Kamal Hassan and his tryst with classical dance

Starting sometime in August Baradwaj Rangan started a eight part series based on his interview with Kamal Hassan, and his involvement with the classical arts. The series was published in The Hindu. There are some poignant moments about dance that captured my eye. Sharing some of them here with emphasis added. Scroll down to see the links

The story of Kamal Haasan as a dancer begins when Kamal was twelve, a time his mother thought that he would be thrown out of school, the third one he was admitted in. One evening, she took him to a Kuchipudi recital in Museum Theatre. The boy, who’d grown up with Bharatanatyam, was fascinated. Kamal Haasan told me, “I think it was the exotic form of somebody dancing on a plate.” After the performance, while waiting for the bus at the stop on Pantheon Road, Kamal’s mother asked him if he’d liked the performance. He asked her why there was no alarippu. She explained to him the difference between the dance forms. Suddenly he told her he wanted to learn dance. She said they’d talk about it in the morning.

The next morning, Kamal woke up, brushed his teeth, wiped his face on her pallu, and told her again that he wanted to learn dance. She asked him if he was sure. He was. She thought about it. She didn’t want to send him to classes where he’d have to stand in a queue. She wanted private tuitions from someone she could afford. This turned out to be MS Natarajan. He was into theatre, an actor and a fan of ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, but he had also trained in the same school as Kamal’s sister, the Pandanallur bani. “He was not a teacher in the strict sense,” Kamal Haasan said, “but he had a repertoire that could help young children get acquainted with dance.” Classes began. But they were at Ashok Nagar, and Kamal’s mother felt that the boy was travelling too far from their Eldams Road home. The first solution was to shift the classes to the large hall at home. Then Natarajan told Kamal’s mother, “Your son is learning very well. If I could get a small place to stay in your house with my wife, I could be on attendance at any time.” Kamal Haasan smiled at the memory. “He was right, because I was totally neglecting school. I was always in the dance class. And it had nothing to do with all the girls in the class.

After the arangetram, Kamal wanted to learn more, and as Natarajan knew of Kamal’s earlier interest in Kuchipudi, he brought in Guru Nataraja Ramakrishna, who later served as Chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi. Then, when these teachers and their students were invited by the Maharashtra police to perform in a series of shows across the state, they decided that some Kathak was needed in the mix – a Kathak instructor named Kulkarni was brought in from Kolhapur. So, at one point, there were three teachers in that Eldams Road home – much to the consternation of Kamal’s sister, who worried that this mix of styles would amount to Oriental Dancing – training dancers from 7 am to 7 pm, every day. Kamal would dance for some six to seven hours, every day.

Thangappan had trained under Guru Gopinath, the famous Kathakali exponent, another style found its way into Kamal’s repertoire. (It was a small world. Kamal, as a child actor, had worked with Guru Gopinath’s daughter in the Malayalam film Kannum Karalum.) Kamal Haasan spoke of the dance sequence in Nizhal Nijamaagiradhu, where his character slips into the heroine’s class (she’s a dance teacher) and proceeds to give an impromptu performance that leaves her stunned. “The reason that dance was so masculine was because of Thangappan master’s training, because of the Kathakali style.

He spoke some more about Sagara Sangamam. He recalled the response of dance teachers who told him that this film had done to dance what they had done through their lives. “It was very touching,” he said. “But that has more to do with the medium. You should also give credit to Vyjayanthimala and Kumari Kamala. In their time, dance was seen as a feminine domain. I brought it to the masculine domain. Unfortunately, I was the only ambassador at the time.

I asked him why films have stopped showcasing the classical arts. He said, “I think it’s simply an attitude, because it has to be sponsored. The sponsors – be it a king or a producer or the Britannia biscuit company – are either not interested or ill-informed. They all focus on their product. They have no social or aesthetic commitment.”

Raghuram was related to Padma Subrahmanyam – whom Kamal had fallen for when he saw her dance on stage; “I fell in love with a lady I didn’t even know” is how he put it – and when Kamal found out about this, he knelt in front of Raghuram and said, with a wink in his eye (or maybe without one), “I want to marry your aunt.” He settled for learning her style of dance instead.

I asked him if he considered the dances in this film “pure dances.” He said, “But even in the film it is called Bhaarat Natyam. That was my constant defence against the question: ‘What style is your dance’? It’s better than calling it Oriental Dance, which is a very derogatory term coined by the British.

 Full unedited version with YouTube links here: https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/master-of-arts/

Part 1: His classical odyssey

Part 2: ‘You can feel the fear in this song’

Part 3: ‘He taught me to sing with abandon’

Part 4: And more on the Ilaiyaraaja connection

Part 5: Kamal and the art of screenplay writing

Part 6: Kamal discovers Kuchipudi

Part 7: Three teachers, one student!

Part 8: Cinema, Kamal’s fulcrum

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