Bharatanatyam’s bond with cinema

Senior dancer Radhika Shurajit talks about the dance form’s engagement with celluloid

In an interview to this newspaper in 2018, Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer Radhika Shurajit had said, “Even today we are dancing to a small section.” A fact she realised over the years and decided to expand her repertoire to include film compositions based on classical music.

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At a virtual seminar held recently, Radhika spoke on ‘Bharatanatyam in Tamil and Indian films, past and present,’ even as she revisited her works choreographed for stage, films and her award-winning television show.

The event was a part of Pancham, an Indian classical dance seminar series, organised by Nilima Devi, for the Centre for Indian Classical Dance supported by Arts Council England. Radhika traced the history of Bharatanatyam in films, beginning with Raja Harishchandra to the present.

In a post-event conversation, the dancer explained how choreographing for films is different from working on stage performances. “Since I do both, I understand the approach. When the director fixes the frame, the choreographer has to go with the entire song in mind. I know what will work for the stage; the movements, entry, and exit among other things are all different. On TV, the choreography is different, as we might work with one or more cameras,” she said.

Talking about incorporating songs of legendary film composers in her performances, Radhika says it led her to experiment with movements and costumes.

“I began presenting thematic shows based on classical and film songs of M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, and M.L.Vasanthakumari, and of various dancers popular in Indian cinema.”

Mainstay of cinema

Talking at the seminar about how storytelling through dance and music has been the mainstay of Indian films, Radhika pointed out that over the years, artistes, directors and poets changed the course of cultural discourse.

She cited the example of films such as Thyaga Bhoomi and Meera, which were instrumental in changing cinematic vision and values, and played some relevant clips. One clip showed the veteran dancer-scholar Padma Subrahmanyam as a five-year-old in a dance sequence from the film Geetha Gandhi. A second featured actor Anjali Devi performing sadir, while another had popular heroine T.R.Rajakumari performing Bharatanatyam to the song ‘Manmada leelayai.’

Kamala created magic with her dance sequences in films, some of which were for Bharathi’s songs such as ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye,’ ‘Aadu pambe,’ ‘Mahaan Gandhi Mahaan,’ and ‘Aduvome palli paduvome.’

Soon, the dancing trio Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini arrived on the scene, making their mark in both cinema and stage.

The Ashok Kumar-starrer Kalpana, a film that spoke of a dancer’s struggles, had Padmini in the lead role. Padmini’s classical dances were great hits, for instance, ‘Aadal kaneero’ from Madurai Veeran and ‘Maraindhirundhu’ and ‘Nalandhana’ from Thillana Mohanambal.

Radhika Shurajit

The golden era

Riding on that wave came another phenomenal dancer, Vyjayanthimala. Radhika aptly ended the session with the clip of the song ‘Kannum kannum kalandhu’, featuring Padmini and Vyjayanthimala in a dance competition in Vanji Kottai Vaaliban.

Not surprisingly, the 50s and 60s were the golden period for Bharatanatyam in Indian films. Well-known nattuvanars such as Ramaiyya Pillai, Dandayuthapani Pillai, and Muthuswamy Pillai, who used to train the original hereditary dancers, became choreographers in Tamil, Hindi and other language films.

In later years, Hema Malini and Jayalalithaa performed Bharatanatyam in several films. This was followed by Manju Bhargavi in Sankarabharanam and Kamal Haasan in Sagara Sangamam. Sripriya showcased classical dance in Enakkul oruvan, as did dancer-actor Shobana in films such as Manichitrathazu. In Rajnikanth-starrer Chandramukhi, dancer-actor Vineeth, a disciple of Padma Subrahmanyam, shone in the Bharatanatyam sequence with actress Jyotika. Actor Bhanupriya also became popular for her classical dance sequences.

Radhika, who has choreographed hugely popular film songs such as ‘Nilaa kaikiradhu’, used to host a popular television show called Thaka Dini Tha some years ago.

The Chennai-based author writes on classical music and dance.

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