Celluloid classicism: Early Tamil cinema and the making of modern Bharatanāṭyam



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This dissertation investigates how two of the most prominent cultural forms of modern South India—Tamil cinema and Bharatanāṭyam dance—share complex and deeply intertwined histories. It addresses the entangled emergence of these two modern art forms from the 1930s to the 1950s, which were decades marked by distinctly new intermedial modes of cultural production in cosmopolitan Madras. This project unsettles received histories of modern Bharatanāṭyam by arguing that cinema—in all its technological, moral, and visual complexities—bears heavily and irrevocably upon iterations of this “classical” dance. By bringing archival research into conversation with choreographic analysis and ethnography with film performers and Bharatanāṭyam dancers, this work addresses key questions around the fluid and reciprocal exchange of knowledge between film, dance, and stage versions of Bharatanāṭyam during the early decades of the twentieth century. The dissertation includes deliberations on subjects such as the participation of women from the devadāsī (courtesan) community in the cinema, the period of the urban “reinvention” of dance from the standpoint of cinematic history, the impact of the forces of cultural nationalism and regionalism, and the making of new aesthetic vocabularies and techniques for Bharatanāṭyam in the cinema. The work concludes with notes on the persistence of cinema and Bharatanāṭyam as ever-entangled vernacular idioms in the global age of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Taken together, the materials presented in this dissertation provide a detailed cultural history that draws lateral paravisual linkages between the production and circulation of Tamil cinema and Bharatanāṭyam dance.



Bharatanatyam dance, Tamil cinema, Devadasi, Nattuvanar, South India, Intermediality