April 5, 2012
(Read it in the E-paper on April 5)
The story begins about two weeks ago, when dance lovers were given a compelling reason to rejoice. A kind soul uploaded the entire film Bala (1976), by Satyajit Ray, to YouTube. Produced by the government of Tamil Nadu and the NCPA, Mumbai, the film has, until now, mostly been evoked as faraway memory or legend, screened a few times and perhaps lives securely locked up in government or private archives. The excitement over the availability of a poor-quality copy of the film is indicative of the limited and restricted access to archives; simultaneously it is a testimony to the immortality of Balasaraswati’s artistry.
For those who have never heard Ray speak, the film is a revelation, because the story of Bharatanatyam is narrated in his voice. Balasaraswati is shown demonstrating different hand gestures, and their viniyogas or uses. Then there is her signature piece, Krishna nee begane baro, danced on the beach. Mother Yashoda calls Krishna, cajoling him in different ways. Her sari aflutter due to the wind, Bala’s discomfiture is evident as her attention is divided between abhinaya and attire. Yet, her hesitation and unease also foreground the spontaneity with which she dances, responding to multiple ideas suggested by a line of poetry in that moment as opposed to executing a predetermined set of gestures.
The film ends with a clip of Bala performing the Bhairavi varnam Mohamana. Speaking of the challenges of recording the varnam, which is traditionally the long, central piece in a recital, Ray says that he was anxious that the entire piece should go into one reel. Bala condensed it to twelve minutes for the shoot. Yet, Ray thought of pointing out to her that classical musicians had adapted to the 78 rpm gramophone format, whittling down their long elaboration of a raga to three minutes. In the end, he realised that she had already broken up the varnam into twelve short fragments. “This was not out of consideration for the camera,” he writes, “but to ensure perfection in her performance.”
Since its inception, Indian cinema has flirted with dance, sometimes in big ways. Famous examples include the elusive Kalpana (1948), made by Uday Shankar, whose mastery of stagecraft in those early decades of cinema in India is astounding. He populates the frame with discrete elements that add up to create striking effects – for instance, a pakhawaj and a bevy of dancers, arms stretched out with gently undulating palms.
Interestingly, the handbook of copyright law brought out by the Ministry of Human Resource Development allows that copyright lasts for 60 years. It states, “In the case of cinematograph films, sound recordings, photographs, posthumous publications, anonymous and pseudonymous publications, works of government and works of international organisations, the 60-year period is counted from the date of publication.” One could take this to mean that all Indian films coming before 1952, including Kalpana, are now, technically, out of copyright.
The question of copyright often has the most repercussions for the small fry. What resounding loss of profits or piracy threat can a low-quality video on the Internet represent for material that has not been in circulation, for profit or otherwise, for decades? The fragments of video that make it through these chinks actually serve to reinforce our memory of the dancers in them and of thoughtful filmmakers who have found inspiration in dance.
The scenario is not bleak, however. A little government interest and a number of dedicated foragers are ensuring that archival material and films on dance stay in circulation. The Films Division website features several films they have commissioned. There are alternative sites that host full-length films on culture with the permission of the makers. And then, there are niche bloggers.
One such blogger curates Minai’s Cinema Nritya Gharana, a video-focused blog that concentrates on classical dance in Indian films. Her real name is Cassidy; she lives in Utah in the United States. Each post is a well-researched foray into a certain genre or the work of specific dancers. Talking about the processes she employs to find the rare films and dances she blogs about, she says, “I have a nose for research and greatly enjoy making connections between bits of data. The information and connections lying hidden out there for me to find seems endless, especially with my interest in all the regional films and dances of India and not just Hindi films. What I've learned through unearthing this information has been invaluable to bettering my understanding of Indian dance and films. I use text-searchable tools to access primary and secondary sources, videos, and database results. It does take some finesse to know what terms to search with - that are most likely to bring the desired result.”
In some cases, Cassidy has tried to get in touch with the filmmakers, but it is hard, because the films she is interested in are often over fifty years old and their makers are not always alive. She points out that the reverse has happened, where people associated with those films have contacted her. “The son of the male Kuchipudi dancer in the Telugu film Ananda Bhairavi commented on a video I had uploaded from the film; he clearly had such pride in his father and wanted to document his film work and state his father's current contact information. Given that the film was released almost 30 years ago, this is a prime example of how the internet allows us to find one another,” she remarks.
Later this week, Odissi dancers across the world will mount tributes to mark the 8th death anniversary of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Not many know that Mohapatra starred in Bhavantarana (Immanence), a 1991 documentary by Kumar Shahani, which lives on in the digital era as a short clip on the internet. Bhavantarana begins uniquely by focusing on Orissa’s red earth, and not its splendid sculpture. There are scenes that bring to the viewer details of Mohapatra’s early life – growing up in Raghurajpur and working in betel plantations as a child. In an eloquent nod to Ray’s Bala dancing on the beach, Shahani also has Mohapatra perform a pure dance sequence, Arabhi Pallavi, on the beach. Between Balasaraswati and Mohapatra, the latter is slightly more adventurous; he dances surrounded by water, the hem of his dhoti peaceably lapping the waves.