Meeting and Interviewing Kamala! And a Rare Video Find at the NYPL!

Saturday, May 24, 2014
Get out of the way people, dance nerds coming through!
Last week I had the pleasure of taking a dream trip to New York City and visiting the hallowed walls of the place that has for years beckoned me with its unparalleled collection of Indian dance treasures...the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts! For so long I have been fantasizing about the trip but it always seemed a bit out of reach until fate coalesced and I found an opportunity to get away. I met up there with fellow Indian dance research/archive nerd extraordinaire Ragothaman and we proceeded to voraciously power through the NYPL's Dance Division holdings with anxious excitement! Can you believe it—I held in my hands the personal notes and photos of Simkie, Indrani Rehman, and more.

But the most stunning find happened right after arrival on the first item Ragothaman and I viewed. It was an item in the catalog that had intrigued me—a 3-minute film reel titled "two Indian dancers" with location and date unknown and the coy description "Performance of East Indian dance, possibly Bharata natyam. A dance by two women (the second dancer, at stage right, is only intermittently visible on film) is followed by solo dances." My mind went wild with possibilities! It could be anyone in the video!

The NYPL staffer set up the silent film reel for us in the private viewing room and as the first few frames of the darkly-lit, grainy recording flashed on the screen we couldn't believe our eyes! It was footage of Kamala and her sister Rhadha dancing Bharatanatyam on stage, in color, in the late 1950s or early 1960s! Kamala could be seen relatively close-up at times, her abhinaya on display as she mouthed the words of the song. The short film reel opened with Kamala and Rhadha performing an alarippu, followed by Rhadha doing a jathiswaram, then Kamala dancing a kirtanam/varnam. The segments were short clips that were hastily edited together and when both sisters were dancing together Rhadha was often unseen outside of the frame. The costumes were in blue and pinkish-orange for Kamala and dark green and orange for Rhadha. The clip seems to be the only extant footage of Kamala's early stage Bharatanatyam outside of cinema, and seeing Rhadha joining her is a rarity! The guess of the date is based on how similar Kamala and Rhadha look to their performance in the film Bhakta Kuchela which was supposedly released in 1961. Oh how I wished I could take just one single screencap of the film reel for my readers, but recording and photography of any kind in the film viewing room was strictly prohibited.

The high I felt after happening onto such an amazing discovery was infinitely topped when I got to meet the great Kamala herself in person. Kamala graciously spoke to Ragothaman and me for over an hour, and she was delightfully cheerful and jovial despite a busy day of teaching Bharatanatyam (one month shy of 80, she drives herself all over the greater New York City area and demonstrates the movements herself in her classes. Amazing!) and despite our being over an hour late after missing our train! While Ragothaman will be posting about the portions of the interview outside of cinema topics (now posted here--especially interesting are the audio recordings of her singing!) I will report on, of course, the film stuff!

Speaking of the process of recording film dances choreographed by her guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Kamala related that the film choreography would be designed at home while listening to the already-composed film music, and the movement design was a collaborative process between she and her guru. The film shootings almost always happened only on weekdays and the schedule was grueling with a 5-6 a.m. pickup time for the car sent from the studio, a makeup session, and then film shooting for hours. The shoots did not stretch for a full-day shooting as her mother signed only for a half-day call sheet, allowing Kamala to study with her guru in the evenings. At the studio, Vazhuvoorar would be given complete freedom to choreograph the song as he wished in his style that was the same as he composed for the stage. "No camera conscious," Kamala said of his approach to the craft under the eye of the camera lens. After a segment was shot, she and Vazhuvoorar could preview the rushes and make adjustments as needed. An advantage of the movies over the stage certainly, but one that likely wasn't needed by Kamala as she was "known for giving just one take in one shot," a skill which she credited humbly not to herself but to God.

Touching on the topic I have recently found fascinating, that of the unique advantages the film medium brings to dance, Kamala noted that dance in the movies is completely different from dance on the stage in its themes and locations and, most of all, the tricks and angles offered by the camera which create "a new feeling for the dance." But Kamala preferred dancing for the stage because it offered her complete control and, seemingly, a challenge. "On the stage we cannot create that [new feeling], but with our work, we'll make the audience spellbound. That is the only thing we have." And isn't Indian dance so highly developed in the way it takes a solo performer on a bare stage and transforms the experience into a transcendental connection with the audience!

Kamala was at her most delightful when she spoke of specific film dances and told humorous stories peppered with her charming laughter. She seemed most fond of the dance in Chenda that she choreographed for herself and her two sisters (the video of which I discovered online last year) at the insistence of the film's cameraman. It was the only dance featuring all three sisters. She also spoke of the camera tricks utilized in many of her dances like the camera mask in Naam Iruvar where she danced first the right side and then the left and also the colored powder footwork of the Simha (Lion) in Konjum Salangai. Kamala immediately recalled her peacock dance in Sumai Thaangi (also discovered online last year) when we mentioned it and noted that she was asked to dance it on stage after people saw it in cinemas.

The film dance setting Kamala was most disappointed by seems to have been for her grand performance in Chori Chori. "My dance in Chori Chori—it was such a beautiful thillana, and they put it where! When Pran is sitting there and watching and looking at this another girl. I told Chettiar, such a beautiful thillana and you have Nataraja in the background and the orchestra and everything playing so nicely...and what a situation you have given for the dance!" she exclaimed with her infectious laughter. "Very crazy people...sometimes they are crazy. What to do!"

Kamala confirmed that she had never danced in films with Vyjayanthimala or Padmini—something I have wondered about for some time because it would simply be EPIC, would it not! She shrugged off the idea noting that both were "snobbish people" though Padmini would at least recognize and talk to her. The great Vyjayanthimala-Padmini dance-off in Vanjikottai Vaaliban seemed to be on her mind when she surmised that film producers simply wanted to make more money by pairing such eminent stars together in one film which brought each's fanbase to the cinema halls.

As the interview neared its end, Kamala endearingly spoke of seeing the movie The Dirty Picture just to see Silk Smitha's dance, though she likely meant Vidya Balan's portrayal of Silk Smitha's dance. "When I was young, you know, I couldn't see those things, I was busy with my own work...but she is a fantastic dancer!" After seeing the film, Kamala felt such sadness for Silk Smitha that she couldn't sleep that night. "See how lucky I am that God didn't push me into things like do dances like that [for survival]." Once more Kamala exclaimed, "she is a marvelous dancer!" As the conversation moved to the subject of devadasi dance and changes in Bharatanatyam, Kamala connected the story of Silk Smitha's life with some of the devadasi's lives that were "spoiled by rich people."

How lucky am I to have met the woman who has provided this blog with such inspiration and joy for so long! Huge thanks are due to Aasish Cherukupalli, a big fan of my blog, and Prema Aier of Sri Bharata Kamalalaya for their crucial assistance in helping the interview become a reality, as well as those who kindly hosted us. And I'm also greatful for Ragothaman's expert usage of Tamil in smoothing over the awkward moments when Kamala couldn't understand my accent or volume :). I also met up with another blogger at the NYPL—Richard of the Dances on the Footpath Blog who posted about Kamala long before I. It has been a great meeting of the Kamala-loving minds this month!

More Kamala Finds at the NYPL

While Kamala unfortunately does not have her own "papers" in the special collections of the NYPL like some other Indian dancers do (maybe one day she will donate some or all of her documentation), there were a few interesting finds of hers in the NYPL's catalog. A 1960 article she wrote titled "Bharata Natyam as I See It" was available as was the 1954 Films Division documentary on Bharatanatyam that I've previously discussed (and that I hope will soon be posted online in good quality at the Films Division YouTube channel, especially since they just posted the Kathak one a few weeks ago).

Adding to the list of coincidences related to Kamala's name and life (recall how her first husband remarried another woman named Kamala and also the crossed paths of Radha Viswanathan with Kamala's sister Rhadha), I was surprised to find that an item in the catalog referencing "Kamala Kumari" was not the Kumari Kamala of this post with the name order reversed but instead the name of a completely different person! The item was a 1959 program for Shakuntala with the lead role of Shakuntala performed by Kamala Kumari and "dances by Nala Najan and Medah Von Essen." The "About the Cast" section of the program sheds light on who Kamala Kumari was: "Miss Kumari came to this country from Bombay three years ago as a scholarship student from Bombay University to study pharmacy at Drake University, Iowa, from which she was graduated with honors this year. An accomplished dancer, she appeared with the famed Ram Gopal troupe at the Edinburgh Festival in 1956 while en route to the U.S. She was selected for her present role by director Lee Morgan who saw her dance at a convention of the India Association in Chicago. This is her first New York appearance." Through Ragothaman I then learned that "Kamala Kumari" was the stage name of Penny Thomas aka Penny Furgerson, who runs the Gateway Dance Theatre in Iowa. How interesting that she danced with Nala Najan and Ram Gopal (though unfortunately not in a year that BritishPathe has viewable in its online archive).

The most exciting Kamala finds at the NYPL were of course items not identified in the catalog because they were scattered among a slew of items from a folder in the papers of a dancer's special collection. Within the Nala Najan papers was a program for the 1985-86 Festival of India presented at Columbia University with dances by Kamala Narayan, Ritha Devi, Janaki Patrik, and Leela. How interesting to learn that "Kamala Narayan" as she was called at that time was selected by the Indian government "to represent Indian Art and Music at the Asian Convention in Las Vegas in 1962 and at the Theatre Des Nations in Paris in 1964." Yet more video recordings that might be in existence of Kamala's dance!

But the most rare Kamala find in the Nala Najan papers was a handful of small black of white photographs of her performing on stage in what appears to be the early 1950s. No name was written on them, but we knew they were Kamala! Here are three that I find quite interesting which I'm posting here in low quality with commentary. Her choice of jewelry is very understated and the fan ends higher on the leg than many of her costumes in later years. And the back of a head and possible microphone can be seen at the bottom of the last picture. Might it be a snap of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai's nattuvangam?


  1. A very interesting post! Enjoyed the clip of dance by Kamala in Chori Chori. The other links in your post also provide a feast for the eyes and mind! Thank you for the treat.

    1. Hello sir! Glad to see you still around--and I'm surprised you haven't seen the Chori Chori dance before! It's one of her best. :)


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