Bharatanatyam and Tamil cinema have had a long association. Several noted actors were dancers and several practitioners of Bharatanatyam were invited to perform on screen. At most times all of these were Tamils or of Tamil origin, barring a few odd exceptions. But it took great guts for three sisters from Kerala to come and rule the Tamil industry. This is the story of the famous three, popular in later years as "Travancore Sisters". Today when Indian cinema is celebrating its centenary, none of them were remembered or their memory invoked.
Thankappan Pillai a wealthy landlord and his wife Saraswathiyamma belonged to a large Nair family from Thiruvananthapuram. They lived in Thiruvanathapuram in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. They had four children. Lalitha born in 1930, Padmini born in 1932, Ragini born in 1939 and son Chandrakumar. Living in a large joint family in the palatial mansion of Malaya Cottage in Pujapura in Thiruvananthapuram, the children were encouraged to take to arts at a very early age. Lalitha and Padmini began their training in dance from Kathakali exponent Guru Gopinath. Lalitha was barely eight years old when she got a break to perform in a Tamil film.
With the untimely demise of the father, the mother and kids had to fend for themselves. They decided to migrate to Madras in search of greener pastures. In Madras they continued their dance training under the great Nattuvanar and dance director for films Vuzhavoor Ramaiah Pillai. He groomed them to perfection soon. They also made some lifelong friends with other fellow students of Ramaiah Pillai like Kamala, Radha and Padma Subrahmanyam.
Vuzhavoor Ramaiah Pillai directing a dance sequence with Padmini and Ragini in a film
It was around that time that dancer Uday Shankar had placed an advertisement seeking dancers for his film "Kalpana" in 1948. Padmini was selected. She was barely seventeen. The film was not a great hit and she was only seen in a small sequence. In a year, the sisters started to get dancing offers in many more movies like "Velaikkari", "Geetha Gandhi", "Krishna Vijayam" and "Pavalakodi". Soon many more films came Padmini’s way. She was hailed as a star. The film "Manthiri Kumari" in 1950 had Karunanidhi's fiery dialogues that became famous and stirred a lot of controversies. A dance sequence in the film saw all the three sisters performing. You can watch a rare clipping of the same here.
The Malayalam film "Prasanna" in 1950 by a Telugu producer and director Sreeramulu Naidu was the first to introduce all the three sisters together. The film was a massive hit and the songs are considered classic till date. By 1953 Padmini was on the cover of one of India’s most popular film journal Filmfare. However, that didn’t stop her or her sisters from her classical dance training. In Bombay, they continued her training in Bharatanatyam from Guru Mahalingam Pillai. In the early 1960s, Padmini married a US-based physician TK Ramachandran. After this, Padmini began shuttling between Madras and the US. Meanwhile, the other two sisters were making waves in Malayalam cinema.
The sisters had an active performing career, both as classical dancers and as dancers and actors in cinema. They conquered not just Malayalam and Tamil but Kannada, Telugu and Hindi cinema as well. They acted alongside all the top heroes of that era like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, NT Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageshwar Rao, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand.
Padmini acted in over 250 films. Some of her memorable movies were "Madurai Veeran", "Amaradeepam" (1956), "Veera Pandiya Kattaboman" (1959), "Chitthi" (1966), "Penn Deivam" and "Vietnam Veedu" (1970). Her most fondly remembered Tamil movie is "Thillana Mohanambal" (1968), in which she proved to be a fine match for Sivaji Ganesan. The highlight of "Vanjikottai Valiban" with Gemini Ganesan in 1958 was the scintillating 'dance duel' between Padmini and her contemporary Vyjayanthimala Bali, which has come to be regarded as one of the best dance sequences in Indian cinema. Another stalwart among Bharatanatyam Gurus, the famous Nattuvanara Dandayudhapani Pillai, choreographed it. Many critics and friends of both the dancers commented how it was real life rivalry and jealousy that reflected on screen. You can see the famous dance sequence video here:
Among Padmini’s notable Hindi films were "Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain" (1960) opposite Raj Kapoor and "Pardesi", three years earlier with his father, Prithiviraj Kapoor, in an Indo-Russian collaboration. The Russians were so impressed with Padmini’s acting in "Mera Naam Joker" that they released a stamp in her honour in 1971. One can go on and on about each of the three sisters and their individual achievements, both as Bharatanatyam dancers and as heroines on screen.
The Travancore sisters were also the face of several big advertisement campaigns. From Lux to Air India to several other big brands, they were the faces of several ad campaigns in those decades. However, not everything was fine in all their personal lives. Ragini’s husband Madhavan Thampi was close to a decade younger to her. An alcoholic, gambler, womanizer and an abusive husband, he ill-treated Ragini causing her much personal trauma. Added to this she was detected with breast cancer in 1971. After that it was downhill. Ragini the youngest died battling cancer in 1976. She wasn’t even forty years old, just like many of her screen contemporaries like Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Geeta Bali.
Lalitha the older one too succumbed to cancer in 1982. This left Padmini all by herself. She lived in the US where she established a dance school and trained students. In 2006, she relocated to Chennai after 35 years. She was welcomed by many of her fans and older colleagues including former CM Karunanidhi. The same year she passed away from a massive heart attack. With the demise of Padmini, the big era of the Travancore sisters came to an end. In 2008, the government of India’s postage department released a special cover dedicated to the three sisters.
Among their extended family are actors and dancers like Shobhana and Vineeth. Many actors, dancers and heroines have emerged from Kerala and made a name. But no one has had the kind of charming yet powerful impact the way the Travancore sisters once had.
Images courtesy – Krishnamurthy, Selva Kumar, Shruti P, Shobhana
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org)