During the past day or so, I’ve been in the mood to see some really good bharatanatyam, and I thought it would be fun to look for some dancers whom I didn’t know all that much about yet. That’s how I learned about Kamala Lakshman. Reading up on her a little (and finding two good bios as well as an informative interview), I learned that she was one of the first great popularizers of bharatanatyam. (I’ve been reading a little on the dance’s history, too, about how, back in the ’30s, when it was still most commonly called “sadir,” it was basically saved from ill repute and near-extinction by a dancer and teacher named Rukmini Devi Arundale – another interesting story to write about sometime soon.) Kamala started making public appearances as a dancer in 1938, when she was four years old. She became a child star (as “baby Kamala,” of course) and soon started dancing in the Hindi cinema (though originally as a kathak dancer, from what I gather). She was in the huge film Kismet (1943) and a bunch of other Hindi films; then she made her big breakthrough in Tamil cinema, as a bharatanatyam dancer, in the 1944 film, Jagathalaprathapan, where she did her famous snake dance(!). So, at age ten, she was well on her way to becoming the first big star of bharatanatyam in Indian cinema, five years before the film debut of Padmini (who was actually two years older) and close to ten before Vyjayanthimala (who made her film debut at about the age of 15, which had sort of seemed impressive to me when I first read about that). (By the way, I also noticed that Kamala and Vyjayanthimala shared the screen in Kath Putli (1957), but by then they were both already in their 20s.)
The clip below is from the film Konjum Salangai, which was made in 1962, and it’s right up there, in my mind (and probably many others’), with the best few out of many bharatantyam scenes from that time period. Kamala is the first dancer you see; I wish I knew the name of the other dancer or could find that out. Their competition contains some great twists to it – though I’d seen some of them before. For instance, the way the dancers have to draw animals with their feet while they’re dancing… I actually remember seeing that gimmick in a competition between Padmini and MGR in another Tamil film, Mannathi Mannan, which was made in 1960. But I could see it at least a few more times and it would be just as much fun. (I have to wonder, though… Was that a real Tamil dance tradition, a bharatanatyam tradition, or just a showy 1960s Indian movie tradition? Guess I’ll have to find out sometime…)
P.S. Curiously, in her interview, Kamala talks about the fact that she moved to the U.S. in 1980 and became a teacher here – at the same time that Padmini was a teacher here. Strange…
P.P.S. Oh, yeah, the drawing-animals-with-their-feet bit also appears in Amrapali. Stay tuned for a list my of favorite two-dancer competitions in Indian films.