|V.S. Muthuswami Pillai (source)|
Thus my much-delayed "Remembering Film Choreographers" series officially begins! In the series kick-off post, I had revealed my discovery that almost all of the top-notch classical film dances featured on my blog were choreographed by members of the traditional dance community or eminent dancers; in the case of Tamil films, by hereditary Bharathanatyam nattuvanars. It's a subject that has received precious little attention, popular or scholarly, until recently.
Look beyond the sparkling veneer of these film dances and one finds that they were often the products of economic necessity by the hereditary community whose stigmatized way of life underwent tremendous upheaval during the reform movements surrounding women, temple dedication, and dance in the early twentieth century in India. Many nattuvanars migrated to urban areas like Madras (now Chennai) where upper-class/caste girls from outside the traditional community desired to learn the dance in newly-formed institutions. Films provided another avenue of opportunity, and due to the reach of the medium into the popular consciousness, the film dances of these nattuvanars were partly responsible for creating awareness of Bharatanatyam among the masses and surely contributed to the dance "revival's" success and acceptance. To the delight of historians and archivists, these film dances also serve as a visual record of the early dance form, the nattuvanar's style, and in some cases glimpses of the nattuvanar himself. And to the delight of this blog, these film dances are damn good!
Because there is so much information to cover, I've split up this post topic into three parts. In this first part here, I will focus on V.S. Muthuswami Pillai's life (hereafter just "Muthuswami Pillai") and choreography in films before and outside of Sayee and Subbulakshmi. In the second post, Sayee-Subbulakshmi's training with Muthuswami Pillai and their film choreographies, both by Muthuswami Pillai and other dance directors, will get center stage. And in the third part, the work of P.A. Periyanayaki and R. Padma in films and their exciting relation to Sayee-Subbulakshmi will be excavated. I suppose this is the official first post of my much-delayed "Remembering Film Choreographers" series!
What is a Nattuvanar?
|V.S. Muthuswami Pillai demonstrating an|
adavu (source, credit: Samudri Archives)
Nattuvangam is the name given to a nattuvanar's conducting of a performance, and it comprises of striking the cymbals (talam) to match and mimic the sound of the dancer’s feet and salangai (ankle bells), reciting the rhythmic vocal syllables (solukattus in patterns called jathis) to pair with nritta (abstract, "pure" dance), singing in classical style, controlling the tempo (laya) of the dance, and serving to lead and conduct the orchestra as a whole. The nattuvanar was the absolute authority of the dance form and served as the devadasi's guru/teacher/choreographer in an intensive guru-shishya (teacher-student) relationship. Traditional nattuvanars dedicated their entire existence to teaching and conducting the dance form and training in its related functions (music). The hereditary system allowed the art to be passed down from generation to generation usually by being born into a family of artists or moving into one to be a disciple of the art form.
Many of the artists in these communities incorporated the name of the place of their family origin into their name, so one sees names like Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai (from Pandanallur village), Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai (from Vazhuvoor village), T/Thanjavur Balasaraswati (from Thanjavur), or the subject of this post Vaitheeswarankoil Muthuswami Pillai (after the Vaitheeswaran Koil temple).
V.S. Muthuswami Pillai (Vaitheeswaran Koil Sethuraman Muthuswami Pillai) was born in 1921 (d. 1992) in the village Vaitheeswaran Koil to a traditional family of dancers, nattuvanars, and musicians. He grew to love dance and nattuvangam as a child, but “boyish enthusiasm gave place in a few years to disillusionment and distaste for the profession, which was at that time held in social contempt.” The Sadir dance of devadasis was performed not only in temples but also at weddings and social functions and while it was a very popular entertainment, it was treated with little respect. Muthuswami related that the nattuvanars and musicians often spent the night in cowsheds for distant concerts, were given performance spaces consisting only of a rough carpet and small bench for the harmonium, and much of the audience left before the dance began. The pay was not great, but it was more than the salary and rice he received for his nattuvangam service at the temple.
When the bill to ban devadasi dance in temples was introduced in 1927-28, “the uncertain future prompted several nattuvanars to leave their villages and migrate to urban centres, where upper and middle class girls had started showing an interest in learning the art. The celluloid medium was a new frontier and a veritable gold rush commenced.” At age 15, Muthuswami moved toward Madras with his guardian, Vaitheeswarankoil Meenakshisundaram Pillai, who entered films like many of his contemporaries and directed the dances of his famous students, the sisters Yogam and Mangalam. For Muthuswami, a village boy, “the arc lights and the proscenium stage must have been a novel experience. Dance was becoming the entertainment of the elite and the proletariat.” At first I thought Muthuswami guardian was the famous nattuvanar Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, but soon I learned to seek out the prefix of the name—in this case Vaitheeswarankoil, not Pandanallur!
|Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai|
and VS Muthuswami Pillai (source)
Muthuswami soon entered films which I will cover below. Later in his life, in what has been called his "French Period," he found his creative peak concocting new adavus and movements for French nationals who had come to India to study from him culminating in his most prized student Dominique Delorme. Sujatha describes it as a unique bani (style) and that "the traditional format was intact, but he had improvised and embellished, using movements hitherto unknown in Bharatanatyam" such as adavus the rotated around a global axis or performed with one hand only. These innovations were done after he had finished directing dances for films.
Muthuswami Pillai's Film Choreographies
In the mid 1940s, Muthuswami Pillai entered films and directed for 30 or so through the mid-1960s. Lucky for us Sujatha lists "some films in which he was dance director"! Sujatha's list doesn't include dates, so I have added them from my research, and the films are in Tamil unless otherwise specified:
Kanda Lila (likely Sri Kanda Leela 1938-9), Sathi Murali (1941), Rishyasringar (1941), Sabapathi (1941), Paithiakkaran (1947), Rukmangadan (1947), Apurva Chintamani (1000 Thalai, 1947), Devadasi (1948), Vethala Ulagam (1948), Inbavalli (1949), Rattakkanner (1954), Malaikkallan (1954), Akki Ramudu (Telugu, 1954), Koondukkili (1954), Doctor Savitri (1954-55), Marma Veeran (1956), New Delhi (Hindi, 1956), President Panchaksharam (1959), Kann Thirandadu (1958), Parthiban Kanavu (1960), Irumbuthirai (1960), Baghdad Thirudan (1960), Chittoor Rani Padmini (1963), Arunagirinathar (1964), Bhakta Dhruva (Malayalam, Unknown).Also to add to the list is Madanamala (1948) which according to Randor Guy had dances choreographed by Muthuswami and Vedantham Raghavaiah.
Lots of caution is warranted when trusting claims about film choreographies, especially in lists like the one above that appear to be drawn from personal memory. Film credits often reveal multiple dance directors, but the choreographers themselves will often recall their work in such a way that it sounds as if they choreographed all of the dances in a film. I consider the credits in the film's introductory title cards the only way of verifying claims 100%, which for South Indian films means that I must relentlessly pester my Tamil and Telugu friends and loved ones to translate for me (thank you!!). When there are multiple choreographers listed, I can only rely on educated guesswork in the absence of statements from the choreographer regarding the exact dances of their creation. I wish I could get a hold of Muthuswami's biography that I recently learned about!
After trying to view all of Muthuswami's film choreographies that are available, one thing became clear—he is responsible for some beautiful Bharatanatyam numbers in Indian cinema! Most of the dances I have featured on my blog previously, but I am especially excited about the devadasi-style one I've not seen before. Here is my research on his film choreographies outside of Sayee-Subbulakshmi and R. Padma whose work willl be the subject of the next post installments.
Choreographing Vyjayanthimala's Best Film Bharatanatyam
|In New Delhi|
available on Google Books with a preview that coincidentally spans the parts where she talks about her film dances!), she relates, "in one particular film, there was an instance when dance director Muthuswami Pillai was not very pleased with a certain bol sung by Lata for a Bharatanatyam piece. When I mentioned this to music director Jaikishen, he said he would ask Lata if she could redo only that bit." I think the "one particular film" is the dance below in New Delhi, which had Jaikishen as the Music Director and Lata as a playback singer. At least one other film of Vyjayanthimala's had this set up as well (Patrani), but I think New Delhi is the likely candidate given its rare usage of dance syllables/bols.
Chittoor Rani Padmini (Tamil, 1963) - "Devi Vithayar Bhavani" - Compare this dance to Gopi Krishna's choreographies above and you can immediately see the difference! Vyjayanthimala here is all form and lines and crisp perfection with a few moments of embellishment and film license thrown in for good measure. Vyjayanthimala is said to have another dance for the king at the end of the movie. I wish I could locate it! V.A.K. Ranga Rao noted this film, along with Marma Veeran, only received a "lukewarm response at the box office" and is "sadly forgotten."
Irumbu Thirai (Tamil, 1960) - The only dance that exists in an online copy of this film is a group dance featuring Vyjayanthimala that looks very similar to the North-Indian style one choreographed by Gopi Krishna in the Hindi film it was remade from, Paigham (1959). Yet Muthuswami Pillai is listed as the sole choreographer in the credits! Perhaps there is another dance cut out from this print?
Marma Veeran (Tamil, 1956) - VAK Ranga Rao says she has a classical number in this, and since it's referenced along with Chittoor Rani Padmini I bet it's a great one! Supposedly it was dubbed in Hindi as Piya Milan, but I haven't yet been able to locate video of either version outside of Helen's spectacular dance in Piya Milan (who is that guy!). EDIT: Found! And thoroughly analyzed with insightful guest writing in this follow-up post.
Muthuswami's Other Film ChoreographiesMuthuswami started choreographing for films around 1938-1941—years before his debut with Sayee Subbalakshmi in 1954—and finished his last film dance in 1964. The dances below are perfect samples of the way his choreography likely differed in form and depiction in the early years of South Indian Cinema versus the later years. Reminder: I'm saving all of Sayee-Subbulakshmi's dances for my next post!
Aayiram Thalaivaangi Apoorva Chinthamani (Tamil, 1947, aka "1000 Thalai...") - THIS! This is my favorite devadasi-style dance in films that I have seen. Everything from her pyjama-style costume with the hanging-cloth front to her speed in the pure dance segments to her charming, expressive face is simply beautiful. In another dancer the movements would look uncompleted using modern Bharatanatyam standards, but this dancer shows how the style can be aesthetically pleasing. The credits do not list any names for the dance choreography, but given the classical nature of the dance and setting (and the lack of classicism seen in all the other dances in the film) and the film's inclusion on Sujatha's list, I think it's a safe bet the choreographer is Muthuswami for this particular dance. Also note the rather unusual court dance at 2:09:05. The film's subject was a "popular folk tale about a sinner in saint's garb who had Chintamani, a princess, under his thumb," and in addition to being a huge box-office smash it was apparently the longest South Indian film with a running length of over five hours at one time!
Arunagirinathar (Tamil, 1964) - This film told the well-known story of the man Arunagirinathar who after a life of visiting devadasis and becoming diseased begged for forgiveness at a temple and was transformed into a saint by the god Muruga. The credits identify the dance directors as Mutthuswami, BS Murthy Ramaswamy, and Thangaraj. In the video below, Lord Muruga (I believe) is seen dancing. The little boy (is it a boy?) is a fabulous dancer! Due to its classicism, it is clearly the work of Muthuswami.
While it is obvious Mutthuswami must have directed the dance number above, there is another dance by a devadasi at the start of the film that has a lot of that "fake classical" choreography that was rampant in 1960s films. It doesn't look like the work of Muthuswami, but it seems strange that his talent would not have been tapped for this number.
Paarthiban Kanavu (Tamil, 1960) - In this film the danseuses Vyjayanthimala and Kamala Lakshman were in the cast, but Vyjayanthimala was relegated to only acting and singing numbers while Kamala Lakshman shone in multiple dance segments. I was thrilled to learn that the credits reveal dance direction was done by Ellappa and Mutthuswami Pillai; I assume that Ellappa refers to Kanchipuram Ellappa who was a well-known hereditary nattuvanar as well. There are very few references to his film choreographies so this is an excellent find. There is a folksy group dance that don't seem like a dance Muthuswami and Ellappa would have done, but Kamala's exquisite four-part "Sivakamiyin Sabatham" episode is definitely their work. My favorite two numbers from this episode are below. But the question remains—who did what?
This number showcases Kamala's rhythmic dance accompanied by the dance syllables/solkattus. I wonder who plays the nattuvanar at the beginning, and I especially wonder who is actually reciting the solkattus!
Behold the glory that is the heavenly combo of music, visuals, and Kamala dance of "Munnam Avanudaya Naamam Kettal":
Many of Muthuswami's film dances are difficult to locate now. The one I am most in anticipation of is Devadasi (1948) which according to Randor Guy tells the story of a begger girl being taken in and trained by a devadasi in dance and later luring the king. It also has a comedy track featuring N.S. Krishnan singing Carnatic music while T.A. Mathuram dances Bharatanatyam! Sri Kandha Leela, assuming he choreographed for the 1938 one, would also be a fascinating watch given its early date and the billing by Randor Guy of K.L.V. Vasantha as "one of the popular heroines of early Tamil cinema, who could also sing and dance well." In Madanamala, both Vedantham Raghavaiah and Muthuswami Pillai are credited by Randor Guy for the dances, one of which is a court dance for the king by T.R. Rajani as Madanamala, which along with other dances Guy refers to as "impressive."
Doubtful Film Choreographies
Above I had described how caution is needed when trusting film choreographies. Another tricky issue is when a choreographer's name is displayed in the credits but none of the dances look anything like his or her work. And then there is the issue of credits not spelling names right or being ambiguous. Here are the films from Sujatha's list that fit one of these criteria:
Paithiyakaaran (Tamil, 1947) - Researching this film's dances has proven perplexing! The credits name the dance directors as V Raghavaiah and Muthukumarswamy. The film is part of Sujatha's list of Muthuswami's film dances above, but Muthukumarswamy is distinct from Muthuswamy. There is only one dance in the print of the film that's been circulating online—the sprightly "twin dance" of a young MK Saroja and another dancer. Muthukumaran Pillai was MK Saroja's guru in real life, which is closer to Muthukumarswamy but still no match! Even more intriguing is that Randor Guy mentions a second dance in the film by T.A. Jayalakshmi and two others (though he mixes up the song name with the twin dance one). At first I could not find any trace of it in the film, but then I noticed a split second image flash on the screen (see above) during the wedding scenes and realized that the dance appears to be cut out the film. What a shame!
- Baghdad Thirudan (Tamil, 1960) - This film (viewable in full at RajVideoVision's YT channel) has lots of dances and lists four dance directors in the credits: R. Krishna Rao, Sohanlal, Jai Shankar, and VS Mutthuswami Pillai. None of the dances are based in Bharatanatyam at all and Vyjayanthimala's all have a middle-eastern flavor to them, so I wonder which one Muthuswami directed?
- Vedhala Ulagam (Tamil, 1948) - The credits list Tara Chowdry and Vazhoovoor VB Ramaiah Pillai as dance directors for this film, but it is listed in Sujatha's list above as one of Muthuswami's.
- Rishyasringar (Tamil, 1941) - The credits only list P. Krishnamurthi for the dances.
- Koondukili (Tamil, 1954) - The credits list B. Sohanlal and B. Hiralal for the dances.
Throughout my research, I've found myself wondering many questions. How did the nattuvanars feel about choreographing for films? How did they learn to design dance for the new medium with complex sets and varying camera angles, which I presume they were not previously familiar with? Were they proud of their film choreographies or embarrassed by them (due to the stigma often attached to films)? Were they given full creative reign or did they have to bow to the pressures of the filmmakers? How did the public react? Only first-hand accounts can answer those questions, and I hope more come to light.
Coming up in the next posts: Sayee-Subbulakshmi's film dances, then the film work of relatives R. Padma and P.A. Periynayaki (including in Sabapathi)!
And later, I have more posts about other nattuvanars in the works. Too many posts and not enough time! :)
Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Willemen, Paul. "Vyjayanthimala (B. 1936)." Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema.
Rao, V.A.K. Ranga. "She Brought Lustre to the Silver Screen [Vyjayanthimala]" Sruti, November 2010.
Vijayaraghavan, Sujatha. "A Marvel of Tradition and Talent." Sruti. Issue 319, April 2011.
Vijayaraghavan, Sujatha. "V.S. Muthuswami Pillai." Sruti. Issue 320, May 2011.