Dance in Early Indian Cinema: Some Video Evidence

Friday, October 12, 2012
What was dance in early Indian cinema like?  It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I considered this question worthy of pursuing video evidence of.  I had read how the vast majority of India's silent and early sound cinema was either lost or destroyed in fires with the teensy remainder securely locked up in places like the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) with occasional public screenings.  Certainly not viewable anywhere online, I assumed. But I was wrong!

When I recently learned about's lovely "Celebrating 100 Years of Bollywood" series (thanks Gaddeswarup for your comment!), I was thrilled to see publicity pictures from India's earliest silent cinema, Pundalik (1912), clips from the first official indigenous Indian feature film Raja Harishchandra (1913), and also pictures from India's first sound film Alam Ara (1931).  I hadn't realized this year is the start of Indian Cinema's Centenary celebrations (meaning Indian cinema is in it's 100th year of "life" which will culminate in its 100th birthday in May 2013)!

Through recommend videos on the YouTube sidebar, I quickly learned that presumably non-professional YouTubers have uploaded Raja Harishchandra (1913, in the form of the 1967 National Film Archive documentary, D.G. Phalke, The First Indian Film Director 1870-1944) and Kaliya Mardan (1919). Each upload looks absolutely authentic due to many scenes matching screencaps found at the NFAI and in books about silent Indian cinema.  Both videos were uploaded in the past few months, and I assume it's not a coincidence that the NFAI just last month released a DVD of both films (Raja Harishchandra in partial form with only the surviving reels, and they added a third film, the 1931 Bengali silent, Jamai Babu).  Perhaps as the DVD was in the making, some of the prints were "leaked" and folks outside of the official process uploaded them for public view?  I'm curious if the DVD prints are different from what is online, especially since Kaliya Mardan looks like it came from a VHS tape with the tracking lines at the bottom. (Update 2019: Linked to new version of Kaliya Mardan.)

Raja Harischandra (1913)

Kaliya Mardan (1919)

As one would expect of me, I immediately noticed the dances in these films!  In Raja Harishchandra, beginning about 36 minutes in a character (Tukaram?) begins playing what looks like hand cymbals and then an energetic group of men can be see moving down the street rhythmically moving from side to side and jumping up and down with religious devotion.  I've been told they are dancing to a Bhajan which is a characteristic of the Bhakti movement.  While this isn't quite meant to be a "dance" in and of itself, in Kaliya Mardan the dances, while in a devotional setting, are clearly and distinctly dance!  Two unmistakable folk dances surrounding Krishna are in the film: one male-focused dance with sticks at 28:16 and the other a female-only dance at 35:40 with what appears to be tree branches, rope and/or sticks.  There are also expressive depictions by the women starting at 31:15.  I'm completely surprised to see such early filmic representations of dance!

Kaliya Mardan's Folk Dances

Krishna's childhood role in Kaliya Mardan was played by Phalke's daughter Mandakini.  Near the beginning, after the introductory title card which states "study in facial expressions by a little girl of seven," Mandakini enacts "a few of the nine emotional aesthetic moods [navarasas] of the Indian classical arts - humour, anger, wonder, etc. [...] This range of emotions becomes the basis of the ensuing narrative" (Josephson).  But perhaps that's making the scene a bit too serious--Mandakini is simply adorable!

Accounts of Dance in Early Indian Cinema

The best and most comprehensive writing about dance in early Indian cinema I've found is VAK Ranga Rao's 1995 article "Dance in Indian Cinema" which covers not only Hindi cinema but also Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu.  While Rao had some limitations (and makes a few mis-statements) due to YouTube and some recent scholarship not yet being available, he makes some fascinating points that most other articles on Indian cinema dance mention only in passing or with little depth.

Regarding the existence of dance in Indian silent film, Rao specifies "there is one silent example extant in NFAI, from Lankadahan (1917) of Dadasaheb Phalke, which clearly shows that a trick sequence must have employed the technique of music dictated movement (a kissin' cousin of dance!) to achieve perfection of timing in splitscreen double-exposure."  He then describes some of the features of early sound film dance noting that everything about early talkies was "no different from that of the contemporary stage" and dance was often used only to show the "pleasures" of a "celestial court," "suggest the pomp and splendour of a royal durbar," allow the audience to "revel in the joy that is Krishna" or occasionally play a key-role in furthering the plot.  He also describes a "small tributary" called Stage Dance, meaning "numbers performed on stage as dance not as part of a drama" that featured slight influences from dance forms like Kathak, Nautanki, street dance, juggling, tumbling, and mujra.  These dance forms "were more or less faithfully reproduced for the screen, according to those who worked in the early talkies, and those who saw them at the time and recalled them years afterwards."  After 1935, a "steady, gradual divergence" happened with films coming into their own.  He also notes that western influence, especially from Hollywood musicals, influenced the look, choreography, and music of films starting around the late 1930s with films like Ali Baba (Bengali, 1937) and Kacha Devayani (Telugu, 1938). 

Kamlabai (source)
While Rao only notes one sequence in silent films that can qualify as a sort of "pre-dance," I've discovered there are many more examples of proper dance claimed by film scholars.  As proven above, Raja Harishchandra and especially Kaliya Mardan both featured dance in devotional settings.  But it appears the first solo dance-as-seduction number appeared in the second year of Indian cinema. In Phalke's second film, Mohini Bhasmasur (1914), "God Vishnu, incarnating as temptress Mohini, lured the demon Bhasmasur to his doom, through a seductive dance" (Ramachandran).  While in Raja Harishchandra Phalke had to resort to casting men in female roles since no suitable women would agree to act in films (Hansen), in Mohini Bhasmasur Phalke persuaded Marathi stage actress and dancer Kamalabai (aka Kamlabai Gokhale) to play the role of Mohini, thus making her the first official woman to act in Indian cinema (though Kamalabai's mom Durgabai Kamat played the goddess Parvati in the film and technically shares the credit) (Kapse; Pande; Schulze).  Oh how I wish this dance were available! I suspect it was probably quite underwhelming in terms of specific, developed movement, but I'm highly curious if it followed in any way the style of "Mohini Bhasmasur" film dances decades later, like the 1950s one in Mayabazar made well-after the dance revival movements in the 1930s.

A few other silents are known to have featured dance content.  Hanuman's character performed an "athletic dance in rage and grief" in Phalke's 1917 film Lanka Dahan (Rajadhyaksha), and Shakuntala Janma (or Vishwamitra Menaka, 1919) featured the character Menaka performing a "voluptuous dance to seduce Saint Vishwamitra" resulting in the birth of Shakuntala (Ramachandran).  

Moving into the 1920s of Indian silent cinema, many accounts of "dancing girl" characters can be found and their dances are clearly depicted in a negative light.  Certainly this was a reflection of the fervent anti-nautch/dance sentiments of the 20s.  Rajadhyaksha and Willemen's Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema names a few film examples, including Gunsundari (1927) in which a husband "frustrated with his housewifely spouse takes up with a dancing girl," Mojili Mumbai (1925) which featured the common film theme of that time of a "dancer of ill repute named Roshanara, based, apparently, on a real cabaret dancer of that name," Pati Bhakti (1922) that contained a dance sequence Madras censors labeled "obscene," and Andhare Alo (1922), a Bengali film that featured stereotypical scenes of drunkenness and courtesan dancing.  Dancer Susheela Devi "did some of the earliest cabaret sequences in the 1930s" and would dance in the actual cinema halls in South India during pauses in movie screenings (Randor Guy). 

It seems that the depiction of dance in Indian films appeared to shift somewhere around the late 1930s.  This was also the time in which the dance reform movements were taking shape and becoming more widely known. In 1938, an unsuccessful Tamil film Jalaja was released with the goal to “create an awareness in the ordinary cinemagoer of the classical forms of dance” (Ranga Rao).  1938 was also the year Baby Kamala at age 4 started getting noticed for her Kathak dancing in Bombay and danced in her first obscure film, Valibar Sangam (Tamil).  And once we cross over into the 40s, film dance really starts to mature and many of film dance's superstars, such as Baby Kamala, Padmini and Lalitha, and Vyjayanthimala were introduced or popularized.

Early Cinema Dances Available Online

Since India's earliest feature film was up online, I could not resist seeing what other treasures from pre-1940s cinema might be available.  I wondered what dances if any the films would hold and what the dances would look like given the attitudes towards dance in early twentieth century India.  Luckily, I've found quite a few examples!  Certainly these dances are in no way a "representative" sample of dance from that time, but they are instances, some of which are fantastic.  There must be more out there despite my attempt to search as comprehensively as I could from known film titles of various regional languages.  It's not surprising that quite a few of the dances online are from Prabhat Films, not only because of the studio's reputation at the time for technical excellence but also because many of Prabhat's films were recently released on DVD (and are available for purchase at places like Induna). 

In the silent cinema era pre-1931, the only other film dance I've been able to find is the short dance in A Throw of Dice (1929, Prapancha Pash in Hindi), but it cannot count as an indigenous Indian film since it was technically a co-production between German director Franz Osten and Indian producer Himansu Rai (and it's goal was creating a look and feel of exoticism and orientalism).

Once the timeframe shifts to talkies in 1931 and beyond, quite a few dances can be seen!  I've only found four examples from 1931-1935, the era that Rao describes as faithfully reproducing what was seen on stage at that time.  Three seem to somewhat fit the bill of his assessment: the outside stick dance and swirling dance in Maya Machindra (Hindi, 1932), the solo court dance with faint Kathak/Rajasthani folk dance inspiration in Agnikankan (Marathi, 1932), and Chandramukhi's courtesan dance in Devdas (Hindi, 1935-6).  But the fourth dance, in Amrit Manthan, is so awesome and special I've saved it for the "awesome" section below!

Moving past 1935 into the late 1930s, the number of dances available online increases, especially as 1940 nears.  My two favorites videos are embedded below, but there were many others I found: a nice group stage dance in Dhoop Chaon (Hindi, 1939), a home/practice scene in Duniya Na Mane (Hindi, 1937), a lovely male-female folk dance in Jhula (Hindi, 1939), a playful male-female folk dance in Navjeevan (Hindi, 1939), folk dance and second folk dance in Mukti (Bengali, 1934-5), courtesan dance in Nartaki (Hindi, 1939-40), and the apparent courtesan dance in Aadmi (Hindi, 1939).  The dances available online from the 1937 Bengali film Alibaba do not seem to be the ones which inspired glowing descriptions of "rare sophistication" and Hollywood influence, especially one called the "the Marjina-Abdallah sequence which long set the standard for film musicals" (Ranga Rao; Rajadhyaksha). 

Achhut Kanya (Hindi, 1936) - A delightful stage dance about bangles! The film was cleaned up and uploaded (with English subtitles) by the ever-awesome Tom Daniel.  Edit 2013: Linked to new version.

Wahan (Hindi, 1937) - What mesmerizing, repetitive string music this tribal number has!  The group choreography is nicely framed from a camera perched up high.  I wish it was much longer--so infectious!

Starts 38:46

Three AWESOME 1930s Film Dances

I've saved the best three for last.  These three dances completely changed my perception of what dance in 1930s Indian films could have been like:

Raitu Bidda (Telugu, 1939, dir: Gudavalli Ramabrahmam) 
"Dasavatara Shabdam" 

I almost fell off my chair when I first saw this!  The spinning "sun" backdrop is visually imaginative for a solo dance of the time.  But it's the performer and dance style that are most notable.  Rumya Sree Putcha confirms the performer is hereditary Kuchipudi dancer Vedantam Raghavayya, and he performs a "Dasavatara Shabdam" or "Dasavataram" Kuchipudi solo piece that "relates the ten avatara or reincarnations of Vishnu."  The film dance is an amazing historical artifact because, as Putcha notes, the lyrics and much of the choreography are unchanged from what is danced today, which means the number provides visual proof of the stylistic continuity in solo Kuchipudi going back to at least 1939.

The number seems structured to first include a description of the incarnation in a stylized, rhythmic pace, and then when the percussion swells the incarnation is named as Raghavayya shows its corresponding hasta (hand gesture); the ten avatars of Vishnu as named by Sunil Kothari are Matsya (fish), Kurma, (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (half-man, half-lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parashurama (wielding an axe), Lord Rama (wielding a bow), Balarama (with a plough), Buddha, and Kalki; I assume those are the same ones named in the film number, though it's hard for me to hear some of them.  I love how some of the hand gestures, like for fish and tortoise, are made to appear similar to the living object.

Here it is in all its spectacular glory:

Putcha notes Raitu Bidda was the "first Telugu movie to feature both Kuchipudi dance and a hereditary Kuchipudi dancer," and it appears the director invited Raghavayya to choreograph a dance that would "characterize the rural feudal setting the film dramatized."  Vedantam Raghavayya was well-known for his dancing and film direction, and I'll have a lot more on him and other Kuchipudi film dances/choreographers in my upcoming Kuchipudi Choreographers section of the "Remembering Choreographers" post series.

What I love about the number, beyond all the obvious goodies above, is that it is from an early South Indian-language talkie.  India's first official talkie, Alam Ara (1931), understandably gets all the attention since it was first, but there were other regional  talkies released later that same year, like Kalidas (Tamil) and Bhakta Prahlada (Telugu), marketed/released to those regions.  Moving past 1931, outside of early Marathi, Bengali, and Hindi films, I've found hardly any extant clips online of Tamil or Telugu or other South Indian-language films before 1940.  Which is why this dance number is all the more rare, historic, and exciting!

Amrit Manthan (Marathi, 1934, dir: V. Shantaram)

While this number starts out looking like a nicely-lit folk dance, it soon stuns the viewer with its overhead camera shots framing the dancers as they create geometric patterns and move as a single, snake-like unit.  I couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw it.  Only three years after sound came to Indian cinema and a dance number shows such creativity in moving the camera from its static frontal position.  These advances were likely possible given that Amrit Manthan was the "first film produced in the new well-equipped studio of Prabhat at Pune" (  Edit 2013 - Relinked.

Starts 1:03:37

While Prabhat films co-founder S. Fattelal was responsible for the art direction (Rajadhyaksha), where did the inspiration for this creativity come from?  All signs point to the iconic Hollywood choreographer, Busby Berkeley.  I first read of this connection in Randor Guy's write up of the 1936 Tamil film Mohini Rukmangadha in which he describes a 21-person song-and-dance sequence with "stunning top angle shots showing the dancers in incredible and dazzling kaleidoscopic patterns of circles, crawling snakes, and blossoming flowers" in which director "Soundararajan drew inspiration from the Hollywood icon of choreography, Busby Berkeley."  Berkeley's top shot technique "appeared seminally in the Cantor films" (Wikipedia), and given that a Tamil actor was called "the Eddie Cantor of India" and at least one Tamil film was based on a Cantor film plot (Randor Guy), it seems some of Eddie Cantor's films were released and known within India.  Low and behold, two of Cantor's pre-1934 films show the likely inspiration for Amrit Manthan: Whoopee! (1930) and "Yes Yes!" from Palmy Days (1931).  It's unmistakeable--check it out:

Whoopee! (1930, Hollywood) - Amrit Manthan's Clear Inspiration

[Unable to locate the specific dance online/removed.]

Chandrasena (Marathi 1935, dir: V. Shantaram - Also made in Hindi and Tamil)

The use of silhouettes, lighting contrasts, and large set pieces provide for some striking visuals to accompany the music.  Just likeAmrit Mantan above, S. Fattelal was credited [in the film reel credits] as the art director. The inspiration for the silhouette idea and the costumes seems to come directly from Prabhat Films' famous and iconic logo (left) which was supposedlydesigned by Fattelal himself!  Whereas in the logo the strings of balls or jewels hang off of the back, in the film dance it's the dancers' upper legs that are heavily covered with the accessories.  Edit 2013 - Relinked video.

Selected Sources:
  • Hansen, Kathryn.  "Stri Bhumika: Female Impersonators and Actresses on the Parsi Stage."  Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 33, No. 35., 1998.
  • Josephson, Matthew.  "Review: Light of Asia: Silent Cinema in India, 1913-34."  Film History.  Vol 7.  Issue 1.  1995
  • Kapse, Anupama Prabhala.  The Moving Image: Melodrama and Early Indian Cinema, 1913-1939.  Dissertation.  University of California, Berkeley, 2009.
  • Kothari, Sunil.  Kuchipudi: Indian Classical Dance Art. 2001.
  • Pande, Mrinal.  "Moving Beyond Themselves: Women in Hindustani Parsi Theatre and Early Hindi Films."  Economic and Political Weekly.  Vol. 41, No. 17., 2006.
  • Putcha, Rumya Sree.  Revisiting the Classical: A Critical History of Kuchipudi Dance.  Dissertation.  University of Chicago, 2011.  (Features an EXCELLENT chapter titled "Signs and Symbols: Kuchipudi and the South Indian Film Industry).
  • Ramachandran, T.M. 70 Years of Indian Cinema (1913-1983). 1985.
  • Ranga Rao, VAK.  "Dance in Indian Cinema." Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last Twenty-five Years, Volume I, Music and Dance.  Eds Bimal Mukherjee and Sunil Kothari. 1995. 
  • Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Paul Willemen.  Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema: New Revised Edition. 1999. 
  • Schulze, Brigitte.  "Poetic-Painful Lives of Women-Performers Vis-a-Vis High-Caste Moral Modernity as Remembered by Kamalabai Gokhale, and Retold by Brigitte Schulze." Between Fame and Shame: Performing Women - Women Performers in India.  Eds Bruckner, de Bruin, Moser.  2011.   

Note: In the book Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change, Gokulsing and Dissanayake make the significant claim that Phalke choreographed Kamlabai's dance in Mohini Bhasmasur (1913) and list his specific dance inspirations.  They first quote T.M. Ramchandran (page 253) in single quotations, and then make the Phalke choreography claim afterwards without quotations which would lead any reasonable reader to think that the information came again from Ramchandran but is paraphrased instead of directly quoted.  Well, I've looked at page 253 in Ramchandran's book (he's one of my sources above), as well as the entire chapter and most of the entire volume, and I did not find a single statement regarding the claim that Phalke choreographed the dance or used the stated inspirations.  It's a shame the information is misrepresented, as I've already seen the misquote used as a source in another piece of academic writing!


  1. Are second and third videos interchanged?

  2. Oops, they seem ok now. At one stage Raitu BiDDa and Wahan videos came at the wrong places in my iPad.

  3. Sorry to have started on the wrong note to an excellent article. I just noticed that the Telugu movie Bhakta Prhlada might have been released in 1932. In Kalidas, the hero spoke in Telugu, heroine in Tamil, L.V. Prasad in Hindi and most of the songs were in Telugu. Prasad was in three first film Alam Ara, Kalidas and Bhkta Prahlad.
    The same article appears in The Hindu, but there seem to more stills in the post.

  4. gaddeswarup - Glad the video issue got fixed - that's scary, that some devices might change the order of videos! Yes, the issue of exactly when movies released and what they can be classified as with silent/early sound films in India is really complicated (and there seems to be a lot of misinformation, especially on less reputable websites). I used a few journal articles as my sources for this since the Encyclopedia didn't cover all the aspects of early SI cinema (except featuring Bhakta Prahlada and Kalidas both with a 1931 release date), and if you can find these articles I think you would really enjoy reading them. They are "What's Tamil About Tamil Cinema" by Stephen Putnam Hughes and "Making of Peasant Industry: Telugu Cinema in the 1930s-1950s" by S.V. Srinivas in BioScope. Hughes explained that all the early SI sound films were made in places like Bombay or Calcutta until 1935 in which sound studios began being founded in SI. While Kalidas is conventionally recognized as the first Tamil film, it was produced in Bombay and directed by a Telugu speaker and the heroine sang in Tamil, the hero spoke in Telugu, and there was some Hindi and Sanskrit thrown in. 1933's Valli was the first Tamil talkie to be produced by a production company from Madras. Hughes says the term "Tamil talkie" wasn't used at the time until 1932 films like Sampoorna Harishchandra and Galavarishi both produced in Bombay. Interestingly, 1934's Bhama Vijayam was advertised in its day as the "First 100% Tamil film" even though it was directed by a Punjabi and produced in Calcutta. So clearly very confusing! With Telugu films, Srinivas said that the first Telugu talkie was 1931's Bhakta Prahalada made in Bombay, and once Vel Pictures was established in 1933 Telugu films could start being made in Madras. Both articles are fascinating. But in light of that interesting article you linked to, it's possible some of these dates and facts could be wrong when looking at different evidence. It seems some of these facts are very hard to determine given the lack of evidence! But film scholar folks are researching these things in depth, but their articles are hidden away in dissertations and journals not always accessible to the public.

  5. I truly like to reading your post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information.
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  6. Hello Minai,there is an interesting dance sequence in Shiraz (1928) ( 20:17 from the start). This Market scene with the dancers, the man with a monkey and the other one with a sword is shot like a documentary. It makes me think that it is probably the only available sequence with actual "nautch-girls". So sad it lasts only 11s...

    1. Thank you for posting this--I had no idea Shiraz was back on YouTube! I never realized it had a nautch scene and must have missed it when I browsed through the film before. Very sad it is so short indeed. Seems to be a classic example of a kind of North Indian nautch from that time and before. Wish we knew the exact city that dance scene was shot in...

  7. Minai, the footage of Tukaram and the dancing varkaris is actually from the film Tukaram (1921) directed by Ganpat Shinde. The film is actually a compilation film of Phalke film footage held by NFAI ( compiled by Satish Bahadur). Tukaram was, for a long time, wrongly credited as being a Phalke film.

    1. Ah, so the Raja Harischandra (1913) footage scene I spoke about is actually misidentified in the YouTube clip and is really from Tukaram (1921)? That's the trouble with YouTube...there's quite a bit of misidentified material out there.

  8. Dear Minai, just wanted to point out that the dance in Devdas (1936) is not by Chnadramukhi. Chandramukhi can be seen sitting with the other visitors on the mattress. It might be because this screen adaptation was closest to Sharatchandra's novel, where also Chandramukhi did not dance. Reposting the link, since the link in your article seems to have been removed.


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