A Conversation with VAK Ranga Rao

VAK Ranga Rao: It's not fair to compare classical dance on stage and cinema

The Madras-born VAK Ranga Rao, the popular film, dance critic, historian, archivist, now an octogenarian, needs little introduction in the art fraternity. Born in the erstwhile royal family of Bobbili in Andhra Pradesh, it was the performances of the devadasi Gaddibhukta Sitaram that stimulated his interest in classical dance. He had later learnt Bharatanatyam under legends like Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Saride Lakshminarasamma, Kalanidhi Narayanan.

His love for cinema, music, facts and documentation has helped him gather 52,000 gramophone records in nearly 35 languages. This varied exposure makes him a treasure trove of knowledge, a walking encyclopedia. He has contributed to several leading English and vernacular publications like Indian Express, the Hindu, the Madras Mail, Screen, Sruti, Andhrapatrika, Andhraprabha, Vijayachitra, Jyoti and Vaarta across many decades. In our interaction, we discuss the early influences and origins of dance in Indian cinema.

Could we point out the time where dance became an integral element of storytelling in Indian cinema? And what was the form like?

The earliest cinema by Dada Saheb Phalke and the filmmakers that followed him mostly based their films based on stage plays of that time (the late 1920s and early 30s), which had music, dance, dialogue, fights as major elements. I know of two-three silent films which had dances. In Lanka Dahan by Phalke, for instance, the dance number in Ravana’s court didn’t have any music or sound. Later on, from 1935-36, dance became even more integral to the cinema. Unlike duets of today, where there are so many male, female dancers accompanying the lead actors, films like Jhoola, Kangan, Bandhan and Basant in the 1930s only had the hero and the heroine in the sequence with brief dance movements. In the later part of the 1930s, Bombay Talkies began to have salaried artists, also including a dancer Mumtaz Ali (better known as actor Mehmood’s father). Gori Mujhe Ganga Se Paar Milna was one of the many popular dance numbers that day. It’s quite possible that the dance choreography was derived from dramas then.

What was the scene back in Telugu cinema then?

Kuchipudi dancer Vedantam Raghavaiah made his debut in Telugu cinema with Raitu Bidda in a number based on the Dasavatara shabdam. The sequence in the film was similar to what he performed on the stage. He continued as a choreographer for many Telugu films, where they adopted the Bharatanatyam technique, popular in Madras, which they felt would resonate better with Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil speaking crowds. Many of Vauhini banner’s films were released in several regions of South India then.

It precisely says that classical dancers were naturally accepted as choreographers in Telugu cinema. Why did the Telugu filmmakers chose Kuchipudi dancers and not the Bharatanatyam dancers (who were more in vogue then)?

It was just because they were Telugu people. It’s as simple as it can get. They could communicate, understand each other better in the same language. Vedantam Raghavaiah, Pasumarthy Krishnamurthy, Vempati China Satyam popularised Kuchipudi in Telugu cinema. In the early years, Kuchipudi dances in films were performed by women employed by the villain to distract his nemesis. The Usha Parinayam sequence in the climax of Malleeswari performed by Bhanumati is probably the first popular instance where Kuchipudi was used to depict the style of dance popular in the queen’s chamber of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Vedantam Raghavaiah, when he turned a director, too placed a Bhama Kapalam sequence in a film called Mayalamaari.

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Was the Bombay-based/Hindi cinema welcoming classical dancers into the industry as much?

I remember speaking to a popular actress named Sitara Devi, who hailed from a family that had a legacy in Kathak and continued in films for many years. She was also one of the choreographers for Mughal E Azam. Her uncles too contributed to Hindi cinema largely from the 1940s. In my interactions, I can recall her saying that the film dances were based on the drama traditions of that day.

Would it be fair to say that dance in Indian cinema was based on theatre traditions, with the influence of yakshagana coming in later and ultimately turned out to be an amalgamation of various cultural traditions in the current form that we enjoy today?

It’s hard to pinpoint these transformations frankly. There were no clear demarcations. In cinema, the abhinaya was more significant because one had to express through the face and hand movements more than the footwork. Unlike stage performances in classical dance where we perform on the pallavi, charanam multiple times, there was no scope for repetition in cinema. The entire dance number has to be wrapped within four minutes. There have been several instances where classical dances were performed on huge drums in films like Maya Maschindra (1932), Naam Iruvar (1947) and Chandralekha (1948) later.

Why was it that Kuchipudi form was used more like a seductive tool in Telugu cinema, especially performed by courtesan dancers in the 1940s and 50s..? What directs us to this trend?

This is largely a reflection of social conditions. Not many in a family would want a woman to be a dancer then. In some cases, she was viewed as someone available for entertainment and not necessarily for seduction. I met three or four Devadasis, one named Saride Lakshminarasamma also acted in a film. She had told me film songs in the 1940s were based on stage dancers of that particular time. In Swarga Seema, Bhanumati is introduced as a participant in a family dance troupe. Bhanumati plays Mohini, while Lingamurthy is cast as Bhasmasura in a dance sequence. A song named Manchi Dinamu Nede was choreographed according to devadasi tradition by Vedantam Raghavayya. From what I’ve heard, there was a lot of cultural exchange too between Devadasis and Brahmin families who learnt Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam.

Why and when did cinema begin to dissociate itself from classical dance?

Yet again, it’s tough to arrive at a number and a statistic for this. This was more or less to cater to the public tastes and the disconnect happened very gradually. It was to stay alive to the demands of audiences. L Vijaya Lakshmi’s performance to Siva Deeksha Paruralanura in the Telugu film Pooja Phalam, choreographed by Pasumarthy Krishnamurthy, for instance, is a case of everything in excess. When I wondered why and asked the same question to Pasumarthy himself, he had informed me that the character was trying to attract the male gaze. It’s not for lack of inability on L Vijayalakshmi’s part or Pasumarthy. Audience engagement is the priority in cinema. Filmmaker Shantaram used his learnings from the tamasha tradition to choreograph for Navrang. He is in fact credited as Shaam in the film. The days of Saptapadi and Shankarabharanam and the 80s were when the classical dance last prominently featured in Telugu cinema.

Do you believe cinema has understood the spirit of dance well, in terms of structure, grammar and has revered its tradition? Kangana Ranaut’s Bharatanatyam dance in Thalaivii recently met with great criticism and so did Kajol’s act as an Odissi dancer in Tribhanga…

It’s not fair to compare classical dance on stage and cinema. Cinema is not a documentary after all. Helen, unarguably the best dancer in Hindi cinema, was fully clothed and used her eyebrows very efficiently to convey her expressions and thoughts. As a dancer, if you can convince the viewer and convey the meaning of the text through your dance, I find it acceptable. Dance evolves with time. It is a form of communication and of course, one needs to do it properly. The association between cinema and dance will continue for many generations, though the form will undergo a transition from time to time.

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Legendary Kuchipudi Dancing couple, Raja and Radha Reddy, is responsible for bringing Kuchipudi dance, the pride of Andhra Pradesh, onto the cultural map of the world.

Legendary Kuchipudi Dancing couple, Raja and Radha Reddy, is responsible for bringing Kuchipudi dance, the pride of Andhra Pradesh, onto the cultural map of the world.
For their contribution to the art form they have been decorated with many awards nationally and internationally. They have had the honor of performing for presidents and prime ministers of many countries such as President Ford, Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro etc. They have conducted charity shows for Red Cross Society, Blind Relief Association, and the home for the aged people in Bombay and CRY. They had the honor of being invited as the first Indian dancers to participate in the International Dance festival of Avignon in France and Salzburg in Austria.

The couple’s contribution to the festival of India in the USA and the UK was considered outstanding. They were the star attraction of the All Star Ballet Gala festival in Japan. The Reddys inaugurated the India Festival in Bangladesh. Raja and Radha Reddy have created history by becoming the first couple to receive Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan award individually and simultaneously for the same cause by the President of India, the Sangeet Natak Academy award, International Meridian award etc.