Padmini Ramachandran’s life and times are integral to the history of modern Bharatanatyam and its presence in cinema.
Padmini as Urvashi in Nartanasala

This year began on a rather somber note for the world of Bharatanatyam. Two famous dance Gurus made their final exit from this world. Mrinalini Sarabhai (b. 1918 ) and Padmini Ramachandran (b. 1944).  Mrinalini was a world famous personality who spread the message and awareness of Bharatanatyam across North India after settling down in Ahmedabad. She was well known and enough has been written about her. Padmini’s story was very different. At this point it is important to tell you that this is not the same Padmini who was a part of the famous Travancore sisters trio. This Padmini was also from Kerala, also learnt from the same Guru and entered films very briefly. This Padmini’s life was fairly unknown to the rest of the world as she herself withdrew from public life. From a super star in cinema to a private dance Guru, this Padmini’s life certainly deserved to be remembered for her contribution.

Also read: Yamini– The Quintessential Primadonna of Indian Classical Dance 

Padmini was born in the village of Mavallikkara in Kerala on September 8, 1944. Her family moved to Madras and like most girls of her time, she began learning dance from the great Chokkalingam Pillai of the Pandanallur tradition. But it was under the training of Ramaiah Pillai of the Vuzhavoor tradition that she really blossomed into a full-fledged dancer. She performed her official debut in Bharatanatyam, the Arangetram, under his guidance. Ramaiah Pillai, popular as Vuzhavooraar among his admirers and students, earned fame as a dance choreographer in Tamil films at a very early age. He had also trained several girls from famous families and put them in films in dance sequences. Radha Vishwanathan, the daughter of Sadasivam and M S Subbulakshmi trained under him. Vyjayanthimala Bali debuted under his guidance before moving to other Gurus. Vuzhavooraar had the reputation of an expert film dance choreographer. Padmini was introduced in a dance sequence in the film ‘Ratnapuri Ilavarasi’ in 1960. The film had superstars of Tamil screen like T.R. Mahalingam, M.R. Radha, M.V. Rajamma, E.V. Saroja, Sasi-Kala (Madras Sisters), Kushala Kumari, C.V.V. Panthulu, T.V. Sethuraman, G. Pattu Iyer and ‘Ennathey’ Kannaiah. She was only fourteen years old and already amidst stars! She became a hit with her audiences and got noticed by several big producers and directors.

Padmini Ramachandran

Among the first to notice her were directors C.L. Rawal and P.L. Santoshi; they were directing a film ‘Dil Hi Tho Hai’ produced by B.L. Rawal. The film had among its stars the one and only Raj Kapoor and Nutan. In the song sequence ‘Laaga Chunri Me Daag’ , sung by Manna Dey and which was to become a big hit later, Padmini danced as the courtesan Bahar. Written by poet Sahir Ludhiyanvi and music composed by Roshan, this song continues to be a modern classic. Padmini’s dance became a rage with audiences.

This film released in January 1963 and Padmini became talk of the town, not only in Madras, but also in Bombay. Padmini was barely nineteen years old when she got another big film break in ‘Iruvar Ullam’. Adapted from a famous novel ‘Pen Manam’ written by Lakshmi Thirupasundari, the film was released in March of 1963. Starring Sivaji Ganesan and B Saroja Devi in the lead roles, the film was a huge hit. Among the other cast members were actors like M. R. Radha, T. R. Ramachandran and S. V. Ranga Rao. K. V. Mahadevan composed the film’s soundtrack and background score. Poet Kannadasan wrote the lyrics for the songs and none other than famous Karunanidhi wrote the film’s screenplay and dialogues. Just imagine what a high it must have been for Padmini’s career within months of tasting success. A bigger break was yet to come!

Padmini with director Ang Lee

‘Nartanasala’ was written by the famous Telugu writer Samudrala Raghavachary, directed by Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao in 1963, the film was based on a famous episode from the Mahabharata. It was produced by Rajyam Pictures. With some of the biggest superstars of that era like N T Rama Rao, Savithri, S V Ranga Rao and music by Susarla Dakshinamurti, the film was a blockbuster hit. Padmini played the role of the celestial dancer Urvashi in Indira’s court and performed a dance sequence for the song ‘Naravaraa o Kuravara’. Arjuna rejects her advances and she curses him to be born as a eunuch by the end of this song.

If you see the dance closely, you can see Padmini’s training in Bharatanatyam in flashes. Though small in role, Padmini’s character was very significant for the story. The film received awards for best production design and best actor to S. V. Ranga Rao, at the Indonesian Film Festival. The film won the National Film Award for Second Best Feature Film in 1963 at the 11th National Film Awards, and secured the Filmfare Award for Best Telugu Film. The film is cited among CNN-IBN's list of hundred greatest Indian films of all time.  This shot Padmini to great fame and there was a demand for her dance sequences in several big films.

Padmini married T K Ramachandran at a very young age and stopped acting or dancing in movies. The few movies she danced in remain classics and a testimony to her name, fame, beauty and art. The famous Carnatic Sabhas of Madras soon forgot her and her legacy. When they commemorated her Guru Ramaiah Pillai’s centenary celebrations few years ago, Padmini was not mentioned anywhere on the list. However she kept her work going silently on the side. She migrated to Bangalore later and established the Natyapriya dance school in 1974.  She trained scores of dancers in Bharatanatyam, in the Vuzahvoor tradition she learnt from. There was a huge criticism of her as someone who became extremely commercial in her teaching and her students often complained of the high fee she charged to teach. However, she felt that nothing came easy and those who paid up also valued their time, money and effort spent to pursue a full time dance career. Among her many students, young dancers Navia Natarajan and Kirti Ramgopal are superstars of her dance style and are taking her legacy ahead. Padmini was awarded several prestigious awards. The Karnataka Rajyotsava Award and the Shantala Award were some of her achievements.

Padmini did one last stint with films a few years ago. She appeared in Ang Lee’s famous ‘Life Of Pi’. Essaying her real life role on screen, she was seen as the dance teacher to Anandi, Pi’s first love.  Check her in this little dance scene from the film:

This was the last we saw of Padmini on screen. After a bout of illness she passed away on January 17 this year. She was seventy-one years old and her death went unsung in mainstream media. She is survived by three sons and a daughter. Born in Kerala, brought up in Madras , settled and passed away in Bangalore, Padmini’s life and times are integral to the history of modern Bharatanatyam and its presence in cinema.

Images Courtesy – Viswanathan ,  Videos : YouTube

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)