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Though Hindi films have been the subject of numerous books published before, Hindi film dance has not received the attention it deserves. Until now. Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema (Oxford University Press) by Usha Iyer, assistant professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University, is a delightful new book that fills this gaping void. With the range of new analyses and theorizations it advances, this is a landmark publication that radically alters how we understand Hindi film dance and all cinema. 

In the years immediately after motion picture cameras were invented, dance was frequently the subject of films because rhythmic bodily movement on-screen clearly demonstrated to the public the visual attractions of the new medium. Dance was a preeminent feature of the early Indian films made by pioneers such as Hiralal Sen and Dadasaheb Phalke. Filmmakers would invest in new, expensive technologies like color film stock to film song-and-dance numbers while shooting the rest of the film in black-and-white. They made dance the central theme of films or added dance sequences to them because dance attracted large audiences. With dance, the filmmakers could efficiently connect with the spectators, engage them at a visceral level, producing corporeal responses and a range of affects or emotions.

In the early years, audiences were known to throw coins at the screen and ask projectionists to play encores of the dance sequences. In more recent times, members of audiences are known to dance along in the aisles in movie theaters, as painter M. F. Husain was known to do during screenings of Madhuri Dixit’s films. And, of course, we now have numerous TV shows and social network channels in which fans show off their mastery of dances from recent or classic Bollywood films.

For long, film enthusiasts and theorists have disparaged dancers and valued the realist mode of acting in which actors are supposed to immerse themselves in a role. However, as Iyer writes, “when we shift the dominant focus from realist, speech-driven, face-centric emoting when we take seriously performance that is located not only in the face—that most celebrated expressive field for evaluating ‘good acting’—but across the body, in dancing legs, gesturing fingers, gyrating torsos, emoting necks and heads, we are able to locate the density and fluidity of performance in the physics of movement and gesture, sensitizing our evaluative criteria to the performing body’s ability to produce and express meaning through movement.” An examination of Hindi film dance with this shift in focus reveals to us a rich, multi-layered corporeal history of Hindi cinema.

Tracing the history of dancers in Hindi films, Dancing Women offers a rich, tightly woven tapestry of many parallel histories unfolding in filmmaking as well as in the wider society around questions of gender, caste, class, race, religion, region, and nationalism, recognizing at the same time the contributions of everyone whose labor produces the on-screen dance – choreographers, set and costume designers, musicians, directors, cinematographers, editors, and many others.

Dancing Women’s history of Hindi film dance necessarily is a history centered on women because, at least until the late 1990s, the dancers were nearly all women. Some of the early film stars like the now-forgotten German-Indian Azurie (Anna Marie Gueizelor) and Sadhona Bose were well-known dancers and choreographers. Bollywood stars like Dixit and her predecessors like Meena Kumari, Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, and Helen are renowned for their on-screen dances. Saroj Khan, well-known as Dixit’s choreographer, was herself a backup dancer in the late 1950s. Not so well-known is the fact that Vyjayanthilamala was the first film dancer Khan choreographed.

Still from Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972) with Meena Kumari

In the early years of Indian cinema, participation in the public sphere by women from “respectable” families was discouraged. The earliest film dancers were devadasis and tawaifs, traditional dancers who were held to be of lower-caste. They kept dance traditions alive while constantly innovating and incorporating new global influences in their dances. However, these dancers came under threat starting in the late 19th century. In an echo of the Social Purity movement in Victorian England, the British colonial government launched a campaign to abolish the profession of devadasis and tawaifs, treating it as prostitution. Indian social reformists supported and actively participated in this campaign. However, as their political and cultural nationalism gained momentum, these reformists also sought to invent new dance traditions based on their dances by excising what they considered objectionable while incorporating new influences that they considered modern. For example, Rukmini Devi Arundale was one of the key figures involved in deriving Bharatanatyam from the Sadirattam of the devadasis of South India through a process of stripping it of erotic elements while adapting it to match her cosmopolitan sensibilities, consonant with the global dance milieu of her time. Interestingly, both Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman learned Bharatanatyam from nattuvanars, who were male members of the devadasi community, rechristened as the Isai Velalar (literally, “music cultivators”) caste. Some of these highly sought-after nattuvanars also choreographed many of their on-screen dances.

Hindi film dance has continued to evolve by borrowing and adapting from not only what is canonized as classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathak but also from folk dance forms like Bhangra and Raas Lila as well as from foreign dance forms such as belly dancing, modern jazz, hip hop, and salsa. It is this continuous adaptation that has kept Hindi film dance vibrant. This eclectic borrowing hasn’t been all one way. Pop stars like Beyoncé and Madonna have long incorporated Bollywood dance moves in their performances. Nor is this only a recent phenomenon. Ruth St. Denis, one of the founders of American Modern Dance, got the inspiration for the whirls and spiral moves in her dances from a performance of nautch dancers from India at a show called Durbar of Delhi she attended in Coney Island in 1904. Dancing Women traces these and many other transitions and transformations that took place over the decades to shape what has come to be the global phenomenon that Bollywood dance is today. Each of its chapters contains within it a drama waiting to be told on the silver screen, with spectacular dances, of course.

When we watch Hindi films, we often treat the dance numbers as extraneous to the narratives, though, when we look closely, we find that the narratives are contrived in order to stage dance spectacles and showcase dancers. As Iyer observes, “the spectacle is the narrative.” Her book is a call to open our minds to “the production of [spectatorial] effect through a series of physical actions” in all cinema. Or, as Abhinaya Darpana has it:

‘Yatho Hasta Thatho Drishti

Yatho Drishti Thatho Manah

Yatho Manas Thatho Bhavo

Yatho Bhavo Thatho Rasah’

Translation:

Wherever the hand moves, there the glances follow;

Where the glances go, the mind follows;

Where the mind goes, the mood follows;

Where the mood goes, there is the flavor (rasa/affect).


Balaji Narasimhan follows South Asian culture and society from his perch in the Bay Area.