Film Classical Dances of Shobana

Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Shobana, the well-known Bharatanatyam dancer and film actress/dancer, was my first film dance love alongside the equally luminous Bhanupriya. Until now I have posted very little about her, the subject of my blog avatar image, because other than her excellent dances in Manichitrathazhu and Dance Like a Man I had not been able to find any other proper film classical dances in her filmography. There were lots of pseudo-classical dances and numbers that tried to evoke classical imagery like those in Rudraveena, Dhwani, and April 18. It seemed hard to believe given how talented of a dancer she was, and I knew there had to be some hardcore practice and stage numbers hiding out there somewhere.

I was so excited when Richard at his Dances on the Footpath blog found Shobana's Bharatanatyam numbers in Mahamayee, and thanks to the huge uptick recently in the number of Malayalam films and songs posted online I was able to find this week two Malayalam films with classical dances by Shobana that I have never seen before (and I venture to guess neither have most of my readers!). Huge thanks are due to Youtuber Iqnatusm who has uploaded a lot of rare dances from Malayalam cinema [Update: Channel no longer available].

SHO-bana (not "Sho-BANa" as my Malayalee friend corrects me with exasperation) Chandrakumar was born in 1970 (not 1966 as some articles mistakenly claim) in Kerala to the brother of the famous "Travancore Sisters" Lalitha, Padmini, and Ragini. Her first film appearance was at age 9 in Mangalanayiki (Tamil, 1980) but she describes in an interview [no longer available at ibnlive] her true debut film as a lead as April 18 (Malayalam, 1984). But Bhakta Dhruva Markandeya (Telugu, 1982), a children's mythological film starring an all child/teen cast, could be considered her first major role. I was delighted to find the film available on YouTube with English subtitles. Here is a 12-year-old Shobana as Queen Suneethi dancing a bit in a song with just-christened second wife Suruchi (at 13:48 is a brief Bharatanatyam-inspired move). The whole children/young teens acting such mature roles thing is a bit...creepy!

Starts 12:14

Shobana learnt Bharatanatyam first from K.J. Sarasa and then extensively under Chitra Visweswaran before performing her debut arangetram in Chennai in 1984 (Sruti). She later learned a bit of the Bharata Nrityam style under Padma Subrahmanyam, and in recent years she has presented creative and imaginative choreographies based in classical idioms such as her production Maya Ravana (which you can watch in full here at Shemaroo's channel).

I find the film dance finds of Shobana below exciting because even though they all ultimately have a bit of filmy-gloss to them, the early dances serve as a visual archive of Shobana's abilities in the years of and immediately following her arangetram and before she was later recorded in the 1990s. The results are mixed ranging from barely mediocre to spectacular. I've read varying opinions about Shobana's real-life Bharatanatyam dance style. Her detractors criticize her lack of the deep half-seated araimandi position and other points of form and find a lack of completion in her movements. In films she often is dancing at such a fast pace that her form/completion is sometimes sacrificed. But her beauty and most of all her clearly evident joy in dancing makes her dances a fulfilling watch.

Enakkul Oruvan (1984, Tamil) - These are probably Shobana's earliest, proper Bharatanatyam-based film dances! I had no idea she danced in this film until recently when the whole film became available online. In the comedy scene below, she is practicing Bharatanatyam with her guru played by an actor who has no idea how to play the beats on the tattukazhi. Later on at 31:48, Shobana reappears in full dance costume in a similar comedy sequence where she poses for photographs with a disguised Kamal Hassan.

Starts 15:11

Here Shobana gives a Bharatanatyam performance on stage with an admiring but soon-hallucinating Kamal Hassan looking on from the audience. I love the lines she makes with her long arms, but the number is overall uninspiring. In an interview, Shobana has said that she only 14 when she acted in this film (though she looks much older given her 5'8 height) and was understandably nervous around superstar Hassan. Actress/dancer Sripriya also performs a Bharatanatyam number in the film, but she is no Shobana! Unfortunately, the film was a dud and led Shobana to return to Malayalam cinema where she gained fame and acclaim.

Starts 52:18

Ee Thanalil Ithiri Neram (1985, Malayalam) - Another stage Bharatanatyam performance, but this time her form is quite awkward at times and she doesn't complete a lot of her movements which seem rushed. Parts of the dance are a mess! As I was taking screencaps the awkwardness became really evident—here's a few that catch even the untrained eye as looking ungainly, and then watch the dance below:

Starts 21:58

Udayam Padinjaaru (1986, Malayalam)
- A graceful Mohiniattam-inspired temple dance by Shobana! While Shobana's mainstay has always been Bharatanatyam, she also learned Mohiniattam and Odissi. I'm surprised there are not more Mohiniattam numbers in her films given how prolific she was in Malayalam cinema. The way the fan is draped to the side on her hip is an interesting choice, and the music has a languid Kerala flavor. Such a beautiful dance! So happy to have found this rare gem.

Mahamayee (1991, Tamil)
- This is one of those films that never shows up in Shobana's filmographies online and makes me wonder what other film dances of hers are out there undiscovered. Had the uploaders not attached Shobana's name to it I doubt it would have been found! Shobana and Sridhar play the leads two years before they danced together in Manichitrathazhu. Shobana plays an orphan who is cared for by Somayajulu (who has played similar roles in many films, perhaps most famously in Sankarabharanam) and protected by the temple cobra who doesn't like her pending marriage to Sridhar's character.

Here is Shobana's Bharatanatyam practice scene (she appears at :14) with her nattuvanar. It's a "filmy" practice scene that presents lots of easily-digestible, brief snippets of "classicalisms" for the audience, but luckily for us there are enough extended adavus to make for an interesting and colorful watch. Once again the playing of the wooden tattu kazhi doesn't match the striking sounds at all! This is almost as bad as the abundant faux-veena playing in South Indian cinema. :)

Shobana's dance on the temple premises is all sharp geometry, speed, and form and is my favorite film dance of hers. The choreography is filled with markers of Kuchipudi dance and was composed, according to the credits, by P.V. Seshu (thanks Ragothaman for the translation!). Seshu, also credited elsewhere as V. Seshu Parupalli, choreographed some of the most beloved Kuchipudi in Telugu films like that in Sankarabharanam, Saptapadi, Ananda Bhairavi, and partly for Sagara Sangamam. At 3:21 the snake appears (it has a name—Nageswari—according to the credits!) and Shobana's movements get more fiercely cobra-like. I see so much of Padmini in Shobana's abhinaya and snake dance portions. Shobana also has a tandava dance in this song.

Start 42:10

Manichitrathazhu (1993, Malayalam) - Without a doubt Shobana's most well-known classical dance in films, this number was danced and choreographed by Shobana and male dancer Sridhar themselves. Sridhar was a talented dancer who performed a number of rare male classical dances in cinema. The editing makes the reality/dream segments flow effortlessly, and Shobana/Sridhar's lightfooted, effortless choreography is creatively extracted from Bharatanataym and matches perfectly with the music. A timeless number that can never be matched.

Starts 2:18:07

Dance Like a Man (2003/4, English) - I just discovered this movie can be viewed in full online for free a price at the NFDC's "Cinemas of India" webpage here! Finally! While Rama Vaidyanathan trained and choreographed Anoushka Shankar in the film, Shobana choreographed her own dance numbers. The music of Ganesh-Kumaresh finds a perfect echo in her practice dance on the veranda which has that raw sense of abandon that makes practice dances my favorite. Fun tip: the male nattuvanar seen at 2:24 is the late U.S. Krishna Rao!

I am still in awe of Shobana's choreography here as she frolics through aesthetically-pleasing extensions and sharp pauses. Given Arif Zakaria's terrible dance skills in the video above, it's probably a blessing that he only had to stand completely still as a meditating sage in this dance!

Last, here is a fairly recent commercial (for paint!) starring Shobana as a classical dance teacher.

To close, here are some lovely screencaps from Shobana's classical film dances:


  1. I had a hunch for some time that it was Shri. US Krishna Rao :)
    Another fun tip: The lady at 3:03 in is Smt. Indira Rajan, who hails from a traditional family of dancers and dance gurus. She is also seen at 1:17 in this video:

    1. Oh she is that Indira Rajan! I never made that connection, thank you for pointing that out. What nice casting of someone in a role that has the same real-life background as their film character. Looks like she was the niece of KN Dandayudhapani Pillai! I wish Dance Like a Man would have filmed her in the role in US Krishna Rao and featured her nattuvangam skills!

  2. I can only say that it is a very good post with a good analysis. I enjoyed the post very much.

  3. Thanks for the mention again, Minai. I am glad that you are here to keep your eyes focused on dances in South Indian films. I've recently wandered away from them in my blog as I've obsessed over films and singers (and sometimes dancers) in Hindi films from the 1940s. But I do watch bharatanatyam clips separately from films, and the Shobana stage or TV clips are abundant on YouTube. (And her name gets announced often in the TV clips - that is how I discovered the right way to pronounce it. :) )

    I agree that it is odd that she's done so few classical dances in films, relatively speaking. And it is good that you are so confident in distinguishing real classic dance from classical imagery. (Maybe it's not always so clear to me.) To the list of good Shobana classical imagery, we should add her part in "Rakkamma Kaiya" from Thalapathi. There might even be a snippet of real bharatanatyam there, but it's dropped into the middle of a long dance (by others) that is like a cross between a Michael Jackson video and a song from West Side Story. (But it is a great sequence, with fantastic music.)

    I think I have seen most, if not all, of the film scenes you've shown above. (The only ones I'm not entirely sure of are the first couple. But probably, some time ago. And yes, I had seen the paint commercial!)

    By the way, it is interesting that Shobana was your first South Indian dance love (the other being Bhanupriya). Shobana might have first South Indian dance love among those who had attained some success in the 1990s. My first South Indian dance love, of course, was Padmini. It is hard for me to imagine discovering Shobana without first knowing about her aunts. And good as she might be, I doubt she would have achieved so much were it not for the Travancore Sisters and their legacy.

  4. Hi Richard! Ah yes, that ending piece of Rakkamma Kaiya where Shobana dances in the group around the fire. LOL about the Michael Jackson/West Side Story comparison! Yes, I have noticed your migration away from dancing to singing/films, but that is good for me at least because as you probably have noticed I don't pay much attention to music though I am certainly able to appreciate it when it grabs me. So I enjoy learning about old Hindi film music and actresses through your recent work. Shobana and Bhanupriya were in the very first film classical dances that I found back in, what, 2005/6, so they were my "gateway drug" I suppose you could say to this beautiful world of cinema dance. :) I'm pretty sure I learned about the Travancore Sisters and their connection to Shobana through your blog, and Kamala as well for that matter! How the years fly by... :D

  5. What ever it is, Shobhana has style and above all grace , which even Padmini lacked. Padmini had a sort of masculinity in her movements, but this girl is fantastic, with required amount of 'Nalinam' ,grace, suvave, and what not in her movements.She must have trained hard and got the results. To me, she is the best.

    1. Hello M Ramchandran - That's interesting that you saw some masculinity in Padmini's dance movements. I think her film dances that fit that description best were those in her later years where she gained some weight and had a more "stocky" appearance coupled with some rather athletic faux-classical choreography. Shobana does indeed have grace in all aspects of her dance which leads to a delightful experience for us viewers. :)

    2. No doubt she is an excellent dancer with 100 percent feminine features.I am an ardent fan of her for her excellent dances. She has very beautiful body structure and also sufficiently tall, and she is also beautiful. These are all added and natural gifts for her than other dancers.But nowadays, in her dances we find lot of "athisayam" proudness.No doubt she is a great dancer. I have recently seen the dances of Bhamidipati Sabitha in the movie Sapthapathi, where in she is so smooth and her face is very humble and innocent,but danced perfectly . May be it is is first ever film for her .

  6. In the malayalam movie Dhwani,vicharana,Mayamayooram,mazhayethum munpe,Superman..we can see shobhana's classical dance

  7. Thanks Siva, I didn't know she danced in three of the films you mentioned. I will try to locate the dances--thank you for the tips!

  8. you missed song oru poo viriyunna sukhamarinju from film vicharana----



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