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Celebration of classical Indian dance in the great Indian cinema
- Padma Chebrolu, OH

October 10, 2004

Cinema has made the greatest impact in the lives of people globally. It takes you to a different dimension and puts your imagination to test. Films incorporate many kinds of art forms and portray the creativity of the makers at their best. Of all the thousands of cinemas made world wide, few over the decades have touched our spirits. These cinemas become unforgettable and the people who created and acted in it, become legendary.

Bhanu Priya - Bharata Natyam Dancer

Bhanu Priya in film Sitara

In India and other countries, cinema is inseparable from one's life. For thousands, it provides livelihood and for millions, it is an escape into a fantasy world. This imaginary world could be splendid, perfect, or filled with love and joy. Or it could be nothing but struggle, pain, disappointment and misery. There is no perfect formula to create a memorable and long lasting cinema. Or is there?
Madhuri Dixit - Kathak dancer from the film Devdas (2002)

The great Indian cinema industry has been incorporating song and dance sequences around the story line to attract and entertain audiences. A majority of the movies do a very poor job of this but there are always few gems that are uncovered. They have unique story lines and noble characters, which stand for a cause and struggle through their entire lives to find happiness. These characters can include activists, poets, writers, singers, dancers, artists and many other types of individuals. We watch these unique cinemas again and again. We do not care if they are in foreign languages. We share them with our children, friends and neighbors, as these cinemas have the quality to inspire people of many generations for decades.

Shobana - Bharata Natyam dancer & awarding winning actress

Most good actors, actresses and artists in general are passionate about their trade. They need to be in their creative mode, if not, it becomes a life and death issue for their souls. Some of these great actors and actresses include professional classical dancers, some of whom have an elevated artistic expression that needs a bigger audience and bigger stage. They could be Kamal Hassan, Gopi Krishna, Hema Malini, Shobana, Vyjayanthimala, Padmini, Ragini, Bhanu Priya, Madhuri Dixit, Meenakshi Seshadri, Manju Bhargave, Sabitha Bhamidipati, Sudha Chandran, Prabhu Deva, Shanmukha Srinivas and the list goes on.

As a child, one of the first classical dance and music-based cinemas I have seen was Shankarabharanam. It was one of the gigantic hit movies in the Indian film history. Director K. Viswanath was a creative genius who respected classical art forms. He brought in new actors for all the major roles. Manju Bhargavi was the heroine who was caught in a strange situation. Her acting and dancing was outstanding. For my generation, this movie was the call to become dancers.

Manju Bhargavi - Kuchipudi Dancer, from the film Shankarabharanam (1979)

Classical dancing was also brought to the silver screen decades before Manju Bhargavi. Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini are known as the Travancore sisters from Kerala. They were all leading actresses and dancers in South India and acted in several Hindi cinemas also. Dancer and actress Shobhana is their niece - brother's daughter. Among the sisters, Padmini has had the most successful career. She has acted in more than 250 movies and some of the movies she acted in are classics, even today - Thillana Mohanambal is a great example.

Padmini - Bharata Natyam dancer, from film Thillana Mohanambal (1968)

Currently, Padmini is the Director of the Padmini School of Fine Arts with five branches in Queens, New York, and New Jersey. Padmini started learning classical dance at the age of four and at the age of ten, she had her 'arangetam' or dance debut and by 14, she became a member of a dance troupe that toured various parts of India. The legendary dancer Uday Shanker, on seeing her performance, invited her to act in the film he was making. Thus, Padmini started a career in films spanning a period of over 40 years.

Vyjayanthimala - Bharata Natyam Dancer, from the film Gunga Jumna (1961)

Vyjayanthimala is another heroine and dancer who took classical dancing in Indian movies to another level. Her elegance and facial expressions are mesmerizing. Her beauty, talent and successful career made her a superstar.

Hema Malini - Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi & Odissi dancer

Then came Hema Malini, who looked and danced absolutely stunning in every cinema she made. Along with her predecessors, Padmini and Vyjayanthimala, she popularized classical dancing in and outside the movies. Now in her late 50's, she is still an amazing dancer who travels with her dance company around the world.

Who can stop talking about the most handsome and perfect dancer, Kamal Hassan. When his dance movie “Sagara Sangamam” released, boys and men were lining up to take dance lessons. This cinema deals with the tragedies in the life of a talented dancer. Gorgeous Jayapradha stars against him in a love story that is absolutely touching. Kamal Hassan proved to all those parents who are afraid of their sons joining in dance studios that male version of classical dance is glamorous, masculine, tasteful and elegant. Even though he was trained in Bharata Natyam, in this film Kamal Hassan performs many other styles also.

Kamal Hassan - Bharata Natyam dancer in film Sagara Sangamam

Before Kamal Hassan, there was Gopi Krishna who is a Kathak legend. As the director, K Viswanath leads the classical dance and music cinema in the south, V Shantaram was the director who made bigger than life dance and music cinema in the north. Shantaram started off making serious, intense, socially committed films, so Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje was a departure from his usual style. Today, it seems loud and garish, but in 1955, a film based purely on dance was decidedly offbeat.

It starred legendary Kathak maestro Gopi Krishna, opposite Shantaram's wife Sandhya, who was also a terrific dancer. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje had the best Kathak dance sequences, colorful costumes, elaborate set pieces and melodious music.

Gopi Krishna - Kathak dancer, in the film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955)

The great dancer Mangal Maharaj wants his son Giridhar to follow his footsteps and win the title of ‘Bharat Natraj'. But first they need to find a dance partner. None could measure up to their standards. Then, they discover a young woman named Neela who agrees to study under Mangal. But Giridhar and Neela begin to fall in love, which enrages Mangal so much that he injures Giridhar”s leg to separate the two. But of course, things work out in the end; Giridhar wins the title and the love of Neela.

V Shantaram said that the film made a case for preserving the purity of Indian artistic traditions against the onslaught of the West (in 1955!!). Surprisingly, the audience loved this terribly self-indulgent piece of work and it reportedly ran for 104 weeks and won the President's Gold Medal for best film. It is one of the top grosser of all time.

Some of the cinemas, which featured classical dances:

1. Saptapadhi (1980), starring dancer Sabitha Bhamidipati
Somayajulu, an orthodox high-priest of a village temple weds his grand-daughter Hema to his grand-son Gaurinatha, also a priest by profession, without realizing that she is in love with Murali, a Harijan. Hema is a professional dancer who gives performances along with her father's troupe, while Murali plays flute in the troupe. Gaurinatha marries Hema, but only succeeds to see the goddess he worships, in Hema. He learns the truth from Hema and decides to unite her with Murali. After much deliberation, Yajulu not only gives consent, but actively carries it out in the face of stiff resistance from the village. Sabitha Bhamidipati was my senior and we both went to the same university for undergraduate studies and Dance College. We both were trained under Dr. Uma Rama Rao.

2. Swarna Kamalam (1988) starring dancer Bhanu Priya
It is essentially a love story centered on a reluctant young dancer, and is well scripted and directed. The story itself is rather simplistic, but it hardly matters, for this movie is essentially about music, dance and spirituality to an extent. The shots of the various dance and musical sequences are breathtaking in their simplicity and awe-inspiring in their depth. My guru, Dr. Uma Rama Rao was the choreographer for this cinema.
Shanmukha Srinivas - Kuchipudi dancer in film Srutilayalu

3. Sruthi Layalu (1987): starring teenage dancer Shanmukha Srinivas

4. Sur Sangam in Hindi & Shankarabharanam in Telugu (1985): starring dancer Manju Brahgavi / Jayapradha
Pandit Shivshankar Shastriji is a learned musician who is very well versed in all aspects of ancient Indian music. He also was the chief musician in the palaces of a former emperor. Although he does not show his feelings, he secretly loves Tulsi (a dancer), a woman of questionable repute, apart of being of a caste much lower than his.

5. Ananda Bhairavi (1984): starring Malavika & Girish Karnad. This movie depicts the struggle between a guru and his sishya (student)

6. Natya Mayuri (1986): starring Sudha Chandran. This movie is the real story of Sudha Chandran who lost her both legs in a car accident. She triumphs as a dancer with her artificial legs.

7. Tillana Mohanambal (1960s): Starring Padmini

8. Sagara Sangamam or Salangai Oli (1983): starring dancers Kamal Hassan & Manju Bhargavi. This movie deals with the tragedy in the life of a most talented dancer.

9. Konjum Salangai (1960s): starring Kamala Lakshman

10. Salangaiyil Oru Sangeetham (1990s): starring Bhanu Priya

11. Esaikku Oru Kovil (1980s.)

12. Kinara (1977): starring Hema Malini

13. Natya Bhairavi (1980s)

Even though making cinemas which feature classical dancing is considered a major risk to take, there have been many examples where these cinemas became blockbusters. The directors and the actors of these cinemas continue to enjoy the fame for life. These great cinemas and the dance sequences in them are here for us to cherish for many decades to come. Applause to all those dancers who made history and to those who are yet to make history by bringing millions of people close to the great art form of classical Indian dancing.

Padma is the artistic director of Cultural Centre of India. She is trained in Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, Andhra Natyam, and Mohini Attam. Padma extensively writes articles about dance and dance education. Padma Chebrolu's background in education includes MBA and M.ED from US. She also has a degree in Bharata Natyam from India. She works as a software engineer at a major corporation. She lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati.

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