A conference organised in Paris recently focussed on representations of dance and music in early Tamil and Telugu films, particularly the contributions of the Devadasi community. By S. THEODORE BASKARAN

SOUTH Indian cinema has gone largely unnoticed in the context of the centenary of Indian cinema. Pioneers like Swamikannu Vincent, who travelled from 1905 to 1913 up to Peshawar with a projection kit to screen short films, and J.C. Daniel, who made Malayalam silent films, are not remembered.

It was against this background that a museum in Paris, the musee du quai Branly, decided to organise a conference on “Dance, Music, Politics and Gender in Early South Indian Cinema”. Tiziana Leucci, a social anthropologist based in Paris, and Davesh Soneji of McGill University, Montreal, were the moving spirits behind the event. Scholars of south Indian cinema from different parts of the globe gathered at this fascinating museum on May 30. Located on the banks of the Seine, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, this distinctive museum was opened in 2006 as a cherished project of President Jacques Chirac. The green wall of the museum’s facade, practically a vertical garden, is symbolic of the uniqueness of the institution. With the accent on ethnography and performing arts, it has exhibits from Africa, Asia and Australia. One amazing collection consists of more than 2,000 stringed musical instruments. It is the place for exhibitions, lectures, screenings and seminars. A show and talks on the art of the Bhil and Gond tribes were held here recently.

The organisers of the conference decided to look at an aspect of Indian cinema that has not received much scholarly attention: early south Indian cinema. The focus was on representations of dance and music in early Tamil and Telugu films, from its beginnings in the second decade of the 20th century until the 1950s. The conference addressed a number of key issues relating to the dance and visual culture of this period, from caste and representations of the Devadasi community to emergent nationalism, regionalism and politics. Most of those who played the main roles in the early films were from the Devadasi community. At that initial stage, the film industry needed their contribution, but paradoxically, the reformist movement stigmatised their artistic practices. In the final “round table” discussion, there were speakers come from a range of academic disciplines, including social anthropology, film studies, gender studies and dance and music studies.

Stephen P. Hughes from the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London, talked about the extra entertainment elements that were used during screenings in the silent era. Hughes has done seminal work on the silent era of Tamil cinema and also on the gramophone recordings of the period. He pointed out that dance became an important element in the entertainment package in the days of silent films when hall managers organised live dance performances on the stage during the frequent breaks.

Sascha Ebeling from the University of Chicago, in his paper titled “The Scandal of the Devadasi in Nineteenth Century Tamil Theatre”, talked about the Tamil film Dumbachari (1935), directed by M.L. Tandon, a film-maker trained at the University of California. It is about a young man who squanders his money on women of ill repute. Ebeling discussed the film and its precursor, a drama by Kasi Viswanatha Mudaliyar titled Dumbachari Vilasam, against the background of the Devadasi discourse of the 1930s. Like most of the films of this period, Dumbachari is lost.

Rumya Putcha, a dancer and a visiting assistant professor at Earlham College, Indiana, talked about the role and impact of Kuchipudi dance on south Indian cinema through the stories of three Kuchipudi gurus who moved to Madras (now Chennai) during the early days of Telugu talkies. She spoke about some of the early dance teachers who morphed into film directors—such as Vedantam Raghavaiah, who directed the much loved Telugu/Tamil film Devadas (1953). Using ethnographic and archival sources, Hari Krishnan of Wesleyan University, Connecticut, made two important points in his paper, which was read as he could not be present. The first is that “professionalisation” of acting as a career for women was accomplished by women of the Isai Velalar (Devadasi) community in the first decades of Indian cinema. But, the Devadasi presence in cinema was eclipsed by the entrance of Brahmin women in the 1940s and 1950s, much as it happened in the realm of modern Bharatanatyam.

The other point he made was the association of people like Rukmini Devi Arundale and E. Krishna Iyer with early Tamil cinema and the moral and aesthetic valances of their contribution. Rukmini Arundale’s dance featured in the Tamil film Raja Desingu (1937) and was advertised as one of its high points. He pointed out that staged performances of Bharatanatyam were deeply affected by cinema in this period. He pleaded for a critical reading of dance history in south India which seriously takes into account the shared registers upon which Bharatanatyam and Tamil film were mutually invented during the first two decades of the talkies. Hari Krishnan, in addition to teaching dance, is doing his PhD on Bharatanatyam in Tamil cinema.

Tiziana Leucci’s talk mirrored Hari Krishnan’s arguments. Having spent 12 years in India learning Odissi and Bharatanatyam, Tiziana Leucci’s insights were refreshing. Focussing on the contribution of V.S. Muthusamy Pillai, a film choreographer from the Isai Velalar community, she drew attention to the natuvanar tradition of the community and its impact on Tamil cinema. Muthusamy Pillai had worked on films such as Malaikallan and Ratha Kanneer, both released in 1954. Through film clips, Tiziana Leucci demonstrated how the film setting has in a way allowed the “traditional” dasi and sadir attam choreographic styles, which were otherwise sanitised in the new Bharatanatyam “sabha presentations”, to be kept alive. She said that the technical devices of the studios and the camera enriched these performances by offering a new use of space and body movements for cinematic choreographed sequences.

Davesh Soneji looked at the influence of cinema dance on the Telugu-speaking Kalavanthula courtesan community of coastal Andhra Pradesh. While other participants of the conference traced the flow of dance and music from this tradition into early cinema, Soneji examined a reverse process: the incorporation of the distinctly modern sign of the cinema into the “traditional” repertoire of the performance practices of this community. He talked about “record dance”, which involves the use of gramophone discs. In this way film dances were integrated into the Kalavanthula performance culture in the 1950s. Soneji’s recent book, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India (2012), on the Devadasi tradition has been getting positive notices around the world.

The transition from the silent era to talkies was the subject of the paper by this writer. How was the changeover from the pantomime of silent cinema to the cinema of spoken language effected? This writer pointed out that unlike in the West, the transition took a different trajectory in Madras. Tamil cinema did not grow out of its silent phase. Instead, in an almost abrupt switch, it adapted to an already existing, ready-made entertainment form, complete with trained artists, writers and a sound design, namely, the company drama.

These dramas themselves were predominantly aural in nature, mere vehicles for songs, rather like an opera. Artists, men and women, from the Isai Velalar community who moved into the studios from company drama units made a major contribution to early talkie cinema. By providing much of the content, they decided the style and endowed it with certain characteristics that persist to this day. This set in motion a strong auditory tradition in Tamil cinema. From the beginning dances were included in talkies. These two features of song and dance became vital entertainment components of Tamil cinema. In fact, they turned out to be a distinguishing feature of Tamil cinema. Present-day film-makers find it difficult to break away from the song-dance routine.

The presentations at the conference provoked interesting questions. Did Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy belong to the Devadasi community? When was the name Isai Velalar used to denote the Devadasi community? Soneji pointed out that this term was in use even before Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar used it in the Mayavaram Conference of 1925.

Some rare clips from early films were screened in support of the arguments presented in the papers: from Gudavalli Ramabrahmam’s Malapilla (Telugu, 1938); Aryamala (Tamil, 1941); and Madana Kamarajan (Tamil, 1940). There was a clip from the Tamil film Savithiri (1941) in which M.S. Subbulakshmi played a male role, that of Narathar. Dance sequences by the sisters Sai and Subbulakshmi, choreographed by Muthusamy Pillai, from the films Ratha Kanneer and Malaikallan were shown.

The conference ended with a panel discussion. As none of the Sorbonne film scholars on the panel was familiar with south Indian cinema, the discussion predictably drifted into the hackneyed subject of song and dance in Indian cinema and from there to the films of Guru Dutt and then sort of petered out. But the conference itself opened up new areas of research and pointed out new directions in which scholars in the field could proceed. It addressed the issue of the crucial role played by the men and women of the Isai Velalar community in the early years of south Indian cinema production, their representation within the emergent nationalism, and related cultural and gender debates.