Adventures in Date-ing the BritishPathe Devadasi Dance and Video

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Since I last posted about the amazing video find of two South Indian devadasis dancing in Baroda around the 1930s, I have been obsessed with finding proof of two things: the identities of the devadasis, and the true date the video footage was filmed.

BritishPathe has no documentation for the video (only noting it "appears to be some kind of celebration") and through personal communication with me confirmed that the "1930-35" date estimate was based only on other films found in the same canister.  I'm excited to reveal my research on this incredible footage of not only pre-revival "Bharatanatyam" but also royal activities in a princely state before Indian independence!  While the identity question is still being investigated, I feel like I can make an educated guess about the date: mid to late 1920s, most likely 1926!  This is based on the youthful appearance of Pratapsingrao in the video and the fact that a BritishPathe film crew was present and would likely have only done so for especially large events, most likely the 1926 Golden Jubilee.

Why is the Date Important?

Beyond being able to give a date estimate for a rare video with no documentation, I find the date determination important because if it was really filmed around 1926, the dance segment is an example of "Bharatanatyam" dance before most of the significant legal events and reconstruction activities towards the devadasi lifestyle and dance occurred in India and before the "dance revival" of the 1930s.  In the Madras Presidency, Muthulakshmi Reddy didn't make her recommendation to the Legislative Assembly to criminalize temple dedication until 1927, the Music Academy of Madras was not even founded until 1928-29, E. Krishna Iyer presented the first dancers from the traditional community at the annual conference starting in 1931, and it was years later before Rukmini Devi Arundale presented her arangetram in the dance form and created the institution Kalakshetra.  Closer home to Baroda, the neighboring Bombay Presidency did not enact its anti-devadasi legislation until 1934 [7].  While anti-devadasi sentiment and actions had been in place across the subcontinent since the mid 1800s, the fact that the video appears to have been filmed in a princely state before the most fervent formalization of the sentiment makes it especially important to the historical record.

But what has also been fascinating is that getting to my 1926 estimate resulted in a rich yield of research and rare photos about the princely state of Baroda (presently Vadodara) which I'm excited to share here.  I've been able to identify a few people in the video as well as nearly all the filming locations!

Identifying the Royal Family

The "Maharanee of Baroda" as alluded to in the title is not the only royalty of the princely state of Baroda seen in the video; her husband, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, and his grandson and heir Pratapsinghrao Gaekwad can be seen as well!  Together they ruled Baroda from 1875-1939 and 1939-1951 respectively.

Seated left to right: Pratapsingrao, Sayajirao
The older man seated on the right is the Maharaja himself! But its the person on the left, his grandson Pratapsinh (spelled many ways which I'll use throughout), that was the key to narrowing the date of the video.  While the above image is the clearest and closest shot of Sayajirao and Pratapsingh in the video, they can also be seen walking around in the outdoor portions of the video.  Here's the outdoor shots of Pratap Singh Gaekwad--he is the one on the left:

Notice his mustache and his very lean and thin frame?  These physical characteristics are starkly in contrast to his appearance from at least the mid-1930s and beyond in which he continued to gain ever increasing amounts of weight and shaved his mustache.  Here are some early photos; since he was born in 1908, the undated photos would have to be the 1920s when he was in his teens and early 20s:

Undated photos: left [4], right (source)
Sayajirao's family portraits: left [3], right (1926, [4])
Circled in red: Pratapsingrao; in blue: presumably sister Indira Devi, who had her last child in 1920
Compare to these photos of him in later years, the earliest of which I could find is 1934 (age 26):

Left to right: 1934 (source), 1939 (source), unknown (source), 1948 (source
The lean and lithe Pratapsingrao in the BritishPathe video serves as the strongest evidence for its being filmed in the 1920s or no later than the early 1930s.  I could be more precise if I could find pictures of Pratapsingh from 1927-1933 (this lot at Bonham's says it has pictures from his wedding to Shanta Devi in 1929--anyone have 312 pounds to spare? ha!).  But given the information below, 1926 seems the most likely date for the video!

Maharaja Sayajirao 

Sayajirao [3]
Maharaja Sayajirao is an interesting character to read about (for example, Wikipedia and The Prince and the Man) especially for those of us not very well-read about British India and the princely states.  Before Indian independence, Baroda was a wealthy and prominent princely state in Northwest India in what is today known as Gujarat.  According to Barbara Ramusack, Sayajirao was one of the most well-known examples of British intervention tactics in princely states through the inteference in matters of succession, adoption, and education of young rulers.  After the previous Gaekwad Malhar Rao had been deposed, Jamnabai and the British agreed to adopt a non-literate village boy from a branch of the Gaekwad (aka Gaekwar, Gaikwad) family line, renamed him Sayaji Rao, and gave him an education by a British ICS officer [6].  The British were playing "Pygmalion with a vengeance, determined, much like Professor Higgings, to show that they could, within a span of six years, transform an unlettered rustic lad into a thoroughly accomplished autocrat" whom would be a loyal puppet for the British Raj" [3].

While Sayajirao certainly became accomplished and is fondly celebrated today for his progressive actions, social policies, infrastructure improvements, and care for his people, he was anything but a docile puppet to the British Raj.  Among other things, he aroused suspicion through his employment of Indian nationalists and "achieved notoriety" by his breach of protocol at the 1911 Delhi Durbar for King George V in which he wore plain clothes without his British decorations and insulted the king by turning his back on him before the prescribed distance (though there is evidence other rulers failed protocol too [5]).

Maharaja Sayajirao and Baroda's Grand Events

Parties and events are a recurring theme when researching Sayajirao and the activities of the ruling family in Baroda.  Like many other princely states in pre-independent India, Baroda held many Jubilees celebrating the anniversary of years of reign of its Maharaja, Sayajirao Gaekwad.  While little information is available on Sayajirao's Silver (25-year) Jubilee in 1907, his Golden (50-year) and Diamond (60-year) Jubilee celebrations in 1926 and 1936 respectively are thankfully fairly well documented.  Each Jubilee was graced by the visit of the Viceroy for a few days, and certainly this fact as well as the significance of the greater Jubilee celebrations would have drawn outside attention (like BritishPathe) to document the events of a lavish Maharaja.  I highly suspect the BritishPathe video was shot at the events surrounding the 1926 Golden Jubilee having ruled out 1936 Jubilee based on the appearance of Pratapsingrao.

1926 Golden Jubilee

Sayajirao’s Golden Jubilee was to be held in May 1925 but was put off until January 1926 when the weather had cooled [3].  The festivities began on January 11, 1926, with “a public reception, arranged in a vast mandap or marquee especially erected in the Waroshia field to the north of the city." The main event of the Golden Jubilee was this reception, but “over the rest of the week, there were other functions too: a review of the army, a garden party, a display of fireworks, a children’s party, public feeding of the poor, the performances of plays in Marathi and Gujarati, musical evenings and classical dancing" [3] as well as wrestling matches and a Children's Gathering at Nyaya Mandir [6].  Not connected with the Jubilee celebrations was another event on January 15 in which the Maharaja laid a foundation stone of a Kirti Mandir and that evening held a banquet for private club members followed by "open-air entertainment by singers and dancers" [6].   Before the Jubilee celebrations officially began, there were other events celebrating the Maharaja in December 1925 such as arena animal fights and a New Years Eve state banquet in the Laxmi Vilas Durbar Hall featuring Indian and European guests [6].  Given how many of these events match what is in the BritishPathe video, it is impossible to make any definitive match based on description alone.

Celebratory artwork [4]
Viceroy Lord Reading visited Baroda from January 21-23, 1926, about a week after the main Jubilee celebrations [4].  During the British Raj, the Viceroy of India was essentially the Queen's head administrative representative in India and also served as the representative to the "nominally sovereign princely states" who were not under direct British rule (NPGWikipedia).  In his biography of Maharaja Sayajirao, great-grandson Fatesinghrao Gaekwad describes what the visits by the Viceroy were really like, noting they "were occasions of state, stiff, formal, replete with protocol, unbelievably wasteful, and bristling with unpredictable hazards for the hosts" and "served no other purpose than to establish that the host was an especially favoured person whose loyalty to the Raj had been adjudged to be of requisite purity..."  The speeches were "carefully prepared" with "the guest complimenting the host on his state's progress, the host reiterating his unflinching loyalty to the Raj" [3].

Parrot tricks by Sardarmiya [4]
Viceroy Reading “was accorded a ceremonial reception at the railway stations, driven in a procession through the town, taken to inspect he Baroda Jewels, treated to a durbar, a garden party, a state banquet, an ‘informal dinner’, a display of fireworks and of gymnastics, as well as to the special amusements of Baroda such as Sarhmari [Sathmari] or elephant fights, buffalo fights, and tricks performed by trained parrots” [3].  Panemanglor describes the Viceroy's visit in painstaking detail in his book all the way down to the banquet seating assignments and fancy European food concoctions.  He describes the Children's Gathering at the Nyaya Mandir held for the Viceroy and his wife.  It featured a boys choir, a garba dance featuring little girls with water bowls on their heads, a Japanese drill, and other performances.  Also held was a garden party at the Motibag grounds/gardens when the sun was setting featuring various entertainments like state acrobats, parrot tricks, and an orchestra.  Since none of these specific details can be seen in the Children's Gathering and garden party portions of the BritishPathe video, I believe the non-Viceregal events are likely candidates as the site of the filming.

Of great interest to this post is the lengthy description Panemanglor gives of the performance of the Tanjore dancers, named as Kanta and Ghoura (!), for the Viceroy in the Makkarpura palace drawing room.  The Orientalist outsider tone (much like the examples in Ragothaman's recent post) is strange given that Panemanglor was Indian, but since he was closely involved with British visits (looking "after the comforts" of the Prince of Wales during his 1921 visit and serving as the "Special Duty Officer at Makkarpura" for the visit described in the book) I assume he documented the visit with British sensitivities in mind thus the overly-positive and whitewashed tone throughout.
"But here in the Drawing room, Lord Reading was minutely surveying the Tanjore Dancers who were giving an exhibition of ancient Hindu dances, the like of which he had never seen before.  These dancers hailed from the South and the dances were peculiar too and required a tremendous amount of energy which the dancers in spite of their age seemed to have plenty.  They seemed to make as much noise as possible, now beating the floor with their feet, now turning to the left, then to the right, now making a sudden forward movement as if they were going to fall on the spectators but then suddenly stopping their progress and now again making wonderful gestures to suit their weird music and quaint dance, while the persons who stood behind them with darkish faces but wearing gold and red turbans seemed to have absolutely no mercy on the instruments they held.  So wonderfully had they coloured, clothed and jewelled themselves that they became objects of admiration and their dances were loudly applauded.  After showing several types of dances, Kanta and Ghoura as they are called gave imitations of the snake charmer and of kite flying and finished up by playing the Hindu mythological scene of Radha and Krishna, one playing the hero and the other the heroine.  His Excellency had a huge smile as he evidently thought that a demonstration of this kind on an English stage might perhaps cause a sensation.  Every one of the guests appreciated these dances but Capt. Sadekar who was sitting by the window side was half asleep but it was no fault of his and he felt relieved when the 'noise' ceased."  
1936 Diamond Jubilee

10 years later, Sayajirao's Diamond Jubilee was held in the first half of January 1936 and featured many similar activities as the 1926 celebration.  Viceroy Willingdon and his wife visited for only two days, January 5-6, and were treated to a Garden Party at the Motibag grounds among other festivities [1].  Among the other activities during the 11 total days of celebrations were military sports, a public fete, a boy scouts rally, children's gatherings, fireworks, performing arts (singing, dancing, and theatre), and various garden parties [1].  Medals were struck as a souvenir of the event and presented to those who had served the state, and I suspect this photo of the devadasis at (caption "Darbar for Presentation of Jubilee Medals...") is documentation of the event.

I was delighted to find two rare videos of the 1936 Jubilee celebrations at the website of Movietone, another British digital newsreel archive similar to BritishPathe [Update: Movietone appears to have been acquired by AP, links updated].  "Viceroy and Gaekwar" was filmed at the Viceroy's visit, and "Gaekwar of Baroda's Diamond Jubilee" was shot sometime during the greater Jubilee celebrations.  Since I can't embed the videos, click on the images below to view them at Movietone's website (it may require you to create a free account first):

RARE VIDEO! Click images to link to video pages

In the "Viceroy and Gaekwar" video above, the shot of the group walking in the open space outdoors is in exactly the same location as the segment in the BritishPathe video after the arena animal fights.  See the same building in the background circled in red?

Left: Movietone 1936 video    Right: BritishPathe video
When I first saw the "Viceroy and Gaekwar" video at Movietone I thought the Viceroy was the same person as the British (?) man in the hat in the BritishPathe video in the garden party portion (right). Problem solved, I thought! The hat and white shirt looked identical!  But after closer scrutiny it was clear they were two very different people (different hair, noses, skin tone, glasses), and after tracking down photos of the Viceroys from the time period, the difference became even more obvious!  Lord Willingdon is also distinct in appearance from Lord Reading despite the similar hair color and profile at first glance (see below--some of the photos came from the videos of them at BritishPathe).  That man in the British hat in the BritishPathe video is still a mystery.  Was he British, or was he an Indian ICS officer? Not a single person in the plethora of photographs I reviewed match his face.

Reasoning Out the Date

The grand Jubilees were not the only events of their kind held in Baroda.  Mention of many of the same activities in other events from the time period are found in multiple sources.  For example, the Prince of Wales' 1921-22 visit to Baroda with a garden party at Motibag, Viceroy Irwin's visit to Baroda in 1930 [2], and the 1943 celebration of the Maharaja's birthday featuring arena sports and a durbar [source here no longer viewable].  Likewise, the Governor or Resident may have been treated to durbars for annual visits during the time period [3].  It seems there were constant durbars, garden parties, arena sports, and other events often held in the same locations as the BritishPathe video with presumably the same canopies and set pieces brought out as needed for each event.  So the events seen in the BritishPathe video have innumerable possibilities!

Nevertheless, I still think that since the BritishPathe video was presumably shot by a BritishPathe crew on location, the Jubilees are the likely events given their significance being something BritishPathe would have been interested in documenting.  If Movietone documented the 1936 Jubilee and Viceroy visit, surely BritishPathe did the same for the 1926 Jubilee!  Given that there is no sign of the Viceroy or his large party (numbered well over 80 at the 1936 event [3]) in the BritishPathe footage and given that the events filmed do not match the descriptions of the Viceregal visit, I suspect that while it was likely filmed at the Jubilee events it was not at the specific visits of the Viceroy but either the preparations beforehand or the Jubilee events held for the Barodian people.  Given Pratapsingrao's prominence in the BritishPathe video, we must also consider milestones in his life as possibilities, such as his marriage to Shantadevi in 1929 or the birth of his first child in 1930 (which saw the declaration of a public holiday and statewide celebrations [3]).  By the way, footage of Pratapsingh's crowning as the Maharaja in 1939 can be found here [clip no longer locatable] at Movietone (clip is called "Gaekwar of Baroda Installed").

Something that stood out to me in the BritishPathe video is the banner the little girls carry in the Children's Gathering segment which says "Hearty Congratulations from City Girls" (left); that seems like more of a jubilee-appropriate thing to say, but perhaps the congratulations were for a birthday or marriage/birth?  The BritishPathe footage is curious in its random slicing of different events and the amateur nature of much of footage (my favorite is the teasing between the two men in the closing seconds!).  Surely it is unused footage that was cut from a finished newsreel, but there is no site of this whittled newsreel to be found anywhere on BritishPathe's site!  Maybe one day it will surface...

Filming Locations of the British Pathe "Maharanee of Baroda" Video

After tracking down Panemanglor's book "The Viceregal Visit to Baroda 1926," I was able to determine the locations of nearly all the footage in the BritishPathe video thanks to the numerous photographs and descriptions.  The video is shot in four main locations: the arena/agad near Pani Gate, the Motibag Palace gardens, the Nazarbag Palace gardens, and the Nyaya Mandir.  There are a few very brief segments that I could not determine the location of.  The British Library's Online Gallery has an excellent collection of photographs and descriptions of historic buildings in Baroda, and after browsing the collection it became clear that around the famed Laxmi Vilas Palace itself (which is not seen in the video) are many smaller palaces, like Motibag and Nazarbag, built by past Maharajas and featuring large pleasure gardens for entertaining.

Arena - Animal Fights - The animal fights seen at the beginning of the BritishPathe video (0:00-2:15) clearly take place in the same arena as the buffalo and elephant fights shown in Panemanglor's book, describes as the arena "near the Pani Gate" located on the backside of the "palace of the old Mahomedan Rulers of Baroda."  Curiously, there are only buffalo and ram fights in the footage and no shots of the famed "Sathmari" elephant fights Baroda was well known for.  According to Panemanglor, Baroda's arena sports were cruelty free and the animals were separated at the first sign of injury.  He names the elephants who performed and fought as Rupkali, Mangal Gaj, and Albela; Rupkali can be seen performing tricks in this 1933 video at BritishPathe.

Top: Arena animal fights at 1926 Jubilee [4]
Bottom: BritishPathe video Motibag Palace gardens
Motibag Palace Gardens - Garden Party (2:16-7:10).  The building circled in red was key to identifying this location in both the BritishPathe and Movietone videos.  I believe the domes below are also similar; apparently Motibag Stadium is today used as cricket grounds.  The Motibag Palace is "one of several small palaces in the [Laxmi Vilas Palace] grounds built by past Maharajas including the Vishran Bag, Mastu Bag, and Chiman Bag" (British Library).

Motibag Gardens 1926 (Panemanglor); Motibag Stadium/Cricket Grounds 2009 (source)
Same gardens in BP video 
Nazarbag Palace Gardens - Devadasi Dance - The Nazar Bagh Palace Gardens appear to be the setting of the devadasi dance with musical ensemble (7:11-11:57), the female singer and musicians (14:02-15:22), and the shots of people walking around and setting up (17:19-17:58, 18:11-18:24-19:25 end).  The gazebo in the photo below is the key landmark--its spires and design at the base of the columns match the gazebo in the BritishPathe video.  

Gazebo in Nazarbaug Palace Garden (source)

Same gazebo in BP video

Nyaya MandirChildren’s Gathering (12:50-14:01, 15:42-17:06, 18:00-18:11) - Performances by local children are a common feature in descriptions of events in Baroda.  The large hall and set of five windows at the front in the BritishPathe video clearly match photos of the Nyaya Mandir.

Nyaya Mandir - (left source)
Same two large and three smaller windows

Concluding Thoughts

If my well-researched theory that the video was filmed in the late 1920s/1926 is correct, that means it provides intriguing visual evidence regarding the much-discussed topic of what “authentic” devadasi dance (especially nritta) might have looked like and what changes Rukmini Devi Arundale and others supposedly brought to the form as it was “rehabilitated” into a respected artistic practice of middle and upper-class/caste women.  Of course, this view has to be tempered with the fact that we don’t know if the particular dance in the video was considered “good” or not or if it was altered for the event or due to the BritishPathe film crew being present.  But I still can’t believe I've witnessed a recognizable Alarippu from 1926!

Some interesting subjects for possible future research came to mind as I wrote this post.  Were there differences in anti-devadasi sentiment and legislation in princely states compared to the directly-ruled areas of British India?  How was the "devadasi question" handled in princely Baroda, especially since Sayajirao enacted many daring social reforms, among them issues affecting women, but devadasi dedication doesn't appear to be mentioned in any writings about him?  When exactly did the state artists, presumably Gauri and Kanthimati, stop performing, and why?  I'll add that to my neverending backlog of things to research and post about. :)

Sources (I tried a standardized footnote style this time...):

1. Administration Report for 1935-36 (Baroda). "Chapter II: The Diamond Jubilee of His Highness the Maharaja Saheb's Reign."
2. Campbell-Johnson, Alan.  Viscount Halifax: A Biography.  1941.
3. Gaekwad, Fatesinghrao P.  Sayajirao of Baroda: The Prince and the Man.  1989.
4. Panemanglor, Krishnarao N. The Viceregal Visit to Baroda 1926. 1927.
5. Ramusack, Barbara N.  The Indian Princes and their States.  2004.
6. Sergeant, Philip W.  The Ruler of Baroda: An Account of the Life and Work of the Maharaja Gaekwar.  1928.
7. Singh, Nagendra K.  Divine Prostitution.  1997.


  1. You are doing so pain-taking research digging out obscure information and photos! Bravo!!!

    1. Thank you sir! :) If you have any insights or additional info to add, do let me know.

  2. I am very much surprised to see this kind of research you are doing which involves time and others.

    Thanks and all the best. I've learned many details that i do not know.

    1. Thank you Rajesh--I'm happy you found it an educational read.

  3. Thanks...!
    Added Your Link to this Post.
    Check it Out -

    1. Great! I'm happy these and all the other rare videos about Baroda at Movietone/BritishPathe are getting more exposure, and I love that you linked to Pratapsingrao's "Prince and the Showgirls" video which is quite amusing, isn't it! Please provide direct credit to this post for the paragraph under #2 on your page which is taken straight from my comment at BritishPathe--you should also note that paragraph only applies to the Maharanee of Baroda video and none of the others. Given that the paragraph is a theory of mine, it's important to link it to the source to provide people with the reasoning behind the information.

  4. Yes it is true, the video was likely filmed at the 1926 Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years of Sayajirao's reign and it is a rare footage of 'Bharatnatyam' performed by family and group of artists. Everybody wanted to know the names of Musicians in this video. The musicians in this video are,on Mridangam Shri Tambuswamy (Nephew of Thanjavur Appaswamy), Nattuvangam Accompanist Shri Chandrasekar (Learnt Nattuvangam from Tanjore Appaswamy, A close relative on Harmonium, Lead Nattuvangam Thanjavur Shri Appaswamy and his wife Kantimathiammal and another dancer Gaura and on Oothu (Musical Instrument) Shri Sabhapati (Father of Shri Chandrasekar). In those days artist use to perform standing as they respect the presence of the king. When Sir Sayajirao Gaekwad III came in ruling in then Baroda state (Vadodara), Gujarat, he married with Princess Maharani Chimnabai of Tanjore. Queen Chimnabai who was knowledgeable in Bharatnatyam and Carnatic music, brought this Music and Art group from Tanjore to Baroda in 1892. What more I can say, it is the most wonderful and touching experience that I can see my Great Grandparents performing.Thank you Minai for the research. I am looking forward for more pictures and information that I have sent you earlier.

    1. Hello! I assume this message is from Ashish Ramesh Tanjorkar--thank you for posting the information about the musicians identities. I hope to do another post in the future, after I gather and fact-check all the details, about the new things that I have learned about the dancers and musicians seen in the video. Dr. Madhu Tanjorkar left a recent comment on my blog and I am in contact with her as well. I am so happy that the video has reached descendants of Kanthimathi such as yourself and Madhu. What an amazing and well-preserved record of the artists and their art! A fantastic record for posterity, all made possible by the wonders of the internet and streaming video. Thank you again for your information and being so generous in responding to my requests. More to come later. :) All the best to you and your family and the dance school!


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