Film Dances of Gopi Krishna - Including Three Little-Known Videos

Sunday, January 5, 2014
The late Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna (≈1933-38 to 1994) is perhaps best remembered for his dances in the 1955 Hindi film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. His dances in that film exemplified his trademark—his lightning-fast, signature version of kathak chakkar pirouettes! His film dances were much more acrobatic freeform furor than classical Kathak but nevertheless electrifying with the unbridled energy that coursed through a flurry of rotations, backbends and whiplash-fast movements. Gopi Krishna’s style of wild, joyous abandon is unlike anything I've seen and there has never been a male dancer in Indian films that has come close to matching it. In this post, I want to focus on his film dances, including three relatively rare songs that don't seem to be widely known, and also give some background information on his style, life, and legacy.

While Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is filled with Gopi's dances such as his infamous introductory pirouette-pillar dance and his energetic tandava with Sandhya, highlighted here is the "Kathak" dance competition in the film:

Chaube Maharaj5
It is well known that Gopi Krishna is the nephew of famous Kathak and film dancer Sitara Devi. But I was surprised to learn in Sunil Kothari's book on Kathak5 that the dancer Gopi competes against in the video above is Chaube Maharaj—Sitara's brother and therefore Gopi's uncle! Kothari notes that Sukhdev Maharaj, a "court musician in Nepal [...] took a bold step in training his two daughters Alaknanda and Sitara, two sons Chaube and Pande as dancers and another daughter Tara as a musician." Tara Devi was Gopi Krishna's mother and also a famous thumri singer10. Chaube Maharaj can also be seen playing some fierce tabla in Gopi's introductory pillar dance, and he seems to have stayed active in Kathak dance and music through his life. Sitara Devi adopted Chaube's daughters Jayantimala and Priyamala and trained them in her "fiery and energetic" style of Kathak5.

Gopi's Little-Known Film Dances

Aandhiyan (1952, Hindi) - Available writings and biographical entries about Gopi Krishna say his first association with cinema was choreographing for Madhubala in Saqi (1952), and they imply that he debuted on camera with his dancer-actor role in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955). While most of us Gopi Krishna fans know that he danced with Roshan Kumari before that in 1953's Parineeta, I was surprised to find the dance below from Aandhiyan completely by accident. It's very possible that this was his first film dance or at least the earliest surviving one. As you can see from the screencap to the left, he directed his dance himself, and in the scene prior to the dance you can hear the announcer say his real name, "Gopi"! Gopi's signature spins and back-leans are showcased in the clip which is much too short and appears to be from a damaged or hastily edited print. There is another even shorter glimpse of what appears to be the same dance scene here [video no longer available]. Shame that we are unable to see the full number as it was likely originally filmed!

Starts 9:33

Unknown Film and Song Mane Thumbida Hennu (1958, Kannada) - I found this one by randomly searching YouTube for DancingIndia ripoff clips (which I scathingly humored in this post) and was stunned to see Gopi Krishna perform his best Bharatanatyam/Kuchipudi-inspired dance on film with E.V. Saroja. It is so surprising to see him dance like this! Gopi is said to have trained in Bharatanatyam from Mahalingam Pillai and Govind Raj Pillai, but I figured it was just cursory given the filmy nature of his other "Bharatanatyam"-based film dances. The dances below are a fascinating glimpse of his Bharatanatyam style which is infused with his effortless energy. It's my favorite film dance of his! I would love to see him in a proper full-length stage Bharatanatyam piece and wish there was footage available! Edit: Thanks to Ragothaman and Gaddeswarup for translating the Kannada text.

Here he is in the first half of the song, first from :07-:29 and then from 2:15 to the end.

And in the second half of the song, he enters at 1:01, and then at 1:52 he transitions to the Kathak-inspired style that he is most comfortable with. He has such force and presence in his movements!

Start 1:01

The Perfect Murder (1988, English) - When I learned that Gopi was credited as a “dance instructor” in this Merchant Ivory film, I had to check it out. Turns out he gets substantial coverage in a film-heroine dance teaching scene (he appears briefly at :19 and then extended at 2:03 with a closeup at 2:48). His love for dance still shows through all those years later despite his weight gain and apparent poor health. Sadly, he died 6 years later in 1994 of a heart attack10.

Gopi Krishna's Other Film Dances

Naach Ghar (Osianama)
Instead of embedding a ton of videos, I've placed every other known (to me) film dance of Gopi Krishna's into the playlist below ordered with my favorites up first. You'll notice in Gopi's dance duets that he is usually paired with a female dancer who can keep up with him and possesses a similar in-born joy to her dance—Helen lookalike Madhumati, Vyjayanthimala, Kamala, Priyadarshini, Helen herself, and Roshan Kumari. Only one dance of his exists with Kamala, but I found the poster from 1959's Naach Ghar (left) at the Osianama archive which shows that he danced with Kamala in the film. Unfortunately no videos or prints seem to be commercially available. There are a couple dances not on YouTube that are not in the playlist: the Kathak training scene in JJPB and his dance with E.V. Saroja in Bhakta Jaya Deva. And the three dances from above in this post are also included in the playlist for those who access it directly from YouTube.

More About Gopi Krishna

Gopi Krishna was a prolific choreographer in Indian cinema—one article claimed the number of films surpassed 8004!. His compositions featured ecstatic movements, sharp transitions, ample spins, and an almost super-human pace with movements inspired by classical dances particularly Kathak. Vyjayanthimala's popular but not-very-authentic Bharatanatyam dances in Hindi films, such as Amrapali, Prince, Suraj, and Chhoti Si Mulaqat, were all his creations as were Sayee-Subbulakshmi's Kathak in Bharosa (1963), Sudha Chandran's dances in Nache Mayuri (1986), and Kamala's dances in Jwala (1971). IMDB has a list, but I only trust verifications through film credits.

While Gopi was often behind the camera, he danced in quite a few films and his style certainly had detractors in his day most vociferously for Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (JJPB). Fellow choreographer Vinod Chopra wrote in 19583 that the film"insulted a particular North Indian Classical Dance style—the Kathak, by presenting a distorted and plagiarized version of it." In 1983 Projesh Banerji1 criticized Gopi's style citing a particular movement seen in JJPB: “The Kathak exponents of today, in order to get cheap applause from the spectators, very often indulge in practicing stunts and flashy climaxes on the sum. Gopi Krishna followed by his disciples, like Habiba Rahman, who has recently joined the film-world, and others are warmly clapped when they glide and slip on the floor dragging the body to a great distance on the stage, with their clap-trap tactics, to the detriment of the traditional rudiments of the classicality of Kathak.” Reviews of JJPB from recent years have been more gentle and even praiseworthy. A review at The Hinducalled the dances in the film "blended Kathak" that merit " the epithet filmi," while Upperstall rosily recalls the film as "a series of sparkling vignettes and gorgeous ensembles of Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Manipuri..." (Bharatanatyam? Ha!)

Not all of the film producers were happy with his particular style. While Gopi is listed as one of the choreographers for Umrao Jaan (1981), he only composed for one dance because the producers "were dissatisfied with [Gopi's] work after he composed the first number and wanted something more authentic" and soon hired the talented Kathak dancer Kumudini Lakhia8.

Gopi Krishna1
I have long wondered what Gopi Krishna danced like on the stage outside of films and if he was considered a good Kathak dancer. In books written about Indian dance during his lifetime, he is often mentioned but the focus is usually brief with an emphasis on his work in films and the flashy and energetic aspects of his style. But it's hard to find any details about his style in classical Kathak, and I have found that most published writings about Gopi (which frequently misspell his name as Krishan or Kishan) tend to copy information from each other leaving the original source unclear. Projesh Banerji claimed Gopi was "the first to divide the continuous Kathak style repertoire into distinctive items, which practice is now followed by other exponents of Kathak" 2. Sunil Kothari's book on Kathak does dedicate a page to Gopi along with many other exponents, but the description on Gopi's page is brief and focuses on his past film choreography, stamina, energy, and "virile and vigorous" movements with "a lot of bravado, bravura and showmanship." A tribute article written about Gopi in 1994 noted that "he established himself in the Banaras gharana of Kathak dance" but gave no other details other than noting that Gopi performed around the world. Gopi received honorary titles and apparently was awarded a Padma Shri award in 1975, but I've not been able to find information on the details and rationale.

Gopi Krishna and Sukhdev
Maharaj, 1950 (Source)
Gopi Krishna's family lineage in the lesser-appreciated Banaras Gharana of Kathak is usually mentioned in writings about him, but I have had the hardest time understanding what "Banaras Gharana" is being referred to. Sitara Devi claims the Baranas Gharana was began by her father7, Sukhdev Maharaj, whom other sources describe as being "determined to carry forward his family's 400-year-old legacy of Kathak"9 and moving to Benaras where he created new innovations. But most other writings about Kathak history say that the Banaras Gharana originated from Janaki Prasad and eventually shifted to Lahore after partition with its most significant exponents being Pandit Gopal/Gopal Das, Ashiq Hussain (also a film star), Hazari Lal, Gopal’s son Krishna Kumar, and Sunayana Hazarilal. The question remains: is the Banaras Gharana of Gopi Krishna and Sitara Devi's family the same as the Janaki Prasad Gharana, but the two branches split based on location, Banaras vs. Lahore?

Regarding video footage of Gopi Krishna dancing outside of films, I've only found two examples. One is of him performing footwork, and the other, embedded below, is a clip from the Doordarshan VCD Kathak showing Gopi perform Kathak accompanied by Birju Maharaj on the tabla. Where is Gopi’s rubber spine and joyous energy? He looks tired, ragged, and stiff. Why did the Doordarshan folks include the clip in their compilation! Was he having a bad day when it was recorded? I would have assumed he had health problems but as shown in the playlist above he was dancing energetically in 1985's Zamana.

Gopi enters at :59

There is a Hindi documentary on YouTube about Gopi Krishna's life called "Gopi Krishna Living Legend" (Part 1, Part 2) from the Anmol Ratan (Priceless Gem) TV series. After having a friend translate the Hindi for me, I learned that when V. Shantaram was looking for a hero for his next film, it was Kathak dancer Roshan Kumari's father who recommended Gopi's name to Shantaram. Gopi's life was difficult and full of struggle—he lived on the Bombay streets while eking out a living for quite some time when his aunt threw him out of the house after JJPB was released. Near the end of the documentary, Gopi comments with disbelief that a "street dancer from Calcutta has reached such a high state."

The dance school that Gopi established in the 70s, the Nateshwar Nritya Kala Mandir, is now headed by Rajendra Chaturvedi [website no longer available] who organizes various annual dance shows in memory of Gopi whom he describes as having a "unique style."  In a fitting legacy to Gopi's prolific work in popular cinema, Chaturvedi calls himself an "authorized Bollywood choreographer as well as an authentic teacher of Kathak in the pure classical style of the Banaras Gharana (Gopi Krishna and Sitara Devi style)." The disciples Chaturvedi chose to proudly mention include "well known personalities" like Kangana Ranaut and Jiah Khan, of all people! Another student of Gopi's is Vaibhav Joshi who says he studied Kathak from Gopi in a traditional guru-shishya parampara relationship.

It seems that Gopi married a Kathak dancer named Savitri at age 194 and in the 1980s had a daughter, Shampa Gopi Krishna (Sonthalia), who is currently following in her father's footsteps with film choreography in dance reality shows and films.

In the end, while I'm still unclear what Gopi's Kathak skills were really like, he certainly popularized "classical dance" through his work in films where he seemed most comfortable and perhaps best able to express his creativity and boundless energy. And luckily for us, the film medium preserved his joyous work for us to enjoy all these many years later.

1. Banerji, Projesh. Kathak Dance Through Ages. 1983.
2. Banerji, Projesh. Dance in Thumri. 1986.
3. Chopra, Vinod. "Dance in Films." Sangeet Natak Akadami Dance Seminar 1958.
4. "Film Industry has lost its Kohinoor." Times of India. 1994.
5. Kothari, Sunil. Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art. 1989.
6. Rajan, Anjana. "Blast from the Past: Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje." The Hindu. 2010.
7. Rajan, Anjana. "State of the Art." The Hindu. 2009.
8. Shah, Reena. Movement in Stills: The Dance and Life of Kumudini Lakhia. 2006.
9. Sharma, Purnima. "Still Dancing with Her Eyes." The Times of India, The Crest Edition. 2011.
10. Sruti. Issue 115 Page 51. 1994.

Related Posts:
Gopi Krishna's Tandav Dance: Bhookailas vs. Bhookailasa


  1. Thanks for another excellent post. I am not very conversant with classical dances. He seems to be a fantastic dancer but it seems to me that his arm movements are not fluid. It may be characteristic of Kathak but I checked Monisa Nayak dances and her arm movements seemed more graceful.

  2. Your post contains very valuable information about Gopi Krishna. I did not know that he is related to Sitara Devi.

    Enjoyed the video clips.

    A very good post.

  3. Gaddeswarup - What I noticed about his arms is that he often doesn't complete their movements fully because he's trying to dance so quickly. Thanks for the mention of Monisa Nayak--I've not heard of her before, and her dances are lovely!

    The Gardener - Thank you, glad you enjoyed. :)


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