and family to family. In the case of Shobha Naidu, even taking to dance was a big step. I think that many actresses in early days came from devadasis families. I remember reading somewhere in an article about Ghantasala that filmi people used to find it difficult to rent houses in Madras.

    Madras

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    1. gaddeswarup - Sunil Kothari covers the exact topic you're describing (Kuchipudi families in Tamil Nadu) starting on page 83 of his book on Kuchipudi; here it is on Google Books (should go to the right page, I think). It appears Bhagavatulu was what the Brahmin dance drama artists were known as in Andhra in the past, and then after the dance revival, the term "Kuchipudi Bhagavatulu" came into use...but I'm still reading through my materials on Kuchipudi history and don't quite understand the full picture. Rumya Sree Putcha talks about how in the 1939 Telugu film Raitu Bidda (which I posted a clip of here) there is a scene where male dancers are introduced as "Kuchipudi Bhagavatulu."

      Glad to see that the person confirmed Shobha Naidu's identity- I assume she visually confirmed it? What surprised me most about Shobha's denial was that Vempati Chinna Satyam's film participation is very well known, and she only associated with films that he also associated with, which would seem to make her participation a little more understandable in a sense.

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    2. It seems that Ragasudha considered it a known fact among some circles. She said that it was only film in which Shobha Naidu danced.
      Thanks for the links. I just started browsing a book
      Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance (Minnesota 2008) edited by Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti
      Have you commented on it before?

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    3. gaddeswarup - Ah, yes it must a fact known to some people in dance circles. Interesting! I have not commented on the "Global Bollywood" book before, but I do have a copy.

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  3. Hi Minai: I tried sending you an email via the address given in your blog but maybe it didn't reach you. Maybe spam filtered out? I had a suggestion for a clip with a dance sequence you may find interesting for your blog. What's the best way to contact you? Thanks! S

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    1. Anon - Sorry about that, your comment did get eaten by my spam filter, but I pulled it back out! You had suggested the Manipuri dance sequence in the 1959 Hindi film Sujata. I'm so glad you did because I have never seen this before! The Manipuri drummer/dancer reminds me so much of the one who performed in this piece in Kalpana (1948). I wonder if they are the same person? Sujata's credits say choreography was by Satyanarayan and the Manipuri Dance by "Little Ballet Troupe"! So then I googled "Little Ballet Troupe" and the founder Shanti Bardhan performed at Uday Shankar's Center in Almora. Wow! I gotsta do some more research on this. :) Thank you for the information! Feel free to contact me either on here or through email--any emails should come through now. Thank you for the tip! :)

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    2. Hi Minai: I am glad you found that Sujata clip and it may interest you. I think Manipuri is under represented in Indian movie dances, but would be happy to be proved wrong. To switch subjects, have you seen the new Tamil movie Vishwaroopam where Kamala Hasan plays the role of a Kathak dancer? Kamala Hasan is a very talented classically trained dancer himself, which you can see in many of his movie dances, and his movie Sagarasangamam was dance themed. - S

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    3. Hello! I think you are right about the under-representation of Manipuri in movies. My hunch is that the only reason it is represented at all is due to the influence first of Tagore and then Uday Shankar.

      Yes, I have seen that Kathak dance from Vishwaroopam- I found a good copy on YouTube here. While I loved the female dancers he was "instructing," I didn't like his performance at all (but I hear I'm in the minority). I much prefer him in Sagarasangamam. :)

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  4. Enjoyed very much the old Kuchipudi dance numbers.

    The videos of Odissi dance numbers by Dr. Minati Mishra in your post dated 15.05.2012 have been blocked. Can you post some other videos of old Odissi dance presentations?

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    1. The Gardener - Hello! That's a shame the Arundhati videos aren't available anymore. Give me some time and I'll reupload them and update the broken links on that webpage. Thank you for letting me know. If you mean in feature films, I don't recall any other odissi dances in old Indian films other than those in Arundhati. In newer films, there is Odissi in Swarnakamalam, Yugant, Payal Ki Jhankar. But I have suggestions for Odissi documentaries and other non-film dances if you're interested.

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    2. Please do re-upload.

      2.Yes, I am interested. I shall be grateful.

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    3. The movies have been reuploaded and the original post updated. Enjoy!

      I'm not sure if you've seen these posts yet or not, but definitely check them out: Bhavantarana, documentary teaser.

      Also, you should check out Pad.ma's Odissi collection if you haven't already, and there are some rare Odissi/Mahari clips in this documentary.

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    4. Thank you.

      I haven't seen these post and am going to do it. I am also going to check the links. Thank you again.

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