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'."
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:
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."
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