Film Dances/Appearances of Ram Gopal and Extant Dance Footage

Sunday, January 6, 2013
While browsing the website of the National Portrait Gallery in London, I discovered they have a page on the late famous dancer Ram Gopal who is generally recognized as the first Indian dancer to bring classical/traditional Indian dances (as opposed to Uday Shankar's style) to the West starting in the late 1930s.  As I read the NPG's description of Gopal, I couldn't believe my eyes:
 "After the War he starred in a number of Hollywood epics made on location, such as The Purple Plain (1954), and William Dieterle's Elephant Walk (1954), for which he had also choreographed the dance sequences.” 
What?! Ram Gopal starred in Hollywood films and choreographed a dance? In all my reading about Ram Gopal I had never come across mention of his stint in films! Of course, I had to go on a little research journey and find out as much about this as I could.  It appears that he had supporting character rather than starring roles in a few films.

Ram Gopal's Hollywood/British Film Work

Elephant Walk (1954) - This American film contains the only feature film dance associated with Ram Gopal I was able to find.  The dance appears to be a traditional Kandyan dance and according to the credits is performed by dancers from the Madhyama Lanka Nritya Mandala, the landmark first traditional Kandyan dance school in Sri Lanka established in the 1940s by traditional Kandyan dancer Suramba Gurunnanse/Rajapakse and still functioning today [website no longer up but archived here].  Kandyan (or “up-country”) dance is one of the three main dance forms identified with the majority Sinhala ethnic community in Sri Lanka and is considered Sri Lanka’s national dance.

The film dance was supposedly filmed at the sacred elephant octagonal at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.  Gopal is credited as the dance's choreographer which I found interesting since I've not read of his learning Kandyan dance in his autobiography or elsewhere.  But he did tour Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) in the 1940s and tried to start a "School of Pakistani, Ceylonese, and Indian dances" in the 1960s, so he certainly must have picked up Kandyan dance somewhere along the way.  An article in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper claimed that the male lead was Ram Gopal himself, but I’m convinced it’s not after taking some screencaps of the lead dancer who definitely does not look like Ram at all.  The only person that remotely looks like Ram Gopal is the man with the spear dancing around the masked elephant at the end.

Definitely not Ram Gopal
The film dance begins with a procession of dancers walking to the performance space and then cuts to a group of male dancers wearing what looks like authentic Ves costumes.  The lead performer, pictured above, gives an incredibly energetic performance!  The sequence is frequently interrupted by the irritating dialogue of the luminous Elizabeth Taylor and her companions.  At 2:34, the female dancers appear and another solo dancer gives yet another energized but brief performance.  It's interesting that the women are not wearing the female Kandyan dance costume seen today.  The number quickly goes downhill when white chick Mylee Haulani saunters in to titillate the male onlookers but is revived when the masked elephant dancer appears at 5:15.  The feel of the whole sequence is one of the "sophisticated" westerners watching a "quaint" but strange "oriental" dance performance of the country they are in.  I wonder if any of the dancers in the scene were well-known Kandyan dancers in the 1950s? Definitely an excellent archival piece of Kandyan dance history. Here tis:

The Purple Plain (1954) - In this British war film set in Burma near the end of World War II, Ram Gopal plays a small supporting role as "Mr. Phang." He can be seen at 30:18 being introduced to the Royal Air Force pilot (Gregory Peck), the central character of the film, and then again a couple minutes later at the dinner table.  It's delightful to hear Gopal speaking since all of his other extant dance videos (that I'm aware of) never feature his voice from his younger days.  Despite being set in Burma, the film was actually shot in Ceylon.

The Planter's Wife (1952 UK, "Outpost in Malaya" in the US) - In this British film about a rubber plantation during the Malayan Emergency, Ram Gopal is said to have played the supervisor of the plantation (and one article indicated he had many scenes with the star of the film Claudette Colbert).  The film is extremely difficult to get a hold of in my region, but I was able to find one screencap of Gopal below.  While some of the film was shot in Malaya, much of it was actually shot in Ceylon.  If anyone is able to get a hold of this film I'd love to hear from you; it can be found under many different names (e.g., Avanzada En Malasia, Aeyko Aima, Nat Over Malaja, La Femme Deu Planteur).

Source no longer available
According to IMDB and the BFI, Ram Gopal was a castmember in a few other feature films/TV series/documentaries, but I was not able to find any relevant information on them.  What's interesting about Ram's Hollywood work is that it shows he was in Sri Lanka quite a bit during the early to mid 1950s, a time when British and American directors made a number of films in Ceylon [article "When Ceylon Drew the Stars" from no longer available].

Extant Dance Footage of Ram Gopal

After finding the clips above, I became very interested in trying to get a fuller sense of Gopal's dance style and career.  Here are all the non-feature film clips of Ram Gopal's dances I was able to find in chronological order:

The Dancer Ram Gopal Wants to See Himself in Colour, 8mm (1938) - This appears to be the earliest recorded video of Gopal's dance, and the way it was discovered is astonishing.  The footage was placed online at by Ayisha Abraham, a Bangalore-based visual artist and filmmaker.  She had interviewed Tom D'Aguiar (the man seen speaking at the end of the footage) about his past amateur films and he had mentioned an old film he made on Ram Gopal but could not find the footage in his Bangalore home.  After Tom passed away and his children came to clean out his home, Ayisha was given a small plastic bag filled with all of Tom's films including the 8mm film footage of Ram Gopal!  The footage was weathered and extremely fragile, but Ayisha was able to digitize it for the world to see.

The footage was likely shot around 1938 and shows Ram Gopal performing on the terrace of his parent's mansion (Torquay Castle) in Bangalore.  Ram had asked Tom to film him in color after attending a photographic exhibition of Tom's novel color photos.  Gopal was probably around 20 years old, and his costume looks like the Moghul Rajput court costume that he mentions designing in his autobiography.  His movements seem to be inspired most by Kathak with some small mixings with Bharatanatyam-like movements.  The footage begins in black-and-white but soon turns to color.  What rare and phenomenal footage!  Of all the videos in this post, I find Gopal's dancing here the most enchanting.  For more details I didn't cover, do watch the clip and read Ayisha's annotations.  Also fascinating is her presentation of the footage and accompanying annotations in this video presentation.

Click image to link to video at

Indian Dancer (1947) - This two-part newsreel footage by BritishPath√© features Gopal dancing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  In reading Gopal's two books he authored (his autobiography Rhythm in the Heavens and Indian Dancing), I learned that this performance took place at the reopening of the Indian section of the Museum and (in the second clip) featured his female dance partner at the time Shevanti (earlier introduced to him by Madame Menaka) and male student Rajeshwar. This clip is an example of Gopal's iconic Shiva-as-Nataraja "freeform" dance (or as I call it, the "waving around the hands gracefully" style) that seems aimed at creating an exotic mystique rather than showcasing good dancing.

In the second part, Ram's inspirations from Bharatanatyam appear, most notably at 1:37 where he and student Rajeshwar perform movements from an alarippu segment and at 2:52 when he dances with his dance partner Shevanti.

Lord Shiva Danced (1948, UK) - Another example of Gopal's iconic Shiva-as-Nataraja dance and certainly a great improvement on American dancer Ted Shawn's interpretation years earlier. :)  The BFI has three lovely stills from the shooting of this clip and makes clear it was a fuller documentary also featuring a female dancer.

Ram Gopal: Dancing to the Music of Time - This documentary, uploaded in three parts on YouTube by the fabulous Tripmonk0, appears to have been filmed in the 1980s and was shown on British television. The dance clips in color look like they were probably filmed in the 1960s or 1970s.

Part 1 - At 3:15, Ram performs a rather terrifying piece of abhinaya.  His student Rajeshwar can also be seen dancing briefly at 5:31.

Part 2 - Ram reprises his Shiva-Nataraja dance at 1:15, but what I'm most interested in is his Bharatanatyam performance briefly introduced at 2:45 and then resuming at 4:48 with blazing footwork.  While I think his dance is quite sloppy and unfinished, it is proof of his training in Bharatanatyam and an example of his classical dancing of which little footage is available. 

I became really excited when I read that Ram had performed at the Edinburgh Dance Festival in 1956 since I had just found the rare footage of Balasaraswati at the 1963 Festival at BritishPathe.  While I was not able to find video footage, I did find a few pictures of the performance (one is on the right) from the festival in Shah's book who described the dance as a "mixture of classical and folk traditions" that attempted to use all the forms to tell a story.  Kumudini and Shevanti played the role of Mumtaz on alternating days.  As an aside, this clip at the Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965 features two dancers at 2:21 that must have either been trained by Gopal or were emulating his Shiva-Nataraja style.
Four videos I have not been able to locate online.  One, housed at the New York Public Library, is footage of Gopal's dance at Jacob's Pillow in 1954 (featuring his Vishnu Tandave, Dance of the Setting Sun, Rajput Serenade, and Garuda dances).  The remaining three were documentaries on Gopal directed by French filmmaker Claude Lamorisse (a friend of Gopal): Aum Shiva (1970), Nataraj: King of Dance (1973), and World of Ram.

There are a few clips on YouTube of people visiting and interviewing Gopal in the last years of his life, such as YouTuber Tripmonk0's visit to him in 2001 (part 1 and part 2) and dancer Raghunath Manet's visit around the same time to learn dance moves.

Thoughts on Ram Gopal

Until researching for this post, I had always had a hard time getting a "grasp" on how exactly Ram Gopal danced, especially since he was lauded by some as "India's first truly international-level, classical dancer" (Khokar) or bringing "out the inherent dignity of the Pandanallur [Bharatanatyam] school" (Kothari), but yet by others as not seeking "to recreate any particular form of classical dance" and instead using the forms to communicate "an essential Indianness" (Katrak).  Which is it!  After reading quite a bit about him and watching the videos above, it seems that while his performances did take pieces and movements from various classical and folk dance forms that he studied from authentic teachers (and he also featured authentic dancers trained in a classical form), he "interspersed" these dances "with his own inventions or integrated folk music" (Katrak) and was not interested in presenting completely authentic and technical classical/traditional dances but rather a wider dance aesthetic that emphasized appearance and mood.  As explained in his autobiography, the bored and lackluster reaction Gopal received from his fellow Indians in his early performances in India led him to "prune the traditional dances of all repetitive movement" and focus on appropriate stage presentation and costuming.  His dances were not demonstrations of technical dance on a plain stage; they were artfully presented productions showcasing various dances and inspirations from India.  When he first took his dance outside of India, his productions were "the most comprehensive and sensitively presented show of Indian dance in Europe" at that time (Shah).

Ram and Kumudini - "Dances of India" 1948
Reena Shah's biography of Kathak dancer Kumudini Lakhia, who danced in Gopal's troupe in London starting in the late 1940s, gives a fascinating insight into Gopal's dance.  Kumudini comments less on Gopal’s specific dance technique and rather steers her focus towards the bigger aesthetic picture—his showmanship, polished and beautiful productions, his ability to “establish both a mood and a presence on stage,” and his way of connecting with the audience, all important factors in his Western popularity.  She notes that Ram focused “less on technical prowess and virtuosity,” “was not considered especially virtuous in any one form,” and then goes as far as to say that he was “hopeless in terms of technique” when learning Kathak under her former dance teacher Radhelal Misra.  Elsewhere I had read that another partner of Gopal's, Mrinalini Sarabhai, apparently left Ram when “her emphasis on purity of traditional and classical technique soon made her launch out on her own."  The most honest and matter-of-fact critique I read of Gopal's dance was that of English woman Shala Mattingly who, in recalling a performance of Gopal and Kumudini in the 40s or 50s, said "Ram Gopal was spectacular of course, but as we all know now he was never a great dancer, and Kumudini was just lovely" (Shah).  I get the sense that Gopal himself danced less authentically than the other dancers he featured with him. 

source ( no longer online
The one form Gopal seemed to train in most extensively was Bharatanatyam which he learned from the eminent nattuvanars of the day Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Muthukumaran Pillai.  Gopal speaks of training so intensely with Meenakshisundaram Pillai that he regularly "dropped off exhausted from the dance floor" and Pillai would lead him to his bed to sleep (Chatterjea).  Pillai had taught Gopal the piece Natanam Adinar, Shiva's cosmic dance of creation, which Gopal claimed he was the first to perform and felt "should be danced by a man." (David).  But I've always wondered how good of a Bharatanatyam dancer Ram Gopal really was.  The clip from the 80s-ish documentary above is really the only decent example we have, but I'm not sure if it's representative or just lethargic basic on Gopal being past his prime. 

source ( no longer online
Gopal's emphasis on appearance and stage showmanship seemed to be carefully honed.  Ann David notes how unusual it was in the early years of Ram's career to see dancers wearing as little as he did (such as the Shiva-Nataraja costume) and says "Gopal was certainly aware of his seductive powers to both women and men which he utilized both on and off stage.”  While Gopal gives details in his autobiography regarding his efforts to design what he felt were “authentic” costumes by observing Indian gods on frescoes, bronze sculptures, and cave paintings, one look at many of his costumes and headdresses suggests that he was certainly “deliberately flamboyant in costume and jewelry" and one can observe “the consciously, aesthetically constructed androgynous image incorporated in this actually gay man who carefully staged his divine stage grandeur as well as his ethnic regal appearance in the everyday” (Katrak).  Clearly his image was a large part of his success in Europe whose interest Shah described as "primarily motivated by an exotic allure rather than the dance form as art." After watching his videos above, I can understand why "Western" audiences at the time were spellbound by his charisma.

La Meri and Ram Gopal
One thing I found quite amusing in my research on Gopal was the apparent antagonistic relationship between he and American "ethnic" dancer La Meri that shows up in their writings about each other (remember La Meri from my Jack Cole post?).  La Meri "discovered" Gopal in India in the 1930s and invited him to join her as a dancer on her Far East Tour. While on the tour, Gopal taught La Meri Kathakali dance, and in return Gopal was exposed to and assisted with stage presentation and production techniques that likely were instrumental in his later success.  When La Meri's troupe had to cancel their remaining tour and abruptly return to the US due to the war, Gopal remained in Japan.  Why he did so differs depending on whose account you believe!  Gopal describes it in his autobiography as a complete abandonment by La Meri and connects it to her ill will based on some reviews that praised Gopal's dances and criticized her's.  On the flip side, La Meri in her autobiography says that she had booked a passage for Ram Gopal back to India "but he had made many friends in Tokyo and was determined to wait there until he could finance going on to America to continue his career."  Clearly the two had some sort of falling out.  In his autobiography, Gopal published critical words about La Meri's lack of attention to spiritual and mental aspects of ethnic dances and her breadth vs. depth approach, and Usha Venkateswaran in her biography on La Meri published snarky complaints about Gopal from La Meri's journals.  I love reading the juicy details of dancer's real lives. :)

Overall, I think it's hard to gain an accurate picture of how Ram Gopal danced without having a representative sample of his dance on video.  I also have not been able to get much of a sense of how Gopal was received in his day by Indians especially given that he came to prominence during the "dance revival" in India when classicism and purity was the foremost concern.  Perhaps it is telling that most of his accolades came from the West and very little from India.  

While my attempt to create a comprehensive post about Gopal's dance is hampered by the relative lack of video, I'm very happy to be able to shine light on Gopal's short Hollywood acting and choreographing career that is so little discussed elsewhere.  Who would'a thunk it!

Selected Sources:
Chatterjea, Ananya.  "Training in Indian Classical Dance: A Case Study."  1996. 
David, Ann.  "Gendered Orientalism? Gazing on the Male South Asian Dancer." 2010.
Katrak, Ketu.  "Contested Histories: 'Revivals' of Classical Indian Dance and Early Pioneers of Contemporary Indian Dance" 2011.
Kothari, Sunil.  "Bharata Natyam: Indian Classical Dance Art"  1979.
Venkateswaran, Usha.  "The Life and Times of La Meri: The Queen of Ethnic Dance."  2005.


  1. There is a sort of biography on the net which has some material about Ram Gopal
    One can go to the contents and look for the section on Ram Gopal. I might have sent the link before. I vaguely remember that he appears in some other sections as well. I do not know why but I seem to associate him with Burma. Is he partly Burmese?

    1. gaddeswarup - Thanks for the link, I've not seen it before. It appears to be someone's past reminiscences about Ram Gopal and other people/events, and it looks to be quite juicy from my brief scanning.
      Yes, Ram had a Burmese mother and Indian (Rajput) father. I'm reminded of one of La Meri's journal comments about Ram from her Far East tour: "He looks like a Chinese; they can’t tell if he is a man or woman!" ha! ;D

  2. Minai,
    I came across that link while looking for some information about Snehprabha Pradhan, a Hindi-Marathi actress from thirties and forties. She was a sort of socialist, daughter of social workers and joined films due to financial problems. Aspiring actors like Dev Anand dreamed bout her. She was married and separated from Kishore Sahu; I think she complained about his libido or some such thing. The link is mainly some sort of memoirs of British soldier Sparkie, (I forget the full name) who landed in Bombay during the war. He seems to have organized some news bulletins on the ship and one of them caused an uproar in India and when they landed in Bombay, there was a protest demonstration organized by K.A. Abbas. When Abbas realized that it was misunderstanding, he invited Sparkie to his house where the leftist Snehprabha was also staying. Lot of the story is about their torrid affair, and the ending of it later in England by which time she seems to have taken up with another soldier. I might have associated Ram Gopal with Burma from those memoirs, I think there were later meetings on the eastern front.
    Anyway, I admire Snehprabha. Later on she left Hindi movies went on Marathi stage, took care of her mother and did social work. I think that she had a fulfilling life and did not end up as an alcoholic or any such thing which happened to some actresses whose later careers were not successful.
    Coming back to Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar, Their photos look like Ajanta frescos. Apparently they were dynamic, but lack of rigorous training in one case. and possibly lack of belief in the whole system in Ram Gopal case led their success. May be that also led to some failures. In the case of Uday Shankar there is some legacy in terms of the number of dancers influenced by him though they all took different paths with not much discernible techniques from Uday Shankar. I hope that we won't be too dis appointed when Kalpana becomes available. I am not sure of Ram Gopal's legacy bur from your post it seems that there is some influence.

  3. It seems that some famous traditional dancers had a role in the Kandyan dance in Elephant Walk

    1. gaddeswarup - Amazing! That article says the Elephant Walk dance was performed by dancers from the famous dancer Jayana Rajapakse's troupe associated with the Madhyama school (apparently he helped start it)! Which leads me to guess that the lead dancer might be Rajapakse himself, because who better to show off then the troupe leader. The article also identifies three other films the troupe danced in; they're probably Sri Lankan films, but I'll try to find them anyway. :) How amazing, how do you always find such excellent information!

      Interesting tidbits in your previous comment. Regarding Ram Gopal's legacy it does seem that he didn't really leave any well-known pupils or teach in a serious, intensive, one-on-one kind of way. I've read of a few dancers saying they "learned from Ram Gopal" as some kind of status symbol statement. Ashish Mohan Khokar's theory for Ram's lack of students is "that all great masters don’t have students, only followers or copycats." Hmm...

  4. Minai,
    Just google search. You are putting in so much effort in these posts that some of us who follow the blog should try to help a bit. But my apologies too. Sometimes I go off at a tangent talking about things that fascinate me like Snehprabhs Pradhan story. You should not hesitate to delete some of my irrelevant comments.

  5. Oh my goodness... , I was looking for Edward Sparkes accounts. I had forgotten the name and the link but had read his description of Ram Gopal (My great grand uncle). So glad you mention the link, thank you very much.

  6. Hello, I stumbled across this blogpost while doing some resarch on Ram Gopal (Bissano Ramgopal) for a relative. Ramgopal was my great grand uncle from my mothers side. I met him a couple of times when he visited Bangalore in the 90s. Thank you for your informative post and also some of the comments section. Regards - Arjun


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