The Golden Age of Scholarship on Dance in South Indian Cinema is Here

Monday, February 3, 2020
Back in August of last year, as I emerged from a period of gripping ennui that had largely led to my blog hiatus, I eagerly went on an internet search jaunt to see what new finds might be out there, and I happened onto Hari Krishnan's just-published book, Celluloid Classicism: Early Tamil Cinema and the Making of Modern Bharatanatyam.  Within the blink of an eye I had ordered it, and I have slowly been reading it in earnest.

Reading through this masterful contribution has been riveting.  Every chapter is filled with one exciting piece of information after the other, populated with the names of people and films I've encountered over my years of trying to quench my thirst for knowledge of a topic that is little-researched, reclusive, and under-appreciated.

But the book is not simply a descriptive work that reveals anecdotes and tales from the past.  Having dug deep into archives, film print culture, personal collections, and a few candid interviews, Hari is out to explain the significance of the information, make connections, and contribute meaningful and new ideas to the world of scholarship on Indian dance and cinema and the real people and communities involved— the book is based on his doctoral dissertation, after all!

The central arguments of his book are something I've never heard anyone even hint before about Bharatanatyam.  As the back cover describes, "This book unsettles received histories of modern Bharatanatyam by arguing that cinema [...] bears heavily and irrevocably upon iterations of this 'classical' dance" and that there was a "reciprocal exchange of knowledge between screen and stage versions of Bharatanatyam in the early decades of the twentieth century."  That's quite tame frankly, given that by the time one has made it to the end of the book, the "exchange" and "heavy bearing" are clearly even more significant.

Hari covers much ground in the book—devadasis and courtesans in South Indian cinema and recovering information about their professional and personal lives, the different professional and political trajectories men in their communities made as nattuvanars in cinema, the "so-called revival or reinvention of Bharatanatyam" in the 1930s and the elites involved, cinema's importance to popularizing and shaping Bharatanatyam in a multitude of ways, print culture of film magazines and songbooks, the influence of South Indian drama traditions, politics, religion, middle-class and popular culture, and more.

I am still working on a someday-post about my thoughts on the book and some great video finds either referenced in or related to the book's contents, but I must say that one of the most exciting finds for me was the revelation of the impact and central importance to modern Bharatanatyam of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and his star student Kamala.  Never has this been more strikingly elaborated and sourced than in this book.

My favorite chapters of the book, and the ones I actually recommend those interested in the topics of my blog read first, are chapters 4 and 5 focused on nattuvanars and choreography in cinema and a detailed analysis of how Bharatnatyam's "aesthetics, technique, and repertoire [were] irrevocably transformed through its encounter with cinema" [Krishnan].  The second half of the book of which they are a part has the least dissertationish "academese," and chapters 4 and 5 had the most exciting contributions to discover in my opinion.  Other highlights for me were Hari's sleuthing to ferret out the truth behind the first Indian dance film Jalaja (1938) and legends of Rukmini Devi supposedly dancing in popular South Indian cinema.

What I'm calling the "Golden Age of Scholarship on Dance in South Indian Cinema" seems to have began with the Kuchipudi dance form first.  Rumya Sree Putcha's 2011 doctoral dissertation Revisiting the Classical: A Critical History of Kuchipudi Dance and Katyayani Thota and Anuradha Tadakamalla's article "Marking the Telugu Cultural Identity: Kuchipudi and its role in cinema" both delved into truth-finding missions to view Kuchipudi's past with a critical lens.  The great Davesh Soneji has also touched on the subject, most notably his 2012 book Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India.

After Kuchipudi's spotlight, Bharatanatyam and Tamil Cinema followed suit in scholarship, first with just a taste in Sundar Kaali's 2013 brief article "Disciplining the Dasi: Cintamani and the Politics of a New Sexual Economy" focusing on depiction of dasis in 1930s-50s Tamil cinema, and then finally to the subject of this post, Hari's 2019 masterpiece.

My opinion of this "Golden Age" was cemented when I read of a number of recent and upcoming projects in Hari's book.  His bibliography reveals that a forthcoming compilation Dance and the Early South Indian Cinema is in the works, edited by the great Davesh Soneji, Tiziana Leucci, and Hari himself.  It's slated to include an article "Patronage of Hereditary Performing Artists in Tamil Cinema: The Case of V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai" by Tiziana Leucci as well as, according to her CV, Rumya Sree Putcha's article "Cinematic Archives: History, Historiography, and Dance in the South Indian Film Industry."  I also learned of Katyayani Thota's unpublished 2016 dissertation, "Stage to Screen, and Back: A Study of the Dialogue between Kuchipudi and Telugu Cinema."  I am looking forward to getting my hands on any and all of these!

Such joy I feel that the writings on dance in South Indian cinema are moving beyond simple descriptive stories of the past through a nostalgic lens to a full-fledged topic of study and critical analysis.  These recent scholarly contributions are delving into and situating the importance of cinema dance to the history of these dance forms— and oh how important it has been!

Last, I found it incredibly humbling and affirming to discover, without any prior knowledge, that me and my blog and a few of my blog posts were referenced in Hari's book.  I can't quite describe how it felt as I cracked open my newly-arrived paperback and soon saw my name and "Cinema Nritya" mentioned in a few places, starting in the introduction.  I'm one of many sources in the bibliography, specifically my posts on Tara Chaudhri, Sayee and Subbulakshmi's Film-Industry Relatives, and Muthukumara Pillai on screen in Kannika.  All smiles here!

May the Golden Age be long lasting and fruitful!

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