Found: Vyjayanthimala's Devadasi Dance in Piya Milan (Choreographed by V.S. Muthuswami Pillai)

Friday, August 9, 2013
Huge thanks are due to Mr. Naidu for uploading Vyjayanthimala's dance in the 1958 Hindi film Piya Milan (a dub of the 1956 Tamil film Marma Veeran) which was choreographed by the hereditary nattuvanar V.S. Muthuswami Pillai.  I had speculated in my recent post (part one) on Muthuswami's film choreographies that this dance would be as fabulous as his direction of Vyjayanthimala in Chittoor Rani Padmini—and how true that turned out to be!  But what stunned me most about the dance is that it appears to be a preserved example of the "Sadir" devadasi dance of yore known today as Bharatanatyam. It wasn't only the court setting and the costume but also the actual choreography and body language that signified this identification and caught my attention.

As I first watched the dance I could tell that something was different, and by the end I was struck by my reaction and the way I connected with the dance.  I couldn't quite articulate why I thought it was an example of devadasi choreography or what it was that made the viewing experience so different from watching Vyjayanthimala's Bharathanatyam in Chittoor Rani Padmini.  The dance had a certain je ne sais quoi that was unlike anything I'd seen before.  When I first covered the topic of Devadasi-Like Dances in Classic South Indian Films, I focused more on the trappings of the dance like the time period, physical setting, camera work, and patron-focus.  But I didn't have the knowledge to comment much on the actual movements and choreography.  Blogger RameshRam had helped me form a very general view of what made devadasi dance different from its reworked Bharathanatyam form—essentially a wider berth given to internalized skill/spontaneity/grace versus strict classicism/statuesqueness/set parameters.  But when I saw Vyjayanthimala's dance in Piya Milan, I knew that the subject was begging for further analysis and nuance.  None of the devadasi film dances I'd seen so far had charmed me in such an intense way! What was it that made two dance choreographies designed by the same talented nattuvanar feel so different?

In conversation with blogger RameshRam, I learned that he not only felt the same charm in viewing the dance but also articulated the differences instantly and provided a fascinating analysis.  Ramesh doesn't formally write much about dance, but he has a wealth of knowledge about Bharathanatyam and devadasi dance.  I invited Ramesh to share his views which I have edited slightly and provided screencaps for. Read on below to watch the two dances and read Ramesh's excellent piece and thought-provoking conclusion.

The "Devadasi" Dance in Piya Milan (1958)

The "Bharathanatyam" Dance in Chitoor Rani Padmini (1963)

Analysis written by RameshRam follows:

Disclaimer:  I would like to disclaim any impression you may get from reading my post that because I like to see the devadasi STYLE of dance, I am somehow craving for a return of the devadasi SYSTEM and its related patriarchal and flesh-trading trappings. I advise people to show a certain amount of academic detachment while reading my views on the subject.

The same dancer (Vyjayanthimala) and the same dance choreographer (Isai Velalar V.S. Muthuswami Pillai), but what a difference!  These two clips are from within five years of one another and can be considered definitive of the two styles of classical South Indian dance as practiced before and after the Rukmini Devi reformation of the 1930-40s (the Piya Milan dance is definitive of Sadir or the devadasi dance, and the Chitoor Rani Padmini dance is definitive of the style that emerged as Bharathanatyam as practiced by upper-caste and non-traditional practitioners). Apart from the essential difference between classical dance (which usually has a knowledgeable and demanding audience) that Bharathanatyam was designed to be and the populist, people-pleasing classical/popular art form that Sadir had evolved into, there are specific and very telling differences between these two videos which were both choreographed and performed twenty years after the historical events creating Bharathanatyam.  I will try to describe the essential differences designed into these dances as well as some peculiarities that are historical in nature.

The significance of Muthuswami Pillai's choreography, as well as Vyjayanthimala's dance, is that they both straddled a unique time period in the history of South Indian classical dance. Muthuswami Pillai came from Vaitheeswaran Koil and was part of the dance teacher community who between the 1930s and the 1970s created the modern-day Bharathanatyam from the more erotic Sadir (devadasi dance).  Vyjayanthimala was born in 1936, learned dance from traditional practitioners before the Bharathanatyam take-over and was dancing traditional dance in the Mysore court by the mid-1940s.  Both Muthuswami Pillai and Vyjayanthimala were among those who brought the art form fame and 'respectability' as class taboos were left behind (not without hard feelings on many fronts) as the art carried on into independent non-feudal India. I see these two clips as a defining authorial comment on the changes these key players brought to the culture of South Indian dance.

General observations:

You will notice between the earlier clip and the later that the dance is presented more formally and with less personal connection between the dancer and the audience. The earlier clip shows Vyjayanthimala trying to seduce the audience with her charm into a relationship with the dancer through dress, accessories, gesture, and eye contact.  In the later clip, she is dressed to impress and to be definitive of a culture of dancing womanhood, but in her minimalist virtuosity doesn't deign to expect a reaction from the audience even if the audience is God.

Specific observations on each video:

Piya Milan - (Devadasi style) - The first thing you notice is Vyjayanthimala attracting attention toward her through soft hand and foot gestures intended to show beauty.  When the camera pulls out, you can see that she is dressed like a Kathak dancer but completely in South Indian dance attire (the Bharathanatyam costumes were formalized and made to look more like South Indian statuary as will be evident in the Chitoor Rani Padmini piece).  These earlier costumes were standard fare for devadasis dancing in the Chinna Melam where audiences were limited in number and private. Vyjayanthimala's hand and feet gestures have both a beautiful formalism as well as a lazy charm that is from the Sadir dance of that period.  At no point does she give the impression that she is trying to teach people about her culture or dance but is instead trying to show them a happy, prosperous, and good time.

The setting she is dancing in is also interesting.  She is surrounded by patrons who watch her admiringly and she never forgets that she is dancing to communicate to them.  She takes the time to add grace to what are essentially pure dance gestures so that when someone who has no prior knowledge of Bharathanatyam watches the dance they can only see a well-stitched together set of gestures of a graceful dancer.  The grammar of the dance takes a back seat to the beauty that the dancer imbues into the dance.  Her pure dance interludes are filled with very well-executed formalism, but in the overall structure of the dance they come across as interludes between her natya (drama) essays.  People who lamented in that time period that Sadir had descended into a crass, near-prostitution, salon-dancing style were perhaps oblivious to the fact that great dance teachers and dancers could create the kind of magic you see in the Piya Milan dance which is classy and seductive.

The entire effort seems geared towards creating a magical effect of storytelling from the dancer to each audience member—one at a time.  The sense of magic is created because of the personal connection established by the dancer with the patron.  For the patron, the rest of the audience has ceased to exist by the time the dancer has woven her web.

Chittoor Rani Padmini - In this Bharathanatyam piece, also choreographed by Muthuswami Pillai, you see a very different Vyjayanthimala.  Here the dancer not only has the straight-backed elegance of a trained Bharathanatyam dancer, but she also has the introspective austerity of gesture that a dancer trying to project her art as a definitive symbol of her culture would practice.  There is equal weight given to pure dance (which is straight-backed and well-executed) and natya (drama) which serves here to describe the complex compositional structure of the dance (perhaps this reflects the changed priority where Bharathanatyam dancers were more preoccupied with projecting the greatness of the dance and devadasis were more with entertaining their audience).

Vyjayanthimala is dressed and has the comportment of a temple statue from the Gupta Period, thus recalling the ancient natya shashtra traditions of Bharata Muni of yore.  Her expressions while being very expressive of the lyrics of the dance do not allow the dancer any additional leeway in communicating with the unseeing audience (she dances to the stone idol in devotion).  This does not mean that the dance is not expressive—rather like classical ballet the expressiveness of the dance is brought out by the formalist tropes that Bharatanatyam has evolved into from the highly-personal practitioners dance that was Sadir.


So which dance was better?  The pre-evolution Sadir or the post-evolution Bharathanatyam? While it is understandable to ask a question like that, as someone watching YouTube clips 50 years after the fact, the answer is really meaningless.  I would like to see both kinds of dance practiced because they each have their personal voices imprinted deeply into what we can clearly see is a common tradition. However, we find that one of these traditions is lost, perhaps forever, because of the way classical and popular dance forms evolved between the 1930s and the 1970s.  Both Muthuswami Pillai, who passed away in 1992, and Vyjayanthimala Bali, who is still alive as of this writing and has up to recently practiced Bharathanatyam, have quite consciously shaped the history and the form of classical dance in South India to suit the changing social milieu.  Maybe there will be a conscious revival of devadasi-style classical South Indian dance with the postmodern maturity it takes to take and preserve all its component parts without needing to change it, censor it, or preserve it in academic formaldehyde.  A living, growing dialogue between devadasi dance and Bharathanatyam can only be of cultural benefit to everyone concerned.


  1. The dance number in Piya Milan is simply superb!

    Thank you for digging out and analysing this gem.

  2. Very nice, The following from the same period, not as nice as the first one but similar. I wonder whether sadir or kuchipudi influence,

  3. Gaddeswarup,

    (who has excellent taste and can find the right equivalents) that is the Javali form of andhra that got speeded up into the salon dance style as it became more populist. This form sort of got swallowed whole into film music and dance, as sadir /salon lost its "classical" credentials to Bharatanatyam, and suffered from a loss of identity.

    You will see the exact same thing resurface in the 80's in manju bhargavi's dance in shankarabharanam

  4. Rameshram,
    Thanks for the link but you are making me squirm. I am villager who somehow got interested in mathematics and spent most of life in mathematics and did not have much exposure to any thing else. Accidentally I came across Minai and Richard's blogs not too long ago and I am learning mostly through their blogs. Any thing else is just coincidence. But like in mathematics (where I chose my own topics and refused to be guided) I do not always agree with them.

  5. First of all I would like to thank you a lot for this blog of which I have been a regular reader. About this post there is one thing I noticed in the Piya Milan dance. I think the whole dance is not choreographed as Sadir. In fact there is a section from 3:10 which is very much Bharatanatyam But soon the music changes and what we see then is pure Sadir. As a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and a dance research scholar, this is my opinion. Whatever it may be, thank you Mr. Ramesh and Minai for this wonderful experience.

  6. Hi pritha,

    Thank you for your comment. I think one of the points in my commentary is that sadir and bharatanatyam are ESSENTIALLY THE SAME when it comes to pure dance (nritta)....specially considering that bharatanatyam is the offshoot of sadir.

    As regards the Piya milan dance, I would like to make two points. the hindi is dubbed over the tamil song. It sounds nothing like the tamil song. so maybe we shouldn't draw any conclusions from it. Second, I'm not sure we are entitled to say that"all the pure dance bits are bharatanatyam and all the other pieces are sadir" which is what I suspect you are doing by claiming for bharatanatyam the technical bits of the dance. Seventy years after the fact history probably looks very different to you , as a researcher and a bharatanatyam dancer than it did to VSMP and Vijayantimala when they composed and danced the dance, and having seen sadir performances (some of the film versions are also on this blog) I can say pretty certainly that almost ALL the piya milan dance is VERY MUCH a typical sadir performance.

    cheers. :)

    1. Dear Rameshwaram,

      I know this is a very late reply, but in the meanwhile I have been actively engaged in the research of film dances. I have been wrong in my understanding then, but have come a long way since. In fact, now I would say that the Piya Milan piece is hardly Sadir the way it was practiced; while borrowing some of the formal distinctions like loose limbs, the flowing body etc. But what is characteristically different is the invention of the body line in the reformist era dances and this choreography of VSMP does not escape that ideological bind. In fact I sincerely feel, the way Sadir was practiced popularly would be very different from this; it is not about the nritt or the abhinaya distinction, as I had wrongly mentioned earlier. It is the body line, the modern invention, which no matter how much we deny, is a gift from the West. Check this out, I think what I am trying to say will become clear. This is a dance from the 1942 Bhakta Prahlada: . Here you can see the classical dance idioms performed in a very different way. While it incorporates a lot of what we call adavus today, they looked different. And this is not because the dancer is bad. The documentaries on nautch girls as well as early film records a very different style of dance, which is distinguished from the reformist era and its successive dances by the basic difference of lines. Let me know your views. I would also request Minai to share her opinion on this. I believe what we see in the VSMP choreography above is not very different from the acts of say, Lachhu Maharaj. They were after all, a product of a time when reform was in the air and the only way they could negotiate with the rising threat of the non-hereditary performers from appropriating their art forms was to adapt with time.

  7. This post makes it looks like its a balanced viewpoint while on the sly accusing bharatanatyam to lack connection with audience, being more stylised and somehow less charming.

    First of all, the piya milan dance is not sadir. Vyjayanthimalas hands are still horizontal in natyarambham, her shoulders dont shrug, her adavus have definite placement of limbs unlike say some of kamala's early dance performances which is closer to the sloppiness or "informal" dancing we know was sadir in its recorded decadence. You are comparing a hindustani sounding classical film srigara padam about krishna to a definitely carnatic sounding veera krithi about goddess parvathi full of valour and vigour. Second of all, if having a hunchback like the women of yesteryears who did not have societal backing(pun intended) or bra support and lack of precision is indicative of "charm" of sadir then the straight backed male dancers who danced kuchipudi and odissi in olden days were probably not so "charming" and you are accusing them too. Also kuchipudi was not performed to a select-few patrons, it was performed to a mass audience with the intent of projecting the puranic culture adn stories of gods. But somehow Kuchipudi today has more sringara than present day bharatanatyam. So i am confused by this analysis as well.

    Third of all this post makes it sadir sound soo romantic. It might have been 1000 years ago (again, romantic speculation and no proof) but a documented recording of sadir being performed by actual devadasis in Baroda maharani's event makes it look NOTHING like the beauty vyjayanthimala brings in her north-indian appealing dance to a bhajan in the first video. And she wasnt trained in Sadir! I dont know where you got the information that "she was dancing traditional dance in the Mysore court by the mid-1940s" implying somehow the romantic notion that a sadir performer who danced in courts was turned into a stiff-backed bharatanatyam dancer. Please read her bio in wikipedia. She hails from a iyengar family and she had her arangetram and her film debut when she was 13.

  8. Hi Subhalakshmi,

    Thank you for your comment. There is no intention in the post I made to attack bharatanatyam as it is currently practiced so that I may find sadir wins a "competition. If at all I was romanticizing sadir, it is because history does look more romantic than today's drabness. That and the nature of the dance form IS sringara based. So your anger perhaps needs a little tempering.

    Your anger also needs tempering because of a couple of mistaken impressions you have while you vented about both the piya milan dance and about sadir. 1. the piya milan dance is a DUB of a tamil song (which has hitherto been unfindable from the film marma veeran, which DOES NOT SOUND HINDUSTANI. So this is not a padam composed to a hindustani song. 2. The devadasis dancing in the baroda clip ARE DANCING AN ALARIPU. now maybe there is a "sadir" style of alaripu, but I have never heard of it.So I'm not sure bringing it into the conversation, for comparison is relevent or useful.

    Third, you don't LIKE sadir or any association with sadir, do you? that seems obvious from how you almost WANT a sadir performance to be sloppy (as opposed to IMPRECISE) and decadant...I am not saying that there wasn't decadance in dances in the 30's 40's but I didn't know that it was a prerequisite of a sadir performance.

    Coming to the piya milan dance itself, (of course it is sadir, don't be silly!) the firsst line of the song immediately has all the markers of the style 00:38 shows vijayntimala in a charecteristic "hunchbacked" "imprecise " sadir pose. it takes on from there to be a fullfledged sadir performance, with pure dance interspersed . I can understand the need to delegitimize a style Bharatanatyam has appropriated from, specially because it is important to establish a "difference" but mmm sadir cannot be what you want it to be. it simply is what it is/was.

    I am not saying that people with a straight backed dancing style lack a charm (oddissi dances of the modern age are an example of how you can dance a very charming straight backed style) or that Bharatanatyam lacks charm, I am very much saying that bharatanatyam is not STRUCTRED to be charming...and sadir is AND AS A CONSEQUENCE sadir would come across as more charming to a lay audience (if danced correctly). Maybe you have something in the comment that this is a sringara padam. Sringara padams(mostly Kshetrayya and subramany aiyyer padams) were the staple in sadir performances of the day.

    Please show us a kamala dance you think might be sadir, because frankly, I am unable to , from your post above, make out precisely what you think sadir is except that you think it is sloppy hunchbacked and decadent.

    Finally on Vyjaintimala, My intention on a brief (or tongue in cheek) mention of her history may have been sly...or not (mostly not...I think, unless I was being sly in a harmless way, ) but suffice it to say that the comment was made to say vyj was AWARE of how sadir was danced, if not ACTALLY TRAINED IN IT, so there was no accident that they adopted and danced the style in the piya milan song.
    Also, some of us may know a little more (mostly harmless) history than we want to talk about



  9. another point I think I made , about vyjaintimala, It would be incorrect to say that she was trained in Bharatanatyam. it would be more historically accurate to say the form we call bharatanatyam today TOOK SHAPE around her as she danced classical south indian dance...

  10. Over the weekend , when I had the time I listened to the piya milan song again, because I wondered if I had a problem hearing or whether Ms Subhalakshmi was dreaming up some hindustani bhajan where there was none... this is what I hear

    A oldfashioned javali. Accompanied by..a mridangam , veena (not even a sitar) and a tabla. While a tabla is a "North indian (aka Hindustani) instrument, it was used widely in sadir performances (in many cases the tabla player STOOD and strapped on the tabla)

    So... no...the Javali is comparable to this contemporaneous piece by P susheela & PB Srinivas... Very much south indian classical, even if not Karnatic...

  11. I think the phrase "lazy charm" sums up why I prefer some of the older movies!

    This was an interesting post, I do note that dance posts always result in conflicting opinions:) As a lay person I kind of liked the "sadir" piece, it does have an easy, seductive charm.

    The brief glimpse of the king in the first video - the actor played Meera's husband in the MS movie? And the song, it reminded me of Radha Sametha Krishna, though this may purely be because idk I heard it about 1000 times as a child:) Anu

    1. Hello Anu, Nice to see you around these parts! :) The Piya Milan dance is just magical to me. I like the phrase "lazy charm," though in my opinion it's a very skilled and purposeful "relaxedness" as opposed the true laziness in the negative connotative sense. Interesting catch about the king--you may be right. Hope to see ya 'round again!

    2. That's true, its a though out relaxed feel.

      Long time lurker here but I will try and comment more often! Anu

  12. Hi! I like your blog! And every dance has evolved from some earlier version of dance. So I don't think there should be any animosity towards any form. Also in Natyashastra, there are descriptions of precise hand and feet movements, including how far the feet should be for each cari, mandala and sthanaka. So maybe there was a more disciplined and sharper version of dance before Sadir and Sadir was developed as more of a casual dance form to suit the audience who probably wanted something easier to understand (We can all agree that not everyone can understand the mudras, no offence meant as I too am a student of Bharatanatyam). Hence, as I said before, Indian classical dance has evolved over the years, so there should be no reason for anyone to feel bad if Bharatanatyam is compared to Sadir. Both of them are part of the same great tradition.


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