Rare Video of Dancers Tara Chowdhary, Guru Gopinath, & Indrani Rehman, Sitarist Ravi Shankar, & More (all thanks to Net-Film!)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

While browsing through the rest of the Vedhala Ulagam videos after my post about Kamala's peacock dance, I noticed that tucked in the middle of the clip "Sarangapani Sees Maharaja's Statue" was a classical-esque dance by a woman I did not recognize.  Re-reading Randor Guy's write-up of the film revealed that in addition to Kamala, Lalitha, and Padmini, Tara Chowdhary also had a dance sequence.  I knew I recognized that name from past researching but I couldn't remember why.  Another Randor Guy article revealed that Tara was "a classical dancer who was active in the field and danced in quite a few Tamil films of the bygone era. Today she is hardly remembered even by the dancing community in south India!"  I was initially going to do a post just on this (for my research on Tara see the section "More on Tara Chaudhury" near the end of this post), but then I made an awesome discovery!

As I googled different spelling variations of Tara Chowdhary's last name (which I'll use throughout this post), I found another rare discovery: footage not only of Tara Chowdhary but also Guru Gopinath dancing in the Soviet Union in 1954!  And the video also features a young Ravi Shankar!  Further searching of the site also turned up additional footage from the same 1954 event as well as 1967 footage of Indrani Rehman dancing!  Holy cow!!

Guru Gopinath was originally a Kathakali dancer who created the dance form "Kerala Natanam," a simplified and more accessible style of Kathakali with many innovations.  He and American-born dancer Ragini Devi formed a touring duo that "was the first professional effort in India to popularize Kathakali outside its home state or setting" [Khokar at narthaki.com].  While I once posted about Gopinath dancing in the Telugu film Mayabazar, I don't think video of Gopinath dancing outside of films is easily available, so this is quite a rare find.  And the footage of Indrani Rehman is a coincidental find because she was the daughter of, guess who, Ragini Devi!

The website that houses all these treasures is Net-Film, an online "professional digital footage archive" of the "Russian Central Studio of Documentary Films, the oldest documentary film studio in Russia."  The archive contains "21,000 items of documentaries, newsreels, arŅhival footages, rough shootings etc." from the late 1800s to today, and the descriptions are available in English.  Basically, it's the Russian version of BritishPathe!  Given India and Russia's history of friendship and exchange (previously discussed in my post about Indo-Soviet cinematic ties and coproductions) and the interest Russians still maintain today in Indian dance, it is no surprise that the Net-Film archive has some fantastic and rare footage of Indian dancers visiting the former Soviet Union!

Masters of the Indian Art (1954)

Before I discuss the video footage below, here's a link to the webpage it is housed on (or click image below) so you can get it playing.  The site is a bit finicky; sometimes the net-film graphic shows instead of the video even after hitting the play button.  If you have any trouble, simply scroll to the bottom, click on "download links," and click on the .mp4 file to download the video for free! 

Click image to link to video page

What rare footage this is!  This 39-minute video documents the Indian Cultural Delegation of musicians and dancers sponsored by the Government of India who visited and performed in the U.S.S.R., Poland, and Czechoslovakia in 1954.  According to a government report [link at http://mealib.nic.in/reports/1954-55.pdf no longer available], the 1954-55 year saw a number of cultural and scientific exchanges between India and the U.S.S.R. as part of an effort to develop "cultural and economic relations with the countries of Eastern Europe" and "promote understanding at a popular level in both countries of each other's achievements."  The Delegation was headed by Mrs. Chandrasekhar, India's Deputy Health Minister, and according to the video's description included the dancers Guru Gopinath and Tara Chowdhury, singers Asa Singh Mastan, Mira Chatterjee, and Surinder Kaur, musicians Ravi Shankar, Gian Ghosh, Keeshan Maharaj, and All India Radio Director Mallik.  It is clear from the video that other unnamed dancers (Manipuri, Naga) and musicians were part of the Delegation too.

The Indian dances in the video are (most take place in the famous Bolshoi Theatre):
  • 7:11-9:07: Guru Gopinath performs three short mimetic dance pieces which the description identifies as "water," "elephant," and "combing the hair." 
  • 11:04-12:55: Tara Chowdhury performs a Bharatanatyam Alarippu.
  • 18:50-20:12: Dance demonstration exchanges.  Russian ballerinas perform first, then at 19:22 two female Manipuri dancers perform and at 19:29 Tara Chaudary gives an abhinaya demonstration.
  • 22:38-23:42: Naga tribal dance by four dancers.
  • 32:18-33:47: Manipuri Pung Cholom dancers who end with an exciting rhythmic interplay.
  • 34:09-36:10: Tara Chaudhury performs a Bharatanatyam Thillana.
    • Note: According to a glowing Soviet review of Chaudhari's performance, she also danced a Kathak number, but it is not found in any of the event footage (though she can be seen in her Kathak costume).

Screencaps from the dances (and Ravi Shankar in sunglasses :D ):

The video is a charming record of the Delegation's visit starting from the very beginning with footage of the flight (and a lovely shot of Guru Gopinath starting out the window!).  Everyone involved seems genuinely happy and excited about the visit and cultural exchange, and the video features lots of spontaneous and natural footage of the Delegation including visits to beautiful buildings and scenery and train and boat rides. Parts of the video seem almost like a home movie!  As the video ended with the plane taxing away back to India, I almost felt like shedding a tear! 

A few more highlights in the video I want to mention: the woman who exhuberantly greets Tara Chaudhri at the beginning is Maya Plisetskaya, considered "one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century"; a handsome Ravi Shankar can be seen throughout the video (and often seems to be right next to Tara most of the time!); Singh Mastan performs a Punjabi musical number at 9:09; and there is a segment of musical exchange among the Russian and Indian musicians culminating in Ravi Shankar's nimble-fingered sitar performance with two other artists from 20:31-22:02. While the musical chairs scene at 24:35 is adorable, I think my favorite shot in the whole video is Guru Gopinath on the boat ride. :) 

Guru Gopinath (right) - "Look ma, no hands!"

A Chronicle of the Day 1954 No. 51

This video includes additional footage of Guru Gopinath and Tara Chowdhury dancing in the same event as the video above. From 6:19-7:24, Guru Gopinath performs more of a "pure" dance that shows clear Kathakali influences. From, 7:24-8:40 Tara Chowdhury continues her Alarippu, I believe.

Click image to link to video page

A Chronicle of the Day 1967 No. 9

Features Manipuri at 8:13, a Kathakali solo at 8:35, and then Indrani Rehman at 8:57-9:29!  The description says the concert was given in Moscow by a "dance group of artists from India."  According to a brief reference online, this might be the Cultural Delegation sent to the Soviet Union in 1967 as part of its celebrations of India's 20th anniversary of independence.  At the end, it's clear that there was another Manipuri dance not shown in the footage. 

 Click image to link to video page

More on Tara Chaudhury

It is quite difficult to find much information on Tara Chowdhri (which I think proves Randor Guy's point correct!).   From some extensive searching, it seems that she was a Muslim from the Punjab who originally learned Kathak from Ashiq Hussain (of the lesser known Janaki Prasad Gharana in Kathak) in Lahore, at some point changed her name to the Hindu "Chaudhury," and learned Bharatanatyam from the great nattuvanar Meenakshisundaram Pillai.  She is mentioned in multiple sources as one of Ram Gopal's many dance partners, a fact documented in Gopal's autobiography as he mentions "Tara, the dancer from the Punjab, who had grace and vitality" as one of his pupils of "exceptional talent" along with Shevanti, Janaki, and Rajeshwar.  Surprisingly, it is very hard to find images of her online.

A letter in Madras Musings claimed that Tara danced in a film in the early 1940s and added, "older readers may remember that Tara Choudhury fairly often appeared on stages all over India in those days and was famous for her fast-paced dance numbers which did not belong to any particular school."  Randor Guy mentions two films that she danced in: Paarijaathan (1950), and Vedhala Ulagam (1948, see below for video).  Tara ran at least one dance school; Ashish Mohan Khokar's dance collection is said to contain a 1942 photo of her at her Bharat Natya school in Lahore along with other pictures that give "a small reminder of the prevalence of classical dance in pre-Independence Pakistan," and Marg magazine claimed she was running a dancing school in Ceylon in 1959.  Kathakali dancer Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty in his book claims that he danced for a short time with Tara in her troupe, and another book claimed she was a student at the Kerala Kalamandalam at one time.  So it seems she was quite literally all over the place!

Tara's Dance in Vedhala Ulagam (Tamil, 1948)

While her spins at the beginning are clearly sped-up, Tara's dance here seems to be a good illustration of the kind "that did not belong to any particular school" because of its mish-mash of classical inspirations.  Along with the videos above, it's a valuable visual archive of her dance and features a few pristine closeups.  The film's credits confirm Randor Guy's identification of the dancer as Tara Chaudri, so I'm 100% sure it's her!

Other Finds at Net-Film

I tried every keyword I could think of to see if there were any other rare Indian dance or film holdings at Net-Film and found the following meager list.  Net-Film says they are working to continue digitizing their archives, so it's likely new videos will be available in the future! I hope others have better luck finding more rare videos in the collection.
  • A Chronicle of the Day 1954 No. 55 - Footage of the "Opening of the Moscow House of Cinema Festival of Indian Films."  Raj Kapoor, Nargis, and Indian filmmaker Ahmad Abbas can be seen.
  • A Chronicle of the Day 1956 No. 44 - Footage of the second Festival of Indian Films.  Raj Kapoor, Nargis, and K. Kaushany visible.
  • Not yet digitized but eagerly awaited:
    • Indian Actors in the USSR (1956) - Has dance performances by Sitara Devi and Sharada Allada!  I would love to see early footage of Sitara's Kathak outside of films.
    • The Melodies of the Festival (1955) - Says it has a performance of "Indian dancers." Wonder who the mystery performers are...
    • Indian Dances (1959) - Lists "Vandzhantimala dancing."  Could it be Vyjayanthimala? 


  1. Cool find. Looks like Indrani Rehman did Kuchipudi in that video?

    1. I didn't note anything about her dance style in the post because I couldn't figure out what she was doing! :) Especially with the skipping-to-the-side part and the salaami at the end, I was completely confused. :) But from your comment it sounds like overall she was going for Kuchipudi perhaps?

  2. Yeah, after listening to the music, I had a hunch that she was doing "Manduka Shabdam" aka "the frog princess". This video confirmed it. The side to side was showing the frog jumping and the "ta da" act depicts Ravana. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8f7T8ZTGzig
    The video is abridged version of the original song. The salamu was integral part of Shabdams. It is not done anymore these days. (See http://sangeethas.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/shabdam-a-discussion/)

  3. I loved the way after "combing the hair" he throws the loose hair strands, so much inspiration from life!

    1. Ragothaman - Excellent information, thank you! Now the context of the clip is understood. And what a lovely find of Indrani performing the same number the next year. Interesting that you say the salamu movement used to be part of Shabdams (in KP only I presume?)...I always associated it only with Kathak!

      Yes, I thought Guru Gopinath's "combing the hair" piece was so charming. I can see how Russian audiences would have been mesmerized by such mimetic dance and especially by the dance he did in the second "Chronicle of the Day" clip.

  4. Salamu was quite prevalent in BN, KP, Kathak (which ever dance form done in the presence of king). Even today people do salam/salute to get the job done, in real life. :P

    I forgot to add one more that the two hands joined in shikara depicts the manduka or the frog.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank you for the information. I was notified of Tara's passing by another person, and I'm planning to do a post soon about the news and a bit more info/photos I found on her. Condolences, and may she rest in peace. ~Minai

  6. Minai, have you seen this? Tara Chaudhri with Ram Gopal in a publicity image for a performance in Lahore. From a sahapedia series on dance by Ashish Khokar. There are several other precious images in there.

  7. The picture did not come through in your comment, but I see the one you're referring to at the Sahapedia article here. I have seen that image before while doing research on Tara. Yes, some great images at that site! Would be nice to have their sources listed.


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