A little disclaimer: I feel very frustrated by this post! I've been working on it for while and letting it ruminate (and even leaving it for a while) and I'm still not completely happy with it. This topic is so complex and I am such a beginner. Hopefully my phrasing and theories have adequately conveyed my thinking and don't offend anyone. I welcome comments; if something doesn't make sense, call me on it! :) I've decided to not delay posting on my blog any further, get the post as good as I can, and let it fly free! Read on! :)
Update: This post represents my first excursion into the subject. I've written and learned a lot since. The devadasi tag covers most of my more recent writings along with the "Remembering Film Choreographers Series" and posts on Muthuswami Pillai.
Research on the Devadasi
The discovery of these film dances reignited my interest in researching the lives and role of the South Indian Devadasi in pre-mid-Twentieth Century India. My stars, the topic is incredibly complex, fascinating, and full of diverse (and sometimes contentious) opinions and narratives. Until now my understanding of the Devadasi was clouded in mystery and I vaguely associated the term with women who danced in the temples. After reading some fascinating scholarly journal articles I found through databases like JSTOR and ProjectMuse, I've come to understand more about the historical "Devadasi."
From my research it's clear that Devadasis of the past were often highly trained in various arts and not only danced, sang, and performed in temple rituals and processions but also performed for the courts of kings, community members seeking an auspicious presence, and for private patrons. Their roles, functions, and repertoires varied greatly depending on the audience, time and region. While there were temple dancers in many different areas in India, the term “Devadasi” seems to refer mostly to the precursors of Bharatanatyam dancers who lived in the region roughly related to modern-day Tamil Nadu. These women often had more freedom then their secular counterparts and this included sexual freedom, but to elaborate on this very contentious piece of Devadasi history is beyond my research knowledge at the moment. Unfortunately, the term “Devadasi” today (and there still are living Devadasis of traditional lineage today) seems to be only synonymous with religiously-sanctioned prostitution which is a far cry from her complex role in feudal India before Independence. I was a bit nervous to write this post because the term has such a negative connotation today, but I hope my intentions are clear.
Most fascinating of all is how the dance of the Devadasis was reworked (many would say sanitized and appropriated) and renamed Bharatanatyam as part of nationalistic fervor of the period as India looked to its indigenous, ancient traditions and asserted its independence. A complete and worthy discussion of this topic would really take multiple posts and, let's face it, years of academic study (especially for a gori like me). My discussion here simply serves as a backdrop to some beautiful film dances I've discovered.
What Did the Dance of the Devadasis Look Like?
The biggest unresolved question after doing all this research has been: “what did Devadasi dance look like?” Do these film dances that I found for this post have any authentic movements?
There seems to be a general feeling when reading many writings on the history of Bharatanatyam that the Devadasi dance never quite reached the technical sophistication of today’s Bharatanatyam. The only videos of dancing from a person of Devadasi lineage I’ve been able to find are three performances of T. Balasaraswati from what looks like the 1970s; there's her Krishna Nee Begane abhinaya and a documentary clip, but I find this one below the most interesting given its clear relation to modern Bharatanatyam adavus:
I’ve read a few comments on message boards and YouTube of people who claim to have seen Devadasi dance in their lifetime (some specifically talk of seeing T. Balaraswati perform) and they talk about the lack of “clean lines” and rarity of “proper adavus” and general sloppy spontaneity.
Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life" by Douglas M. Knight. “At the turn of the twentieth century, the variety of styles and types of performance included interpretations as diverse as those of the dance form as it is presented today. […] There were dancers who maintained a standard of excellence that reflected the greatness of performance tradition had achieved. But lack of exposure to this level of artistry had eroded the critical edge from the audience, and many dancers were forced to compete by virtue of the speed of their feet, or the open coquetry of their abhinaya (expressive dance), or with their beguiling beauty.” It certainly makes sense that due to the lack of patronage (or discerning patronage) that certain parts of the dance could certainly have been lost or gone 'underground' in the early 1900s. But parts of the dance have survived to the modern day thanks to the lineages of gurus and dancers who kept the tradition alive and whom Rukmini Devi learned from as she founded Kalakshetra and was an instrumental part of the formation and acceptance of Bharatanatyam.
Differences Between Devadasi Dance and Bharatanatyam
I’ve had a lot of discussions with fellow classical-dance lover Ramesh who has seen dancers with Devadasi lineage perform in India. His response when I asked what he thought of the film dances I’ve listed below was completely fascinating to me and spurred the creation of this post- I’ll try to summarize it.
The dance of the Devadasis is like Bharatanatyam without the rules. For a visual example, compare Vyjayantimala’s dance in Chittoor Rani Padmini with Sarita/Sarala Devi's in Thyagayya:
"Devi Vithayar Bhavani" - Chittoor Rani Padmini (Tamil, 1963) - In this dance, Vyjayanthimala always reverts to statuesque poses and punctuates the transitions with some drama and many pure dance movements that substitute for emotion. She's exudes joy as she dances moves that look crisply textbook.
Tyagayya (Telugu, 1946)- In contrast, the Devadasi-like dance here has a completely different feel. Beyond the obvious difference in facial expression and smiles, the dancer performs like an expert trained in the art who internalizes the emotions and movements instead of simply adlibbing mime to the lyrics. There is a spontaneous-looking quality to it, and it comes off as less sharp and a bit raw. While Vyjayanthimala looks like an expert of a rigid form, the Devadasi looks like an expert of a tradition that encompasses her whole being- she dances with her soul.
Other Devadasi-Like Film Dances
Beyond the Tyagayya dance above, I’ve listed below all of the other classic South Indian film dances I’ve found that look like representations of what Devadasis of the past might have danced like in a particular setting.
What's really interesting about them is that in addition to the obvious differences in the dance styles, they also depart wildly from the Bharatanatyam-based film dances of the 40s and 50s in the way they are staged and filmed. Kamala's and Vyjayanthimala's dances are for the most part creative spectacles in which the dancer often gazes directly at the camera and is really dancing for us, the viewer. Artistic camera angles and edits create a polished presentation; e.g., Vyjayanthimala’s Alarippu in New Delhi or Kamala’s dance in Chori Chori. In contrast, the Devadasi-like dances here feel distinctly different. The dancer is oblivious to the camera which acts only as an impartial observer; the dancer performs not for us, the viewer, but for the patron. The existence of a clear patron (rather than a generalized and often secular or stage audience) is obviously also distinct.
In addition to the stylistic differences in filming, the dances below are all from period films set anywhere from the 1400-1800s (which saw the height of sophisticated Devadasi dance) and I would venture to guess most of the dancers are from a Devadasi lineage (I do know that Tanjavur Ranganayaki Rajayee, aka TR Rajakumari, came from Devadasi lineage in real life). For all these reasons, I feel comfortable categorizing these dances as "Devadasi-like."
Roll the dances!
Kuchipudi pioneer) according to the NFAI.
"Ee Paata Ne Padeda" – This song features the full face-framing temple jewelry with the sun and moon on each side; it's such a classic but seems to be absent from later Bharatanatyam-oriented film dances which generally simplify the headset and add all sorts of other filmy embellishments. The dancer begins with choreography very similar to the modern Alarippu. Perhaps what is most striking about this song is how the musicians all stand up so close to the dancer! The Nattuvannar (I believe) with the cymbals even walks forward to match the beat at 1:09. From what I understand this was a very common set up in the dance form until Bharatanatyam was formed in the 30s and the musicians were moved to the side and seated to give the dancer the utmost prominence. Given the sloppy execution of the choreography, I feel like this dance epitomizes the stereotyped view of the Devadasi dance. Note: There is a better quality version of this dance in a special on YouTube comparing the 1946 Tyagayya with its 1981 remake starting here; the only problem is that clip has a big logo stripe over the bottom! But perhaps most entertaining is watching the following performance of the same song in the 1981 version. Cringe worthy!
"Radhika Krishna" – When I first watched this dance I wasn't sure how to place it. It didn't seem to fit with the others due to the costume and experimental flavor of choreography. Discussion with Ramesh placed it as another style of Devadasi dance. It seems to be a nice example of how a Devadasi might have danced when she was showing off her well-honed skills and going for something really special. The performance is quite mesmerizing.
The Hindu). The dancer from everything I can gather is also the singer, M.V. Rajamma, and the choreography was done by Vedantam Raghvaiah.
“Aaparani Taapamaayera” – This dance scene is quite similar to the Tyagayya songs above. In contrast to Sarala/Sarita Devi, M.V. Rajamma looks like the epitome of gentile, sweet femininity. The choreography here seems to focus on the movements of the whole body with some beautiful aesthetic embellishments. I love how Rajamma quickly snaps into the "dancer at rest" pose when the performance is rudely interrupted!
said to have been born in 1450. The court dancer is identified as Samrajyam; choreography was done by Srinivas Kulkarni according to the NFAI.
“Idi Manchi Samayamu Raaraa” – This one has lots of lovely arm and hand work with little expressive abhinaya or adavu-like work and the audience is only the king! I find it interesting that Samrajyam half-mouths the lyrics occasionally. The all-women musician group is also a curious feature. I wonder if the dance is inspired from Vilasini Natyam, the name given to the Devadasi (Kalaavanthulu) dance from Andhra Pradesh.
The Hindu), this film starred two "firsts" in Tamil films: T.R. Rajakumari (the "first dream girl of Tamil Cinema") and M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (MKT, the "first superstar of Tamil Cinema"). MKT is quite the “Casanova” in the first half of this film and Rajakumari plays his Devadasi mistress. The film ran in theaters interrupted for two years and was an enormous hit!
“Manmathan Leelayai Vendrar Undo” - TR Rajakumari is absolutely stunning here! She exudes voluptuous eroticism and her presence completely lights up the number which sings the praises of erotic love; the title means “can the actions of the love god be overcome?”. Just watch the part starting at 3:03 and shortly after when she blows him a kiss (which according to Randor Guy was “considered revolutionary in those days!”)- mesmerizing! As I noted above, T.R. Rajakumari came from a family of Devadasis in real life which must explain her effortless performance. Unfortunately, the print seems to jumble and repeat a few shots near the beginning of the song and it's unclear whether the original film was that way or the manufacturer goofed it up.
Further Reading and Sources
Since I hardly scratched the surface of the rich research available about Devadasis, I thought I'd list some further sources for reading for those interested. All sources are available to anyone online (versus tied up in some fancy journal with specific access rights).
Given that Devadasi T Balasaraswati had a residency at Wesleyan University in the 1960s, I wasn't surprised to find that the University's Accelerated Motion site has posted some full-text journal articles about Devadasis and the history of Bharatanatyam that are fascinating. You can find them on the "Index of Resources" under Bharatanatyam here. These are some of my favorites:
- Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance
- Memory and the Recovery of Identity: Living Histories and the Kalavantulu of Coastal Andhra Pradesh
- Inscribing Practice: Reconfigurations and Textualizations of Devadasi Repertoire in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-century South India
- Bharata Natyam by T Balasaraswati
Articles in The Hindu: