An Unusual History of Indian Dance, Cross-Continental Culture and a Camera

In his book 'Photo Attractions', Ajay J. Sinha unwinds several threads after discovering a cache of photos of the dancer Ram Gopal.

The word ‘archive’ has become a trendy catchword in photography academia in recent years. Personal archives, family archives, and institutional archives have all become areas of research, publication or exhibitions. 

Ajay J. Sinha, professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, stumbled on a stash of 111 photographs of dancer Ram Gopal (1912-2003) from India in a collection in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in 2015. These were a part of the Van Vechten Papers catalogued under the Yale Collection of American Literature. Sinha had not heard of Ram Gopal or Van Vechten but the photographs triggered his interest and led him into an ‘archaeological dig’ into the archive – as he himself terms it. The many years of digging have produced the book Photo Attractions, an astonishing tale of Ram Gopal, the Indian dancer, the American photographer Carl Van Vechten and even the German Leica camera. Opening a Pandora’s box of images, Sinha unwinds the threads which connect Mysore, Bangalore, Madras and New York and the histories of Indian dance, New York photography, and the cultural excitement of cross-continental, gender-bending iconoclasts in the 1930s.

Ram Gopal’s mother was Burmese and his father was a Rajput. He was born in Bangalore. He was a pioneer male dancer bringing classical traditions to urban audiences in India in the 1930s and 40s. This was the period when performers from outside the hereditary families were learning from the gurus and bringing these forms out of their ritual or royal confines and introducing them to audiences across India. I had the privilege of knowing Ram as he was a close friend of my dancer grandmother Ragini Devi and mother Indrani Rahman from their Kerala Kalamandalam and Bangalore days. I also saw him dance Odissi in our home in Delhi in the late 60s, when he was already past his prime. He had started to learn Odissi late in life after seeing my mother perform it in London, but with no intention of performing it in public. I remember him as someone possessed passionately by dance, not a great dancer of depth, but with a sensual androgynous stage presence.

New York, early 1980s. A dancer’s evening gathering. From left: Suresh Awasthi, Claude La Morris, Letitia Jay (standing), Ram Rahman (sitting), Gina Blau, my mother Indrani (at back), my grandmother Ragini Devi, Ram Gopal, Thambal Yaima.

Ram Gopal had travelled to America in 1938 from Los Angeles to New York, where he managed to organise a performance. He met Van Vechten, who was an amateur photographer and a writer on cultural affairs who had promoted European modernism and was deeply involved in the Harlem renaissance and its black writers and performers in New York. These photographs and contact sheets were the product of three days of shoots in Van Vechten’s apartment in a jerry-rigged studio with two lights and random cloth backdrops. Through these photographs, Sinha journeys into the histories of Ram Gopal, Carl Van Vechten, and the introduction to the US of the 35mm German Leica camera. 

Ajay J. Sinha
Photo Attractions
Rutgers University Press (November 2022)

 The chapters give you an idea of the structure of the book.

Chapter 1. The Photo Studio
Chapter 2. The Dancer
Chapter 3. The Photographer
Chapter 4. The Camera
Chapter 5. Photo-Dance
Chapter 6. Afterimages 

Sinha’s narrative of Ram Gopal’s dance history starting out in Mysore places him in the dance revival and reinventing movements in Bangalore and Madras in the 1930s. It is a fairly comprehensive history of that moment, albeit primarily through Ram Gopal’s own writings. Ram Gopal was the rare male dancer soloist performing on stage at that time. Ram’s path to the US was facilitated by his joining the American dancer La Meri and her tour through South East Asia and Japan. La Meri had created an ‘orientalised’ and exotic version of Indian dance along with her programme of Spanish, Gypsy and other folk forms. Sinha excavates photos of them in Java and shows how those invented costumes land up with Ram Gopal and are photographed by Vechten in New York. From the photographs, the ‘orientalist’ image which Ram Gopal was propagating is quite clear. There are no authentic costumes even when he claims to be performing Kathakali pieces.

Uday Shankar’s troupe had been performing extensively in America before, but Shankar was presenting what he called a Hindu ballet, not solo performances. Sinha quotes the famous dance critic John Martin’s review of Ram’s performance in the New York Times where he criticises the “pictorial man” and “surface qualities” of the dance. These orientalist versions of ‘Indian’ dance were common at the time as the performers felt that performances of authentic styles would go over the heads of Western audiences (and indeed even audiences in much of India at that time) and these stylised pieces could cross over cultural barriers.

Sinha’s meticulous analysis of the pictures is exhaustive – the costumes, lighting, the fabric backdrops and he interprets these sessions as photo attractions, implying a homo-erotic interest on the part of Van Vechten. But this probably comes from his deep dive into Van Vechten and his role in the cultural moment. It is from researching Vechten’s biography that he learns of his homo-erotic tastes and fantasies, especially of black men from Harlem. The photographs themselves never seem to have been published or seen anywhere until this book. Most dance photography then was done professionally in studios, and these were likely not suitable for promotion purposes. Contrast the Baron studio photo from his autobiography made in London with his Javanese dancer partner Retna Mohini Cartier Bresson (yes, the wife of photographer Henri Cartier Bresson).

While Sinha’s interpretations and readings of the photographs are often speculative, they do bring up questions of homo-erotic desires and the fascination, particularly in America, of orientalist fantasy, in a culture which did not have a colonial history in Asia, unlike in Britain or Europe. Looking back at Ram Gopal’s other dance photos, he uncovers the interesting history of the dancer photographed in temple settings in India, but reminds us that the first dancer to do that was the American Ted Shawn as Nataraja at Mahabalipuram in 1926.

Excavating Van Vechten, Sinha uncovers a fascinating figure – a cultural gadfly – immersed in literature, painting, photography and dance. A man who knew a stellar cast of characters in Europe and America, deeply involved in enjoying and promoting the lively black culture of the Harlem Renaissance. His research into Vechten’s times and history is a rich record of the cultural moment of the 20s and 30s in New York. Van Vechten made photographs and portraits of actors, writers and poets in his home studio, but it seems Ram Gopal was the only dancer he photographed. He had earlier photographed Uday Shankar’s musicians in 1933, but not his dancers.

These chapters reveal a cross-continental cultural exchange in fascinating detail and are a highly unusual analysis of a photographic archive – a path that leads Sinha into a cultural history across cultures which traces links far beyond the three days of photo sessions which produced these images. This reviewer can barely skim over and convey the vast research and information which is in this book…more like three books in one.

The third section of the book is on the Leica camera Vechten used. Here, Sinha cottoned on to the fact that the machine was essentially easy to use for an amateur, having been recently introduced to America from Germany. A surprise discovery was that well-known photo figures like Willard Morgan and his photographer wife, Barbara Morgan, the famous dance photographer, edited the Leica camera bulletin and organised exhibits of Leica camera photographers in which Van Vechten participated. 

“In 1932, when Miguel Covarrubias introduced Van Vechten to the German camera, the writer switched overnight to photography. “I had begun to believe I was indeed a photographer.” Van Vechten’s excitement was palpable. “Within a month or two, I had provided myself with a makeshift darkroom, actually a disused kitchen, bought an enlarger, a printing frame, photographic paper, and other mystical paraphernalia, and began to process my own pictures.” Van Vechten was enamored not only by the camera but by the whole “mystical paraphernalia” that came with it, including the interrelated series of mechanical and chemical processes. The Leica meant for him the camera, the darkroom, the solvent baths, and the celluloid film strip from which small, individual negative images could be picked and enlarged into positive prints of any size.”

Ajay Sinha has produced a highly unusual analysis of the persons and their culture and their possible motives and constructed self-images through the 111 photographs he found. It is unlike any other photography history I am aware of. While packed with dense information, it is thankfully jargon-free and an easy read. That it is a labour of love is evident in the huge bibliography (12 pages) and the hundreds of acknowledgements. It is also clear that a book like this could only come out of a pedigree academic setting, with access to grants and easy access to libraries and archives in institutions in the first world. I can picture Ram Gopal in animated delight that these photographs and this book perform a surprising new photo-dance around his images and legacy.

Ram Rahman is a photographer.