She danced her way to stardom
Cute and charming, "Baby" Kamala enthralled audiences with her dancing skills from the tender age of four. She went on to become a leading Bharathanatyam dancer, lending dignity to the profession. A profile of the artiste who was honoured recently.
BOMBAY CITY... 1938... A local sabha was conducting its annual Sree Rama Navami celebrations. One of the events in the programme was a `kathak' dance by a little girl barely four. Cute, charming and cherubic, she wowed the audience with her stunning performance. Her name appeared in the programme sheet as "Baby" Kamala.
Among the audience was A.N. Kalyanasundaram Iyer. A lawyer-turned-filmmaker, he was then associated with the sadly neglected pioneer Sarvotham Badhami at Sagar Movietone and making Tamil pictures for him.
The talented little girl astonished him. He happened to be involved in the making of a Tamil film "Valibar Sangam" (1938) at that time. `Baby' Kamala danced in the film, besides playing a small role. Kalyanasundaram cast Kamala in his next film "Ramanama Mahimai" (1939) in a small role and, of course, she danced too. Sadly, both the films flopped and are barely remembered today. However, her dances watched by many in studios during the shooting, caused more than ripples in the Hindi movie world. She soon danced in many Hindi films of that period.
Noteworthy among them are two mega hits of the 1940s. The first was "Kismet" (1943), one of the biggest hits in the history of Hindi cinema with Ashok Kumar in the lead. It ran for three long years in the same cinema hall in Calcutta! Kamala played a role in this history-making movie, besides dancing.
The other was "Ramrajya"(1943). One of the most famous and successful mythological movies of Indian cinema, it was directed by the well-known `mythological master', Vijay Bhatt(AV. Meiyappan later dubbed "Ramrajya" in Tamil in 1947.)
The success of "Kismet" and "Ramrajya" made Baby Kamala popular in South India and she attracted the attention of Tamil film producers. So Kamala and her mother relocated in Madras for the daughter to get trained in Bharathanatyam, which gained more respect in 1935 after Rukmini Arundale had her "arangetram."
However, Bharathanatyam had to wait for Baby Kamala to make it a household word... Kamala underwent training under the maestro, Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai. She later became the disciple of Vazhuvoor B. Ramaiah Pillai.
The successful Coimbatore-based producer and director of the Pakshiraja Films, S.M. Sreeramulu Naidu was the filmmaker who introduced Kamala to Tamil cinema. The film was "Jagathalaprathapan"(1944).
Being folklore it was a major hit and Kamala performed the "Snake Dance" in the "Nagalokam" (World of Snakes!) sequence.
The box office success of the film and her own dance choreographed by her guru Ramaiah Pillai took her well on her way to stardom in Tamil cinema. She was barely ten!
Kamala's film career took a leap ahead when AV. Meiyappan engaged her for two of his films. One was "Sri Valli" (1945) directed by the writer-director, then closely associated with AVM, A.T. Krishnaswamy. (Meiyappan took joint credit for direction along with ATK). Kamala interestingly played two roles that of "Bala' Valli and "Bala" Murugan. She performed two classical Bharathanatyam dances. One was set to the song, "Yaar unnaipol aatharipavar... Arumughatharssey... " and the other was :Sinthai arinthuvaadi... Selvakumaran... " Both songs were sung by P.A. Periyanayaki. The sadly under-rated classical Carnatic musician, Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma and the AVM in-house composer for many years, R. Sudharsanam composed the music.
Another memorable film of 1945 for Kamala was the classic musical "Meera" made by the American Tamil filmmaker, Ellis R. Dungan, featuring M.S. Subbulakshmi. Kamala donned the role of Lord Krishna. She danced along with `Baby' Radha in a dream sequence. Radha (T. Sadasivam's daughter) was `Bala" Meera.
Kamala also appeared as Krishna in some cut-away shots in the scene of the immortal melody "Kaatriniley varum geetham... " sung by MS. The lyrics were composed by Kalki and Ramaiah Pillai choreographed the dance.
Kamala also danced in films like "En magan" (1945), "Ekambavananan" (1947), "Katagam" (1947) and "Mahatma Udhangar" (1947, again a snake dance). These movies did not do well and are mostly forgotten today.
Around 1946, a play that was staged in Madras made waves. Written by journalist Pa. Neelankantan it was originally titled "Thyaga Ullam" and renamed "Nam Iruvar" for the stage.
Meiyappan saw the play, was being deeply impressed and acquired the movie rights. He made changes in the play for his film shot at his own studio in Karaikudi.
He was eager to include the patriotic songs of Subramania Bharathiar.
Kamala played the sister of the hero and danced to the songs "Aaduvomey pallu paaduvomey... ananda sudhanthiram... " and Vettri ettu dikkumena kottumurasey... !" D.K. Pattammal sang these famous Bharathiar songs off-screen. Kamala's dances not only proved to be the highlights of the film but also created film and cultural history.
Kamala also had two songs and dance items with lyrics written about Mahatma Gandhi "Karuna murthy Gandhi Mahatma... !" and "Mahan... Gandhi... Mahan!" The songs were rendered off screen by the `baby-voiced' playback singer M.R. Rajeswari.
"Nam Iruvar" (1947) was a thumping success and Kamala's dance ushered in a cultural revolution in the Tamil-speaking areas of the old Madras Presidency. Dance schools sprouted all over and Bharathanatyam acquired respectability.
Later, Kamala danced in several (some numbers she composed herself) Tamil, Hindi, Kannada and Telugu movies. Besides she played major roles in Tamil movies like "Lavanya," "Konjum Salangai" and "Sivaganga Seemai" and in Hindi films like "Jwala."
She won worldwide laurels and soon became an icon in Bharathanatyam.
This year, during the Margazhi festival, Kamala was honoured by the Music Academy with the Platinum Jubilee award.
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