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  • Writer's pictureSumedha Bhattacharyya

Duet with Camera : Dance and camera in India

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

We all know how the pandemic has affected the way we 'look' at dance, especially on the screen.

But this is not the first time dance has been seen on screen. Each country has had its history , it's evolution and of the moment where this transition took place.

It is interesting that just a year after their invention in 1839, in France, the daguerreotype cameras were advertised in Calcutta. It is also important to recognize that photographic societies in #Bombay, #Calcutta and #Madras were beginning to appear on the scene, organizing events and building community,from the 1850s onward.. Since the arrival in India of the camera in the mid (1855) - the foundational base of the “New Medium” of photographs, films and television,has only grown stronger and powerful , today.

So far the discussions and discourse around dance and film in India have been ‘seen’ from a perspective of using camera merely as a passive, ethnographic, and historical experience. It becomes important to underline that the interaction of the camera with dance form began as a purposeful galvanizing of national pride via camera, especially in the post-independence Nehruvian era, wherein dance was to play the role of ‘binding’ the very ‘diverse’ country.

India has had a film culture as early as 1931 in the first sound film that used music, song, and dance, Alam Ara.

Pioneering filmmaker Hiralal Sen’s first film was the Dancing sequence from ‘The Flower of Persia’ filmed in 1902. He had filmed many dance and performance based films since he was closely connected to the Classic Theatre in Kolkata  His Marjina Abdulla (1907) complete with all its dances, unfortunately  perished in a fire with other Hiralal creations.


Kalpana link

Noteworthy is also the cinematic experiments done in the1940s in Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, Chandralekha by Sadanand Menon, which worked with dance designed ‘specifically for the camera’. In Bollywood, the dancing body is seen as an object of ‘desire’ (Chakraborty, 2016), voyeuristically used for the camera. Camera and the operator of the camera, has most often been a passive observer documenting the autobiographical narrative of a dancer; recording the full-body dancing any form of dance or a projection of a gendered dancing body in the form of dance item numbers in Bollywood.

Where were the women? Were they 'behind' the camera or in 'front' of them?

So, here was a film maker during her time to defying boundaries as a director , screenwriter and actor , in a prevailing male dominated film industry of filmmakers.

Anusuya Kumar , a writer and researcher writes, 'Fatma Begum’s choice of a Persian tale for her film instead of the Hindu mythological material used by her male precursors was remarkable for the way it first opened up rich imaginal fields from India’s multicultural Parsi and Armenian communities and drew them into popular focus on screen.'

She became a pioneer for fantasy cinema where she used trick photography to have early special effects. No known copies of her 1926 film Bulbul-E-Paristan exist, but she too set up a production house called Fatma Films.

My current research with the camera comes from an understanding of how at this moment, with the advancement in dance research vocabulary, we can think of the camera valuing ‘ambiguities’ and ‘hybridities’ - both physical but also cultural- of a moving body. Especially during the Coronavirus pandemic that continues to alter our lives more than ever before, I believe that dance spectatorship, practice, and pedagogy needs a fresh mode of thinking, creating, presenting and learning as well as new imaginations of engagement with audiences and communities.

What are the questions that a dancer asks the camera? .Is it more than these questions? Where does the power lie ?

I seek a space where dance can now emerge as an entity on its own, not bound by rigid boundaries of religions and cultures, but traverses a relationship between the moving body and the camera that still remains unexplored. A space where the camera becomes a tool for [subjective, between and amidst’ (Nikolai J. , The Camera-Dancer: A Dyadic Approach to Improvisation, 2016) where a ‘camera-consciousness’ (Deleuze, 1985) emerges that becomes ‘an opening to a proliferation of other spaces’. (Brown, 2010).

Where do we first see Dance on stage 'becoming' Dance on screen in your own home country?


Brown, C. (2010). Making Space, Speaking spaces. In A. Carter, & J. O'Shea, The Routledge Dance Studies Reader (pp. 58-72). London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

Chakraborty, P. (2016). Sensory screens, digitized desires: Dancing Rasa from Bombay Cinema to Reality TV. In D. Rosenberg, The Oxford Handbook of Screendance studies (pp. 125-142). New York.

Deleuze, G. (1985). Cinema 2 : The Time-Image.

Nikolai, J. (2016). The Camera-Dancer: A Dyadic Approach to Improvisation. The International Journal of Screendance .

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