Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Devadasi Video Mystery Solved! Gujarat and its Bharatanatyam Legacy

Back in July, I discussed a stunningly-rare video clip I had found at BritishPathe.com featuring two South Indian devadasis dancing some clear Sadir/Bharatanatyam along with their musical ensemble filmed allegedly between 1930 and 1935. I initially was perplexed as to why South Indian devadasis would be performing at a royal function in Baroda, a city now known as Vadodara in the northwest state of Gujarat which is over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away from Tamil Nadu state. Then I remembered a picture of two devadasis (left) who looked eerily similar from Ashish Mohan Khokar’s “Century of Indian Dance" exhibition catalog, and the picture’s description noted how Tanjore devadasis were sent to Baroda with the dowry of the Tanjore princess Chimnabai when she married the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, in 1883.  Were the dancers in that photo the same as the video?  And if so (which is a RARE FIND!), who were they?

No embedding; click image to link - Dancing begins about 8:06

The big break in figuring out their identity came when dance enthusiast Ragothaman (a contributor at the blog Bharatanatyam and the Worldwide Web) sent me some excellent material he had found that identified the dowry dancers said to be sent in the early 1880s as Gauri and Kanthimathi (also spelled other ways, Gawri, Gaura, Kantimati, etc.). The only problem was sources say Gauri was born in 1871 and Kanthimati in 1872, which would mean they were around age 60 when the video was filmed in the 1930s.  The video dancers certainly don't look 60!  Another possibility was that BritishPathe identified the video incorrectly and it was really filmed much earlier, but given the photos and dates below this is highly unlikely.  I think it's safe to say that the video dancers are not the famous Gauri and Kanthimathi. At first I was really disappointed by this news, but then a bit more logic and research revealed a fascinating history!

Gauri and Kanthimathi's Replacement Dancers

While the video dancers are not Gauri and Kanthimathi (more on them later), I'm convinced they are the court dancers who officially replaced Gauri and Kanthimathi after their retirement. There is a discrepancy among sources (Kothari, Sundaram) regarding exactly when they retired from court services, but the more plausible citation is that they served for 32 and 35 years respectively, putting their retirement date sometime in the 1910s or early 1920s. The video was filmed sometime in the 1930s, about 10-20 years after the point when Gauri and Kanthimathi retired and the new replacement dancers would have came to Baroda.  The appearance of the video dancers backs this up; I've been told they look like they are in their 30s, so rewinding 10-20 years would mean they were pre-teens or teens when they were brought to Baroda which is as expected. Their service ended in 1950 when the royal family stopped maintaining court dancers.

What truly convinced me that the video dancers were Gauri and Kanthimathi's replacements and not just random dancers were the following four photos. 

The first is the cover of the 2003 issue of Attendance: The Dance Annual of India which Ragothaman graciously alerted me to.  In correspondence with the publication's compiler/editor, Ashish Mohan Khokar (whose work I praised and admired in previous posts), Khokar revealed that the photo was gifted to him personally by the Maharaja of Baroda!  It shows the royal court dancers performing in the Darbar Hall of the Lakshmi Vilas Palace built by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III in 1890.  Though hard to see, the dancers look just like those in the video, especially in their weight and height differences.


I found the similar image below at gaekwadsofbaroda.com, a site celebrating the current/past gaekwad royal family. Crucially, it identifies the photo as "Darbar for the Presentation of Jubilee Medal at L.V. Palace 01.01.1936."  The ceremony appears to be different from the one in the photo above given the different sari designs of the (same) dancers and the position of the royalty seated at the back center.  But the date matches the general timeframe of the BritishPathe video!


But it was this picture that really confirmed the video dancers were the replacements.  The image is a color version of the black-and-white photo at the top of the post, and it is from Life magazine with the caption "Baroda Nautch Girls."  The close-ups make the identification clear.  Comparing this photo with the palace photos and the video confirms that they are all visual captures of the same women, the replacement dancers!  Most importantly and as noted in my original post, Ashish Mohan Khokar identified the black-and-white version of the photo as the devadasis brought from Tanjore to Baroda.  Given the research listed in this post and after further discussion with Khokar, we can now safely say that the women were not technically the "original" devadasis (Gauri and Kanthimathi), but their replacements.  As Khokar termed it to me, the "continuity of Kanthimathi and Gauri style."
  

Comparing the Life photo with a screenshot from the BritishPathe video

Unfortunately, the two facts that remain unknown is how the replacement dancers relate to Gauri and Kanthimathi and what their names were.  Khokar believes they would have likely been either their daughters or students.  The latter seems most likely given that Sundaram describes all of Gauri and Kanthimathi's children and none of them could have been the replacement dancers due to their gender, occupation, or date of passing.  Kothari wrote that when Gauri and Kanthimathi retired, "two more dancers came to Baroda and served there until 1950 [...] Of the two pupils of Gaura who came to Baroda, one Saraswati Kalyanaraman is at present in Bombay and conducts a dance school."  I've read that over a few times...does it imply one of the replacement dancers is Saraswati?

The Originals: Gauri and Kanthimathi
 
Marabu Thantha Manikkangal - Kanthi at 8:00
So we've identified who the dancers in the video were, but what about their predecessors, Gauri and Kanthimathi?  Researching their history has revealed some fascinating information about their dance and the legacy of Bharatanatyam in Gujarat.  A few sources have been extremely helpful in forming this post.  I am supremely grateful to Ragothaman for translating and scanning portions of the Tamil book Marabu Thantha Manikkangal (Women Who Gave the Gift of Tradition) written by B.M. Sundaram.  Sundaram gives the most detailed description available of Gauri and Kanthimathi and their dowry troupe along with two rare photographs of Gauri Kanthimathi.  It took Sundaram almost 14 years to gather the rare information for his book by traveling around Tamil Nadu, and he had previously written two similar books about "the talented nattuvanars of yore" and "nagaswaram and tavil vidwans" (The Hindu).  Clearly he has compiled some invaluable information!  A few other sources were useful for cross-referencing Sundaram's information, namely Sunil Kothari's Bharatanatyam: Indian Classical Dance Art, Sapna Rangaswamy's "Artistes at the Royal Darbaar" article at Narthaki.com, and Davesh Soneji's Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India (which I previously wrote glowingly about).  For details on the Maharaja and Baroda political life, Fatesinghrao Gaekwad's Sayajirao of Baroda: The Prince and the Man is fairly helpful (and downloadable for free).

Gauri and Kanthimathi's Troupe and Dance

The alliance between the royal families of Tanjore and Baroda happened when the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III married Chimnabai I of Tanjore in December 1880/January 1881 and was officially invested with power in December 1881, though his powers were curbed until 1883 (Gaekwad). As part of the wedding dowry, a troupe of temple dancers and musicians were sent to Baroda. It was the first time a southern dance troupe had settled in the north.  The ensemble comprised of the temple devadasis from Tanjore/Kumbakonam, Gauri, Sarada, and Kamu; nattuvanars Kannuswamy (Pillai) Nattuvanar and Kuppuswamy Nattuvanar; and the following musicians: Muthukrishnan (Nagaswaram), Karandai Ratnam Pillai (Thavil), Ramaswamy (Otthu drone), and Vadivelu Pillai, Sabapathi, and Subramaniam (Mridangam). Sarada and Kamu were soon replaced by Nagaratnam and finally by Gauri's cousin Kanthimathi in 1891.

Sundaram and Kersemboom give some delightful details of the lives and dances of Gauri and Kanthimathi. Maharaja Sayajirao had instituted a "Kalavant Khatha," the State Department of Artists, that employed and managed the performers.  Gauri and Kanthimathi, who were responsible for their troupe and appearance, were together paid 433 rupees every month (while the nattuvanar, mridangist, and thuthikarar collectively got only 282 rupees).  They performed twice a week for the Maharaja Sayajirao after he finished his dinner.  Sayajirao, who did not know Tamil or Telugu, was known to say “I do not need to understand the language as the message of the lyrics is shown through abhinaya.” Gauri and Kanthimathi choreographed five new dances for the king, mostly in Hindi, using the mudras and adavus from Bharatanatyam along with other creative movements as they each enacted various scenarios:
  • Radha Krishna dance 
  • Kite flying dance “Laal Patang Ki Jarthu” – A kite in flight is nearly thwarted before the two make peace 
  • Scorpion dance “Kaajupakari” – After fainting from a scorpion sting, a friend tries to gather herbs to save her life 
  • Madhumatta dance “Door Sakshagir” – An alcoholic Muslim man tries to tempt his Hindu Brahmin wife with a drink 
  • Snake dance “Naadar Mudimelirrukum” 

The book features the following two rare pictures of Kanthimathi in her older years, the first of which is also found on the cover:

A Picture of the Original Dowry Troupe... Could it Be?

While browsing the Bharatanatyam module on Wesleyan University's Accelerated Motion website, I saw the iconic image below that had been featured as part of Ashish Mohan Khokar’s Century of Indian Dance exhibition artwork/poster. When I clicked on the image, the popout description read: "The melam or troupe of Kannuswami Nattuvanar (1864-1923) in Baroda. Kannuswami Nattuvanar of Thanjavur with two devadasi dancers and musicians [...] The image was taken at the turn of the century when Kannuswami Nattuvanar was invited to perform at the court of the Gaekwad princes of Baroda in northern India."


Did you catch that? The nattuvanar standing in the center is Kannuswami (Pillai) Nattuvanar, who we know from the sources above was one of the two nattuvanars who came to Baroda with Chimnabai’s dowry!  This is a picture of him!  But that's not all!  He has quite a pedigree and would have brought his expertise to Baroda.  He was a direct descendent (grandson) of Sivanandam from the famous Tanjore Quartet who codified the modern Bharatanatyam format, he passed along his knowledge of nattuvangam to Kandappa Pillai (his nephew, the first guru of the famous devadasi Balasaraswati), and his grandson Kittappa Pillai was a guru to many modern artists. This chart from Sunil Kothari's book outlines Kannuswami's Tanjore Quartet lineage visually, though not everyone could be listed due to space:


I don’t think the troupe picture was taken at the “turn of the century,” especially since Sundaram notes that Kannuswamy Nattuvanar returned to Thanjavur in 1893 and was replaced in Baroda by his nattuvanagam responsibilities were taken over by Vadivelu in Baroda. I think the picture was taken in the early 1880s, when the troupe went to Baroda! If that's true, then it is highly likely that the devadasi dancers in the picture are either the originals, Gauri and Sarada, or perhaps later with Gauri and Kanthimathi!  Could it be?  Their age appearances seem to match this theory.  In 1881 when the troupe came to Baroda, Kannuswami would have been 17 (born 1864) and Gauri would have been 10 (born 1871); Gauri looks a few years older than 10, so perhaps the picture was taken a few years later?  To be fair, it’s also possible the picture could be of a troupe of Kannuswami’s photographed while he was in Thanjavur after 1893, but since the description of the picture notes it was taken when he was invited to perform at Baroda, I think it’s the dowry troupe!

Gauri and Kanthimathi's Legacy

What's fascinating about Gauri and Kanthimathi is that they were not just two devadasis who came to a different region, danced in the court, and faded away.  They, along with the other artists who surrounded them in Baroda, brought Sadir/Bharatanatyam to the region and through their descendents and royal patronage, the dance form survived and still lives and breathes in Gujarat today.  The patronage and attention Maharaja Sayajirao gave to the performing arts were critical in maintaining an artistic bent in Baroda.  His court, starting with Gauri and Kanthimathi and troupe, maintained a number of artistes which by 1916 had risen to forty-eight (Gaekwad). Soon after he came into power in the 1880s, he had laid the foundation for the first music college in India, Gayan Shala.  The Music Conference in Baroda he began also featured musicians, dancers, and other performing artists and drew visitors from all parts of India. (Gaekwad).  While important in maintaining support for dance and music in Baroda, Sayajirao's influence "remained largely confined" to the court and festivals (Thakkar).

It wasn't until the dance "reformist and revivalist movement" starting in the 1930s that greater awareness and respectability came to Bharatanatyam (and other dance forms) and it was placed "on the larger national agenda" as an important piece in the revival of India's "cultural heritage." (Thakkar).  In the 1950s, after India became independent and arts patronage shifted to state institutions, the Maharaja Sayajirao University (referred to as M.S. University or MSU) was formed (from funds established by the late Sayajirao himself) and among its offerings were programs in music and dance, including Bharatanatyam.  Thakkar notes that these programs were the first of their kind in India and "soon began to draw enthusiastic response from students not only from Gujarat but from all over the country.  Tamilnadu's Bharatanatyam thus took deep root in the common cultural consciousness of Gujarat."

The traditional community was an important part of the continuity of the art form and its newfound awareness and popularity.  Kanthimathi's son Kubernath Tanjorekar, who learned the dance from her and later learned nattuvangam from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai (Kothari), began teaching more widely as dance gained more respectability.  He was employed as the nattuvanar in the Baroda court from 1948-1950 and then invited to be a professor of dance at MSU (Tanjore...). 

But it was the new, non-traditional entrants into the dance form who perhaps had the most influence through their work at MSU in its founding years.  Anjali Hora Medh, the first Gujarati dancer to learn Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra and bring it back to Gujarat, was employed as a visiting dance professor at MSU. (Thakkar)  Joining her was Mohan Khokar (Ashish Mohan Khokar's father!), who had also studied at Kalakshetra, who not only taught dance but also helped form the curriculum and soon became the head of the dance department (Khokar).  Around this time and a couple hours away in Ahmedabad, Mrinalini Sarabhai began her Darpana Academy of the Performing Arts.  I was surprised to learn that well-known Bharatanatyam artist CV Chandrasekhar, also a Kalakshetra graduate, took over as head of the dance department in 1980 (Khokar).

Sayajirao and his influence are not forgotten.  This year, MSU's Faculty of Performing Arts are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the establishment of their division by Sayajirao in 1886.  The royal family is also celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Sayajirao (born 1863).  And Bharatanatyam itself is today "the single most popular dance form for Gujarati girls to learn and perform" (Thakkar).  This trajectory can be tracked back to Gauri and Kanthimathi and the Maharaja who gave them patronage.  Today, "one can still see [Gauri's] statue Tanjore Nautch Girl and the sculpture of her head installed in Fatehsinhrao Museum" at the Laxmi Vilas Palace (Chaturvedi).

Revisiting the Video Itself

I've enjoyed repeatedly watching the BritishPathe video for its historical value.  There are a couple things I didn't touch on much in my initial post.

First, the visual record of how a pre-revival Bharatanatyam musical ensemble might have looked like is fascinating.  From left to right, the musicians appear to be a drummer (mridangam?), second nattuvanar, harmonium, lead nattuvanar, and a type of bellows possibly called tutti.  Can you imagine how different from today the music must have sounded like!  There are many references to "bagpipes" or "bellows" being used as a drone pitch in pre-revival Bharatanatyam.  Soneji provides a picture of a tutti that was "exclusively used to accompany devadasi dance in the Pudukkottai region." Even Balasaraswati's arangetram in 1925 featured a "basic drone pitch that was made with a small bagpipe called tutti" (Knight). During the reconstruction of Bharatanatyam, many changes to the dance form were made including altering the type of instruments used. 




Second, I love how the video humanizes the artists.  There are lots of small humorous moments in the dancers' performance: teetering and almost losing balance as one enters the stage, squinting against the bright sunlight, and throwing their fabric piece over the harmonium when finished with it! 

What a discovery this has been!  What luck to come across a video that has such a rich history and provides such astounding historical value.

Sources:

17 comments:

  1. Amazing scholarship and insight. I hope you're getting plenty of recognition for this work. Fascinating and wonderful rediscovery of so nearly-lost history of something so very important on many levels.

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  2. My goodness what a WONDERFUL site is this - I am so happy to have stumbled upon it. One can learn so much from it in the most pleasing way. A big THANK YOU!

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  3. This is an amazing blog post and I am so glad you wrote it. I saw this footage some time ago and have been looking for it ever since. In general I really love your blog!

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  4. mrinalini sarabhai, who is another entirely fascinating case study, was trained in bn by meenakshisundaram pillai in the 1930's... coincidentally also when rukmini devi learnt her dance from him. ( both of them started learning bn in their adulthood) . Im not sure when she shifted to gujarat but she seems to have married vikram sarabhai in the 40's. im sure the darpana school was established after this. Gujarat seems to have developed quite the dance rivalary at least as far as bharatanatyam goes!

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  5. Just for a laugh, I came across a video on youtube tonight that is not India, but Hollywood, that is very entertaining, I wish I had the energy to follow it up, Title of Video is: Bali Boogie - Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in Wonder Man (1945)
    Sorry, that is limit of my skills, copy and paste.
    Great post on your part. I am ready to crash from trying to move to new residence after 20 years so wasn't able to give it the attention I would have. But now I know where you are at, thank god.

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  6. rameshram - Thanks for the info, yes, BN did have quite a rivalry in Gujarat! Darpana's blog says the Academy was established in 1949 by Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai, so she must have been married before that time.
    Chrism929 – Thanks Christine! I’ve sent my post information to some dance folks in Vadodara and they said they might have some more information in the future - I hope it bears fruit!!
    Dora – Hello! Thank you for your comment. :)
    Bollynatyam– Thank you. Wow, so you had seen that footage before? Was it part of a documentary or news broadcast or something like that? I'm very curious. It’s so wonderful that BritishPathe has finally placed their videos online for free viewing, otherwise most of us would never get to see gems like this.
    Nivedita – Indeed! I’m very happy to see the positive response the post is getting. :)
    NadineisthatU - Wow, that "Bali Boogie" number is great! Looks a lot like the style of Jack Cole in places- certainly the choreographer (IMDB says it's John Wray) must have been inspired by Cole, especially in that forward-moving foot shimmy, with lots of other southeast-asian dance inspirations in the costumes and many of the other movements. Great! Thanks for sharing.

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  7. i am amazed to see that one could bring out her story in such aesthetic way on the blog. It is revisiting the history in your perspective.
    Enriching..
    Lata P.M.

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  8. niruti - Thank you I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think by her you meant "them," both Gauri and Kantimati. :)

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  9. Thank you for the fascinating information.

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  10. Hi Minai Minai, You have certainly brought light to our family, I am the 4th generation Tanjorkar. Kanthimanthi amma is my great grand parent. Are you still researching on this? Should you need more information, please feel free to contact me. You probably have missed some points like Kanthimanti amma had one more son called Janardhan who is Kubernath Tanjorkar's elder brother and a lot more stories to add..
    email: madhutanjorkar@gmail.com

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    1. Hello Dr. Madhu! We've already begun corresponding through email, but I wanted to thank you again here for your comment! How wonderful that you are related to Kathimathi amma and have more information to share! It's moments like this that I always hope for in blogging about rather obscure topics. More coming in email. :D

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    2. Sir T Madhava Rao is supposed to have taken a Mahratta princess from Thanjavoor to Baroda to be married to the Gaekwar of Baroda. I wonder if anyone can help in establishing if this princess is Chimnabai. I am distantly related to Sir T Madhava Rao, Dewan of Travancore and Baroda through his cousin Dewan Bahadur Roobgunde Raghunatha Rao of revered memory.

      N S Rao

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    3. Hello N S Rao, I'm quite positive the princess in your description was Chimnabai. Davesh Soneji in his book Unfinished Gestures writes of Sayajirao, "In 1880, he married a woman named Rani Chimnabai (1864-1884), the daughter of a Maratha noble from Tanjore." Some of the books linked at the end of my post above have more information on Madhava Rao and his role in Sayajirao's life. Good luck in your search for more information.

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    4. N S Rao, Good news! In looking at this further, I found information that proves that T Madhava Rao was instrumental in the selection of Chimnabai to be married to Gaekwar Sayajirao. T Madhava Rao is mentioned quite often (as Madhav Rao) in the "Prince and the Man" book which you can read online here: http://www.gaekwadsofbaroda.com/Books-Archives/
      The book discusses Madhav starting on page 49 and notes he was responsible as the "interim Dewan" of Baroda of sorts in turning Baroda around and leading it before Sayajirao was given power, and Madhav was a big part of setting up Sayajirao's education to prepare him to ascend the throne. Starting on page 74, the book talks about how T Madhav Rao was appointed by Maharani Jamnabai as an "emissary" to select a bride for Sayajirao, and that Madhav "not only played a leading role in finding a bride but, characteristically, might have subtly influenced the final choice as well." Madhav finally "found the long-wished for lady from a princely house of his own native Tanjore." "Her name was Lakshmibai..." "It might be pardonable to wonder if this was not what Madhav Rao had been trying to bring off from the word go, and the reason behind his summary rejection of all the girls who had been shown to him at Poona and elsewhere. A native of Tanjore, he was deeply attached to his birthplace and, indeed the initial T in his name stood for Tanjore, his full name being Tanjore Madhav Rao. If Baroda had looked upon him as an outsider, could this have been his way of getting his own back on Baroda by foisting on its people a Maharani who was equally an outsider?" The wedding was held in 1881. "According to family custom, the bride was given a new name, Chimnabai."

      So there is the information you were looking for! Whether or not Madhav/a actually physically helped transport Chimnabai is unclear, but he was certainly behind her selection. Enjoy reading through the book--it has a lot of information on Madhav and his style.

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