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Art that never vanished

"WHAT'S THIS business about Bharatanatyam having been resurrected in the 1930s? How can you resurrect something that never died?" forcefully wondered musicologist B.M. Sundaram recently during a lecture on `The Devadasi Tradition'. Pointing out that the dance form of the handmaidens of the Gods was performed by them well into the 1920s and 1930s, he reminded his audience that, even after the "resurrection", leading members of the devadasi community continued to dance in temples, in private performances and on stage in many parts of India. In fact, if what the `resurrectionists' were talking about was their encouraging the higher castes to take to the stage and dance a more `devotional' form, then Kanakahalli Pappammal, a Brahmin (1854-1921), did just that years earlier! "How can anyone say they revived the dance?" he challenged.

This candid, splendidly researched presentation was the ninth in a lecture series on South India Heritage. These monthly Sunday morning lectures are a fine example of what private sponsorship, in this case by the brothers R. T. Chari and R. V. Gopalan, can do to create a consciousness about heritage. Would that there were more such awareness-creating initiatives!

Awareness at the most recent lecture was created by Sundaram's scholarly and objective look at a system not unique to India, Sumeria, Babylon, Greece being among other civilisations that recognised and respected the "brides of the Gods". But they were `brides' of men too he pointed out, and in most cases faithful all their lives to those who maintained them without the symbols of wedlock. Many of these `wedded' devadasis became women of great wealth and used their riches for great deeds of charity. Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who founded the Madras Devadasi Association (that's something I'd like to know more about), left all her wealth to the Thiruvarur Temple. When her partner faced hard times, Thanjavur Veena Bhashini returned all the riches the Chettiar from Devakottai had showered on her.

Such devadasis lived according to a strict social code. Devadasis were a community, not a caste; they could belong to any caste, but they consorted only with Hindus - and only with those of castes higher than theirs. When a devadasi died and was cremated, it had to be only with fire from the temples kitchens, a tradition established after the creation of the heroic Hamsa Kala, who died after killing a general of Malik Kafur at the siege of Srirangam. The loyalty of a devadasi to her patron and to these concepts of caste and religion was such that she would even face law suits rather than what was dishonour in her eyes. In 1942, when a renowned devadasi acted in a film and the hero caught hold of her sari pallu, she rushed off the sets and returned to Thanjavur. She won the suit that followed, too.

Another devadasi, paired with M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in "Ambikapathi", refused the role when she discovered he was not a Brahmin; she had to be teamed with a Brahmin actor in a lesser role! Padmavathi of Thiruvenkadu, however, lost her suit in 1918 when she failed in a suit she filed on being excommunicated and denied the privilege of making offerings at her temple after she had danced in an Arya Vaisya house! Another was excommunicated for going to a Unani doctor when all others had failed!

The devadasis who were the most prosperous, auspicious and who enjoyed the highest status in Tamil Nadu were from the Thanjavur and Tirunelveli districts. Not all of them were proficient in dance or song; many served temples in other capacities. Some had volunteered to become devadasis, others had been given to temples in fulfilment of their parents' vows, and still others had been brought from the poor by the rich to fulfil vows. But once the pottu-kattu (the thali-trying) was performed before the eyes of God, she became a member of a community once held in esteem, but which in the early 20th Century began to acquire a more commercial reputation as rich patrons became fewer and the Tamil corruption of the name of the community began to take a scarlet hue. I am looking forward to Sundaram's "Traditional Bharata Natyam Dancers of Tamil Nadu" telling a fuller story before long.


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