Uday Shankar's Kathakali Inspirations in Kalpana (Hindi, 1948)

Monday, April 8, 2013
Now that Uday Shankar’s dance film Kalpana (1948, Hindi) is easily viewable at Pad.ma, Shankar's dance style can be better analyzed and understood. While much has been written and theorized about Shankar’s dance based largely on written and photographic evidence, video is really worth a thousand words and photos!  No longer must visual evidence of Shankar's dance be the purview of a tiny sliver of dance scholars (and lucky residents in India!) allowed private screenings while conducting field research.  First BritishPathe allowed us glimpses of Shankar's early choreography, and now Kalpana has come to light for the general public to see a wide array of Shankar's works.

After watching Kalpana, I was immediately struck by how varied the dances were: simple folk dance, Kathakali-based creative movement, classical dance, and modern dance based on social themes! I'll be writing more on my overall thoughts of Shankar's dance and legacy as a whole, but in this post I want to focus on the Kathakali-based dances. I was very surprised at how much Shankar's style was influenced by the postures and movements of dance forms from Kerala, particularly Kathakali. I had read some references to Shankar's connections with Kathakali guru Shankaran Namboodiri and his teaching at Shankar’s dance center, but I didn’t realize the extent to which Shankar's dance style from his middle period was based in the dance form. I also didn’t realize until recently what “pure dance” in Kathakali consisted of given its seeming emphasis on narrative, and I couldn't find any visual teaching resources or books that had something comparable to "adavu" guides for Bharatanatyam. 

After consulting Phillip Zarilli's enlightening book “Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play,” I learned that among the categories of proper dance movement in Kathakali there are two lengthy “pure” (non-interpretive) dance pieces traditionally performed “as part of the preliminaries before an all-night performance,” the Totayam and the Purappatu. The Totayam “includes all the basic non-interpretive elements of performance techniques, including foot patterns, body movement, use of the hands, and keeping time to basic rhythmic cycles,” and the Purappattu is more advanced in terms of technicality and hand gestures. Clips on YouTube of these dance pieces make evident the similarities to many of Shankar's dances in Kalpana; here are clips of portions of a Thodayam and Purappadu:

[Videos no longer available on YouTube]

It wasn't until I made an additional awesome discovery that I really understood the connection between Kathakali and Shankar's dance.  First, I found this four-part Kathakali lecture-demonstration hosted by the Keleeravam Kathakali Association as part of its “Kathakali For Youth” series. While the lecture portions are in Malayalam only, I found the dance demonstrations by Ettumanoor Kannan mesmerizing especially when the camera focuses in on his abhinaya and the careful attentiveness of the musicians.  The facial control in Kathakali seems unparalleled! 

But it was the videos at Mudrapedia that were a goldmine find! Much like the Indian Classical Dance videos produced by InvisMultimedia, Mudrapedia features seasoned Kathakali dancers in practice costume front-lit against a black background for clear viewing.  Most of the videos are short segments of hand gesture usage in pure dance segments that seem broader than my understanding of the term "mudra" and closer to the unit of dance known as an "adavu" in Bharatanatyam.  Zarilli notes that mudras in Kathakali are highly codified and while many are "purely decorative" while dancing, others are used to "literally speak the text" and "some patterns, like descriptive mudras, involve considerable movement through space."  Unfortunately the videos do not have descriptive titles or information (the Mudrapedia website appears to but I don’t understand how to navigate it), but I still had an enjoyable time browsing through them and getting a better sense of the "canon" of a part of Kathakali dance movement. What a rare visual resource, and finally something for those of us who are outsiders to the form!  There are a few lengthy videos posted, such as the solos Keezhpadam Ashtakalasham and Sari Nrittam (the "Sari Dance" that Zarilli notes is used for the entrance of female characters), and the group dance Nisacharendraa Vaada.  I hope that the videos become better organized with explanatory information in the future.

As I was browsing through Mudrapedia I kept saying to myself “Hey! That’s like the move Uday Shankar did in Kalpana!” so I gathered these examples together and used YouTube’s video editor to join the clips (Mudrapedia has posted its videos under the Creative Commons license, just like Pad.ma, yay!). Here’s the compilation for your viewing pleasure!  Note: The Kathakali portions are a bit loud, so make sure your volume isn't turned up too high.

Kathakali Inspirations in Kalpana – A Visual Comparison 

My impression from watching Kalpana and making the compilation above is that Shankar took generalized movements and postures from Kathakali but did not incorporate any of the specific, stylized and codified features: facial and eye movements, sharp movements and powerful jumps, or the characteristic side-of-the-feet stance or raising of the big toe (edit: I see that Shankar does raise his big toe!).  I definitely did not see, at least in Kalpana, that characteristic back-and-forth mudra that I always see in films whenever a "Kathakali" dancer is present (it's the same one Vyjayanthimala tries to evoke in the Hindi film Prince).  Shankar softened Kathakali into graceful curves and expressions reminiscent only of the shadows of their origin.

According to scholar Ruth Abrahams, Shankar was exposed to Kathakali on his tour of India around 1930 to observe Indian dance forms and “create an all-Indian company of dancers and musicians.” It was his first time back in India after leaving a decade previous to Europe and finding success with dance first through ballerina Anna Pavlova’s company and then through solo and female-partnered presentations culminating in his successful partnership with Simkie. Abrahams writes:
“It was in Malabar that Shankar met the great South Indian poet, Vallathol Narayan Menon, at the Kerela Kalamandalum, Vallathol's school for the preservation of a local religious dance-drama form called kathakali. This ancient dance-drama, with its strength of movement, broad projection and highly stylized costumes and make-up deeply affected Shankar, as did its leading exponent, guru Shankaran Namboodiri. So strong was the impact, that Shankar remained in Kerala for six weeks to study with him. Despite such short acquaintances with a style that usually takes generations to master, Shankar was so impressed that he adopted the general technique as a basis for the development of his own...”  Later, "Shankar returned to Kerala and persuaded Namboodiri to join him in Calcutta and to serve as both spiritual leader and guru to the new company."
The “first major work” Shankar choreographed after his training in Kathakali was “Tandava Nritya.” Abrahams notes, “As might be expected, the most noticeable change was evidence of his work with Namboodiri and incorporation of the kathakali style of hasta mudra” which instead of following codified Kathakali usage was “an imaginative and free-form interpretation.” In an interview, Shankar once said that he generally avoided using mudras to communicate meaning because he felt the meaning could instead be shown through the entire moving body (Paine).  Unfortunately for us, the "Tandava Nritya" segment in Kalpana is very short and features hardly any proper dance or mudra usage.

Another work of Shankar, "Karthikeya" (seen here in Kalpana) "combined the theme of a warrior-god preparing to fight a demon with Shankar's new-found spiritualism and creative interpretive use of the kathakali dance style. The result was not a mere literal representation of the story with an expected focus on the battle (an ideal dramatic conflict), but rather a portrait of qualities of psychological preparation needed for impending confrontation. Based on just a few elemental kathakali movements taught to Shankar by Namboodiri, and the sculptural images carved into the walls at Ellora, "Karthikeya" possessed a profound spiritualism not previously found in Shankar's choreography. This was due, in part, to the actual presence of Namboodiri” (Abrahams).  The compilation video above heavily features clips from this piece in Kalpana and serves as the best documented visual example of Shankar's Kathakali-based dance style in his middle years.

So what does this mean in the broader context of Shankar's dance and legacy as a whole?  Was he really an appropriative and "orientalist" dancer as some claim, or was there something "new" and creative that he was pioneering?  What was he trying to communicate with his dance?  How did it break from classical tradition?  More on that in an upcoming post. :)

Abrahams, Ruth.  "The Life and Art of Uday Shankar."  PhD Dissertation.  1985.
Paine, Jayantee.  "Dancer Uday Shankar: Integrating East and West."  Master's Thesis.  2000.

Related Posts
Kalpana's Dances Annotated at Pad.ma
Finally! Kalpana (1948) is Viewable Online!
What's Next for Kalpana (1948)?
Kalpana (1948) to be Screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival!
Rare Video Clips of Devadasis, Uday Shankar & Simkie, Ram Gopal, and More!
A Documentary on Simkie, Uday Shankar's Dance Partner


  1. We are running out of complements. I hope that you will continue in the same strain whether there are comments or not.

  2. I am also running out of compliments. Minai, please continue!!! It is such a pleasure reading your posts!

    1. And thank you as well! Sorry I missed your comment- I've enabled comment moderation on posts older than three days due to spam, and sometimes it takes me a bit to push through new comments. :) Last time I checked I had at least 15 posts in some stage of completion, so I won't be stopping any time soon that's for sure! :D

    2. Fifteen posts in the pipeline!

      What a bumper!!! And a feast for the mind!!!

  3. rameshram and gaddeswarup - Thank you. No worries, comments ebb and flow, though I always appreciate them! :)

  4. Since English is still a foreign language, I could not recall 'in the same vein' immediately and said 'in the same strain' which seemed ok at that time. Anyway, your level is increasing and to make any reasonable comments, we have to do a lot of home work.

  5. such an insightful read. much thanks


Due to spam, new comments have been disabled.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top