review of the film, and this blog post at the Ancient Indians - Satya Samhita blog lays out the basic plot illustrated with videos.
Midway through the film, Venkatasubbaiah is invited to witness the performance of a Tanjore dancer who has made the challenge that the kingdom has no dancers to equal her. She gives a beautiful Bharatanatyam performance and is then followed by a local dancer for whom Venkatasubbaiah lends his beautiful voice. The scene is shot at the lovely Chitradurga Fort.
The dance itself has no English subtitles unlike its speaking parts or the rest of the film which is most perplexing! In conversations with the ever-helpful blogger Ramesh, I learned that the Tanjore dancer is performing to lyrics from ashtapadis (stylized hymns) of the Gitagovinda. The Geeta Govinda (Song of the Cowherd) was composed by the 12th century courtly poet Jayadeva and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Sanskrit poetry. The work is a subject of much further discussion, but in sum it tells of the passionate love between Radha and the divine cowherd Krishna and echoes beliefs of the Bhakti movement in Hinduism.
Ramesh graciously offered to find and translate the Sanskrit lyrics into English which I have overlaid onto the video itself. Thank you Ramesh!! Sanskrit translations often are subject to debate, but I think the fairly literal translation here is priceless for non-Indians like me to understand the dancer’s expression and gestures. While I have always liked the scene for its aesthetic beauty, knowing the meaning behind the vocals has greatly enriched the viewing experience of one of the most pure and authentic classical dance numbers in Indian film. I am also mesmerized by the voice of the male singer accompanying the Kuchipudi dancer- what divine tone and ability! For your viewing pleasure…
With the translation displayed, it’s clear how the dancer’s abhinaya (mime) matches the poetic descriptions of things like honeybees, sandal paste applications, and yearning eyes. Lines are often repeated twice and the dancer usually performs the abhinaya slightly differently each time. I especially love the pure dance piece about halfway through. The second dancer, whom Ramesh tells me is dancing Kuchipudi, is clearly not as good as the first, though at the end she is awarded the post of “court dancer” by the king. Venkatasubbaiah is also awarded a gift and scholar-ship for his singing abilities which moves the story forward and ensures that the dance scene doesn’t seem out of place in the film.
Regarding the people who made this beautiful dance scene possible, the Tanjore dancer is enacted by Kalakshetra-graduate Jayalakshmi Eswar who still dances today and has authored some instructional classical dance DVDs. Choreography is credited to Radhakrishna and the famed guru Adyar K. Lakshman whom Padma Subrahmanyam called the “first freelance natuvanar [dance recital conductor and singer] in the field of Bharatanatyam.” He also is said to have taught at Kalakshetra and Vyjayanthimala Bali’s school Natyalaya. I also found another exquisite film dance of his that I will feature in an upcoming post about classical dances in Kannada films.
One thing I found especially interesting to learn was the deep effect the Geetagovinda has had on eastern India and Odissi dance. The Sri Geetagovinda Pratisthana trust explains, “Even today the influence of Geetagovinda is quite powerful on the culture of Orissa. Notably, Odissi dance, now enjoying great revival, derives many themes from Jayadeva’s songs and the famous Dasavataara song is a part of the repertoire of every Odissi dance.” This is clearly reflected on the website for Srjan, the gurukul-style Odissi dance repertory following the distinctive style of the late guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, which has DVDs of Kelucharan’s performances from the Geeta Govinda and some passage translations.
Reflecting upon the meaning of the Geeta Govinda, the trust notes, “What Krishna is enacting through this mystic love play is only to shower his Love and Grace on entire humanity.” I liked the way a reviewer of a paperback translation put it; that it’s not mere erotic poetry but rather “is written for liberated souls to relish.” Relish, indeed!