Saturday, October 24, 2015

August 17, 2015: Talk on "Tamil cinema and the devadasi tradition" by Theodore S. Baskaran at the Roja Muthiah Research Library

Attended lecture on "Tamil cinema and the Devadasi tradition" by eminent Tamil film historian and wildlife conservationist Theodore S. Baskaran. The lecture started with an introduction by S. Muthiah who spoke of Theodore Baskaran, his multifaceted accomplishments and heaped lavish praises on his first book "The Message Bearers" which he rated as a must-read. Mr. Baskaran then took over and gave a fascinating, thoroughly professional and stats-filled narrative of the early history of Tamil cinema and how the Devadasi community the Isai Vellalars were omnipresent in the early days of the industry.

The first Tamil movie, Kichaka Vadham, Mr. Baskaran said, released in 1916 while the first talkie Kalidas released in 1931. The silent era, therefore, lasted 15 years. This was a time when there wasn't much creativity in the industry. By contrast, stage plays were facing unprecedented growth in their fan-following. The reason for this, Mr. Baskaran said, was the Devadasi Abolition Act of 1924. As devadasis could no longer perform in temples, they joined drama companies where their singing talents became indispensable.  Some of them such as Balamani and Kamalambal even had their own drama companies. However, still in a drama troupe, the script-writer or vadhiyar was the most important. When movies began talking in the early 1930s, there was a huge demand for artistes who could sing. This triggered an exodus of devadasis to the film industry. K. R. Saradambal was one of the earliest to make the transition. Scores of singers, dancers and musicians from the community followed in her footsteps ancd some put firm roots in the film industry.Take for example, the family of S. P. L. Dhanalakshmi that had lasted in the film industry for three generations. Kumbakonam, Mr. Baskaran said, emerged as one of the principal centres of the devadasi community. And plenty of plays were staged here. 

The reason why devadasis were so successful in films, Mr. Baskaran explained, was due to the fact that while Hollywood films had evolved from the silent to the talking phases, Indian movies hadn't.  In Hollywood, movies had assumed an identity of their own independent from stageplays even during the silent phase while Indian movies, even during the talkie phase, were simply  filmized versions of popular mythological dramas. (I would object to such a viewpoint. Many of the earliest talkies made in Hollywood were barely revues or filmized stageplays with songs and the kind). And as lesser importance was given to acting than dancing and singing, devadasis shone.

Mr. Baskaran also listed some of the greatest stars of early Tamil cinema. The greatest was, undoubtedly, M. S. Subbulakshmi. Another was the first "dream girl" of Tamil cinema, T. R. Rajakumari. Others such as N. C. Vasanthakokilam and M. L. Vasanthakumari established themselves primarily as singers. K. S. krishnamurthy was another doyen from the community who ventured into film direction. Along with the devadasis, Mr. Baskaran also told the story of the vocalists and musicians who made it big. Some nattuvanars from the Isai Vellalar community worked as dance teachers and choreographers in Tamil films. The most successful among them was V. S. Muthuswami Pillai who worked in movies such as Malai Kallan.

Beofre Mr. Baskaran ended his lecture, he showed us short clippings from movies of the 1930s and 1940s. While the marriage concert by P. A. Periyanayaki from the movie Sabhapathy was shown, it was surprising why Mr. Baskaran had left out the short Bharatanatyam dance performance by R. Padma from the same movie.  It was also interesting to note that P. A. Periyanayaki and R. Padma were related by marriage (Padma's son was married to Periyanayaki's daughter). Padma's daughter Sai formed part of the Sai-Subbulakshmi duo that acted in a few films in the 1950s. Another movie from which clippings were beamed was the 1942 Aryamala which starred M. S. Sarojini. A few short clippings from movies of the 1950s were shown before Mr. Baskaran wound up the lecture with a clip from Boys (2003) to illustrate how much dance in movies had evolved.

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