A Conference Dedicated to Dance & Music in Early South Indian Cinema!

Sunday, July 14, 2013
I am completely astonished to learn that, only a month and a half ago, an international symposium/conference "Dance, Music, Politics and Gender in Early South Indian Cinema" was held in France with an exclusive focus on the  "representation of dance and music in early South Indian cinema from its beginnings in the second decade of the twentieth century until the 1950s."

But what raised the conference to the level of sheer awesomeness was that all the panel presentations but one focused on dance in early South Indian films, cinema halls, literature, or hereditary communities with a heavy emphasis on the depiction, participation, and history of the "hereditary communities of temple and court dancers and musicians" in South India and the reconstruction of the dance forms known today as Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi.  When I first saw the conference title I thought Carnatic and Periya Melam music in film would be given a privileged position, but instead dance in film got to finally and deservedly bask in the limelight!  The conference was organized by dancer-scholar Tiziana Leucci and scholar Davesh Soneji in partnership with the Quai Branly museum (where Tiziana is a post-doctoral fellow) and the Centre for Studies in India and South Asia.

Crowning all this glory is undoubtedly the conference program which featured not only photos of a young Kamala on a Naam Iruvar poster but also screencaps of Sayee and Subbulakshmi from their dance "Neeli Magan" in the Tamil film Malaikkalan.  Seriously! Am I dreaming?!

Sayee Subbulakshmi! (source)
I found out about the conference while researching for my upcoming three-part post about the hereditary nattuvanar Muthuswami Pillai, the brilliant dancing duo Sayee and Subbulakshmi, and actresses/playback singers R. Padma and P.A. Periyanayaki.  As I strolled Google for more information about a film Muthuswami was said to choreograph for, Devadasi (Tamil, 1948), I happened onto an excellent review of the conference in Frontline magazine by participant Theodore Baskaran!  The more I read the wider my eyes got...I simply am excited beyond words that this narrow and niche subject is getting concentrated scholarly attention from knowledgeable scholars in the field.  I also see that Narthaki's recent newsletter included a link to Baskaran's article in the review section which gives information about the conference even further reach to interested dance enthusiasts!

Reading through the abstracts for each conference presentation (document no longer available online) gives one a nice overview of the history of the "hereditary communities of temple and court dancers and musicians" in South India, their importance and work in the South Indian film industry, and critical examinations of the reconstruction of dance forms known today as Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi.  I sense a passionate, deep interest by the presenters in each of the abstracts. From what I can glean, the presenters crafted their presentations with care and added fresh angles and material beyond what is found in their previously published works or dissertations.  No dry reading of existing papers here!

For me, the most intriguing abstracts were for Tiziana Leucci's "The 'Ambiguous' Patronage of Hereditary Performing Artists in Tamil Cinema: The Case of V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai" and Rumya Putcha's "Signs and Symbols: Kuchipudi and the South Indian Film Industry."  From all the reading I have done, I have not found anyone other than these two women address the subject of actual film choreography and movement vocabularies utilized for representations of traditional "devadasi" vs. refashioned "Bharatanatyam" or "Kuchipudi" dance in South Indian cinema.  Writings on the subject usually focus on the general portrayal of devadasi characters and connections to historical literature or existing anti-devadasi sentiments.  But to discuss the actual movements themselves is rare in part because the question of what devadasi dance in its various forms really looked like is difficult to determine and has little visual evidence (other than some rare footage like that of Balasaraswati, Mylapore Gauri Ammal, and the Baroda footage of the Tanjore Dasis).  I've been trying to figure out how to tell what kind of dance, traditional or refashioned, is being presented in early film dances ever since my video post on Devadasi-Like Dances in Classic South Indian Films.  Tiziana and Rumya are providing thought-provoking insight into the ways the hereditary dance forms evolved and cinema's importance in that evolution.

Part of Tiziana's presentation focused on Bharatanatyam traditions and Tamil cinema. She "illustrate[d] the connections and collisions between on-screen portrayals of performing artists, the tension of gender issues within their own communities, and the 'ambiguity' of cinematic patronage, through the biography of the Tamil dance master and film choreographer V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai" and showed both "how the film setting allowed in a way to keep alive the "traditional" dasi and sadir attam choreography styles, which were otherwise sanitized in the new bharata natyam 'sabha presentations', and how the technical devices of the studios and the camera enriched these performances by the tremendous potential offered by a new use of space and body movements for cinematic choreographic sequences."  My god, a biography of Muthuswamy Pillai exists!  In addition to ample scholarly credentials in the subject of the history of Bharatanatyam and hereditary temple dance, Tiziana actually studied "Dasi Attam" dance from Muthuswami Pillai in India (among other dance styles and teachers) which lends a personal angle and factual enrichment to her presentation.  What a better person to illuminate how Sadir dance differs from modern Bharatanatyam than someone who has actually studied it from a hereditary nattuvanar.

Rumya focused on Kuchipudi traditions and Telugu cinema, a subject that gets even less coverage than Tiziana's.  Luckily for us, the information she presented appears to be taken directly from Chapter 4 of her dissertation (available if one has access to the Proquest database) as it has the same title as the conference paper.  This is the chapter that I touched upon in my post on Sobha Naidu's film dances because Rumya has convincingly argued a fascinating theory: that Kuchipudi became known in the arts-hub of Madras through the film choreography of Kuchipudi gurus that "circulated" Kuchipudi "movement vocabulary" and "played a pivotal role in establishing Kuchipudi's cultural cache."  In her dissertation, Rumya goes into great detail about the types of movements seen in film dances (especially one kind of particular adavu) and shows how they were used in strategic ways to distinguish Kuchipudi as a dance tradition historically performed only by high-caste brahmins in contrast to Bharatanatyam which had been danced by devadasis and courtesans.

In his write-up, Baskaran revealed the names of the film clips shown at the conference: Malapilla (Telugu, 1938), Aryamala (Tamil, 1941); and Madana Kamarajan (Tamil, 1940). He also noted "there was a clip from the Tamil film Savithiri (1941) in which M.S. Subbulakshmi played a male role, that of Narathar. Dance sequences by the sisters Sai and Subbulakshmi, choreographed by Muthusamy Pillai, from the films Ratha Kanneer and Malaikallan were shown."  How wonderful that some of Sayee and Subbulakshmi's best film dances were shown!  I'll save all my comments on the duo for my upcoming post on them that highlights all of their best dances on film that I've located, a few which are new beyond those seen previously on this blog and elsewhere.

Malapilla is not a film that Rumya discusses in her dissertation (the earliest film among a slew she analyzes is 1939's Raitu Bidda, which contains the incredibly rare dance of hereditary Kuchipudi dancer Vedantam Raghavayya as seen in my post on Dances in Early Indian Cinema), so I'm highly curious what she had to say about the dances in it.  How coincidental that just two weeks ago, idreammovies uploaded the whole film on YouTube! I bet the dance shown at the conference is the one seen at 20:04 below--it's a brief but fascinating composition, take a look:

Starts 18:27

Another interesting presentation is Stephen Putnam Hughes' about the little-researched subject of live dances in silent cinema halls much before "dance became an important element in the entertainment package of Tamil talkie films."  Hari Krishnan (who is working on an awesome PhD topic: Bharatanatyam in Tamil cinema!) also touched on the topic noting that Rukmini Devi Arundale had performed a live stage dance at a Tamil film screening, a fact that I recently discovered and that dance enthusiast Ragothaman highlighted in his post on the subject, though the sources we drew from described it not as live but as an addendum to the recorded film.  Randor Guy has mentioned a few other instances of these live dance performances during film screenings in his film reviews at The Hindu newspaper.

Davesh Soneji, whose most recent book was the subject of my ode, focused on how film dance ("record dance") affected the actual repertoire of Kalavantula courtesan communities in Andhra Pradesh, a subject he only briefly touched upon in his excellent book.  He also discussed how these women were also inspired by "Oriental dances" like the Marwadi dance "performed by American dancers like La Meri and Ragini Devi..." Intriguing--I wonder if Ruth St. Denis was an influence as well.

And I've just covered the tip of the iceberg of the information found in the conference abstracts!  Sascha Ebeling's discussion of the "literary trope of 'the devadasi as scandal'" and its depiction in the 1935 Tamil film Dumbachari, Theodore Baskaran's examination of the influence of the "company drama" on the oral tradition of Tamil cinema and the major contribution of the Isai Velalar community to early sound cinema, not to mention all the other areas covered by the presenters already named; simply and positively amazing. I still can hardly believe that an event like this really happened!

Now comes the task of trying to track down these conference papers, an element of academic research that I find frustrating.  Other than Baskaran's summarizing writeup, how does the general public get to hear about the detailed findings from this and other conferences?

How right Baskaran is that "the conference itself opened up new areas of research and pointed out new directions in which scholars in the field could proceed."  And in which bloggers can write about too...especially since blogging, like conference presenting, allows the perfect marriage of descriptive language with audio-visual evidence, something that dance scholarship desperately needs.


  1. While it is good news that academic research is aking up to this dark area of cultural knowledge, I personally believe that the starting points are all wrong, because in the absence of discovery of the entire universe of primary data ( India must have made about 300 films a year between 1912 and 1950) and all the primary actors involved, this "research" is destined to be very "aryan invasion theory" ish...ie people start from well known conclusions and end up with the SAME well known conclusions.

    I'm happy they are convening conferences, but the real progress is made by people like you who mine source material that has sufferred academic neglect so far. There is plenty of time in the future to fashion out class/ caste/ race/ identiy based dogma.


    1. That is very true isn't it, that there are many films from early Indian cinema that are either lost or languishing or otherwise not easily available, and that we do have to be careful about drawing conclusions without seeing the entire corpus of work. The topic of choreography in film dance, that scholars like Tiziana and Rumya write about, is most susceptible to this caution I think because it is the most dependent upon direct visual evidence. There is really no other way to study it! "Mine source material"--love the term!

    2. Agreed, Minai ! We could only conclude with what we have on hand and probably speculate on what's not available. So much of vintage (Tamil) films are lost...lost forever...at least in India with better hope in places like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and such.

      Stumbled on this as I was looking for info on Madanakamarajan (1941) and sure you know why as that's our next screening . I'm as excited to read this write up, though so late after it is published. I

      I should ask Lalitha to run your blog in the next Narthaki newsletter


    3. You are screening Madanakamarajan at the Vintage Heritage group in Chennai! How wonderful! You'll have to tell me what the dance is like, I'm so curious. Does this Vintage Heritage group have a Facebook page or any online presence at all? Apologies if I've asked you that before. You are more than welcome to mention by blog to Narthaki--the more eyeballs I can get on videos the more information that might be gleaned about identities and history! Thanks again for your support. :)

  2. Hi !

    I assumed you knew of the screening as Sunder of VH has been sending you the monthly screening post, unless those mails under that ID is not checked.
    Anyway, not to disappoint, there was no significant dance in that film as it was more of musical, and the lead being a well known musician of that period.
    VH is a low key one as not many care about vintage films today. It's run by 2 diehard fans with the help of a donor and so no big online presence. But, a mail is sent out to you every month as your ID is part of the mail-list. In case interested, their ID is vheritage@yahoo.com

    Will pass the word to Lalitha, the editor of Narthaki, on your blog


  3. Cassidy, hope you got to see the exchange of mails bet. Lalitha of Narthaki and I on your blog. 'have BCCd them to your kasuvandi mailID

    1. Thank you Anantha--I was asking about VH here on behalf of those who might be reading the comments on my blog and would be interested in the screenings. Thanks for listing the email address here. Shame Madanakamarajan didn't have much dance! Oh well. :) I did see the email exchange--thanks for mentioning my blog to them. I didn't realize they were using some snippets of info I'd posted for the "did you know" series. Thanks again!


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