April 5, 2012
(Read it in the E-paper on April 5)
The story beginsabout two weeks ago, when dance lovers were given a compelling reason torejoice. A kind soul uploaded the entire film Bala (1976), by Satyajit Ray, to YouTube. Produced by thegovernment of Tamil Nadu and the NCPA, Mumbai, the film has, until now, mostly beenevoked as faraway memory or legend, screened a few times and perhaps livessecurely locked up in government or private archives. The excitement over theavailability of a poor-quality copy of the film is indicative of the limitedand restricted access to archives; simultaneously it is a testimony to the immortalityof Balasaraswati’s artistry.
For those whohave never heard Ray speak, the film is a revelation, because the story ofBharatanatyam is narrated in his voice. Balasaraswati is shown demonstratingdifferent hand gestures, and their viniyogasor uses. Then there is her signature piece, Krishnanee begane baro, danced on thebeach. Mother Yashoda calls Krishna, cajoling him in different ways. Her sariaflutter due to the wind, Bala’s discomfiture is evident as her attention isdivided between abhinaya and attire. Yet, her hesitation and unease also foregroundthe spontaneity with which she dances, responding to multiple ideas suggestedby a line of poetry in that moment as opposed to executing a predetermined setof gestures.
The film endswith 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 pieceshould 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 tothe 78 rpm gramophone format, whittling down their long elaboration of a raga to three minutes. In the end, herealised that she had already broken up the varnaminto twelve short fragments. “This was not out of consideration for thecamera,” he writes, “but to ensure perfection in her performance.”
Since itsinception, Indian cinema has flirted with dance, sometimes in big ways. Famousexamples include the elusive Kalpana (1948),made by Uday Shankar, whose mastery of stagecraft in those early decades ofcinema in India is astounding. He populates the frame with discrete elements thatadd up to create striking effects – for instance, a pakhawaj and a bevy ofdancers, arms stretched out with gently undulating palms.
Interestingly,the handbook of copyright law brought out by the Ministry of Human ResourceDevelopment allows that copyright lasts for 60 years. It states, “In the caseof cinematograph films, sound recordings, photographs, posthumous publications,anonymous and pseudonymous publications, works of government and works ofinternational organisations, the 60-year period is counted from the date ofpublication.” One could take this to mean that all Indian films coming before1952, including Kalpana, are now,technically, out of copyright.
The question ofcopyright often has the most repercussions for the small fry. What resoundingloss of profits or piracy threat can a low-quality video on the Internet representfor material that has not been in circulation, for profit or otherwise, fordecades? The fragments of video that make it through these chinks actuallyserve to reinforce our memory of the dancers in them and of thoughtfulfilmmakers who have found inspiration in dance.
The scenario isnot bleak, however. A little government interest and a number of dedicatedforagers are ensuring that archival material and films on dance stay incirculation. The Films Division website features several films they havecommissioned. There are alternative sites that host full-length films onculture with the permission of the makers. And then, there are niche bloggers.
One such bloggercurates Minai’s Cinema Nritya Gharana, a video-focused blog that concentrates onclassical dance in Indian films. Her real name is Cassidy; she lives in Utah inthe United States. Each post is a well-researched foray into a certain genre orthe work of specific dancers. Talking about the processes she employs to findthe rare films and dances she blogs about, she says, “I have a nose forresearch and greatly enjoy making connections between bits of data. Theinformation and connections lying hidden out there for me to find seemsendless, especially with my interest in all the regional films and dances ofIndia and not just Hindi films. What I've learned through unearthing thisinformation has been invaluable to bettering my understanding of Indian danceand films. I use text-searchable tools to access primary and secondary sources,videos, and database results. It doestake some finesse to know what terms to search with - that are most likely tobring the desired result.”
In some cases,Cassidy has tried to get in touch with the filmmakers, but it is hard, becausethe films she is interested in are often over fifty years old and their makersare not always alive. She points out that the reverse has happened, wherepeople associated with those films have contacted her. “The son of the maleKuchipudi dancer in the Telugu film AnandaBhairavi commented on a video I haduploaded from the film; he clearly had such pride in his father and wanted todocument 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 exampleof 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 8thdeath anniversary of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Not many know that Mohapatrastarred in Bhavantarana (Immanence),a 1991 documentary by Kumar Shahani, which lives on in the digital era as ashort clip on the internet. Bhavantarana begins uniquely by focusingon Orissa’s red earth, and not its splendid sculpture. There are scenes thatbring to the viewer details of Mohapatra’s early life – growing up inRaghurajpur and working in betel plantations as a child. In an eloquent nod toRay’s Bala dancing on the beach, Shahani also has Mohapatra perform a puredance sequence, Arabhi Pallavi, onthe beach. Between Balasaraswati and Mohapatra, the latter is slightly moreadventurous; he dances surrounded by water, the hem of his dhoti peaceably lapping the waves.