Criticising TM Krishna should not mean denying MS Subbulakshmi’s devadasi roots and forgetting the community's contribution to dance and music.

MS Subbulakshmi debate The baggage of devadasi identity and communal prideMS Subbulakshmi with Sadasivam. Courtesy Krishnamurthy, Ruchir Desai collection, Shravan
Voices Blog Saturday, December 02, 2017 - 09:37

TM Krishna’s recent comments on MS Subbulakshmi has led to a series of reactions from the Carnatic music and dance fraternity. The reason I write this is not to approve or disapprove of TM Krishna, but to comment on the effect those reactions have had on me, a non-Brahmin Bharathanatyam artiste who comes from the isaivellalar community and is trying to make a mark for herself in the Bharathanatyam arena.

In the wake of this controversy, we have had a battalion of artists posting “I am a proud brahmin”, with hashtags and other statuses proclaiming their pride in their community. It made me wonder if my community, the devadasi/isaivellalars, could have done something similar several decades ago. Apparently, they couldn't. They were under tremendous social oppression and feared arrest if they sang and danced, or if they proclaimed themselves for who they were. The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act and ensuing reforms wiped out a community whose women were predominantly the custodians of art, dance and music.  

Did the socio-political reform need the devadasis to stop dancing/singing? No. Reform was needed for the men to stop having polygamous relationships and marriages, and to prevent the social abuse of women. This reform could have been a universal one.

Many who have spoken to members of the devadasi/isaivellalar community after the ‘reform’ suggest that these women and men felt dispossessed, displaced, helpless and bitter. I still feel that bitterness emanating from my people at so many different levels.  The matrilineal community has long changed into one controlled by patriarchy. The nattuvanars came to the forefront and the women were banished into their households.

You may ask, why didn't they fight back? Well, some tried. Their fight was about keeping the art alive, and it is, isn't it? Only, there are not many from the community who still sing and dance. Many women had to seek safety and protection under ‘socially acceptable’, ‘respectable’ marriages, and some in education and other livelihoods. The socio-political scenario during this time and what happened to these custodians of art is one of the least addressed topics in the world of the dance and music.

After TM Krishna’s statements became the talk of the Sabha fraternity, Facebook saw several responses to it, including some #iamaproudbrahmin posts. 

One post suggested that MS Amma’s father was a brahmin, and hence, as the father's caste is the one taken into consideration, she was indeed a brahmin. (The devadasis were matrilineal and MS stands for Madurai Shanmugavadivu.)  Quite contrary to what is being written, MS Amma was not ashamed of her roots.  Also, her life and it's happenings were no big secret.  

Everyone can be proud of their community, but please don't put down another community, and that too without actually knowing its socio-political struggles. Many posts gave me the impression that the brahmins did not want MS Amma's past to be discussed, and that they would rather call her one of their own.

Some posts suggested TM Krishna had suggested that MS was a brahmin imposter - which is, again, a matter of perception. Every aspect of her personal life has been written about before, both as articles and in her biography. She wore a Madisar, and everyone knew it.

One post questioned why casteism in the music world is being raised as an issue when there are so many other important social issues. But shouldn’t the wiping out of an entire community from the arts scenario be an issue of importance? How can it be conveniently forgotten?

What was TM Krishna really asking? In my understanding, he was asking if the sabha fraternity would have been as accepting of her if she hadn't portrayed herself the way she did. 

Some responses said the arts world is indeed inclusive. But often I don't understand why this response is justified with examples from the past. 

Yes, we can all talk about Brinda and Mukta, and the legendary Balasaraswathi. But what about after MS Amma? Do we still have iconic celebrities from the isaivellalar community in the music world? Is the nadhaswaram-tavil kutcheris part of mainstream Carnatic music?  The Madras Music Academy hosted artistes from the devadasi communities like Kumbakonam Varalakshmi and Banumathi, and the legendary Balasaraswathi in the 1930s. Do we have dancers from the community representing Bharathanatyam in reputed Sabhas today?  A level playing field in the arena of classical music and dance is the need of the hour.

One need not subscribe to TM Krishna’s views, it is one's right to disagree. I myself will agree that the way the issue has been articulated is problematic and do not agree with him on several notes. But saying that he somehow ridiculed and passed denigrating comments on MS Amma and her music is barking up the wrong tree. Even if he is indeed doing this with an agenda (political or otherwise), I do think it has paved the way for dialogue and debate, which is required for the betterment of any field.

Yes, dancers and musicians need to be able to articulate on issues besides just being able to sing or dance. For those who have problems with his statements, do address them. If you feel it is Brahmin-bashing, go ahead with your criticism. But do not put down another community or section of people. 

No one has to be ashamed, but the dialogue need not take a regressive approach. Be empathetic and kind, don't make people from other sections in the art world feel cornered. We have already undergone a lot, and carry the baggage of the social oppression of our ancestors. The only way we can shed the baggage is if everyone feels welcome in the arena of the arts. 

I hope someday everyone in my community can feel the same way. I am proud of my lineage and the community I belong to. I am proud of the women who sang and danced, the men who held the cymbals (and also the few women who held the cymbals, which was against societal norms back then), and the men and women who were part of the periya melam and chinna melam. And I shall forever try and aspire to be a "nayika from the padams".

And I would like to believe that any woman who chooses to live her life on her terms, who exercises her right to choose a partner of her choice, who chooses to wear what she wants – be it the madisar or a short skirt – who propels herself in her chosen profession and surrounds herself with positive people who celebrate her and form a support system, is intelligent. That is the only way to face patriarchy and hypocrisy. We should celebrate such women.

Nrithya Pillai is a dancer from a nattuvanar/devadasi lineage.

Note: Opinions of the author are her own. 

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