New 1950s Footage at Net-Film: Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, E.V. Saroja, Chitrasena, Vajira, and Padma Subrahmanyam!

Sunday, July 17, 2016
Today I thought, "I wonder if Net-Film has digitized any new videos featuring South Asian dance since I last visited," and they most certainly HAVE—including nattuvangam/training footage of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Bharatanatyam by E.V. Saroja, and Kandyan creative dance by Chitrasena and Vajira!

I had discovered the online Russian digital film/newsreel archive Net-Film back in 2013 when I posted about discovering rare video of the dancers Tara Chaudhri, Guru Gopinath, and Indrani Rahman at the site. Net-Film seems to have since expanded its collection beyond just Russia's Central Studio of Documentary Films, the "oldest and largest film studio in the former Soviet Union," to also include many other studios equaling storage of "about 50,000 films" that are being regularly digitized. Since Net-Film is aimed at providing paid licensing for its content, all the video clips are small, full-length "previews" which have the running timestamp prominently and annoyingly displayed at the bottom to aid requests for exact footage segments. Net-Film also seems to have updated the backend technology and usability of the site and it is no longer glitchy.

The Morning in India (1956, Russian)

This documentary film "about the history of India, struggle for independence, and present of the country" has the rare finds in reels 6 and 7 which focus on Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

In Reel 6, after shots of a temple in Kanchipuram, a dance segment begins at 1:35 with a close up of E.V. Saroja's face followed by her Bharatanatyam performance to the song Natanam Adinar! When I first watched the video I thought she looked so familiar but couldn't figure out who she was. The video description identifies the dancer as "Kumari Sarraj" (young woman Sarraj) which I realized could be a Russian mishearing of the name "Saroja." Reading through the Sruti feature on Ramaiah Pillai to refresh my memory of the students he trained made the connection—E.V. Saroja (1936-2006), of course, it looks just like her! I had always assumed E.V. Saroja only trained from Ramaiah Pillai for films like many other actress-dancers of that time, but she was also a serious student of his and "made a mark on the stage as well as in cinema" which this footage provides visual evidence of. EV Saroja had entered films in the early 1950s, and the footage was filmed when she was about 19-20 years old and beginning her string of hits in Tamil and Telugu cinema that lasted through the early 1960s.

While the footage of E.V. Saroja is wonderful, it's the rare footage of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai starting at 2:54 in Reel 6 that is most thrilling for its rarity. We got to see a visual glimpse of him in the nattuvanar role briefly in the 1954 Indian films division documentary "Bharata Natyam," but here we see him in the role not only more extensively but also walking, smiling, reciting the rhythmic solkattu syllables, tapping the wooden tattukazhi, and demonstrating hand gestures, eye and eyebrow movements, and abhinaya for a group of young girls! It's a short but incredible glimpse of his artistic skills and brings him to life and helps us see him fully as his students once did. The scene ends much too quickly at 3:50. How I wish the filmmakers had also included footage of him physically demonstrating full-body movements!

Update: After I published the post I discovered that the girl smiling at 3:17 and then dancing in the back is a young Padma Subrahmanyam! Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai was her early guru, and the video was filmed the same year he conducted Padma's debut arangetram performance in Bharatanatyam. Based on reports that she was born in 1943, she would be about 13 years old in the Net-Film video. This must be the earliest recorded dance footage of Padma!

Left: Padma (,   Right: The Morning in India

The Morning in India
features other dance styles as well. In Reel 6 at 9:20, we see artists making Manipuri dance costumes followed by a scene of Manipuri dance, and Reel 7 begins with some simple outdoor Rabindra Nritya dance. Reel 7 also features Rabindranath Tagore himself singing "the anthem of India" on screen starting at 5:35—this is possibly quite rare footage of Tagore.

The Art of Friends (1957, Russian) 

Like the Masters of the Indian Art footage I featured previously, The Art of Friends is a collection of performances, this time from the "VI World Youth and Student Festival" held in Moscow in 1957 to showcase artistic performances from representatives of different countries. The most stunning find is the footage of the Sri Lankan dancers Chitrasena and his wife Vajira along with presumably the Chitrasena Dance Company—I have the impression that footage of them from this time period is quite a rare thing to behold. In Reel 1 starting at 6:11, we see a solo male dancer, then a group of male dancers followed by a Chitrasena-Vajira duet at 6:51. Vajira's distinctive nose shape is unmistakable. (Note: There is also 40 seconds of additional footage of the group dance starting at 8:25 in the film At a Marvellous Feast about the festival.)

I had written about the Sri Lankan dancer Chitrasena briefly in my post "Bharatanatyam in Sri Lankan Sinhalese Films and in Sri Lanka" and more in my post about seeing the Nrityagram-Chitrasena Dance Company Odissi-Kandyan dance collaboration production Samhara in Utah in 2013. As I explained there, Kandyan dance is one of the three main dance forms identified with the majority Sinhala ethnic community in Sri Lanka and considered Sri Lanka's national dance. Chitrasena founded the Chitrasena School of Dance, the first of its kind in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in 1944, and his work shared some affinities with Uday Shankar.  As described by Susan Reed in her book Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka, Chitrasena was a "high-caste, English-educated dancer" who became "well known in Colombo for his oriental ballets that combined Ceylonese, Indian, and Western techniques." Kandyan dance later occupied the central character of his choreography, and "Chitrasena and his talented dancer-wife Vajira played a large part in popularizing Kandyan dance in Sri Lanka and raising its acceptability in a time when traditional dance in the country was held in low esteem."

The film's description identifies the performers only as "the delegations of Ceylon" which implies the Chitrasena Dance Company was sent by Ceylon to represent the performing arts of the country which bolsters Susan Reed's point that after 1956 Kandyan dance had become cemented as a symbol of Ceylon's national culture.

In Reel 2 at 3:16, a group of women perform an agriculture-themed dance carrying sickles with movements from Kandyan dance as drummers stand behind them. I am unsure who the woman featured in a closeup is. I wonder if she was a prominent member of the Chitrasena Dance Company?

Switching back to the dances of India, in Reel 3 a dancer (identified in the description as Shirley Kuliar) performs what looks and sounds like a Rabindra Nritya solo dance in front of accompanists starting at :57, and Reel 4 features some folk dance with beautiful costumes starting at 4:58. When the Rabindra Nritya segment first began I freaked out for a moment before I realized that the dancer was not Kamala! I wonder if Shirley Kuliar is another Russian mishearing of an Indian name?

What exciting finds! Net-Film has a lot of other interesting Indian-themed footage from the last century, so happy browsing!


  1. Great find, always love watching charming EVS at dance as she never fails to leave a pleasant feel... :-)

  2. Simply fascinating .. Like a time machine taking me back into times when I wasn't even born . . Thank u so much :)

  3. Learnt the same version of Natanamadinar from Kousalya my teacher, a disciple of Ramiah Pillai


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