Prepare yourself for another Hindi Film 101 that takes me out of my comfort zone! Someone asked a question on Monday about dancers on film, and there was also suggested that I do some discussion of actresses from the south. So I am going to try to combine that and talk in very very general terms about classical dance traditions in India and how that relates to actresses, especially from the south.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: this is not my area, both because it is classical dance and because it involves the southern industries. If I make a mistake or miss some shading of meaning, please correct me! It’s the only way I will learn.
As I talked about in my very very superficial post on how films from various languages interacted in India, the movement of artists between industries is less than you might expect. Most people (and I am including everyone from superstars to lowly spot boys) start their career in one language industry and stay in it for the rest of their life. But one of the most common and visible exceptions to this rule are actresses from Tamil and Telugu films who come north and become stars in the Bombay-based Hindi cinema.
Let me start waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back at the beginning. And I mean, way way back. In 1800-1600 BCE, the Indo-Aryan’s first began to move into north India. There were successive waves of migration, including the Mughals from what is now Afghanistan in the 1400s, but before all these migrations, there were the south Indian communities, who stayed in the south. They can most easily be identified by the Dravidian language group the speak, a language group not related to any other language spoken anywhere else in the world (unlike the Indo-Aryan language group which has faint ties to Europe and other regions indicating the migration path). This seems to indicate that the Dravidian community has been in south India since, well, forever!
(Dravidian settlement, estimated from 7500 BCE)
Fastforwarding rapidly several thousand years, the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian cultures mixed and mingled and had all kinds of things in common. But some divisions remained. And, as is common in most cultures, the remnants of differences are stubbornly present more in art than in anywhere else.
In north India, in many ways the Mughal court came to dominate culture. Not entirely, folk dances and music and distinctive clothing remained. But the very wealthiest highest elite tended to be part of the Mughal court and to follow that lead in their artistic pursuits. The biggest artistic pursuit of this type was dance performances, combined with music and poetry.
The dance style that became prevalent in North India was Kathak, with 3 regional variations between the major centers (Jaipur, Banaras, and Lucknow). Kathak involves expressive hand gestures, flowing skirts, and jingling bells. It is about the motion of the whole body as it tells a story, eyes to feet, all is perfectly controlled.
(Madhuri, showing off her Kathak training)
Beyond the gestures, there is a certain kind of body type that works best with Kathak. The body type isn’t nearly as restrictive as, for instance, what is required of a ballet dancer. But it does involve long flowing movements, swirling skirts, and a focus on feet and hands. A long torso, long hands, and narrow ankles, would all be ideal. Along with a flexible mouth and face.
Meanwhile, in the south, there is a different dancing style that is generally popular, Bharat Natyam. It also uses footwork to set off jingling bangles, and tells a story through specific movements. But there are more wide motions of the entire leg, bodies bending and twisting up. The eye movements are much more important, and there is a kind of precision rather than a flow to the gestures. A “good” Bharat Natyam dancer would have a curvy body, one that can create a series of balanced shapes and poses. Their face would be round, with large lips and eyes.
(This is Vyjantimala, I’ll get into her later)
None of these differences are major, and none of them say that a Kathak dancer couldn’t do Bharat Natyam or vice versa. The bigger difference is in just who are doing these dances. In the north, Kathak was developed related to the Mughal courts. The dancers came out of performing traditions, and became privileged private performers for the elites. Similar to what we call “courtesans” in the West, but slightly different. They are called “Tawaifs” and while some of them were sex workers, and/or formed long term attachments to particular patrons, others were simply performers. While they were at the very highest level of society, they were also at the very lowest, the “respectable” middle-classes would have little to do with them.
The south has a different tradition for these dancers. They are something called “Temple Dancers” or “Devadasis”. Female, performing and living in temples in ancient times, the were considered as next to priests, to touch them or speak to them was considered offensive. And they danced not for entertainment, but as an offering to God, between only themselves and God.
This is all in like the 10th century CE, based on archeology and structure of ancient temples. As wars came and went and society changed, so did the Temple Dancer traditions. Some of them became “Rajadasi”, that is dancers for kings instead of for temples. But all of them were extremely respectable.
Good families would give their daughters to the temple as an honor and an offering. The girls would be dedicated to service young, trained, and spend their life in the temple. Or, marry wealthy respected men who encouraged them to continue their profession of dancing. Sometimes these men would take a second wife for the purpose of keeping their house and taking care of those responsibilities, so that their other wife could stay focused on her dancing.
Some of this is similar to the Kathak dancers in the north. They also danced for kings. And they would also have long term relationships with men who respected their career and their talent and would have a different woman to help with the household responsibilities. But the Kathak dancers would be less likely to be offered marriage by these men. And the daughter of a “respectable” family would be less likely to be trained as a Kathak dancer, it was more likely to be something passed down mother to daughter. Although the same is sometimes true of the temple dancers. A mother might teach her children her dancing skills, and in time, dedicate them to the same temple where she served.
(The same is true today, Hema Malini taught both her daughter Bharatnatyam)
The point is, both in the north and the south, this was a pretty stable and harmless system. Talented women had a place to use their talent, they were respected and protected and could build a pretty nice life for themselves. No one was necessarily being exploited or forced (I’m not going to promise that every single one of these women was happy in their profession, and never suffered harm, but there was nothing built into the system that would ensure harm). And then the British show up (at this point, start hearing the spooky “doom doom doom!” music). The British just cannot grasp the idea of these women dancing in public in a way the British find very sexual (because they are weird that way and find everything sexual) and it NOT being exploitation.
Both in the north and the south, there are debates back and forth over whether there was any sexual component to these women’s responsibilities. Especially in terms of the temple dancers/Devadasis. For a while the “accepted wisdom” was that they were prostitutes who lived on the temple grounds and served visitors. And then the “accepted wisdom” became “what kind of freaky creepy old men historians decided that just because women had bed chambers in the temple that meant they were giving sexual favors?”
(Nice place to live, right? And if your job is to dance at temple ceremonies, why not sleep there too and save the commute?)
For me, it feels like with both the Kathak and Devadesi traditions, the truth is somewhere closer to a matter of sexual liberation. As women who were not expected to marry necessarily, they had the freedom to make their own sexual choices outside (or inside) of social norms. So one Tawaif might sell her virginity to a wealthy local man, and then live in a household he has set up for her for the rest of her life, with him visiting her regularly and spending as much time with her as with his official wife, even having children with her, who he might acknowledge and set up in business. Another Tawaif might manage to avoid selling her virginity, and become known as a brilliant singer and dancer, entertaining the leading men of the city who offer her tributes to her talent, and never selling her body at all. While a third might sell her virginity, and then a few years later start a flirtation with a wealthy customer and eventually, after getting to know him well, offer him her favors. Enjoy the exclusive relationship, and his gifts, for a few years, and then let it slowly fade. And move on to another man. For Devadasis, it sounds like some of them might have been happy with their life in the temple and stayed there from childhood to old age, others might have married young and retired, others might marry and continue their dancing career. And presumably some of them enjoyed the freedom available as a woman living without family supervision to have a series of romances.
But the British saw a bunch of women living independently and interacting with men outside of marriage and went “Disgusting! Unnatural! Horrifying! We must rescue these poor women from their happy independent lives!” And so Temple Dancers were outlawed in 1910. The degradation had started long before then, as it had with Kathak dancers in the north. From being respected members of society, suddenly “respectable” people wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Kathak dancers in the north dropped from the companions of princes and kings, to living in small red light districts, entertaining bored students and shame-filled businessmen. And in the south, the Devadasis were suffering horrible tortures at the hands of the helpful “reformers”. For example, claiming to be concerned with the spread of venereal disease, the British authorities required all prostitutes to register. And forced the Devadasis to register on the same lists. Later, they forcibly took the Devadasis away to “lock houses”, hospitals set up to quarantine loose women who were suspected of being infected. These Devadasis were often never seen again by their families, disappearing into the black hole of British paternalism, through the sin of being perceived to be prostitutes.
(This is the period that PC Barua knew when he was a student in Calcutta slumming in the red light district, and the sort of culture that Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay was representing in his books. Wealthy people would still visit the red light district, but it was now something to be vaguely ashamed of, and being a Tawaif was no longer a desirable career)
Perhaps because it got so bad so quickly, the southern traditions were also able to recover a bit faster. The Devadasis, in public opinion, had slid so far down the levels of society that a gap suddenly appeared at the top, a place for people who were craving culture. And this is when Rukmini Devi Arundale appeared!
Rukmini was part of an upperclass educated family. They were part of the theosophical movement, which involved both upperclass Indians and Anglo-Indians who were infatuated with “Indian” philosophy and culture. This was part of a general movement in the early 20th century of anti-colonialism in reclaiming the value of Indian culture. Part of the mechanism of colonialism was for the British to argue that they were “helping” India by giving it better, well, everything! Including culture. That’s why they denigrated the Devadasis and Kathak dancers to begin with. And the best way to fight back against this was to argue that India had something better than the British could offer. Ayurvedic medicine, Hindi philosophy, and now dance, it was all part of the same movement.
Rukmini was NOT part of the Devadasi tradition. She didn’t even start dancing until she was a grown woman. And she changed the Devadasi dances, removing things she found “too sexual”, making it over a bit to her vision of what “classical dance” should be. She also only learned and promoted one tradition of Devadasi, the tradition she was trained in, which let the other schools fall behind a bit.
But none of that matters, because her biggest contribution wasn’t to art, but to public relations. She started performing all over the country, to the upper classes and the British, even traveling abroad. Suddenly Devadasi dancing was rescued from the trash heap of “they are all prostitutes” and returned to something that the daughter of a respectable middle-class family could do. Rukmini and her husband even founded a school, a formal academy where you could get a diploma, just like from any other school.
Rukmini wasn’t the only one teaching dance. Both in the north and the south, the British had managed to drive these dances underground, but not kill them entirely. There were still teachers who came to the family home and taught children, even if they were never able to perform. And parents who passed their knowledge onto their children. Rukmini made it okay for these practices to start coming more and more out into the open in the South. It was slower in the north, but by Independence, the same process had started there.
And finally our millennial long journey has ended and brought us to film! I am not going to talk about early southern film, because I don’t know anything about it. But I can talk about Hindi film. The earliest Hindi film actresses were more likely to be trained in voice, if they had any classical training, as they did their own singing.
(Suraiya. Very pretty, had a tragic love affair with Dev Anand, and started singing at 6 years old)
But post-Independence, non-synch sound was the norm and singing was no longer such a concern. Dancing very very slowly became more of an element in the films. But the great actresses of the day did not tend to be trained dancers. It still wasn’t considered a priority. For the major dance numbers, an “item girl” would be brought in. And these “item girls” tended not to have classical training either. Although that didn’t mean they weren’t trained. Helen, the greatest item girl of them all, had grown up in the same neighborhood as Cuckoo, a popular dancer. Her mother, seeing how well Cuckoo was doing, insisted that Helen learn from her. It wasn’t “classical” dance, but Helen was forced to practice for hours a day from the time she was a child, just as a classically trained child would be. She was dancing in the chorus by the time she was 13, and had her first lead performance at 15. Again, this is the timeline you would expect from a classical dancer.
But there are some significant differences. A classical dancer would start around age 4. They would have one primary Guru and learn one particular kind of dance, not just “Kathak” or “Bharatnatyam” but a very specific variation. By age 10-12, they would be expected to complete their masterwork. Which doesn’t mean they stop improving, but it does mean they are ready to move on and begin performing formally. What you notice about a true classical dancer is the ease of it all. It’s the same as what I saw in the Arijit Singh concert, he could pick up literally any instrument and play it like a master, he could conduct an orchestra while singing a song that he arranged himself, the classical training is so incredibly exactly and complex that by the time you have completed it, you have mastery not just over this particular dance more or that one, but over the whole concept of dance.
Hindi film did well with dancers like Helen, and her mentor Cuckoo, and some others who combined western dance styles with some Indian touches they had picked up. But it was nothing like the kind of dancing available in southern popular culture, with Bharatnatyam had now been out of the shadows and flourishing for decades (thanks to Rukmini Devi Arundale).
Vyjantimala was one of the first major actresses to come north. She was the daughter of an actress, and a dancer, who had been trained since early childhood and completed her training at 13. One of my favorite random factoids about her is that she performed classical dance for the Pope when she was 7. What this all adds up to is a beautiful teenage girl with enormous poise and confidence, what did she have to fear from film cameras when she had already performed for the Pontiff? And so she sailed through her launch in southern films, and easily mastered Hindi films as well as soon as she was given the chance. And rapidly became an in demand actress.
The early years, 50s-70s, had a lot of actresses who followed the same path. They were trained Bharatnatyam dancers, and educated young women who could easily navigate the film industry. They had a different look than the actresses from Hindi film, they were “exotic” in some ways. And of course, they could do amazing dance sequences! And as film technology advanced, the dancing became more and more important. Earlier song sequences were limited by the ability of cameras to move, and to capture delicate expressions and gestures. Now, you could fully utilize a trained dancer, and a trained choreographer.
While Bharatnatyam was present in the dancers on screen, Kathak was having its own influence through behind the scenes workers. This was the era of Uday Shankar, brother of Ravi Shankar, who combined Kathak dance with modern dance into his own hybrid invention and toured the world. One of his students, Guru Dutt, started as a choreographer in films, and went on to become the greatest director in history. There were other Kathak choreographers in the background, and some appearing in dance numbers, but there were far fewer trained dancers working as lead actresses. In fact, I can’t think of any. Feel free to correct me if I am missing someone!
And so in the 50s-60s-70s, Bharatnatyam dancers started streaming up north. Bharatnatyam in many ways is better training for a film actress than Kathak. Both of them are great proving grounds for actresses, far better than a dance tradition from anywhere else. They involve mastery of facial expressions, incredibly detailed and specific expressions. The actresses who come out of this training are not just graceful and quick, they can use their faces to convey emotions with ease. But Bharatnatyam is ever so slightly more so. The facial expressions are slightly more important than in Kathak, and the whole body is used in a way that compliments those facial movements. Whereas Kathak puts slightly more emphasis on footwork and hand gestures over the whole body. Equally beautiful in person, but slightly harder to translate to film.
(See how this pose fills the whole frame equally, and her head is turned and eyes lifted with precision? Kathak would be almost exactly the same, except the body might not be bent as much to fill the whole frame, and the eye/mouth movements might be a hair less precise)
The other problem is that there just weren’t as many Kathak dancers looking to film. While Bharatnatyam had become a respectable thing for any young woman to learn, Kathak had landed more in the very low and very high levels. The trained Kathak dancers might be willing to help with choreography, but less interested in wasting their time acting when they could dance. And then there were others, like Meena Kumari’s mother, who had fallen so low that they were living in the slums and scrounging for food, not able to give up the kind of time necessary to become a film actress.
Sridevi was one of the last and biggest actresses to come north. She is not a “trained Bharatnatyam dancer” in the way that Vyjantimala was. She started acting at age 4, there was no time for the kind of dedication real dance training requires. But she still came out of that tradition, the dances she was taught on set from childhood were more of the Bharatnatyam style, bending the whole body, making curves, moving large eyes back and forth. And she brought that style with her when she came north, creating a sensation.
Meanwhile, Madhuri Dixit had arrived. I am sure Madhuri is not the first Kathak dancer to work in film, but she might be the most famous. Madhuri’s Kathak training is similar to the Bharatnatyam training all those other actresses had. Dancing wasn’t her whole life, she went to school and college and came from a nice family. But she also started dancing as a child and continued through to her teen years. It was more than just a hobby, but it also didn’t prevent her from learning about or being interested in other things.
Madhuri and Sridevi may have been the last great dancers of Indian film. I hope not, but I also can’t think of anyone else to compare them with today. Many of the actresses may mention dance training, but that doesn’t mean they are a trained dancer. In India, taking a few dance classes in your school days is the same as piano lessons might be in America. It’s become a nice respectable thing to do. The nicer schools even offer it as part of the optional curriculum, like swimming or art classes, you can also sign up for dance. Most actors and actresses probably have something like that at some point in their childhood, 6 months or 5 years of taking a two hour class once a week. But that doesn’t give them mastery over, well, anything! It just means they might vaguely remember a few hand gestures and be slightly faster at picking up a new routine than someone with no training at all. Even the actors and actresses today who proudly list dance as a qualification, everyone from Swara Bhaskar to Rajkumar Rao, I wonder if they can really mean “dance” like it was in the old days. I can’t think of one frame of film with Vyjantimala or Hema Malini or Madhuri where I wasn’t aware of their dance background. It’s in every gesture, every movement of the face. These new people, they seem to be able to divide dance from acting, instead of it being part of the same whole. Or, put it another way, they seem to be able to divide dancing from life, instead of having it be an all consuming interest.
(Shahid Kapoor might be the one exception to this rule. His mother is a Kathak dancer and choreographer and clearly taught him since childhood, and he began dancing professionally as a teenager. Even now, if you just look at a still picture, you can see how his body always falls into a graceful pose, how his face is always well controlled)
Based on the people I know in real life, and various things I have read in interviews and picked up from places, it sounds like the kind of dedication that full dance training requires is no longer viable for a nice middle-class Indian girl (or boy). This is a good thing, they are going to medical schools now, having careers in business, doing all kinds of things that get them out of the house. Deepika Padukone, for instance, was an athlete before she became an actress. Anushka Sharma was studying journalism. Sonam Kapoor worked as a waitress, and studied economics and business. All of these are also good experiences, and useful background for an actress to have. But dance training just doesn’t fit into the schedule any more. Not unless you really really want it.
Way way back at the beginning of this, I talked about how both the Kathak dancers and the Devadasis had a certain kind of freedom not allowed to other women in their society. They loved to dance, and were incredibly talented, but it also gave them an outlet to use their brains and build their own lives and make their own choices. Now, there are multiple outlets available to a woman to do these things and build a career. Even just to learn something new for fun outside of school and home. Dance has lost its central position, and that is a good thing. (feel free to disagree)