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 "Bharathanatyam" Dance in Chitoor Rani Padmini (1963)
Analysis by RameshRam:
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.
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:
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.
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.