Swapna Sundari Dancing in Kissaa Kursee Kaa (Hindi, 1977)

Sunday, June 19, 2016
Today I was alerted to Anuj Kumar's days-old The Hindu article about the 1977 Hindi film Kissaa Kursee Kaa which reveals that the director used classical dance forms "performed by Swapna Sundari to anchor the narrative." Swapna Sundari! I always enjoy finding examples of famous dancers performing in cinema, and learning that the well known Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam dancer Swapna Sundari danced in a film was certainly surprising!

It's a controversial film for Swapna to have involved herself in. A scathing satirical and symbolic work spoofing the Indira Gandhi government, Kissaa Kursee Kaa (Tale of a Throne, aka Kissa Kursi Ka) was made during the turbulent period known as “the Emergency” when India's government declared a state of emergency ushering in a dark period in India’s modern history which saw basic freedoms and rights suspended. The print we see on YouTube is actually a remake of the original that was banned and never released and had all its prints destroyed by the government. After the Emergency was lifted, director Amrit Nahata reshot and released the film in 1977 (while The Hindu article and YouTube video list 1978, I've listed 1977 which is the date the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema and many other articles list). The film has been in the news recently again after Nahata's son has demanded the original prints be returned or compensation be made. I would love to hear what Swapna's experience was in taking part in this film, but I've not been able to find any other mentions of it.

Raghavan?
While the dances are disappointingly underwhelming and brief (what a let down!), they are notable not only for being an uncommon example of South Indian dance being performed by trained dancers in a Hindi film but also featuring what looks like Kuchipudi dance movements. The male dancer is another rare sight whose identity I'm not sure of—according to a friend's translation, the film credits list Sudharshan Dheer and Raghavan as possibilities, and since the male dancer looks nothing like the late famous Kathak dancer Sudharshan Dheer, my guess is he must be Raghavan. I bet Sudharshan Dheer assisted with choreography especially the Kathak parts.

The film kicks off with a group dance starting at 1:15 led by Swapna and Raghavan, and so much about the nritta/pure dance screams "Kuchipudi" to me. The hand movements at 2:30 are unquestionably Kuchipudi, and the first leg movements by Swapna at 1:44 as well as the duo's series of movements starting at 2:50 looks very much taken from or inspired by Kuchipudi's movement vocabulary. Three other dance forms make a brief appearance in the film: at 4:32 we are treated to a unthrilling Kathak dance, at 39:31 we see a more traditional nattuvanar-dancer setup (with Hindi filmi music) featuring Swapna's bouncy Kuchipudi movements and Raghavan's declarations intercut with scenes of rats, at 1:08:22 we have another example of Manipuri dance misrepresentation in cinema intercut with scenes of Shabana Azmi's suffering, and the final dance seen at 1:27:58 is a folk number. Not having English subtitles, the way these dances "anchor the narrative" is lost on me. The film's editing is really abrupt and the technical quality quite poor, though in a couple scenes like 1:20:40 I was reminded of the far superior and somewhat similar 1977 film Shatranj Ke Khilari.


The Dravidian-style temple prominent in the background of the first dance in the film follows the same signaling of other Hindi film songs featuring a South Indian dance, like Abhinetri and New Delhi. The scene is clearly shouting "I am South Indian!" I'm sure that the fact that specifically Kuchipudi movements are being portrayed here and there was lost on most audiences.

Abhinetri, New Delhi

A few other screenshots from the film:

 

Swapna Sundari (also spelled Swapnasundari) learned Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi in her youth and debuted on the dance scene when she was 15 as a last-minute replacement for Yamini Krishnamurthy, and by the mid-70s she had formed her own dance troupe and was performing solo as well. Her inclusion in Kissaa Kursee Kaa suggests that by the late-1970s she was a well-known dance entity in New Delhi. It's lovely to see her so young dancing on film—Swapna reminds me of the actress Bhanupriya with her enormous eyes and beauty. These film dances while likely a one-off experience for Swapna had a bit of family precedent—her mother had been an assistant music director for Gemini Studios in the 1940s.

Swapna in 2012 (credit: IANS)
In the 1980s, Swapna rose to fame as a Bharatanatyam but also most prominently a Kuchipudi dancer and established a Kuchipudi Dance Centre in 1982 in New Delhi, and in the past twenty years she has become synonymous with Vilasini Natyam, the name she and Dr. Arudra gave to the art of female Telugu temple and court dancers which she has made her mission to preserve and propagate. She also famously reinstated dance at the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Hyderabad in the 90s. She was involved in two documentaries released in 1998—as the subject of the Indian Films Division documentary Dreamer (which I can't find any clips of online) and as part of the Kuchipudi Revisited documentary directed by Yamini Krishnamurthy that I previously wrote about on the blog. The prestigious Padham Bhushan award was granted to her in 2003 in recognition of her efforts toward Andhra's dance forms. Swapna's official website seems to have been down for some time, but you can see an archived half-finished version from 2011 courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

This discovery of Swapna Sundari's film dance is timed perfectly since I have a post on Kuchipudi dance in cinema in the works. It has been for some time, so I'm glad to have this post to be able to let my readers know I am still around after a long hiatus! :) Kuchipudi and Telugu dance history has proved to be very complex, contested, and fascinating...

8 comments:

  1. C, it's interesting, i saw her first live performance in the year '77/78 in Bombay and did tell her in the course of a conversation last year...of course, you know how she looks today....but, her energy level and lordly (+ve) attitude is still amazing

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    1. Anantha, You have seen so many interesting people and things! Happy that this post helped you take a trip down memory lane. :) "Lordly" is an apt term...

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  2. A young Swapna Sundari here....

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-PmGMnwi10

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    1. Thanks for sharing that video of Swapna. It looks like a Doordarshan broadcast from the 80s, and I remember reading that she had a Vilasini Natyam series broadcast on that network so that's probably the source. I bet the singing is hers--she's released Kuchipudi music albums and is an accomplished vocalist. And long time no see Dreamcatcher!

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  3. Welcome back after the "long hiatus"! I have always enjoyed your wonderful posts.

    By the way, I had read in the newspapers that cans containing the film Kissa Kursi Kaa, made by the Congress member Amrit Nahata, seized by the Government, were burnt in the premises of Maruti Udyog Ltd. then owned by Sanjay Gandhi. (This then mismanaged and financially bankrupt Company was taken over by the Government of Indira Gandhi after her return to power in 1980.)

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    1. Glad to be back! I read that as well, seems Maruti Udyog was an auto manufacturing place. Such a scandal. The son of the director seems to imply he thinks there might be a print or two out there. I wonder if dances were in the original or only in the remake, and if in both who danced in the original!

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  4. Good that a remake of the film was made.I watched the satirical full movie from your blog. Then I saw it in You tube.

    By the way, Maruti Udyog Ltd. is a joint venture with the Japanese auto-manufacturing company Suzuki to make small cars in India. After the take over by the Government (By that time Sanjay Gandhi was dead in an aircraft accident.) and under the new competent Management, it became a pioneer in introducing small cars in India. Now it produces small as well as big cars. It is one of the leading auto-manufacturers in India.

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  5. Sanjay Gandhi was the younger son of Indira Gandhi. During Emergency, he wielded a lot of power and organized a number of atrocities, which was one of the reasons why Indira Gandhi, he himself and the Congress Party were defeated in the General Elections in 1977 in India.

    Of course these facts are not relevant in your blog.

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