Mystery Indian Dancers in Seven Wonders of the World (1956, US)

Saturday, February 21, 2015
When fellow Indian dance sleuth Ragothaman translated sections of Shankar Venkatraman's Tamil book Thiraiulagil Isai Kalaignargal (Musicians in Cinema), I was surprised to read a number of little-known references to film and film dance appearances of Indian dancers and musicians. I previously blogged about one—Kuchipudi dancer Sobha Naidu dancing in Abhimanavanthulu (1973, Telugu)—but the few others mentions seemed to have no available footage today, like Bangalore Nagarathnammal acting in Krishna Leela (1947, Kannada) and K. Bhanumathi acting (and possibly more?) in Jalaja/Natya Magimai (1938, Tamil).

Venkatraman's book also described multiple films that the now-veteran dancer Padma Subrahmanyam had danced in: the Kannada movie Sri Rathna (likely the 1955 Kannada/Tamil film), the Tamil Nadu documentary Alaiyangalum Thiruvizhakkalum (Temples and their Festivals) in which "she danced for the song 'Kalaiyadha Kalai Engal Kalaiye' in front of the temple deities," and the American movie Seven Wonders of the World in which she "danced a 'snake dance'."

I felt excited by the last discovery! Surely Seven Wonders of the World, a 1956 American film, would be relatively easy to find, and it sounded like Padma might have done a solo dance! But a bit of research led to the discovery that the film was made using Cinerama technology, a widescreen format somewhat like today's IMAX that died out in the 1970s. Cinerama films were "impossible to see at all, in any form, for nearly half a century" because they were never broadcast on TV or released for home viewing (DVDTalk).

As luck would have it, many Cinerama features have been painstakingly restored and digitized in the past few years including Seven Wonders of the World that released on Blu-ray/DVD last year. When I first learned that the digitization company Flicker Alley was taking pre-orders for the disc set, I found an "abandoned" trailer they posted of the film on YouTube and became giddy when I saw two young Indian dancers performing on temple grounds at 2:04. I of course dropped everything and placed an order! Who knew what wonders would be on screen and what other shots would be included. I envisioned close-ups on the dancers faces and additional footage and settings.

When the discs came in the mail I watched them with bated breath. The DVD transfer was a bit fuzzy so I watched the Blu-ray version which was significantly crisper. I stared at the two main dancer's faces and couldn't recognize them. The one on the right looked plausibly like a young Padma, but it was too hard to tell. At first glance, the dancer on the left a looked a lot like MK Saroja, but closer inspection of various face angles cast doubt on that theory. The scene focused far too much time on the cute little dancing girl and her family and much to my disappointment didn't show anything new in the dance segment that wasn't already visible in the trailer. A number of other dancers can be seen on right-hand side of the frame, but the camera never gets closer to them. I realized that the Thiraiulagil Isai Kalaignargal reference to Padma dancing in the film could mean she was simply among the backup dancers and not featured in the lead as was implied. If only the camera had focused closer on the background dancers!

While the scene was a disappointment based on my high expectations, I still am fascinated by who the dancers could be. Below is footage of the Blu-ray I captured with my smartphone (it looks oodles better than any capture I made of the DVD) that I'm posting for the purpose of analysis. How amazing that we can see this footage so clearly today!

Since the voiceover audio is very quiet, here is the text of the narration: "[Opening scene on Ganges] Benaras, religious wonder-city of India. On the Ganges, the sacred river. A pilgrimage city from time immemorial, with its famous ghats, the landing places along the river. For centuries, the great and the rich, maharaja and merchant, have built shrines and palaces here along the Ganges. Of temples alone Benaras has 1,500. A wonder-city of strange religion. [Dance scene] A temple dance, a cobra dance. The deadly-hooded serpent has a weird significance. Strange mysticism in this performance of the temple dancers and the cobra." 

Here is left half of the widescreen frame that focuses on the dancer that looks at first glance like MK Saroja but soon seems to be someone else:




Here is the right half of the widescreen frame that focuses on the dancer that is conceivably Padma Subrahmanyam:


http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-muX19YPs2TI/VOQH86daWHI/AAAAAAAAJJI/kBhRLTqljlk/s1600/RightDancer.jpg

Following this dance segment, there is another short dance scene featuring two children performing what looks like Kathak or North Indian folk dance, screencapped below. Right before the children appear, the narrator proclaims, "nearly all temples in India have their dancing girls trained in childhood, even here at the monkey temple."


A travel log and a supplement from the making of Seven Wonders of the World are posted at the in70mm.com website. Written by sound engineer Richard Pietschmann, the logs reveal that the India scenes were shot starting in January 1955 in New Delhi (presumably the Taj Mahal footage) and later in February in Benaras (presumably both of the dance scenes). No mention is made of the filming of the dance segment and the focus is more on tales of strange lands filled with poverty and distasteful practices that Pietschmann described to send to his family back home in letters.

Regarding the production in Benaras, Pietschmann wrote that it was difficult "because of the extreme caution and finesse that the people of Benaras have to be dealt with. These people are very conscious of their shortcomings and do not want to be photographed under such conditions. They only want the outside world to see their progression since India has become a republic, which has been for about seven years now." Reading that, I wonder how exactly the staging and depiction of the "cobra dance" scene, with its "mystical" temple setting and stereotyped snake charmers, came about and who was responsible for it. Why are the dancers dressed in a South Indian style and performing Natanam Adinar, a popular keertanam in Bharatanatyam (thanks Ragothaman for the ID!)? If the filmmakers ceded the creation of the dance scenes to local Indian contacts and crew, what was their goal and what were the scenes meant to evoke for the foreign viewer?

Perhaps someone among my readers will recognize the dancers, remember seeing this film, or recall something about its filming. Until then, the dancer identities will remain a mystery!

Links to buy the film: Flicker Alley, Amazon

5 comments:

  1. Wonderful post! The videos are a good treat for the eyes and the mind.

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  2. Raghu the Boss. And should I say Raghu and Minai 4ever!

    Wow that is some find. My knowledge of dance is pretty basic so can't recognize the dancers. Though when I see the photodivision pics I often wonder if it is a wives and daughters of bureaucrats thing:)

    I will be linking to your Manipuri post next week which was as always detailed and excellent. And I had been to Assam and met Mallika Kandali - first bonafide dancer that I have met - let me check with her on dances in Assamese films! Anu

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    1. Hi Anu! Sorry I missed publishing your comment til now. Good to see you around! I always have to mention to you how much I admire your frequent and consistently-quality posts. Don't know how you do it! :) Glad you liked my Manipuri post and I am looking forward to your post. Ooooh, do let me know if you hear back on dance in Assamese films! The hard part though is finding clips online...as always!

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  3. How exciting to see excerpts on Seven wonders and see how one visitor in the 50s was restaging India for other visitors... It is amazing how much information is contained here, and so lightly!

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    1. "Restaging India for other visitors" --exactly! I wish I could find more information behind the scene and why it was filmed like it was and where the dancers originated/who was the connection. Films like these were obviously highly influential in the popular perception of India that formed in western countries where they were screened. Such an important piece of the historical puzzle...

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