Young girls were harmed in the making of this dance
There is an image on a postcard from the 1930s, of a young girl who looks to be about seven or eight years old, bejewelled like a bride. Her cheek rests on the pillow of her arms, and she looks up at the photographer out of the corner of her eyes. Her expression, to me, is adult in its flirtatiousness, and all-too-knowing for such a young child.
WHEN I went to Kalakshetra in 1970, I learned a history of bharatanatyam that juxtaposed myth with events of the fairly recent past. Shiva and Parvathi, Bharata Muni and his hundred sons, devadasis, the British and Rukmini Devi all figured prominently, leading up to the precise, rigorous, strictly defined art form we practised in the class and watched in its perfection on the stage. That name with its high art connotations came, I was told, from bha for bhava, ra for raga and tha for tala.
The Natya Shastra, Bharata Muni’s ancient (2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE) text on dramaturgy, is encyclopedic: along with theoretical considerations as to the purpose of theatre and practical information on the correct positioning of the green room, it contains descriptions of bodily postures, gestures of the head, neck, eyes and fingers. The walls and pillars of temples in Tanjore and Chidambaram have carved on them the names of women from other centuries who served in various ritual capacities as well as dance poses that seem to set in stone what the Natya Shastra describes.
The dance style we were doing in the class had some positions that were similar to both of these. Between all three – Natya Shastra, temples and temple women, and the dance we saw on stage – one could, with some imaginative leaps, trace a continuous line going back two thousand years. This seems to have been the working hypothesis of dancers who emerged onto the concert stage around the time of Indian independence.
Time was embedded in the dance form, with costume, repertoire and aesthetic codes noticeably hearkening back to some bygone era. But bharatanatyam was no less contemporary for adhering to a set of strictures that it constituted as ancient; in thus plundering the past to construct cultural authority and value in the present, it was following a decidedly modern trajectory.
In the 1970s, this looking backwards in time to establish the techniques and repertoire of a contemporary dance form was spoken of as a necessary process: bharatanatyam had been beautiful, refined, spiritual, but had lost those qualities to the degree that the women who performed it themselves lost those qualities. The devadasi was viewed as someone who had gone from high-minded, chaste temple service to prostitution. Rukmini Devi, E. Krishna Iyer, and others were considered to be the architects of a valid process of reconstruction. In this telling, bharatanatyam was the name invented by one of them to ‘establish continuity with a suitable historic past’1 in the manner of other invented traditions all over the world.
In the 1980s, dancers and dance teachers immersed in bharatanatyam practise (myself included), continued to prefer and promulgate the story that best advanced the reputation of the art form being performed on stage – that it was 2000 years old, derived from the Natya Shastra, and had travelled from the temple, through a period of decline and reconstruction, onto the stage. Among researchers and scholars, though, the tone of discourse had changed. The devadasi was re-imagined, from someone degraded to someone venerated as nityasumangali – always auspicious,2 and from someone who had once commanded a rich artistic heritage she’d let slip to someone who’d had that heritage stolen from her.
By the 1990s scholars of bharatanatyam had taken that story and run with it. Many dancers (again, myself included) accepted it as a given that bharatanatyam, far from being two thousand years old, had been made to look old by an erasure of its recent past. This new, more politically charged version of history emphasized the previous financial and sexual autonomy of the devadasi, her ‘subaltern’ status, and her ‘disenfranchisement’ by privileged caste, middle class bourgeois women who learned the art form and danced on stage in her place.
According to this account, the re-naming from sadir or dasiattam, whether by Rukmini Devi, E. Krishna Iyer or V. Raghavan, all Brahmins, had gone from benign to strategic, as part and parcel of ‘the appropriation and domestication of bharatanatyam’3 by ‘women from the upper castes and middle classes… and artists and theosophist’4 who ‘in the period of the Brahmin takeover… (with) grossly undiscriminating hands rummaged through finely nuanced regional forms …to produce the hegemonic version of bharatanatyam’5 that ‘very intelligently and I must say, very strategically, re-engineered’6 the form so that it could more easily be ‘monopolized by Brahmins who clearly [saw] themselves as having ‘rescued’ it from the fallen prostitute.’7 Ironically, many of those intent on rehabilitating the image of the devadasis, fall into the same categories as those they critique – Brahmin, westernized, middle class – as if flaying themselves in atonement.
This new version was marked by a conscious search for ‘authentic’ devadasi repertoire. But this time, rather than looking in old texts or on temple walls, dancers sought dance gurus who claimed hereditary devadasi lineage, and ferreted out old women who had been devadasis and put them onto the stage.
All three narrative strategies, whether by linking the art form to gods, goddesses and the Natya Shastra, or by shifting the focus to the technique itself rather than to the women who performed it, or by glorifying the devadasi as respected and proudly non-conjugal nityasumangali, are remarkably similar in ideology. They promote values such as tradition, preservation, purity, and authenticity – only the source of the stamp that guarantees those values changes.
Each story leaves important facts by the wayside. This most recent construal, celebrating the devadasi and bemoaning the dance that was stolen from her, requires that one paper over abuses inherent in the system, especially the sexual exploitation of young girls. In contrast to the heroic devadasi, social reformers who fought against the system must be vilified or at the very least misrepresented, especially if they came from within the devadasi community. By this account, two prominent women in the ‘anti-nautch’ battle, Muthulakshmi Reddi, a medical doctor, first female legislator, whose own mother was a devadasi and Ramathirthammal, a devadasi who escaped from being sold off to a much older man, must be lumped into a category defined as ‘middle class, upper caste, feminist’8 or ‘English educated, Catholic influenced bhadralok (genteel) community of Indian intelligentsia’;9 only then will it make any kind of sense when we are told ‘devadasi women were largely absent from these debates.’10
Very little attention is paid to why strong, articulate women from within the devadasi community like Muthulakshmi Reddi or Ramathirtammal were so dead set against the system and minimizes their legitimate concerns over the exploitation of young girls who had no choice in the matter of their dedication. Research that discusses the devadasi’s role rarely explicitly addresses the unequal power dynamic and the abuses this engendered. This is one account of what happened to a devadasi of the Puri temple, one of very few willing to speak about her experience.
‘According to Radha, it is a rule that the king should be first to have sexual intercourse with the devadasi. The king sent a message that she should come shortly after her puberty. Radha’s mother had died, she had been one of the king’s favourites, and because of this the king looked upon her daughter as his own daughter and would not consummate the marriage with her. He requested the Raja of Talcher to take his place. When the girl, who was only eleven years old, entered the room where the king was, she saw the Talcher king, who was an old man in his seventies. When this man saw the young child he exclaimed, "but she is only a child". The two kings then spoke to each other in English. They requested her to sing some songs, which she did. After this, the other women palace servants, who were there, left. The Puri king reassured the girl, and having explained to the Talcher king who was his uncle that the girl was an orphan and that she was poor, requested him to give generously to her. After the consummation – which the devadasi called by various terms: angalagi – giving the body, angasparsa – touching the body and angadubaiba – body dip, the Talcher king gave her gold ornaments and so did the Puri king.’11
Avalorization of the devadasi that ignores abuse within the system smacks of cultural relativism and becomes one more example of ‘protected ignorance’.12 Indian and western scholars are vocal in critiquing colonialism but not the internal hegemonic functioning of forces within Hinduism itself and within communities such as the devadasi.
Recent scholarship by Davesh Soneji has established that the name bharatanatyam was not invented in the 1930s. Therefore, since the Brahmins of the reconstruction were not involved, the question of their intent becomes moot. In fact the monograph he resurrected calling the art form bharatanatyam (with the same origin story for the name I was taught in 1970 at Kalakshetra), was written by one Ragavaiah Chary in 1806,13 thus preceding the emergence of the style onto the concert stage by more than a hundred years. Moreover, even then, Chary not only tied bharatanatyam to devadasis, and devadasis to prostitution but also elevated it with scholarly references to the Natya Shastra in theoretical aspects such as rasa theory, and in practical terms such as the use of hastas. Thus, this referring back to old Sanskrit texts cannot be laid at the feet of Rukmini Devi or other Brahmins in the 1930s either.
History is the bringing of the past into the present in order to consider it anew, in the light of whatever it is we now think we know; given this new information we must reassess bharatanatyam history and stop using it ‘…as a way of legitimizing contingency’.14
The word devadasi is subject to so much misunderstanding because it is used to refer to women from vastly different time frames and cultures, including the joginis of Andra Pradesh and the devadasis of the Yellamma temple of northern Karnataka, invariably from Dalit communities, their exploitation continuing to this day. In Tamil Nadu the situation was different; devadasis came from castes like the weaver community and once thrived in urban settings in the environs of wealthy temples. The word conflates with the Tamil word for prostitute while simultaneously linking her to a ritual role. The tying of the pottu, or thread that married the girl who had just reached puberty to the deity, also signalled her sexual availability to high caste men. Once dedicated, she was not allowed to marry or have relationships with low caste or untouchable men, or even the men of her own community.
A devadasi may have been born or adopted into that service from low but not untouchable castes; she may or may not have taken part in temple ritual, may or may not have sung, danced or played a musical instrument with varying degrees of refinement in all-male gatherings, in royal courts, at weddings and public celebrations, may or may not have had a non-conjugal sexual relationship with one or more wealthy high caste men, but some combination of these activities was her domain. This conjoined religious, sexual and artistic identity is not what we conceive of when we use the word ‘dancer’ today.
In the early part of the 1900s, social reformers were fighting to end what were then culturally acceptable practices such as child marriage, bigamy, and female infanticide and allow widow remarriage and female education. At the same time, in South India through the Self-Respect Movement, the radical political thinker Periyar, E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, was challenging Brahminical domination. He promoted a nuclear family unit of husband and wife as equal partners, where women were not mired in domesticity and pursued their own sexual fulfilment. If chastity was important, he said, then it was equally important to both the man and the woman. The Self-Respect ideals inspired wives and mistresses, mobilizing women to break out of both the orthodox Hindu marriage and concubinage.
It was in this changing moral landscape that Muthulakshmi Reddi first proposed a bill to end the dedication of young girls to temples in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1927. When it finally passed into law in 1947, while the devadasi may have been disenfranchised from her ritual role, she was at the same time freed from her sexual obligations and enfranchised to marry, able to access the rights and protections of that state. What it meant was that the system that created M. Saroja, Balasaraswati, and a host of others was no longer how dancers were made. In fact, the identity of ‘artist’ itself was being newly forged not only in bharatanatyam but in virtually all the so-called ‘classical’ forms throughout India by a roughly analogous process: some form of hereditary and/or sexual identity entwined with the part considered art was being severed.
The nexus of Brahmin and devadasi was not trivial, but it did not begin at the moment of their changing places on the stage. Rather, bharatanatyam and Carnatic music developed and were nurtured by high caste tastes and aesthetic sensibilities throughout their available history (which is closer to two hundred than two thousand years). Bharatanatyam in its heyday, even when performed only by devadasis, glorified the existing social structure and emphasized its priorities, in the way ‘that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.’15 Therefore, it is no wonder that the dance form appealed to wealthy Brahmin women. Moreover, they were the ones in a financial position to take it up when sources of patronage tied to sexual favours were no longer available. Financial support for the dance had come from concubinage and hereditary payment from temples for ritual service; once it was de-linked from those other two components, which are not necessarily artistic in our modern understanding of the word, then only those who didn’t need to earn money from it could function as dancers with the modern identity of ‘artist’. The lack of financial viability remains true today.
Each art form has its own constraints; in dance, the dancer being both artist and medium, it makes little sense to talk about ‘appropriation’. Both Brahmin and devadasi have to go through the same rigorous process of taking the art form into themselves. As long as it was a paying proposition, there were devadasi women to be found on stage, but once there was no longer a reasonable living to be made in dance, coupled with the freedom to marry or move into more lucrative professions, devadasi women gave up dancing. Money moved to cinema, and so did many in the devadasi community, both dancers and musicians.
This community renamed itself isaivellalla – the tillers of music – thus associating themselves with the higher caste vellalla or farming community, and, far from being disenfranchised, rose to political power in Tamil Nadu, which it hasn’t relinquished to this day.
It is not that bharatanatyam, once it became the purview of high caste women, suddenly lost the stigma associated with dancing. Rather, in the same way that gods can get away with acts that mortals never could (rape, incest, infanticide, bigamy and any amount of adultery of various kinds), Brahmin women were protected by their caste status from the imprecations of their decision to dance while lower caste women were not. The godliness of the gods wipes away some of the stain of their misdeeds as the high caste status of the women who first took dance into their own bodies cleansed it through their own perceived purity.
Today, if bharatanatyam continues to project a Sanskritized, Brahminical world view and sensibility, unapologetically patriarchal and devoted to images of piety such as Rama and Sita, it is not because it has been sanitized, but because it was always part of its mandate to do so.
Contrary to Bharata’s democratic concept of theatre, the ideal spectator for the devadasi salon repertoire was male, and the expression of desire in padams and javalis was designed to entice, cajole, flatter, soothe or tease him. Descriptions of breasts abound, as well as sexual positions, with special mention of the woman on top in the padams and javalis, along with cross-dressing, threesomes, and abortion and passing off the lover’s child as the husband’s. Performances could include the dancer rummaging around in the laps of men in the audience looking for a ‘lost’ earring.
The padam which says,
Why should I go to him? Why don’t you go yourself?
Last time he did all kinds of things,
Took the half-chewed betel leaf from his mouth
And pushed it into mine
Held my hand,
Led me to the bed
Squeezed my unripe breasts
I screamed aloud and he sneaked away like a thief16
could have been spoken by the girl in the photograph, but it was written by a man. When devadasis performed, it was for a room full of men. While it can be construed as expressive of female desire and agency now, in the manner of women’s fantasies of rape, when performed then the actual rape of the young dancer herself might have been possible for a price.
What does this history mean to the dancer? When Rukmini Devi chose not to perform those dances, she was exercising artistic control of her medium because, in the modern understanding of the word, that is what artists do. Aestheticizing such padams and javalis, stripping them of their real-life implications and performing them on stage is a luxury modern day bharatanatyam dancers exercise in a similar fashion. However one does it, one wants to be able to say, ‘No young girls were harmed in the making of this dance.’
When there is moral value ascribed to art, though, it appears misplaced. As an aesthetic event, bharatanatyam is ahistorical; it does not exist except in the way it appears to us now. While we can look at the paintings, the sculptures, the poems of the past, we have no way to examine the dance of the past, except like this, as a thought process. Meanwhile, the form itself continues to change in radical and subtle ways.
Bharatanatyam in its contemporary manifestation places precision, technical virtuosity and stagecraft above improvisation and intimacy. Performances that used to last more than three hours now last half that. The process of democratization has allowed those from many backgrounds – Jewish, Sikh, male, transgender – to learn and perform it, if not always to make a reasonable living from it.
If we think of bharatanatyam as a circumscribed universe, always choosing only some movements and meanings out of a range of possibilities for the human being, what we decode in watching is a concept of the body and what the body can and cannot do; it not only tells us how to dance, but who can dance, what is worthy of being danced and where and when that dancing can take place. In this way it is not unlike a language, especially in the Whorfian sense that the language itself goes some way towards shaping the thoughts one may choose to think and therefore express in it. But we shape our language too.
According to someone who has seen devadasi dancing in its original context, one can get closest to that experience in the present by watching dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan explore the improvisational possibilities of a line like ‘Why did you come here? Did you mistake my house for hers in the bright moonlight?’ She’s a Brahmin but her dance is proof that caste and heredity are not the relevant conditions for artistry. She commands the conventions of bharatanatyam that set it apart from the real world and everyday life, so that we in the audience recognize all that happens on stage as a separate sphere where the nayika of the padam can live, not life-like but dance-like. Despite the stylized language, she allows us to enter this realm. Viswanathan is not engaged in an act of imitation, since creating the devadasi dance for the stage is making it anew.
Viswanathan is witty and insouciant with her errant lover, laughing at his foibles and eventually sending him away. But the poem she’s improvising on does not end like that. The last verse has him making love to her ‘with twice the fury’.17 Nowadays most dancers leave those lines out, not to censor or sanitize the dance, but because they no longer ring true. The modern woman is not so quick to forgive betrayal and move into the bedroom and she’s not being paid to do so.
The impetus to show the young girl as something other than an object of desire is not sanitization either. In Avudai, for example, Seema Agarwal brings to vivid life the poetry of the 18th century saint Avudai Akka. Agarwal stretches the bharatanatyam vocabulary, intensifies the expressive possibilities of nritta and abhinaya through the use of theatre, video projection and electronic music to dance about the experience of being widowed as a young girl, reaching puberty only to have her head shaved and be wrapped in white. The moment that the menstrual blood flows is conceived of both by the poet and the dancer as brilliant, illuminating – an awakening to insight rather than to sexual power.
This art form that posits the aramandi, the deep sustained plié, penetrates sinew and bone, becoming a fact of life for the dancer. But even if her very being has been shaped by the style, the dancer retains the potential to create something outside what the form defines as possible. By separating the elements of bharatanatyam from the usage for which they were developed, it is possible to ‘turn the tradition against itself and wrest its language away from it’.18
This is one means by which a living art form finds a new generation within which to survive. Dance needs bodies. Like that microbe that invades a mouse’s brain to make it run into the jaws of the cat, in my darker moments it has felt like I’m the host and bharatanatyam the parasite I harbour, with no choice but to dance and be moved by dance.
If choosing bharatanatyam but rejecting sex work defines me as a member of a privileged class, even more rarified are the researchers and scholars directing the discourse around it. Let’s not forget whose voices we’re hearing. Not satisfied with the traces dance leaves in memory, in muscles, those who subject it to the tyranny of some more stable form, whether stone, or Sanskrit, or these words, can’t help but get it wrong.
One can’t argue with dance; in philosopher Ian Hacking’s terms, it is not a ‘truth-value candidate’; the proper response then is ‘to savour it or spit it out’19 – very sensible when one’s aesthetic theory is predicated on rasa (juice). Swallow, and it transforms us, becoming part of the organ of perception, the eye we see it through. Otherwise, what’s the point, if art doesn’t implicate us in our choices?
1. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction’, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, p. 1.
2. Saskia Kersenboom, Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1987.
3. Matthew Harp Allen, ‘Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance’, TDR/The Drama Review, Journal of Performance Studies, New York University, 41(3), 1997, pp. 63-100.
4. Teresa Hubel, ‘The High Cost of Dancing: When the Indian Women’s Movement Went After the Devadasis.’ Department of English Publications, Paper 134, 2005.
5. Srividya Natarajan, ‘Another Stage in the Life of the Nation: Sadir, Bharatanatyam, Feminist Theory.’ PhD thesis, University of Hyderabad, 1997, p. 209.
6. Hari Krishnan, Interview http: www. folkandpalace.com/conversation/may24am
7. Amrit Srinivasan, Reform or Conformity? Temple ‘Prostitution’ and the Community in the Madras Presidency. Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1988.
8. Teresa Hubel, ‘The High Cost of Dancing: When the Indian Women’s Movement Went After the Devadasis’, in Laura Lengel (ed.), Intercultural Communication and Creative Practice: Music, Dance, and Women’s Cultural Identity. Praeger Publishers, 2005.
9. Ananya Chatterjea, ‘How Can the Brown, Female, Subaltern Feminist Speak?’ in Sharon E. Friedler and S.B. Glazer (eds.), Dancing Female: Lives and Issues of Women in Contemporary Dance. Harwood Academic, Reading, UK, 1997.
10. Davesh Soneji, ‘Introduction’, in Bharatanatyam: A Reader. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010, p. xxii
11. Fredarique Apffel Marglin, Wives of the God-King: Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985, p. 75.
12. Y.S. Alone, ‘Confrontations and Inquiries in Representation: Knowledge and Protected Ignorance’. Talk at Shiv Nadar University, 2015.
13. Davesh Soneji, op. cit., 2010.
14. Jeffrey Weeks, Invented Moralities: Sexual Values in an Age of Uncertainty. John Wiley and Sons, 1995, p. 98.
15. John Berger, Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, UK, 1972, p. 29.
16. Translation with V.A.K. Ranga Rao.
17. A.K. Ramanujan, V.N. Rao and D. Shulman, When God is a Customer. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1995, p. 124.
18. John Berger, op. cit., p. 112.
19. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, p. 18.