Muthukumara Pillai On Screen in Kannika (1947), and Other Nattuvanars in Indian Cinema

Saturday, November 28, 2015
Thanks to two YouTubers who have uploaded songs from the 1947 Tamil film Kannika in the past few months, Bharatanatyam dance history aficionados can now witness on screen the nattuvanar Kattumannar Koil Muthukumara Pillai (1874-1960, also known as Muthukumaran or Muthukumarappa, of the village Kattumannarkoil aka Mannargudi or Kattumannargudi) at the age of 73 playing the role of a nattuvanar in the song "Natanam Adinar":

Muthukumara Pillai can be seen at 1:14, 1:58, closeup at 2:55, and 3:51 onward
(the lower quality version includes 2 more seconds where he begins to speak, but it's cut off!!)


How do I know it's him? I had read a while back in the September 1993 Sruti magazine feature on Muthukumara Pillai (for brevity, MKP) that when he was in Coimbatore from 1944-1947 teaching exercises and dances to young boys at a drama company, he "came in contact with Pakshiraja Studios and trained the proprietor Sriramulu Naidu's wife Saroja for her lead role in the film 'Kannika' [and] Muthukumara Pillai himself too made a brief appearance in the film." When I watched the recently-uploaded songs and compared the nattuvanar's appearance with known photos of Muthukumara Pillai, it was clearly him! Compare these stills from Kannika with a photo of MKP that I featured in my post on Muthuswami Pillai and that must have been taken in the late 1930s which were the years the young man on the right, Muthuswami Pillai, trained with MKP.

Left: Kannika  Right: Muthukumara Pillai [credit: Mohan Khokar]
This Kannika footage is incredible because Muthukumara Pillai belonged to the oldest generation of nattuvanars whose hereditary artistic practice was discovered in the twentieth century transformation of what we today call Bharatanatyam. What's more, he along with his contemporary Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai (also known as Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, from Pandanallur village, for brevity MSP) are often remembered today as the two top-ranking gurus and nattuvanars of their generation who trained most of the first non-hereditary Bharatanatyam dancers who spread and popularized the art form far and wide. The two of them each trained such legends as Ram Gopal, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mrinalini Sarabhai, and Kamala Lakshman.

Left to Right: MKP, MSP [Mohan Khokar]
Because the first generation nattuvanars (first meaning in terms of modern Bharatanatyam) born in the 1860s-70s were already in their 50s and 60s by the time they got involved in teaching during the "dance revival" of the 1930s, there are many accounts of MSP's and MKP's students getting initial instruction from them but then being referred to younger nattuvanars of the second or third generations. The second generation of nattuvanars born in the late 1880s-1900s who entered adulthood before the dance revival included Chokkalingam Pillai, Kandappa Pillai, Kittappa Pillai, K. Ponnaya Pillai, and Thiruvalaputhur Swaminath Pillai. A common transfer guru for Muthukumara Pillai was his distant relative Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, a part of the third generation of nattuvanars born in the 1910s-1920s and beyond who came of age during or after the dance revival began including K. P. Kittappa Pillai, KN Dandayudhapani Pillai, Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai, and Muthuswami Pillai (who trained with MKP) as well as those nontraditional/nonhereditary outsiders who became well-rounded artists learning nattuvangam, Bharatanatyam, and music around the 1930s and beyond like Adyar Lakshman, Udupi Lakshminarayanan, CV Chandrasekhar, and VP Dhananjayan.

To contextualize the footage of MKP in Kannika in terms of time, it was filmed years after MKP entered the burgeoning dance scene and taught his most notable students in the 1930s and early 1940s. Rukmini Devi Arundale, MK Saroja, Ramgopal, and Mrinalini Sarabhai learned from him during this time, and he taught at institutions such as Ramgopal's in Bangalore and at Rukmini Devi Arundale's Kalakshetra from 1938-39 where he was "first regular Bharatanatayam guru" who did not come and go. Kamala Narayanan (aka Kamala Lakshman, Baby Kamala), the beloved dancer of this blog, learned all her Bharatanatyam basics from KMP after her family moved next door to where he was staying. Though KMP was apparently past his prime at this time, he taught Kamala a full but condensed margam and conducted her debut arangetram in 1941. When KMP was no longer able to keep up with Kamala's hectic performance schedule, he sent her in 1942 to Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai whom she became famous and blossomed under. I wish I could find a photo of Kamala learning from KMP!

Jhanak Khendry with MKP (Source: [11])
What had not happened yet at the time of Kannika's filming and release was MKP's teaching activities in the late-1940s through the mid-1950s where he taught at Mrinalini Sarabhai's school Darpana in Ahmedabad and soon retired to his Kattumanarkoil village where he taught the American exponent Nala Najan and later Jhanak Khendry. KMP looks aged and frail in his appearance in Kannika which is quite a contrast compared with photos from his earlier teaching years in which he has a solid, athletic build and was known for demonstrating adavus to his students. It's also a stark contrast to a photo of him with Jhanak Khendry (left) which I assume was taken in 1955 or 1956 when Khendry learned from MKP. Considering that MKP's health and eyesight is said to have declined significantly his last years, I wonder if that photo might have been taken much earlier.

Muthukumar Pillai and his Tiruvalur/Kattumanar Koil style and contributions to the history of Bharatanatyam are often overlooked and given much less prominence compared to Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai whose Pandanallur/Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam descended directly from the famed Thanjavur Quartet. I've read of MSP referred to as the "greatest nattuvanar," "nonpareil natyacharya and dance celebrity," and even the "father of Bharatanatyam." He was an important and early part of Rukmini Devi Arundale's training and teaching at her Kalakshetra institution (doing both before MKP) and had an impressive pedigree for those concerned with that at that time.

Various reasons are offered for why Muthukumar Pillai's contributions to Bharatanatyam are so overlooked--he didn't have male lineage to the tradition and was an anomaly in his family, most of his students only became famous when they later learned from other teachers, and since he was a sanyasi who had renounced materiality and attachments he moved frequently from place to place and was not interested in fame, fortune, or self-promotion. According to his student Jhanak Khendry, MKP "always said that art was like a river which did not belong to anyone and that it kept flowing and every one could drink its water. Art, he emphasised, should be shared and passed on." A critical study of any dance's history often reveals that there are numerous dancers and contributions lost to popular memory and historiography and the fragility of oral history. Gaston notes in her book that K. Lalita (1918-1992) was a Brahmin woman who studied Bharatanatyam with KMP in 1931 at age 13 in Madras and opened up her own dance school called Sarasvati Gana Nilayam. I've read a couple other instances of Brahmin women learning dance even earlier than this--anecdotes seemingly subsumed by the simplistic notion that Rukmini Devi Arundale was the first Brahmin woman to learn Bharatanatyam/classical dance.

MKP Closeup
What I love most of all of the Kannika clip is seeing MKP's smile. All of the extant photos of him I've seen feature him looking very austere and serious with no smile, making accounts of his great abhinaya hard to visualize. But in Kannika, we get to see him briefly flash a smile and tap the beat while dressed impeccably (I'm curious about the significance of what he's wearing.). I have begged the uploader to please upload the scene after the song ends so that we can see the full context and hear MKP speak. I will come back and update this post if and when that scene is available--keep fingers crossed!

Hemamalini Arni and Other Dances in Kannika

The film Kannika is well-known to fans of the Travancore Sisters (Padmini, Lalitha, and Ragini) because it has one of Padmini and Lalitha's earliest film dances (released before their dances in the earlier-made-but-later-released 1948 film Kalpana) which has been on YouTube for a while on and off by other uploaders. Now that the other songs from the film are available, we can see that Kannika features a number of beautiful dances seemingly forgotten by repositories like Randor Guy whose writeup up the film only mentioned the Lalita-Padmini dance choreographed by Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai.

Hemamalini Arni Age 8 (source)
I was delighted to discover that the girl dancing in the "Natanam Adinar" song and playing the character Kannika in her youth in the film is a 13-year old Hemamalini Arni (nee Vijayaraghavan) who seems to have been one of those dancers like MK Saroja who likely would have made it big in or danced in more films had marriage not ended those ambitions. According to a darling website about Arni produced by her husband years ago (that features rare photos of Balasaraswati, Ram Gopal, and others!), Hemamalini Arni sung her own vocals in the "Natanam Adinar" song, something she was known for doing for her own real-life dance performances. She was also the namesake for the famous 1960s+ actress Hema Malini whose mother admired the dances of Arni, the daughter of a family friend. While Arni studied Bharatanatyam for a long time under Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, strangely, despite MKP playing the nattuvanar on screen in Kannika, the title credits of the film name Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Arni's real-life guru, as being responsible for the dances.

While MKP apparently didn't choreograph the dance song he was featured in, he is said to have trained Sriramulu Naidu's wife for her lead role in the film. Sruti identifies her as Saroja, but she is referred to by Randor Guy and others as M. S. Sarojini. Seeing the dances now online and how much M.S. Sarojini dances, I assume she had zero dance training and MKP had the job of getting her to a basic level of proficiency which was likely a difficult task. Speaking about how he handled similar situations choreographing for films, Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai said in an interview for his feature in Sruti that for those who had never learned dance, despite his teaching only as much as was needed and making it easy, it still "would take four to five months for a performer to learn foot movements, hand gestures, facial expressions and the mudras" before he would "add the finer touches which would render the dance more appealing." Four to five months for film songs! No wonder MKP looks a bit haggard. Here are two examples of the fruits of his labors:

"Nadaraajan Un Thiru Nadam Kandu Tev" - The rare male dancer on screen! He dances initially with M.S. Sarojini before sitting to watch her. He looks to be T.E. Varadan whom Randor Guy identifies as the hero of the film and a science graduate in real life. Look at his graceful arms and handsome face--he should have been a dancer! Did MKP train him as well, I wonder? I was struck by the very deep half-seated "araimandi" M.S. Sarojini does at 1:37 and throughout the song--something I bet KMP insisted upon and something I rarely see in films. Pity her Theermanam Adavu is quite terrible!

Dancing begins :30

"Yaaro Vanthu En Iru Kann Poththinaar" - In the first half of this song, M.S. Sarojini performs gentle upper-body movements and simple abhinaya. 


Last, not to be missed is a super-flexible snake dance by a white chick (I assume) who must've been a well-known, exotic performer of that time reminiscent of the "rubber dancers" of the era.

Other Nattuvanars on Screen

Surprising it is that in Indian film classical dances we get to see so few prominent Bharatanatyam nattuvanars on screen, though it's possible I've missed some over the years when I watched film dances before knowing what certain nattuvanars looked like or assuming the accompanists were just actors. Other than MKP's appearance, I've not read any instances of any other first or second generation nattuvanars participating in films either on screen or behind the camera, which further bolsters the rarity of seeing MKP on the silver screen let alone choreographing for films. At one time I thought I had evidence of MSP choreographing for cinema--Sruti magazine's feature on Muthuswami Pillai said that "the sisters Yogam and Mangalam were the famous duo taught by Meenakshisundaram Pillai at Madras...they entered film with their guru choreographing and directing their dances," but further reading revealed why it's important to get the full names of nattuvanars--the article was referring to Vaitheeswarankoil Meenakshisundaram Pillai, the appointed guardian of Muthuswami Pillai, not Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai! My hopes were dashed. :)

The third generation nattuvanars are the group which has some of their images preserved in cinema. Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai gets some brief screen time in the 1954 Indian Films Division documentary Bharata Natyam featuring his prodigy Kumari Kamala--I didn't point it out in my original post on the doc, but the nattuvanar seen at 5:21 for a few seconds surely must be him. It's surprising that Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai wasn't seen in more film dances given how prolific he was, but the website of the Vazhuvoorar School of Classical Dance and Music has featured some rare photos of him on the sets of his dance choreographies that I featured on my companion Tumblr (not used much these days!)

VRP seen at 5:21


In Jean Renoir's 1951 co-production The River filmed in India, KN Dhandayudhapani Pillai not only choreographed Radha Burnier's dance but is also seen on screen performing nattuvangam alongside his younger brother Dakshinamoorthy on the mridangam. Props to fellow dance detective Ragothaman of the Bharatanatyam and the Worldwide Web blog for sourcing this information. The film quality and lighting are simply delectable and let us see KNDP in much better quality than most other examples.

KNDP seen at :19


V.P. Dhananjayan danced on screen and then performed nattuvangam in Kann Sivandhal Mann Sivakkum (Tamil, 1983) which I previously posted details about and which deserves to be embedded here, again, since it's been a while...


The late Adyar K. Lakshman composed among the best Bharatanatyam in Indian cinema in the Kannada films Subba Sastri (1966) and Hamsa Geethe (1975) which I previously posted about in detail, though I still haven't tracked down his dance in the film Ananda Tandavam (Tamil, 1987). Kanchipuram Ellappa was said in Sruti magazine to have choreographed one dance in Konjum Salangai (Tamil, 1962), while in another interview Kamala claimed she choreographed all of that film's dances herself. The late Udupi Laxminarayanan was heavily involved in film choreography (becoming Sivaji Ganesan's favorite teacher and teaching Prabhu Deva and choreographing his dances in Kaadhalan!) and danced on screen in quite a few films. One example I had found before has been taken down, and I haven't found other examples of his classical-oriented dances or appearances in films, unfortunately. According to Sruti magazine, Udupi vocalized the jathis for Raj Kapoor's humorous enactment of a nattuvanar for Padmini's dance in Mera Naam Joker (Hindi, 1970). VS Muthuswami Pillai choreographed for many film dances as I've extensively covered on this blog including Vyjayanthimala's best film Bharatanatyam as well as the thrilling dances of Sayee-Subbulakshmi, but I never saw him on screen.

In more recent cinema, US Krishna Rao played a nattuvanar in Dance Like a Man (2003) featuring Shobana and can be seen at 2:24 in the scene compilation below. He and his wife Chandrabhaga Devi were among the first Brahmin couples to learn Bharatanatyam in the 1940s and did much to popularize the form in Karnataka. According to Sruti and The Hindu, US Krishna Rao choreographed for two films: Shola Aur Shabnam (Hindi, 1961), a bad experience, and Paapa Punya (Kannada, 1971) which must be this slow-paced home dance at 1:13:24.

US Krishna Rao seen at 2:24

Thus ends another contribution to my long-suffering and long-coming Remembering Film Choreographers post series! I'm excited for an in-draft post about Kuchipudi dance in Telugu cinema and the contributions of Kuchipudi gurus, hopefully coming somewhat soon...:)

Sources and Great Reading:
  1. Academy of Bharatanatyam [Rare photos from founder TK Narayan's dance school site, student of MKP]
  2. Gaston, Anne-Marie. Bharata Natyam from Temple to Theatre. 1996. [Especially "Banis of Bharata Natyam" chapter].
  3. Gopal, Ram. Rhythm in the Heavens: An Autobiography. 1957.
  4. Khokar, Ashish Mohan. "Vidwan Guru Muthukumaran Pillai: Stalwart and Saint of Bharatanatyam" Narthaki. 2009.
  5. Khokar, Ashish Mohan. "Kattumannarkoil." Shanmukha: Banis of Bharatanatyam and Recent Trends. 2010.
  6. Knight, Douglas. "Select Biographies." Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. 2010.
  7. Kothari, Sunil. "Guruparampara." Bharata Natyam: Indian Classical Dance Art. 2001.
  8. Kumar, Ranee. "Grace and poise personified [Guru Hemamalini Arni]." The Hindu. 2012.
  9. Seshan, A. "The Rise and Fall of the Nattuvanar." Narthaki. 2008. 
  10. Sruti Magazine. Articles on Kamala Narayanan (Kumari Kamala). Issues 45/46 and 48. 1988.
  11. Sruti Magazine. Articles on Muthukumara Pillai. Volume 108. 1993. Articles written primarily by Mohan Khokar as well as Ashish Khokar and three disciples.[Excellent read featuring the most complete details about his life and students.]
  12. Sundaram, BM. "Towards a Genealogy of Some Thanjavur Natyacharyas and their Kinsfolk." Sangeet Natak. 1997.
  13. Ramnarayan, Gowri. "In pursuit of divinity [M.K. Saroja]." The Hindu. 2009.
  14. Ramnarayan, Gowri. "Where are the Master Gurus? [Nattuvanars]." The Hindu. 1998. 

1 comment:

  1. So soothing to see you back! I had felt disappointed by your such long break.

    Good reading and wonderful viewing!


    ReplyDelete

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