Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rabindra Nritya/Tagore Dances in Bengali Films

In my efforts over the past year to look beyond my focus on South Indian cinema dance to see what other regional cinemas of India have to offer, my research on Odissi, Manipuri, and Sattriya film dances led me eastward to the cinemas of Odisha in East India and Manipur and Assam in Northeast India. But what about the cinema of Bengal situated directly in between those states and also one of India's major film-making centers since the craft began? (Note: I am focusing on Indian Bengali films produced in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and the Indian state of West Bengal—not those produced in what was East Bengal and East Pakistan near/after partition/independence and now is Bangladesh).

Other regional Indian classical dance forms had been depicted in a few Bengali films with an authentic earnestness and execution. For example, the best Kathak nritta in a non-Mujra setting in Indian cinema can be found in Jalsaghar (1958), Khudito Pashan (1960), and Basanta Bahar (1957); Odissi dance was skillfully depicted in Nirjana Saikate (1963) and Yugant (1995); and the infamous Anjana Banerjee performed decent Bharatanatyam in Chhandaneer (1989). That's not to say that examples of bad faux-classical dance are not found in Bengali cinema. There are plenty such as Abhiman (1986), Jamalay Jibanta Manush (1958), and some faux-Manipuri dances—but when good dance is showcased in Bengali films, it is really good. And there are certainly folk dance forms of the region most notably Chhau that have also been showcased in a few Bengali films.

Jalsaghar (1958)
The popularity of Kathak and Odissi dance depictions in Bengali films makes historical sense. Kathak dancer and scholar Pallabi Chakravorty [3] describes how female court dancers in north and east India during British rule became "popularly known as nautch dancers" but also "as tawaifs in the royal courts of north India and baijis or nautch dancers in nineteenth-century Bengal." As kingdoms continued to decline, in the late nineteenth-century Calcutta "became the prime destination for displaced dancers and musicians from the north, who found new sources of patronage among the Bengali elite" particularly in the "music rooms of the Bengali zamindars (landlords)." Ah, now I understand the background of Roshan Kumari's thrilling Kathak dance in Jalsaghar ("The Music Room," 1958)! The appearance of Odissi dance in Bengali films is not surprising as well. Certainly Odisha is close to Bengal and shares many cultural similarities, but as scholar Nandini Sikand has shown, there is a history of women with Bengali backgrounds becoming prominent Odissi dancers such as Ritha Devi, Indrani Rahman (married into a Kolkata family), and recently Sharmila Biswas [13].

So while the depiction of Kathak and Odissi in Bengali films had a uniquely Bengali precedent, I continued to wonder...was there a uniquely-Bengali dance depicted in Bengali films? For some time I assumed there simply was not because from my limited experience Bengali films seemed to be mostly "serious" and "artsy." This perception appears to be accurate especially for pre-1980s films. Historian Sharmistha Gooptu has shown that long before Satyajit Ray, Calcutta productions were "distinguished through their association with Bengali literary and avant-garde cultures" and were deliberately made and seen as noncommercial art for the Bengali audience which had different tastes than the all-India market and demanded films with quality storylines and acting [5]. Cinematic dance depictions were not well received in Bengal. Silent/early Bengali films like Andhare Alo, Pati Bhakti, Bilwamangal, and Tara the Dancer which had courtesan/nautch characters were criticized for "depicting the life of prostitutes" [5]. Sharmistha reveals a fascinating nugget of information—that director Binay Bandopadhyay (Banerjee) "brought the song and dance film" to Bengali cinema, but he lamented his receiving "only abuses and criticism" by critics who upheld the virtues of the "refinement and decency" of Bengali films as opposed to the "cheap and commercial" focus of the Hindi cinema of Bombay [5]. I wish I could track down the films he was associated with, but I've not had success finding information about him.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Remembering the Film Bharatanatyam of the Late Adyar K. Lakshman

When I learned the sad news yesterday that the Bharatanatyam Guru Adyar K. Lakshman has passed away, my mind immediately went to his excellent choreography in Indian cinema. Since it still seems that not enough people are aware of it, I thought I would show his two film choreographies again here and honor his work which has been preserved in film for us to cherish all these years later.

I had first learned of Guru Lakshman's choreographies in cinema when I read the Sruti magazine profile on him in Issue 320 (excerpt here) that noted he "directed and choreographed dance sequences from three art films - Subba Sastri, Hamsageethe and Ananda Tandavam."  While I have not been able to locate Ananda Tandavam, I was thrilled to learn this week that its dance starred Savithra Sastry in the lead and the film was supposedly in Tamil and released in 1987! If anyone has seen this dance or knows where to find a copy, please let me know!

Guru Lakshman's choreographies in Subba Sastri and Hamsageethe are, I would argue, among the absolute best (perhaps the best!) serious Bharatanatyam captured in Indian cinema. The treatment of the dances is very different from most other film classical dances with the minimal editing, equal focus given to expressive and pure dance, crisp and authentic lines and movements, and the extended length--all signs of intentional respect and care for the dance segments by the director and editor, and I'm sure Guru Lakshman was the core reason the dances turned out so well.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Classical Dances in Recent Indian Films - Including Sattriya and Kootiyattam!

While I've been mostly looking back in history as I've blogged about Indian film dances for the past few years, a number of films have released in recent years with songs or scenes featuring classical dance forms. Having collected enough for a robust post and also making some great discoveries this weekend, I'm excited to take a break from research and share what the classical movie dance world has produced recently. I'm sure I've missed some—do let me know of any others!

Vara: A Blessing (2013, Coproduction) - Screened at various film festivals since it's debut but apparently not commercially released in theaters or on DVD, Vara: A Blessing has been described as "a visually stunning exploration of the cross between spiritual devotion and bodily temptation that incorporates hypnotic use of tradition Indian dance and music" and as a work "Accented by mesmerizing bursts of classical Indian dance, haunting vocals, and vivid Hindu fantasyscapes..." With choreography by the accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran, music by Nitin Sawhney, and sumptuous visuals and effects by the crew, the dances as seen in the few clips available online make the film an absolute must watch. It's not an Indian film since it's directed by the Bhutanese lama filmmaker Khyentse Norbu with help from various countried folk, but it is set in India and was made with many Indian actors, so it is perhaps a Bhutanese/Indian/international coproduction.

This is the clip that took my breath away and has me aching to watch the film. In it, the main character Lila (Odissi dancer Shahana Goswami) dances Bharatanatyam under the nattuvangam of her mother Vinata (Geeta Chandran), the village's last devadasi. Based on Variety's review of the film which describes how the tribal leader tries to "pimp out Lila" while finding a match for a woman's son, the man staring at her as she dances is likely either the son or the tribal leader. Like him, I can't keep my eyes away from Shahana's face which registers constant emotion and danger that is enhanced by the lighting design and shadows. The entire clip has an ominous, creepy tension. Thanks to Ragothaman for pointing out this clip from Chandran's Facebook page.

Click image to link to video - embedding not allowed

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Manipuri Dance in Indian Cinema and the Beautiful Dances in Sanabi (1995, Manipuri)

Reading about Manipuri Dance in books about Indian dance, especially those written pre-1990s, has always been quite entertaining to me. There is a distinct exoticised "othering" seen in statements like "the Meities, a people of slight build with slanting eyes...are a deeply sensitive and artistic race..." [8] and "The country abounds in myth and legend...since earliest times, the people have shown an innate love and a gift for expressing their emotional and religious fervour through dance and music." [2]. The dances are described in glowing but simplistic descriptions laden with pleasantries.

A refreshingly-different perspective on Manipuri dance is offered by Faubion Bowers in his 1953 book The Dance in India. Faubion had an interest in Asian dance and drama and was one of the early and well-known Asian Studies writers starting in the 1950s (and was instrumental in the preservation of Japanese Kabuki). In this excerpt Faubion departs from most other writers of his day and argues that "Manipuri dance" as it was known outside of Manipur at that time and as popularized relatively early by renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore was a complete misrepresentation, and of excited interest to this blog he also covers its popularity and misrepresentation in Indian cinema:
“[Rabindranath] Tagore hoped that by transplanting the dance from Manipur to India proper he would have the secret of regenerating dance throughout all India.... Shortly after his visit, Tagore installed a dance teacher from Manipur at Shantiniketan, an all-India school of arts in Bengal. Apparently Tagore was too definite about the use he wished to make of Manipuri dancing and too opinionated as to what he thought the art of dance should be in general. He selected bits and pieces of the teacher’s instruction and molded them to fit his own romantic dance-dramas. By simplifying the dance he made it possible for his students to be dancers and brought the art well within their reach. What became known as “Manipuri Dancing” was actually this Tagorean simplification and its latitude of interpretation. During this arid period of India’s recent dance history, this Manipuri-cum-Tagore style swept the country. People responded to its soft, flowing, unintellectual, and restful style. Mathematics and perfectionism in classical dancing had until then precluded the entry of amateurs into the dance field. Tagore’s Manipuri dancing filled a vacuum and answered the cry of amateurs.