Cinema & Dance by Srivathsan Nadadhur

Srivathsan Nadadhur

Of Dancers and Societal Acceptance

Telugu cinema is close to completing nearly nine decades since inception and it doesn’t read well that there has been hardly any commendable effort by filmmakers to document the plight of the devadasis on-screen despite the availability of abundant literary material. Even the most popular dance-based film in Telugu revolving around the struggles of the Devadasi community, Kalyana Mantapam, is a remake of a Kannada film, based on legendary writer MK Indira’s pathbreaking novel Gejje Pooje. The film sheds light on a young woman, Chandramukhi, born to a Devadasi, who wishes to break free from the confines of the Devadasi system and lead the life of an everyday woman, gain societal acceptance, until the world painfully reminds her place again. Kalyana Mantapam discusses the conflicts and concerns of the Devadasi community through the eyes of two childhood sweethearts (of different castes), Ramu and Chandramukhi whose rapport blossoms into a romance as they grow up to be adults. Yet, Chandramukhi’s ethnicity causes trust issues in the relationship, serving as a cold reminder of how the woman can’t escape the clutches of a judgemental society. This Sobhan Babu, Kanchana starrer, directed by V Madhusudhana Rao, maybe a simplistic take on the regression of Devadasis as sex slaves but is an important piece of fiction capturing a rarely represented era in the world of dance.
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Dance, an expression of soul

Very few filmmakers make an effort to understand the headspace of a dancer, as well as K Viswanath. He has dedicated a significant chunk of his career to reiterate the importance of performing art in society in the language that a common man comprehends. In his filmography, Swarnakamalam, starring Venkatesh and Bhanupriya, is special for more reasons than one. The movie reminds us why it’s futile to force someone to pursue dance (or any art form) against their will and lets its protagonist Meenakshi discover her purpose without any external force. Meenakshi’s journey towards finding the larger purpose of dance and its cathartic value makes for a soul-warming experience.

In particular, a sequence featuring Sharon Lowen, Bhanupriya and Venkatesh sums up the essence of the film beautifully. Sharon, playing herself in the film, is witness to a performance by Meenakshi in a hotel (where she’s residing) and walks out of the event mid-way, disappointed with the latter’s near-robotic act. She is distraught with Meenakshi’s disrespect for the dance form and her inability to understand that dance is an expression of one’s soul beyond a set of moves. This particular episode triggers the transformation of Meenakshi and helps her re-channelise her focus towards dance. Swarnakalam is a wonderful reminder of why it isn’t enough to pursue an art form alone but also signifies the need to surrender to it with utmost sincerity. Watch Here

Dance and Gender

Among the many films where dance plays a crucial element in storytelling, only a few have dealt with the plot from the perspective of a male dancer. No wonder that the actors who took classical dance to the mainstream crowds in the early years of Telugu cinema were all women – Vyjayanthimala, Padmini, L Vijayalakshmi, to name a few. This is the reason why we must celebrate the mythological Telugu film Nartanasala all the more. Here, a mainstream star like N T Rama Rao (who played the role of Brihannala, another avatar of Arjuna who’s in the disguise of a dance teacher) exuded elegance and depicted what masculine grace in classical dance was all about.

Under the able guidance of Kuchipudi legend Vempati Peda Satyam, N T Rama Rao vigorously trained for his act as a dance guru in this mythological drama that has aged well with time. Be it his gait, his expressive eyes and an effortless performance while he passes on his knowledge to his pupil Uttara, it’s hard not to be charmed by NTR, especially in the Jayagananayaka song where he matches L Vijayalakshmi’s moves, step for step. NTR may be no Kamal Haasan in dance and Nartanasala may not be a full-on dance film either, but it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Nartanasala on audiences while presenting a classical dance form in all its nuance without diluting the essence in the name of cinematic liberty. Watch Here

Tracing the origins of Kuchipudi

If cinema is viewed as a form of edutainment, Ananda Bhairavi stands tall as a great example of telling a personalised story of a Kuchipudi guru, while also showcasing the origins of the form, discussing how it eventually supercedes all societal barriers and reigns supreme. The Kannada-Telugu bilingual film Ananda Bhairavi told from the perspective of a Kuchipudi stalwart Narayana Sharma, takes us to a time when women learning classical dance were frowned upon. The protagonist takes it upon himself to mentor a girl (from a marginalised community), at the risk of being shunned by his own community, the dance fraternity and the supposed torchbearers of tradition. Ironically, the son of Narayana Sharma isn’t keen on learning dance.

Ananda Bhairavi looks at many factors that influence the legacy of a dance form – predominantly caste, patriarchy, the guru-shishya parampara. The dance items are a feast for the senses – from the exhilarating thillana to the heart-pounding shiva tandavam in the pre-climax sequence to many performances of the danseuse across cultural venues in the country. The climax holds a mirror to the protagonist’s own caste bias (someone challenged gender norms to teach Kuchipudi to a girl in his early years) and ends on a poignant note. Jandhyala’s exquisite dialogues and direction apart, the on-screen guru-shishya rapport between actors Girish Karnad and Malavika and the attention to detail with Kuchipudi learning, there are many reasons why Ananda Bhairavi feels relevant even today. Watch Here

The spirit of dance(r)

Back in the day even when biopics weren’t in vogue, a dance film, Mayuri, loosely inspired by actress, danseuse Sudha Chandran’s tragic accident, took audiences by storm. From a stage where the medicos had to amputate her leg below the knee to charting the artiste’s dramatic path towards recovery with the help of a Jaipur foot, the film is a terrific reflection of the inner resilience of a dancer to move on with life, come what may. While the director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao doesn’t get into the specifics of Kuchipudi, he blends fact and fiction effectively to tell how dance is therapeutic, makes us feel liberated and fills us with hope, strength even in the direst of situations.

Mayuri also touches upon other relevant aspects, such as the issues that arise when you rely on dance to earn your bread and butter and the commercialism that envelopes the dance circuit. Looking back at the film nearly 40 years after its release, Mayuri may not appeal to the purist but is so successful in discussing dance in common-man-ly terms without getting too preachy and showy. The story of a dance-enthusiast, who wasn’t expected to walk again in life, taking to the stage again and miraculously experiencing the joy of dance is just the motivation tonic we may need to pursue our goals wholeheartedly. Watch Here

British Council invites collaborative proposals for arts and culture projects from India and UK-based organisations, festivals, and institutions for the India-UK Together 2022 programme to mark India’s 75th anniversary of Independence in 2022- 2023.

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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.