Devadasis got caught in a web of multiple political agendas, and the condescending elite made "vulgar" Sadir into the "respected" Bharatanatyam.

How the art of Devadasis was appropriated to create the world of BharatanatyamAn old picture of a Devadasi performance. Image credit:
Features Society Wednesday, February 10, 2016 - 18:02

Everyone can learn Bharatanatyam. Popular history of this art form will tell you how post-colonial India achieved this. A dance form that was practised only by one community, Devadasis, (often addressed as caste) of women up until then, was freed of its “evils” and was democratized. So much so that today the typical perceptions of a “perfect” middle class or upper middle class Indian girl includes, apart from her being well educated with a successful career, adept in house-keeping, also soft and graceful, displaying aptitude for learning of arts such as music and dance.

“The vagueness with which caste is used as a rubric under which to organize society” was the larger problem in pre-colonial India. The ambiguity in understanding this complex social order remained a huge problem in colonial and post- colonial Indian politics.

William Methwold, the seventeenth century English writer, for instance used the term “cast” interchangeably with what he termed “tribes or lineages”. In his broad division of tribes that included Bramene (Brahmin), Committy (Komatti), Campo Waro (Telugu Kapu Waru), he also included Boga Waro and explained them as “Whoores Tribes”. The description of Boga Waro as simply whores is as historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam says, grist to the mill of orientalist, western view.

The dance that the Devadasis, particularly from the Tamil speaking regions performed, were known variedly as Kootu, Cinna Melam, Sadir, Dasi-attam and so on. Their repertoires had a variety of dances that included cultural assimilation taken generously from various cultures. Maharashtrian, Sanskritic, Telugu, Persian, British etc.  The fact is Sadir had an inherent democratic value even though it was entrenched within social hierarchy.

While India was fighting for her freedom from the British and wanted civil liberty in the early parts of 1900-s, she was also simultaneously sinking in heated debates on the morality of the female performing class and captured reform ideas, of ridding the society of licentious women and prostitution and finally to democratize (for everyone to learn and practice) the arts.

But, the truth is, the Devadasi got caught in a web of multiple political agendas.

Everyone from the missionary colonialist, Tamil-Dravidianist, Hindu-Sanskritist to Nationalist used the Devadasi issue as a bandwagon for their larger political ends. The male members of this community however, found patronage and became the masters and tutors of the art of Sadir, to new, non -hereditary performers. But these new consumers (learners and patrons) were eager to perceive this whole appropriation under a new name- Bharatanatyam.

The term Bharatanatyam itself was not new or founded by these new practitioners. But by invoking a name that was not in vogue until then, and by ceremoniously retitling the dance form under a nation-state, social reform project, Bharatanatyam took away from female hereditary privilege, their livelihood and occupation only to give into the hands of patriarchy, the art, that it would position as a liberal, democratic, cultural identity that it could patronize.

Patriarchy bestowed this art upon its “respectable” women who chose not to work with it, earn with it a livelihood, but only enhance their social identity, as appendages and decorations to their familial and social roles. This abetment to exclusion of an entire community is hailed as democratizing art. But, has this democracy made this art more inclusive in general?

Over the decades since this reform, dance has been rendered into the hands of as exclusive class order, namely the elitist middle and upper classes, which includes people from many castes drawn under a common/ similar economic denominator (the affluent). Sadir’s inherent secular relevance, through its repertoire is forgotten history. Its association with female hereditary performers shunned and undermined history. Thus, making this social reform, a nationalistic “classicalizing” process, an example of slant socialism. An ironic situation, were art that was originally or historically for the consumption and participation of the entire society, even though not practiced by all, eventually has become a privilege of only the affluent few in the name of democratization, through this “resuscitating”. I call this, slant socialism.

The Devadasi’s position in society, based on a kind of equality where she had a choice (opportunity) as a woman, to work and earn (as an artiste), therefore having to take responsibilities (fiscal) to rear her family, becoming the economic head of her clan and so on, are neither complete equality nor complete freedom. However, surrounding the Prevention of Dedication act 1947, women who belonged to other castes, mostly married, middle and upper class, chose not to work for wages as dancers like their Devadasi counter parts, that is, they did not have/want to earn a living out of being artistes but only wanted to pursue dance as a social enhancement. This exception of performing art, particularly dance, from the fiscal spectrum of the economy, by the non-hereditary performers put a further spin on the social, moral discourse, simultaneously giving the non-hereditary dancers social benefits such as, becoming accepted cultural ambassadors and saviours, making the economic struggle of the Devadasis working as artistes for gainful employment, appear somewhat demeaning and unfit for respectable women.

This is not to say that Sadir performers did not experience the idyllic values of being a dancer. History records many anecdotes where Devadasi women have remained absolutely dedicated to their service to temple and society under very trying economic circumstances, finding the deeper purpose of their role. But pragmatically, art was stitched as a viable profession into the fabric of socio-economic society.

However, the twentieth century disassociation of dance from economic employment and making it a noble hobby or passion of women who could afford to have it so, displays the strained relationship between class inequalities, views; political and social, on female participation in organizational revenue model and the impact of these on the construction of “nation-state womanhood”. I wish to quote Smt. Rukmini Devi to further substantiate the above point.

She says, Kalakshetra was created and I quote, “with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India, recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism.” (Emphasis added).

She clearly places herself as a crusader (an upper caste and more importantly upper class woman, wife of an influential socialite) who belonged to the new, modern India, which was emerging on a nationalistic agenda. She calls the artistic traditions priceless, acknowledging its worth and richness, however she quickly adds that they are misplaced in the wrong hands (i.e the Devadasis). Thus, implying the need for resuscitating and thereby professing her intent to do so through her modern institution Kalakshetra. The aim is clearly to keep the content alone (sole purpose) intact.

The projection therefore is, because of the moral discourse surrounding the Devadasi and her character, it is her dancing body that made Sadir vulgar. Also by ridding didactic and utilitarian values of the picture, such as livelihood and money (commercialism), Rukmini Devi takes an “art for art’s sake” (true spirit of the art) approach where no one would commercialise dance but simply perform for joy.

However, that was something only the elite class, such as herself could afford to do.

The fact that today many dancers, even graduates from the same above mentioned institution that she founded, are freelance dancers, nattuvanars and dance teachers in schools and colleges, performing in corporate shows for economic sustenance, proves that this elitist model of art production and consumption devoid of commerce, has failed among the middle classes, who choose to learn performing arts and strive to make a living out of it.

Lastly, she subscribed to the larger hood of the “true” spirit of art, constructed only as a spiritual conscience and therefore denounced the realm of capturing the fears and hopes of mankind in a mundane, imagined way through romance, love and other worldly emotions called in dance parlance as Sringara.

The name of Sadir was done away with in 1950s, officially making it Bharatanatyam. This was not an innocuous move but a very calculated one to disempower the community of women who had been preserving this art for centuries, whose livelihood depended on it and whose identity was to be erased from history and practice of this art. No new major additions were made to the repertoires or content of Bharatanatyam.

It was the dancing bodies of Devadasi women that were obliterated.  When newer bodies of women who were mothers, wives, daughters and sisters danced the same dance, somehow it became respectable. It was therefore the male gaze that saw in its “own” women the art as a social enhancement, but gazed the art quite differently when inscribed on a Devadasi body. And this male gaze was not specific to men alone. The majority of elite and middle class Indian women too, developed this male gaze, attached also with a sense of righteous shame about their marginalized Devadasi sisters.

Moovalur Ramamrithammal, for example, who is hailed as a principal women’s social reformer, a Dravidian Justice party and former Congress politician, who worked for the Devadasi abolition, titled her so called revolutionary novel as “Dasigalin Mosa valai allathu Mathi pettra Minor” meaning the “Deceitful web of the Dasis and the Minor who regained his senses to escape from it”. This and many such works, under the guise of speaking for a social reform, in a misogynic way denigrated the Devadasi, her character and shamed her, paving the way for the term “Devar Adiyal” to corrupt into “Tevidiyar” in Tamil used as a pejorative term to mean common prostitute.

During the early post-colonial decades, India was dealing with its aftermath, poverty and strife and with the immediacy of industrial development, perhaps the national agenda didn’t see it significant to address the override of a community of women, allowing the complete dislodging of their identity. This allowed for a new class to emerge as the saviours of art, renaming it, leaving behind the practitioners to fend with social neglect and the perils of improper implementation of a social and economic reform associated with the Prevention of Dedication act, by themselves.

Is there then, an important narrative and blatant honesty hidden in Sadir that can place Bharatanatyam, finally in the right context? By accepting the failure of the elitist module of art production and consumption, can we create a constructive space for dance as a viable profession again, acknowledging the need for a dialogue with governance for sustainable revenue modules for performers? Most importantly, can’t we, sixty-odd years since India became a free country, revisit our understanding of the events and perceptions that has rendered Devadasis vulnerable? Must we not offer them their rightful place in histories as preceptors and preservers of our art as opposed to villains or victims?

A rose is a rose is a rose? Yes. But parched. Hence what is in a name? The entirety: equality, justice, dignity and hope.

The writer is a dancer, a dance historian who works on reconstruction of lost dances, histories and narratives. She is the director of Ranga Mandira School of Performing Arts and Research Academy, Chennai.

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