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Celluloid Classicism by Hari Krishnan, Wesleyan University Press
- Joël Riou

August 24, 2020

This review of a book is an invitation to the Bharatanatyam dance fraternity to engage seriously with the history of this dance form. Doing so requires nuance, care and awareness of its complexity as it is woven with many different layers. On the one hand, some discourses place the origin of Bharatanatyam into an idealised ancient past of sacred dance, but on the other hand, almost all the repertoire that is eulogised as traditional originates in court practices, especially from the Thanjavur Maratha Kingdom. Yet, shortly after a social “reform” jeopardised the way of life of hereditary practitioners, an élite initiated a so-called aesthetic “revival” in the 1930s. These categories were wonderfully examined in an article published by Amrit Srinivasan in 1985, Reform and Revival - The Devadasi and Her Dance. Nowadays, some people are still using the trope of “degeneration” in order to legitimize a cultural appropriation.

In this context, the book Celluloid Classicism by Hari Krishnan is very much welcome. It deals with the development of the early Tamil cinema, with a focus towards the involvement of hereditary practitioners of Bharatanatyam. The author discusses certain continuities between the popular Tamil theatre and the early Tamil cinema, both in aesthetic terms and in the artists involved. Then, the core of the book is about the interactions (or “cross-pollination”) between the cinema dance and the stage dance in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The thesis of the book is that one cannot understand the history of the 20th century Bharatanatyam without analysing its celluloid counterpart.

The work of Hari Krishnan is based on various sources and documents, which include posters or songbooks, testimonies from cinema experts, interviews he conducted, etc. He analyses with great care dance scenes in terms of the music repertoire, choreographic elements, the type of character embodied by the dancer, etc. Even the background onto which the dance is staged is analysed carefully: whether it is set in a temple, a court, a salon or a bourgeois household, the dance may be perceived in different ways by moviegoers.

Some movies like Thillana Mohanambal (1968) ridiculed nattuvanars, and Manonmani (1942) contains a very offensive comedy scene which implies the lack of virtues by two characters: a nattuvanar and a dancer. At the same time, the dance was shown as a respectable hobby for middle class women, who may practice it at home, as it is shown for example in Sabhapathy (1941). Later, with icons like Kamala and Vyjayanthimala, Bharatanatyam became both popular and classical. One of the insights in the book is about understanding how the dance was perceived by the South Indian middle class, and the author suggests that for the middle class, the refined aesthetics of Bharatanatyam became aspirational, i.e. associated with upward mobility.

The book emphasizes the major contribution of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai to the aesthetics of Bharatanatyam, in particular through his artistic association with Kamala, both for the cinema and for the stage. The author discusses various versions of the snake dance (paambu natanam) that he introduced. This type of dance has become very rare on the most contemporary dance scene, but some of his other innovations are still to be seen, like the use of sculpturesque poses (in compositions like Natanam aadinaar) or that of fast paced pure dance sequences. The book also discusses the participation of other nattuvanars in the cinema as choreographers: Vaideeswarankoil Meenakshisundaram Pillai, K. N. Dandayudhapani Pillai, Vaideeswarankoil Sethuraman Muthuswamy Pillai, Kuttralam Ganesan Pillai, Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai.

My most significant satisfaction as a reader of this book was to learn more about the lives and the artistic achievements of women from the hereditary dancing community. In almost all discussions about Bharatanatyam, they are the ones to be spoken about, merely as fantasies and clichés. Then, thanks to this book, instead of being abstractions from a remote past, members of various families or households become very real. For example, we can read the own words of T. Kuchalakumari (1937-2019) about her life. The book contains many precise references to movies and dance scenes, which makes it easy to the modern reader to watch the corresponding excerpts on YouTube. Then, I could enjoy watching beautiful dance sequences by Kumari Rukmani (1929-2007), Sayee & Subbulakshmi and many others.

I recommend reading this book as it helps connecting the dots in the history of Bharatanatyam in the 20th century, and particularly in the critical period of the years 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It tells a lot about the social and aesthetic shifts that occurred then. If we were judges in a re-enactment of the dance contest between characters of Mallika and Kamavalli in the movie Konjum Salangai (1962), on which grounds would we make a decision? This is also to be meditated upon.

Associate Professor of Mathematics at Paris-Saclay University, Joël Riou is a longtime rasika of Indian dances. Besides being initiated to the dance, he is currently studying the nuances of nattuvangam with Nattuvanar Guru Kuttalam M. Selvam.

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