Muthuswami Pillai's Star Students, Sayee and Subbulakshmi, and the "Twin Dance" Phenomenon (Part Two)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013
The Sayee and Subbulakshmi sisters were the best South Indian "twin dance" duo of Indian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, and I don't think anyone has matched them since!  Their speed, precision, flexibility, springing leg movements, and most of all their ability to dance synchronized with each other was unparalleled. Unfortunately, they seem hardly remembered today outside of some film/classical dance enthusiasts—and a surprise inclusion in a recent conference on dance and music in early South Indian cinema! A mention of the sisters in a 2011 Indian newspaper article about classical dance in Indian cinema wrongly claimed that they danced only in the Hindi films Azad and Chori Chori "before disappearing." But bloggers and dance enthusiasts such as myself, Richard, Tom, and Lakshmi Subramanian, who have delighted in, discussed, and preserved the sisters' film dance sequences for years now, know better! Sayee-Subbulakshmi specialized in Bharatanatyam and had the heaviest presence in Tamil cinema (at least 13 films), but they also performed Kathak and folk styles and danced in other regional-language and Hindi films. And they were simply spectacular!

Back in 2010, Richard's post about Sayee-Subbulakshmi at his lovely Dances on the Footpath blog was graced by comments from Sayee's nephew and son informing readers with details about films the duo had danced in, family relations, that they learned Bharatanatyam from "Shri Muthuswami Pillai," and the sad news that Sayee had passed away in 2010. At the time I had no idea who "Muthuswami Pillai" was and promptly forgot the detail!

But when I found a lengthy feature about V.S. Muthuswami Pillai in Sruti magazine, I was astounded to make the connection back to the comments from Sayee's relatives and even more astounded to learn how involved Muthuswami was. While Muthuswami began choreographing for films around 1938, it wasn't until a few years later that a fateful meeting with P.A. Periyanayaki introduced him to the young girls that would eventually become his star students who would perform "far and wide" and be "among the busiest artists of their time"--Sayee and Subbulakshmi (aka Sayee-Subbulakshmi, Sai-Subbalaxmi, etc.)! While I introduced Muthuswami Pillai and his other film choreographies in Part One and the Piya Milan addendum, here in Part Two I want to celebrate the talents of Sayee-Subbulakshmi by showcasing all of their known film dances, recognize Muthuswami Pillai's training and chiseling of their talent, and analyze his dance style.

Sayee and Subbulakshmi's
Training with Muthuswami Pillai

These priceless photos and excerpts are quoted from musician-dance scholar Sujatha
Vijaraghavan's articles/interviews about V.S. Muthuswami Pillai in Sruti magazine (issues 319 and 320) written around 1990-1991:

Sayee, Muthuswami, Subbulakshmi (Sruti)
"It was while in Salem, directing B.S. Saroja's dance for the film Inbavalli produced by Modern Theatres, that he came across his star pupils Sayee and Subbulakshmi. Sayee's mother P.A. Rajamani and her aunt P.A. Periyanayaki were a popular duo called Madras Sisters, who had been giving Carnatic vocal music recitals. Periyanayaki had entered the films as a playback singer. She met Muthuswami Pillai at Salem and requested him to teach her niece, Sayee and her cousin Subbulakshmi. Sayee, the taller and somewhat heavier of the pair, was actually younger by three years to Subbulakshmi.  ‘I must have started when I was about five,’ says Sayee, now approaching fifty, still agile with a spring in her step. Theirs was a large joint family where the dance teacher was welcomed as one more member.  ‘He stayed with us and taught Subbulakshmi and me for nearly seven years before we had our arangetram,’ she recounts. It was not an unbroken period.  For a space of about two years he was in and out of Madras, spending more time at Kuttalam and on his film assignments outside Madras.  But the lessons resumed every time he was in town.  

These talented teenagers could translate Muthuswami Pillai's taxing choreography to its best advantage.  Petite and agile, these girls, not exactly pretty, had a charming mein nevertheless, lighted by a natural smile.  Their fast movements, breathtaking pirouettes and clock-like precision earned them the sobriquet 'Pambara sahodarigal' (Spinning Top Sisters).  Muthuswami Pillai became busier than ever with their programs on stage and on the silver screen.  Following the hit films Malaikkallan and Rathakkanneer, a spate of film assignments in several languages followed.  It was an odd situation with the dance teacher spending his entire time teaching just two pupils.  For a period of nearly seven to nine years this is what Muthuswami Pillai appears to have done."

Sayee, Muthuswami, Subbulakshmi (Sruti)
Sayee and Subbulakshmi recalled their training with Muthuswami: "Our 'arangetral' was on 14th September 1953, at R.R. Sabha Hall and was presided over by Rajah Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar, M.L.A. (Rajah of Chettinad).  It was on Vijayadasami day.  Our 'vidyarambham' and salangai pooja were also held years ago on Vijayadasami days. Of the several films in which we danced, Malaikkallan was produced in many languages, namely Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Sinhalese. Muthuswami Pillai directed our Bharatanatyam numbers in the Tamil and Telugu version. Though we danced in films, our mainstay was Bharatanatyam. Up to the early sixties, Vadyar devoted most of his time to train us and conduct our recitals.  We looked after all his needs, paid him individually for our concerts and he had his film assignments.  He did not have much time to spare after teaching us.  It was three hours in the morning and three to four hours in the evening. We were allowed to rest for hardly five minutes.  We were not permitted to sit down. It was non-stop practice and rehearsals all the way. Our grandmother was particular that we should not present items performed commonly by other dancers. Hence, when we wanted to do a snake charmer's dance, lyrics were composed and set to music by the music director G. Ramanathan.  It went something like this: Karaiyaan veedu katta - athil karunaagam kudi irukka. Vadyar took a lot of interest in creating new items for us.  He fashioned numbers which were lively and could be performed by us as a duo. [...] 'He has taken Subbulakshmi and me to Kumari Kamala's dance many a time,' remembers Sayee, 'perched on his shoulder I have watched her performance at the exhibition.'"

Notice in that article that Sayee and Subbulakshmi are presented not as sisters and daughters of P.A. Periyanayaki (as Sayee's relatives had said on Richard's blog) but as P.A. Periyanayaki's niece and cousin respectively. They are certainly at the very least close relatives, and given that they trained and danced together for so long during their formative years, they are surely sisters in practice if not in relation! I'll discuss this a bit more in my follow-up post Part 3.

Bharatanatyam Style

After watching all of Sayee and Subbulakshmi's film dances, it is clear that what made them unique was their mastery of the difficult combination of speed plus precision, their effortless movements in and out of seated positions (half-seated araimandi, fully seated muzhumandi) and mandi adavus and kneework, their flexibility and deep backbends, and their lightning-fast spins that gave them their "Pambara Sahodarigal" ("Spinning Top") namesake.

Araimandi (left), Muzhumandi (right)

Most of the information about Muthuswami's bani (style/school) of Bharatanatyam focuses on his creativity during his "French period" starting in the 1970s. He was known to be a very strict teacher who would not let a student progress until perfection was reached, and he taught one-on-one and often demonstrated movements himself. Sujatha's articles describe Muthuswami's "innovations in nritta [pure dance]" which "came to be recognised as his bani" as the following:
"The movement was fluid and continuous." [...] "Space ceased to be linear. It was round, rather a prismatic globe. The adavus were performed as the body rotated on its axis." [...]  "His choreography took dance from its usual three-pronged (two diagonals and the front) attack into an eight-directional, multi-dimensional invasion." [...] "An innovation of Pillai was converting the adavu-s traditionally done using both hands into single-handed adavu movements while the other hand rests at the hips or at the side in dola hasta."
"The two triangles defined by the body in araimandi were exploited by Muthuswami Pillai to exude energy and dynamism. The power of the bent knee was twofold. It served as the springboard for leaps, jumps and dives.  And it gave the momentum to cover space in swift glides. In fast footwork, the feet kept moving in all directions like a spinning top in orbit. The araimandi was intact through entire adavu sequences and the stage was covered from end to end..."
" 'Power with grace' would define his bani to some extent. Very often power in dance results in lumpen stomping, strutting and robotic precision. In the name of grace, loose-limbed wooziness blurs the lines and ruins the geometry. The kind of body control that Pillai imparted ensured that grace and visual aesthetics were the end. Power was employed only as a means to achieve clarity of lines. What he called grace comprised the ease with which the movement was accomplished, together with the joy of the art experienced by the dancer..."
"A physical movement was not mere flexing of the limbs.  The entire being had to be involved.  What scholars would call 'rasa' and what Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai defined as 'bhavam in adavu', was emphasised by Muthuswami Pillai in his own way."
In Sujatha's article, little is written about Muthuswami's style during his earlier period when he trained and choreographed for Sayee and Subbulakshmi on stage or in cinema. She only writes, "With his early disciples Sayee and Subbulakshmi, he had not done anything new or innovative in nritta or abhinaya, but had infused speed into their movements. The fact that the sisters were agile and nimble footed enough to do each movement perfectly added sparkle to the dance."

But now that we have the benefit of viewing a number of Sayee and Subbulakshmi's film dances online, I don't think it's a stretch to view everything but the first paragraph in the description of Muthuswami's innovations as applying perfectly to the sisters' dance style as recorded in cinema. They are the epitome of power, springing-leg movements, body control, grace, effortlessness, and most of all complete joy while dancing. While most of Sayee-Subbulakshmi's film dances that Muthuswami choreographed focus heavily on abhinaya [interpretive dance] with brief moments of moderate nritta [abstract/pure dance], the last minute of the song "Kadavai Saathadi" in Rathakkanneer offers a powerful demonstration of Muthuswami's training and style. It's also instructive to compare the sisters' Bharatanatyam choreographed by the other dance directors who pushed the power and speed too far, compromising the lines and grace a bit for the sake of a dazzling effect.

Given how effortlessly the sisters could handle notoriously difficult mandi adavus and kneework, it is easy to understand why Muthuswami is said to have focused more on nritta rather than nritya. In an interview posted at the Sacred Space blog, Dominique Delorme noted that during the last few years of Muthuswami's life, he "composed a lot of new things, both adavus and choreographies. My choreographies were full of mandi adavus. Maybe because I was a boy and he thought a boy could manage it! I think he got his inspiration from his students." And surely his inspiration began with the most-inspiring and talented dancing duo one could ask for, Sayee-Subbulakshmi! Dominique Delorme must have been a dream for Muthuswami who could harken back to the work he did with Sayee-Subbulakshmi. I do wish there was footage of Dominique dancing in Muthuswami Pillai's style—of the video available online, Dominique seems to be focusing on the popular Bharata Nrityam style he learned under Padma Subramaniam.

I wonder if any of the flashy embellishments that the other choreographers included were based on movements the sisters had learned from Muthuswami Pillai, or perhaps they were common in the "bags of tricks" film dance directors used in those days. Sujatha notes there were movements outside of the "Sadir tradition" that inspired Muthuswami, such as the "leg-bending exercises he had observed the Lambady tribe perform." The Lambadi tribe in Andhra Pradesh is related to the nomadic Banjaras spread across India and originally from Rajasthan. If you watch the video below, you can see the movement that was the likely source of inspiration for some of the sisters' folk movements and general bounciness.

Starts 7:09

The "Twin Dance" Phenomenon
in Tamil Cinema

Naam Iruvar
Sayee and Subbulakshmi's famed format was a Bharatanatyam-based version of what I like to call the "twin dance" in which two dancers perform the same movements side-by-side in unison.  From my research of Tamil cinema (and I suspect perhaps all of Indian cinema?), it seems Nattuvanar Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai began the trend with his star student Baby/Kumari Kamala.  Trick film techniques doubled Kamala's image on the screen so it appeared there were two of her dancing at once.  While it appears Vazhuvoor first directed Kamala with this technique in 1945 in the dream sequence in Sri Valli, it was Kamala's twin dances in "Aaduvome" and "Vetri Ettum" from Naam Iruvar (1947) that became popular due to the wild success of the film.

Vedhala Ulagam
Starting in that same year of 1947, the "Travancore Sisters" Lalitha and Padmini sprung onto the film scene with Kannika in a mythological "twin dance" done not by a one-person camera trick but by two real bodies with the novelty of their real-life sisterhood.  The "twin dance" trend repeated throughout all of their earliest Tamil dances: Vedhala Ulagam (1948), Mayavathi (1949), Laila Majnu (1949), Mangayarkarasi (1949), Manthiri Kumari (1950), and their first donning of a Bharatanatyam-style costume in Marutha Nattu Illavarasi (1950). But the choreography seemed inspired more by the graceful Uday Shankar style they had learned for his 1948 Hindi film Kalpana, not Bharatanatyam.

There were a few other Bharatanatyam-style twin dances before Sayee-Subbulakshmi came on the scene.  Most notable were those of the young Bharatanatyam artist MK Saroja with another dancer (unknown, on the right) seen in Paithiyakkaran (1947) and Nalla Thambi (1949). MK Saroja was one of the leading Bharatanatyam dancers in 1940s Madras, and she learned Bharatanatyam exclusively from the top-ranking nattuvanar Muthukumara Pillai, the same nattuvanar Muthuswami Pillai had his advanced training from in his youth. But after only dancing in three films, MK Saroja married Mohan Khokar and left the film industry. The twin dance style later showed up briefly in Pathala Bhairavi (1951, the only Telugu example) and fully in Parasakthi (1952).  

But the "twin dance" format didn't reach its zenith until 1954 when Muthuswami Pillai choreographed for Sayee and Subbulakshmi in their first films, Malaikkalan and Rattakkanneer. The dances, drawn straight from Bharatanatyam, were performed with incredible form, gravity-defying vigor, and most impressive of all: perfect sync. Perhaps Muthuswami Pillai, seeing the talent his sister-duo possessed, took inspiration from the successful film "twin dances" his peers had choreographed before him and capitalized on the opportunity to make the dance format sparkle with a real-life sister pair capable of performing his difficult choreography with effortless aplomb. In Muthuswami Pillai's hands, the "twin dance" format became visually arresting and "popped" on the silver screen.

Like Kamala's dances in Naam Iruvar, these dances of Sayee-Subbulakshmi clearly sparked another trend for "twin dances" in Tamil (and likely all of Indian) cinema that lasted through the early 1960s and also inspired countless court and heavenly dances in mythological films. This time, the imitators often tried to duplicate the quick and well-formed movements of their famous counterparts, but they could never quite match them. In a solo dance, small mistakes or differences in timing are hardly noticed, but in the "twin dance" format they are amplified. After 1954, twin dances by dancers other than Sayee-Subbulakshmi were seen in a slew of Tamil films like Neethipathi (1955), Rambhayin Kadhal (1956), Manalane Mangayin Bhagyam (1957), Iru Saghotharigal (1957), Raja Rajan (1958) Manimekalai (1959), Ponni Thirunaal (1960), and Inthira En Selvam (1962). From all the twin dances I've seen, it was only L Vijayalakshmi and another dancer in the Tamil film Kuravanji (1960) that came anywhere close to the defining light-on-the-feet style of Sayee-Subbulakshmi.  It is surprising that after Naam Iruvar, Kamala appears to have not reprised the speedy twin dance style until Bhakta Kuchela (1961) when she performed with her sister Rhadha. Beyond Tamil cinema, the only "twin dances" I can think of nearly all come after 1954, like Donga Ramudu (Telugu, 1955), Basant Bahar (Hindi, 1956), Sarpakaadu (Malayalam, 1965), and the many Kathak-oriented dances in Hindi cinema.

Muthuswami Pillai's Direction
of Sayee-Subbulakshmi's Film Dances

While Sayee-Subbulakshmi performed many different dance styles throughout their career in films, their claim to fame was their riveting Bharatanatyam. And it was at its best and most authentic under the direction of Muthuswami Pillai who introduced the duo to cinema. Muthuswami Pillai's choreography of Sayee-Subbulakshmi is presented earnestly and authentically with good lines and form even when the pace increases. Here are the four dances (and acting scenes!) I have been able to locate:

Malaikallan credits
Malaikallan (Tamil, 1954) - Sayee-Subbulakshmi debuted in films in 1954 with the hit film Malaikkallan.  Thanks to RajVideoVision who posted the entire film online, I was delighted to find that in addition to the dances the sisters have three scenes featuring small speaking roles presumably in their own voices!  Such fantastic documentation of these young women for us all these many years later.

Acting Debut: Sayee and Subbulakshmi play Alli and Valli, relatives of the infamous but mysterious robin-hood type figure Malaikkallan (MGR), who has saved Poonkothai (Bhanumathi) from evil kidnappers by orchestrating a "kidnapping" of his own in disguise.  Malaikkallan takes Poonkothai to his secretive cavely home where his family cares for her.  Alli and Malli are first seen at 50:02 where they beckon Poonkothai to come eat and then later at 1:00:02 they invite her to view their dance.  The sisters are so adorable and seem quite wooden and uncomfortable—I especially love the part when MGR playfully pushes Subbulakshmi's head at 1:00:20.  Alli and Valli are last seen acting at 1:22:36 when they invite Poonkothai to dance for them, and their final folk dance is near the end of the film and covered later in the post.

Acting debut! Starts 50:02

"Neeli Magan Nee Allavo" - This dance was Muthuswami Pillai's introduction to the world of Sayee-Subbulakshmi's dancing talent in film. The dance, encoded in beautiful quality below by Tom Daniel, takes place in the same outdoor location sporting events had been staged before, but with the addition of a soft, decorative carpet.  With an audience of family members and rustic villagers (and a restless leopard), Sayee and Subbulakshmi look directly at the camera and draw the viewer in with their abhinaya. The pure dance portion begins at 3:00 and is relatively tame compared to their later dances. Mallaikkalan was released only a year after Sayee and Subbulakshmi had their debut Bharatanatyam arangetram, and based on the dates from Sujatha's article the sisters would have been around 13 and 16 respectively.

Aggi Ramudu (Telugu, 1954) - "Rara Yasoda Nandana" - Malaikkallan was remade in four other languages: Aggi Ramudu (Telugu), Thaskaraveeran (Malayalam), Azaad (Hindi), and Soorasena (Sinhala).  Only Aggi Ramudu retained Muthuswami Pillai as the dance director (while only Thangaraj is listed in the credits [thanks Gaddeswarup for the translation], it is obvious Muthuswami directed this dance as he/SS claimed), and it is interesting to compare it to the version in Malaikkalan.  In Aggi Ramudu, while the pure dance sections are very similar, the movements expand further into folk items like the clasped-hand-spin at 2:43 and the abhinaya and gestures are completely different (and the poor leopard looks like he's had enough!). Sayee-Subbulakshmi have the same acting roles, but this time Subbulakshmi gets her head pushed by NTR :).  Here is the lovely dance, "Rara Yashoda Nandana":

Rathakkaneer (Tamil, 1954) - "Kadavai Saathadi" - Supposedly released a few months after Mallaikkalan in 1954, Rathakkanneer has what is perhaps the most classically-strict of all of Sayee-Subbulakshmi's film dance numbers.  Muthuswami's direction of the dance is confirmed in the title credits. Following in the tradition of Mallaikkalan and many of the sisters' later film dances, the first few minutes are devoted mostly to expressive abhinaya and gesture, while the latter portion switches to pure instrumental dance.  Starting at 3:20, the sisters perform in such near-perfect synchronization it is almost unreal! The sister's spectacular leg work is finally introduced starting at 3:15 with the knee-to-floor mandi adavus and the effortless drops from standing to seated leg positions.  But everything is very controlled and extremely precise, something that as you will later see loosened and relaxed quite a bit. Such a spectacular and precise number!  It must have been a delight for Muthuswami to see his difficult choreography come to life with these talented sisters.

Doctor Savithri (Tamil, 1955) - "Nayagar Pakshmadi" - Switching to a proscenium stage setting with a middle-class, mixed-gender audience, this barely three-minute dance number follows a similar format and look as the dances above but with no rousing rhythmic finale. I imagine the sisters were well-known to filmgoers by this time after their debuts the year earlier. I've not been able to locate the full film, but since it was part of Muthuswami's list and has all of his hallmarks, it is clearly his work. I love the sisters' effortless drops into low positions and legwork at the beginning and at 1:56.

President Panchatcharam (or Panchaksharam, Tamil, 1959) - I've not been able to locate this film or any dances from it, but it's one of the few films that Randor Guy notes a Sayee-Subbulakshmi dance in (he rarely mentions them for some strange reason, unlike Kamala, and never mentions Muthuswami Pillai), so I'm guessing it's great! 

Sayee-Subbulakshmi's Film Bharatanatyam
by Other Choreographers

Most of Sayee-Subbulakshmi's film Bharatanatyam not choreographed by Muthuswami Pillai was the work of the nattuvanars P.S. Gopalakrishnan and/or K.N. Dhandayudapani (or looks like it), and it is easy to see the difference. It is under these choreographers, particularly Gopalakrishnan, that the speed the sisters danced at is increased to an almost super-human pace—and I'm convinced the film was artificially sped up a bit to enhance the effect and dazzle viewers. It's FUN to watch and the moves are performed expertly as only Sayee-Subbulakshmi could, but the Bharatanatyam choreography extends beyond its usual boundaries and incorporates more filmy movements and embellishments. The moves are performed so quickly that the sisters don't always complete them, but they are such pros that you hardly notice!

This illustrates that a film dance's authenticity to Bharatanatyam was not guaranteed just because the dance director was a nattuvanar. P.S. Gopalakrishnan (PSG) is a name that I have seen referenced many times in regards to 1950s and 60s South Indian (mostly Tamil) film dances especially when browsing the National Film Archive of India's search feature. I've never been able to find much information about him other than a listing of his participation at the 1957 Music Conference of the prestigious Madras Music Academy as the nattuvanar for a Bharatanatyam performance. He composed a lot of what I consider not-very-good Bharatanatyam in films—like the dances of Padmini in Thillana Mohanambal and Mannadhi Mannan—where the emphasis is more on showy athleticism and statuesque postures with significant filmy alterations rather than maintaining proper form. K.N. Dandayudapani Pillai (KND), on the other hand, is a nattuvanar who is well remembered and respected for his dance style and Kalakshetra training in nattuvangam. He is credited for a few film dances, some with P.S. Gopalakrishnan, but Pillai also composed some excellent Bharatanatyam numbers in cinema like Kamala in Chori Chori or Radha Burnier in The River.

Playlist: Sayee-Subbulakshmi's Speediest Bharatanatyam!

Prepare yourself to be DAZZLED by the speediest segments from Sayee-Subbulakshmi's speediest film Bharatanatyam ordered in increasing pace culminating in the off-the-charts dance in Mangalya Bhagyam! Instead of embedding a gazillion videos in the post, I've decided to try something new—a playlist! Here's a listing of the songs in the playlist below with some quick info tidbits [Update: YouTube has removed the ability to start and end playlist videos at specific times, so I listed at the end of each description the intended starting time you can navigate to on each video. Navigate using the menu icon when hovering over the playlist video below]:
  • Thaiku Pin Tharam (Tamil, 1956) - Naadu Sezhithida - Bharatanatyam followed by folk/possible Lavani. Choreographer not listed (credits).  Start 0:49.
  • Karpukkarasi (Tamil, 1957) - "Vizhiyodu Vilaiyadam" - Choreographer not listed (credits).  Start 4:01.
  • Arivaali (Tamil, 1963) - "Vazhiya Needozhi" - Choreographer: PSG (cr). Start 1:00:51.
  • Sivagangai Seemai (Tamil, 1959) - "Muthu Pugazh Padaithu" - Choreographer: KND (according to Randor Guy). A fast-paced, rhythmic expose with raaga-scaling vocals by S. Varalakshmi and Radha Jalalakshmi.  Start 3:27.
  • Mangalya Bhagyam (Tamil, 1958) - "Nenjathile Acham Illaathavar" - Choreographers: Gopalakrishnan (assume PSG), Sampath Kumar, Chinni Lal (film credits). Insanely frenetic dancing supported by a challenging vocal duet of P. Leela and MLV. Start 2:16.
Speediest excerpts from each dance!

Sayee-Subbulakshmi in Azaad

Azaad (Hindi, 1955) - "Aplam Chaplam" - This film dance is perhaps Sayee-Subbulakshmi's most famous, and in the rare moments that the sisters are remembered today it is the one usually mentioned.They were named (with surprisingly accurate spelling) in the credits along with dance director Hiralal.  Azaad was the Hindi remake of Malaikalan and Aggi Ramudu, and the sisters' dance departs significantly from those predecessors.  There are a few bits of Bharatanatyam dance but mixed in are generous amounts of filmy movements appropriate for a Hindi film. The hand gestures and poses here are primarily decorative and the number is designed to be catchy, fun, and entertaining. I'm surprised the sisters retained their South Indian costume in the Hindi version! Thanks to Tom Daniel for uploading the dance with great quality and English subtitles!

Thaskaraveeran (Malayalam, 1957) - "Chapalam Chapalam" - How surprising to learn that the Malayalam remake of Mallaikkalan, Thaskaraveeran, did a straight copy of "Apalam Chapalam" but replaced Subbulakshmi with another unknown dancer [video not locatable online now]. She does a fantastic job, especially with the difficult leg work! Anyone know who she is?

All the Rest:
Non-Bharatanatyam Film Dances

Beyond Sayee-Subbulakshmi's mainstay of Bharatanatyam, the sisters were also able to perform many other styles of film dance with surprising grace and finesse. Their expressive faces and flexible bodies adapted to whatever was thrown at them. I find myself often gravitating to Sayee (the taller one) in these dances because she adds an extra touch of oomph to her movements. The sisters are also said to have danced in the film Naya Sansar (1959), but I've not been able to find any videos or information.

I've embedded a playlist with all of the sisters other film dances down below, but I have to feature the numbers in Kann Thirandadu and Periya Kovil by themselves first because they are ridiculously awesome dances. Enjoy!

Kann Thirandadu (Tamil, 1958) - "Vanakathu Vanakathu" "Panam kaasu panam kaasu" (apparently the song title of the video on YouTube is incorrect) Of their non-classical numbers, Sayee-Subbulakshmi's rhythmic spectacular from 2:17 onward in this dance is my absolute favorite. That move at 3:07 exemplifies the "spinning top" namesake better than anything could! The film is obviously sped up a bit, but the effect is simply magical! Here's the fascinating part—Muthuswami Pillai includes this film on his list of film choreographies. Perhaps he misremembered, but based on his work above this does not seem like something he would have choreographed. The credits don't list any dance direction, so it's hard to say for sure. Whoever is responsible for it, the editing makes it spectacular (and you might have to click the link to watch it on YouTube due to playback restriction). Start at 2:17 and prepare to be amazed!

Starts 2:17

Periya Kovil (Tamil, 1958) - "Aathaadi Thalaatha Thaathaavai" 
- The choreography by PSG here plays off the music so well that the entire song is a delight! Look how the rhythm courses through Sayee at 3:33. The sound seems a few milliseconds out of sync, and I think the vocals are dubbed. 

All the Rest: Sayee-Subbulakshmi Potpourri
(Update: Navigate using the menu icon when hovering
 over the playlist video below, 
some videos have been removed)

  • Chori Chori (Hindi, 1956) - "Man Bhavan Ke Ghar" - Dance direction: KND (this clearly makes sense for Kamala's fantastic Bharatanatyam number in the film, but not so much for Sayee-Subbulakshmi's Kathak number. Perhaps another choreographer, like Gopi Krishna, assisted?) The sisters show here that they can perform movements outside of their learned tradition with graceful lithesomness. 
  • Sharada (Hindi, 1957) - Choreography: Hiralal and Sathyanarayan (credits). A fun tribal-themed number (and notice the Uday Shankar/Kalpana influence?) 
  • Bharosa (Hindi, 1963) - Choreography: Gopi Krishna! Full of drops, backbends, and hip and chest shimmies!
  • Sati Sulochana (Telugu, 1961) - "Jai Jai Jai" - Super filmy!
  • Makkalai Petra Maharasi (Tamil, 1957) - "Malliyakka Malliyakka" - Choreographer unknown. Cute folk number with crisp facial closeups. 
  • Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (Tamil, 1956) - "Naama Aaduvathum" - Filmed in color!
  • Azaad (Hindi, 1955) - "O Balliye O Balliye" - Cute!
  • Malaikkallan (Tamil, 1954) - "O Ayye O Amma"
  • Aggi Ramudu (Telugu, 1954) - "Palla"

Concluding Thoughts...

Sujatha notes that Muthuswami Pillai's training of Sayee-Subbulakshmi was "an odd situation with the dance teacher spend his entire time teaching just two pupils." He taught a few others students here and there, but all of them soon gave up the dance form. His lack of noteworthy pupils beyond the sisters ended up being his "undoing," especially as "public taste" changed in the 1960s and 70s and Bharatanatyam dances in films were no longer in demand. With no students or film work, Muthuswami entered a slump. But in the mid 1970s, he entered a new phase of creativity in his dance career when European students from France traveled to India to learn exclusively from him. The students were earnest and sincere, their ballet backgrounds were an inspiration, and their bodies could handle his difficult choreography. 

The peak of Muthuswami's "French period" came in 1987 when Muthuswami met Dominique Delorme, the student "who would be to him what Kamala was to Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai." Dominique could handle whatever Muthuswami demanded of him and relished in the challenge. After rocky and negative initial reactions from the dance establishment, Muthuswai finally received the recognition he had craved culminating in a Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" in France. In 2011, Sujatha wrote "these days I am often pleasantly surprised to spot his adavu-s in the performances of younger dancers and some of the seniors in Chennai. He has surely left a mark, but with none of his senior disciples working in Chennai, the style could see a slow fade-out."

But what about Sayee-Subbulakshmi? What happened to them, and why are so little remembered today? Kumari Kamala is rightfully remembered as ushering in a "cultural revolution in Bharatanatyam" (in Randor Guy's words) by bringing respectability to dance through her far-reaching performances in cinema as a sweet and talented girl from a "good family." But surely Sayee-Subbulakshmi, being just as cute and talented, also brought recognition to the form through cinema. From scholar Lakshmi Subramanian's insightful article on Sayee-Subbulakshmi and other reading between the lines while researching the sisters' family connections, I realized that they came from the traditional dance/music community and were not Brahmin outsiders to the tradition like Kamala. Was this a factor in the way the sisters were regarded or remembered?

As I read over this finished post, I notice that while I emphasize that Sayee-Subbulakshmi had exceptional natural-born talent, I write about them as if they were entirely products of their guru and later film choreographers with little agency and input of their own. I do wonder what aspects of their film dances were of their own emphasis and creation? Lakshmi Subramanian presents a fascinating perspective of the sisters after having watched some of their film dances. After noting that the South Indian film industry served as a "key factor in the survival and adaptation of those families and social groups who were associated with dance, music and performance including theatre and who did not immediately find a slot in the public domain of art music," she notes:
"[Sayee-Subbulakshmi] brought to their participation an individuated understanding of the form and idiom and experimented with its potential" and "the effortlessness with which they interpret the compositions and the fluidity of their moves demonstrate the sheer depth of the artistic inheritance they enjoyed."
She then concludes:
"My intention is to make a case for early films to serve as an archive of documenting taste and repertoire and of retrieving the agency of the performer in negotiating categories such as classical, traditional, modern, popular and folk. Without discounting the constraints imposed on performers by the needs of the audience, the discipline of the choreographer, I am nonetheless suggesting that the early performers were able to use the emerging medium of the film to demonstrate the parallel life of older genres and styles and to present their own  imagination of the present."
I am reminded of the recent guest post on my blog that discussed Muthuswami Pillai's devadasi-style choreography of Vyjayanthimala in Piya Milan compared with that in Chittoor Rani Padmini as a "defining authorial comment on the changes these key players brought to the culture of South Indian dance." However, Sayee-Subbulakshmi's film dances strike me as being creations consciously designed to present the modern "Bharatanatyam" that had emerged before and during that time period—very similar to the way that the Nattuvanar Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai presented his child prodigy Kamala in cinema. And given all that I have read about Muthuswai Pillai's style and thorough training, I naturally have wrote this post looking through that lens. I am curious what it is about Sayee-Subbulakshmi's film dances that causes Lakshmi to see them as first and foremost creations of the sisters themselves operating under small "constraints" like the choreographer or audience. I wonder what perspectives my readers and visitors have, especially those that are much more knowledgeable about Bharatanatyam than I am, particularly in assessing abhinaya and interpretive dance. Thoughts?

Coming up soon: Part 3, exploring more about Sayee-Subbulakshmi's relatives, their work in cinema, and more!


"Kattumannar Koil Muthukumara Pillai (1874-60)" feature. Sruti. September 1993.
Prahlad, Prathibha. "An Aesthete and Innovator." Sruti. May 2011.
Sayee-Subbulakshmi (as told to Sruti). "Remembering our Dance Master" Sruti. May 2011.
Vijayaraghavan, Sujatha.  "The Teacher and the Taught: Muthuswami Pillai and His Disciples."
Vijayaraghavan, Sujatha. "From the Sruti Archives: A Marvel of Tradition and Talent - V.S. Muthuswami Pillai." Sruti. April 2011.
Vijayaraghavan, Sujatha. "From the Sruti Archives: V.S. Muthuswami Pillai - His Bani." Sruti. May 2011.

Further Reading and Stuff of Interest:


  1. Wow! I can't stop watching these videos! mesmerizing! (I have seen most of them before , and still.

  2. This is another valuable addition to the treasure excavated by you with painstaking research.

    Thank you for providing such feast for the eyes and the mind!!!

  3. Amazing blog thanks so much for your work

  4. The song in Kann thirandhadhu is Panam kaasu panam kaasu not as mentioned, pl correct.

    1. Thanks for the name of the correct song title--I made the correction in this post and will make a comment on the YouTube video, but since I didn't upload the YT video it will be up to the uploader to change the title.

  5. Subbu grandma was a great bharatanatyam dancer and she used to take classes for other kids during 2006-07 but now she is enjoying her life with family. Love you subbu ma . Reading about her made me feel so proud.

  6. I have created an article on Sayee Subbulakshmi here:
    Details about Subbulakshmi are not known. Please read the article and record your comments on the article's talk page. Thank you.


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