Rare Video Clips of Devadasis, Uday Shankar & Simkie, Ram Gopal, and More

Saturday, July 14, 2012
What a stunning find!  The wonderful commenter Gaddeswarup recently sent me a video from the site BritishPath√©.com, and I'm grateful he did because when I explored the site further I found it houses some priceless footage of Indian dance.

British Path√©, a former film and newsreel company that "documented almost every aspect of everyday life in Britain and around the world in the 20th century" (BBC), has digitised its extensive archive ("90,000 videos from 1897-1970") online with free and full-length viewing for any visitor.  Given that Britain ruled the Indian subcontinent until 1947, the archive has a substantial number of clips of Indian events and every day life from the first half of the 20th century: independence, visits from British royalty, disorder and protests, ceremonies and weddings, festivals, politicians, dances, and much more.  Much of the older footage has a strong Orientalist tone; pictured on the left is a nice dance-related example from Indian Peeps (1930).

All of the videos can be purchased and downloaded, but since the listed duration of the videos for purchase are the same as their previews, I don't see any incentive to purchase them at exorbitant prices (30 Euros for a one-minute clip!).  What's most entertaining about the site is the descriptions; the catalogers given the job of dutifully describing each scene in every video must have gotten tired at some point because some of their phrasings are hilarious!  But I'm glad they went to that trouble because it allows the video events to be text searchable.

Unfortunately, none of the videos can be embedded, so you'll have to click on the lovely preview images to link to the video. Update: Now that BritishPathe transferred all its videos to YouTube, I've embedded them all below. Enjoy!

Devadasi Footage from the 1930s

The most important find has been a silent clip titled "Maharanee of Baroda" circa 1930-1935.  Starting at 8:06, two devadasi dancers perform in front of their musical ensemble.  The footage is stunning - the dancers are dressed exactly like those in old archival photos from this time period and before; it's as if the old photos have come to life!  They begin by dancing what looks like the alarippu portion of a Sadir/present-day Bharatanatyam performance, then move onto a more free-flowing, folksy dance style, and then return to Sadir/Bharatanatyam around 11:30.  The musicians and their instruments are fascinating; I've read accounts of how bagpipes used to be part of Sadir performances before the dance form was recreated as Bharatanatyam- I wonder if the musician on the right is an example of what is meant by "bagpipe."  Last, we must of course remember that this was a staged performance for the camera, but its historical value is immense.

Dancers appear 8:07

One question I had while watching: If the video was really filmed in Baroda (a city in what is now Gujarat in northwest India), why are there south Indian devadasis performing?  The answer to this question was revealed when I remembered a picture of similar-looking devadasis (on the left) in Mohan Khokar's "Century of Indian Dance" exhibition catalog.  The description to that image says, "A set of talented devadasis were part of the dowry of Chimnabai, a Tanjore princess who was married to the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, in 1883.  The devadasis stayed back and entertained the Court and thus Bharatanatyam came to north and west India."  Aha! The dancers in the video must have been descendents of the devadasis brought to Baroda with Chimnabai.  However, the video dancers look so similar to the picture that it makes me wonder if the picture was taken much later than the 1880s and is really them!

Uday Shankar and Simkie Dance Footage

"Radha and Krishna (1932)" - This is additional footage of Uday Shankar and Simkie that I don't think has been widely available before!  The choreography is quite similar to the video below, but it features a lovely closeup at the beginning and some interesting inspirations from Kathak and Kathakali by Shankar at the end (the description calls it a "flourish"!).   Gotta love how the opening misidentifies the performance as a "characteristic Brahman dance"; clearly the makers didn't know who the performers were and their connection with modern dance in India!  But it fits with the Orientalism of the time period.

"Sinuous Sidelight (1931)" - Remember the wonderful Uday Shankar and Simkie footage that Richard at the Dances on the Footpath blog found a while ago?  This clip appears to be from the exact same footage, and while it is not interrupted by shots of Ravi Shankar and family and can be watched almost full length, the last 20 seconds or so are cut off at the end.  This version (by BritishPath√© not Pathe-Nathan) identifies the performance as a "Hindu dance" and then feels compelled to point out the "bizarre instruments" with an intertitle.

Ram Gopal Footage

"Indian Dancer 1947" - While there are some clear vague inspirations from Bharatanatyam and  Kathakali, Gopal seems to be going for a more Uday Shankar-esque pan-Asian look with the southeast Asian headress and costuming.  Though I've not yet read much about Ram Gopal and how "authentic" his dance was supposed to be, I can see why "westerners" in particular found him so fascinating to watch given his extremely expressive face and controlled eye movements inspired by Kathakali.  Curiously, he barely moves his torso (no "statuesque" poses) and focuses almost exclusively on his face, arms/hands, and feet.

"Indian Dancer 1947 (2)" - Another video shot in the same location as the above, this time other dancers join Gopal around 1:15.  At 1:32, he performs alarippu-like movements with a male student or company member, I presume.  After seeing Gopal's headdress, I think I understand where Bhaskar got his inspiration from (see this post)!

Also, over at the Pad.ma archive, there is rare color footage of Ram Gopal dancing.  I can't figure out how to link to the video at all on their latest interface, but if you go to Pad.ma it's the video titled "The dancer Ram Gopal wants to see himself in colour, 8mm, 1938." 

Other Interesting Videos

"Pakistani Dancer 1953"- While the dance of the cute little girl here is nothing to write home about, the voiceover explains the clip's value.  The little girl is Nargis, daughter of Bulbul Chowdhury, "Pakistan's leading dancer" at that time.  A tribute article to Chowdhury describes him as the "pioneer of modern dance in Bangladesh [formerly East Pakistan]" who took inspiration from Uday Shankar and "helped break down Muslim conservative attitudes towards dance."  The man standing behind Nargis looks exactly like Bulbul so I think it's safe to assume it's him.  How wonderful to find a rare video clip of him in 1953, a year before his death.

"Royal Wedding in India 1946" - At 1:09, a young woman dances for the guests at the wedding for the royal heir of Junagadh state in present-day Gujarat.  She simply waves her arms around gracefully and the performance doesn't seem fit for the grandeur of the surroundings!

"Hindu Dancers 1929" - Last (and definitely least) we have a classic "white people doing 'exotic' 'hindu' dance" paced as slow as a tortoise.  Reminds me a bit of the Ted Shawn/Ruth St. Denis style.

Last, I'll close with a link to a video from another digital archive associated with the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge; it's a Kathakali performance from the early 1930s.


  1. The devadasis name most probably is Gauri and Kantimathi. See my mail for details.

  2. There is an interesting write up about Ram Gopal in
    May be there is some in other sections but I was reading it mainly for news about an actress -singer-social worker Snehprabha Pradhan.

  3. Glad to discover the britishpathe.com site. Truly a treasure house. Also very excited to see that Satyajit Ray's documentary on Balasaraswati is finally available. I have been searching for it for many years, and saw that you have painstakingly uploaded it to YouTube-- and so has another user. A big thank you.

  4. http://www.mid-day.com/entertainment/2012/jul/230712-Kalpana-languishes-in-Jogeshwari-godown.htm

  5. Ragothaman - We've already chatted through email, but to respond to your comment here - I KNOW, SO AMAZING!! I had to hold back being too exuberant while writing the post so it stayed thoughtful and readable. :) Once I find out more about the identity of the dancers, I will likely do a follow-up post.

    gaddeswarup - Thank you for that link. There is an autobiography of Ram Gopal that I haven't had a chance to read yet- you might be interested, it's called "Rhythm in the Heavens." He seems to have been quite an interesting person with lots of connections/influences to all the dance happenings of his day.

    Nivedita - Isn't it such a treasure house! Yes, Bala's video is finally available, and that other user uploaded it in such excellent quality which I was thrilled to see. Thank you for your comment. :)

    Anon - Thanks so much for that link, whoever you are! My goodness- Kalpana languishing in Indian customs as we speak. Terrible!

  6. http://in.omg.yahoo.com/news/customs-release-restored-print-uday-shankars-kalpana-155318785.html

    1. So Kalpana cleared customs! Yay!!!! Thank you for the posting this wonderful news.

  7. This blog proves to me how precious the world of blogging is...best

  8. Thank you for directing me to Bala documentary. I had seen her dancing with the ocean behind before, and watched over and over for the same reasons as I heard discussed in the documentary. So it rings true to me that famous dancers were struck dumb when seeing her in Scotland. Anyone who sees her learns of a new language instantaneously. Even an old white woman like me. And there is wonderful video of a year old little girl that is wondrous, too. I am so happy to have met your blog tonight. I have to move backwards, to catch up on hours of enjoyment.

  9. NadineisthatU - Thank you for the compliments! Happy to see you made your way to Bala's documentary - she was such an important figure in the history of Bharatanatyam. Dance does seem to be universal and appreciated by all, even white folks like us. :)

  10. http://www.iicdelhi.in/webcasts/view_webcast/remembering-shanta-rao/

    1. Thank you for sharing--I first learned of that video from this great post by Ragothaman at the Bharatanatyam and the Worldwide Web blog: https://sangeethas.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/rare-videos-of-shanta-rao-dancing/. Enjoy!

  11. Minai, there is an interesting dance sequence (with sound!) in a British Movietone newsreel. Its title is "Nautch girl makes a big hit" and the notice says it was shot in February 1931.

    It's is the only nautch-girl performance with sound I'm aware of.

    The link is the following: http://www.movietone.com/N_POPUP_Player.cfm?action=playVideo&assetno=84353

    By the way, Movietone was also at the wedding in Junagarh in 1946. So you can see the dancer from a different angle.

    1. Thank you Mel--I had previously posted that on my somewhat ill-fated idea of a separate Tumblr page for this blog as an "overflow" for ideas: Tumblr. Do you happen to know what the men say in the clip? The wedding footage you mentioned is also very interesting.

    2. Sorry for the late answer. Unfortunately I don't speak Hindi. However, I got the help of a friend from Mumbai who does. Here is what he found:

      1. The song is in Hindi. The audio quality is so poor that it was not possible to understand the lyrics.

      2. The three men speak Hindi:
      - Wah Wah Wah
      Bravo ! Bravo ! Bravo !

      - ??? puran bohot achcha bataya, nahi?
      She described the ??? really well, didn't she?

      - Gaana bohot achcha gaati hai
      Indeed, she sings really well.

      - (the last sentence is cut in the middle)

      The 1st word after the "Wah, Wah" is missing, so we don't know what was that song about :-(

    3. Thank you Mel for helping solve this mystery! Very respectable dialogue by the men after the performance. Even though not everything is audible/translatable, this really helps frame the video and give it context. Thanks!


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