The photographs shown here of the celebrated dancer, Ram Gopal, come from a larger collection of vintage gelatin silver prints recently acquired by the Tasveer Foundation. They are a combination of portraits and press shots, many of which were taken by the ‘Grand Seigneur of the Hollywood Portrait’, George Hurrell, starting in the late 1930s.
Ram Gopal (b. India c.1912 – 2003) is often credited as being amongst the foremost Indian dancers of the 20th century. His real legacy, however, is found in his pioneering role acquainting Western audiences with traditional Indian dance. La Meri, an American dancer who specialised in non-Western forms, saw Gopal perform in India and was subsequently invited him to join her on tour in 1936 – thus began his relationship with the West, where audiences were drawn not only by his singular beauty and talent, but by the work itself – to which they had been largely unexposed.
The photographs of Gopal shown below, (which along with Hurrell’s portraits, include original prints by Edward Mandinian and Frank Herrmann), would have been taken at the height of his career, and used to both document and promote his celebrated grace and beauty. The seniority of the photographers (George Hurrell being one of the leading celebrity photographers of the day), is indicative of the iconic status Gopal had achieved on the Western stage.
Formal recognition of Gopal’s achievements came later in life, when in 1999 he was awarded an OBE, and given the coveted title of Pandit by the Indian government. Having conquered the stages of the West, he spent his senior years between Venice, the South of France and London – where he lived until his death in 2003. His date of birth, remains something on an enigma, with different sources citing anything from 1912 to 1921 – a discrepancy apparently put down to mischief as much as vanity.
George Hurrell (b. USA 1904 – 1992) was an American studio portrait photographer and the principal auteur of the photographic idiom known as the ‘Hollywood glamour portrait’. Between 1930 to 1943, Hurrell was Hollywood’s premier portrait photographer, making his name immortalising the faces of stars such as Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.
Before Hurrell’s advent, movie star portraits were soft and undistinguished, derivative of the Main Street portrait salon. Hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1930 at the urging of the aforementioned star, Norma Shearer, Hurrell threw out the conventional “soft focus,” and replaced it with a sharp, dramatic look (which one can see in these photographs of Ram Gopal). Thus Hurrell introduced a bold new style, one in which movie stars and dancers were idealised, glamorised, and ultimately turned into icons.
By 1941 his sitting fee had reached $1000—when the dollar bought eighteen times what it does now. At the timePeople and Places magazine called him “Hollywood’s favorite photographer”, U. S. Camera called him “an almost legendary figure among photographers” and Motion Picture proclaimed “His name on any photograph is a guarantee of glamour. He is one of Hollywood’s few genuine geniuses. He is Rembrandt with a camera.”