Devadasi-Like Dances in Classic South Indian Films

Sunday, October 2, 2011
While browsing the website of the National Film Archive of India, I was excited to find that films in the catalog (which can be found through the search) have an extensive cast and crew list that in many cases identifies the choreographer!  [Update: This information no longer appears to be part of the search results that I could see.] The archives have quite a few South Indian titles back to the early 1930s and the majority of them have a choreographer identified, amazingly.  Armed with this information, I did some web searching and found that quite a few dances from 1940s South Indian films immediately struck me as looking like Devadasi dances.

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 have since learned a lot and refined my understanding of this sensitive and contentious topic.  Some of the information I include is not necessarily correct or not nuanced enough, based on sources I have read since publishing this post.  The history of what we today call Bharatanatyam is very complex and still being fully recovered, and my simplistic presentation of a dichotomy of "devadasi" dance and "modern bharatanatyam" is at best simplistic and at worst incorrect.  In hindsight, what I am observing in this post is that these film dances are all from the 1940s and have a different look and feel than those in the 50s and 60s, which speaks to the evolution of "classical" dance and politics at that time and its reflection in cinema.  I keep this post up unedited, as a record of my understanding at that time and the information and conversations I had at that time.  

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.

Yet, digging a bit deeper one finds writings like this passage in the book "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 [Update: Sadly, Ramesh passed away due to health problems in 2013].  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!

Tyagayya (Telugu, 1946) – This film was based on the life of Tyagaraja, an 18th century Telugu poet-saint who was one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music.  Tyagaraja’s character in the film apparently rejects invitations from the Maharaja Serfoji of Thanjavur. Given that the Thanjavur Court during this time offered rich patronage to Devadasis, it seems likely that the dances in the film were meant to take place there.  All of the songs in the film were compositions of Tyagaraja.  The dancer is identified as Sarita Devi or Sarala Devi depending where you look; the choreographer is listed as Vedantam Raghavaiah (a 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 [Update: Video no longer available online]; 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.

Yogi Vemana (Telugu, 1947) – This film was based on the life of Telugu poet-saint Vemana (popularly called ‘Yogi Vemana’) who is “variously ascribed to the 15th or 17th century” and was “to the Telugus what Thiruvalluvar was to Tamils" (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!

Bhakta Pothana (Telugu, 1942) – This film is based on the life of the Telugu poet Bammera Potana who is 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.

Haridas (Tamil, 1944) – A “folk myth about a sinner-turned saint” (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: [Update: Unfortunately their document links are now broken]
  • 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
"Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life" by Douglas M. Knight - You can preview many of the pages (enough to have some good reading) on Google Books here.

Articles in The Hindu:


  1. Thank you for this beautifull videos! A very hard reserch, i guess...So thanks again.

  2. You have beautiful blog here. We keep visiting your site almost every week to read your wonderfully researched posts.

  3. Everyone,

    Please read through the links at the bottom of the article completely! they are rather good.

  4. Another superb post, Minai. These '40s South Indian dance clips are fantastic; once again, I don't know how you manage to find the things that you find.

    Your analysis of the differences between Devadasi dances and Bharatanatyam dancing is also very interesting and well articulated. I was wondering, though, why you didn't refer to the term "Sadir," which I have always seen as the name of the dance of the Devadasis that was more or less rehabilitated into Bharatanatyam. Are these Devadasi dances "Sadir"?

  5. Richard,

    If I can take that one (we discussed this post a lot) Minai was of the opinion that since she was coming at this from the point of view of a gori who liked to WATCH dances, and not at all as a researcher who knew the inner workings of the system(or even as someone that had actually seen sadir or other devadasi dance traditions, ) it felt wrong to her to categorize her "finds as anything more than as "devadasi like" dancing.

    This was mostly because SHE hadn't actually seen a sadir performance, and was only guessing that the clips were similar. Also only some of the clips can be truly categorized as sadir, although I would gues most of them are devadasis dancing.

  6. and My personal opinion(the first link Minai posted discusses this area in detail too, ) is that by calling the dance of the devadasi tradition "sadir" (or "sadir attam") one would make the mistake of thinking that the dance form /tradition was somehow different than or distinct from Bharatanatyam, which it is not at all.

    If we called something "sadir", it is only a precussor of/ something bharatnatyam was an offshoot of. The dance of the devadasis either evolved into (or was appropriated by the people that created ) Bharatanatyam.

    The actual court dance (which was popularly referred to as sadir) had elements of what people would now recognize as Bharatnatyam, kuchipudi and Kathak. (the Thyagayya dance "Radhika Krishna" would be a good representation of this)

  7. Thanks for the explanations, Ramesh; I meant to get back to this sooner...

    Your explanation of Minai's reasoning makes some sense, though given that she was so good at pointing out the ways that the Devadasi dance differed from Bharatanatyam (especially in cinema - re. camera angles, etc.), I got the impression that she had already learned more through research than this gora who watches dances. :)

    Regarding your second explanation, it's leaving me a bit confused. If something evolves into something else, isn't the first species still distinctly different from the second?

    Well, anyway, I imagine it will help to read that link...but I think my eyes are going to be moving a bit slowly through that, so it might take me another while to get back here and comment further. :)

  8. "If something evolves into something else, isn't the first species still distinctly different from the second?"

    yes it is. (and hence minai's post , I guess) My explanation was more about how there isn't a surviving "sadir" tradition that looks(or is) very distinct from "Bharatanatyam" of today.

  9. daria - Thank you! It is a hard research topic- so complex!

    Anon - Your comment means so much to me; thank you for letting me
    know you appreciate my posts and my research attempts. :)

    rameshram - Thanks for all the discussion regarding this post! Very interesting that you say the Radhika Krishna dance, like the court dance, had elements of BN, Kuchipudi, Kathak, etc. Certainly things were lost over time, it seems.

    Richard - That's a good question regarding my nonusage of the term "Sadir." Ramesh's assessment of why is correct in spirit. What I found when researching this topic is that most "facts" about the dance and its history are hotly debated, and so I often feel like I’m walking on eggshells regarding what term to use. To avoid any issues I just refer to the dances as “Devadasi-like.” The term "Sadir" itself is interesting because the names "Sadir" and "Bharatanatyam" (BN) are apparently modern constructions. The best way I can make sense of it is to pay attention to the analysis of the time period BN arose from. Here is my very awkward-sounding summary of everything I’ve read from scholarly articles (which forces me to try to articulate the subject I was avoiding in my post through basic allusion :) ):

    BN’s codification happened during the time of Indian nationalism and the fight for independence influenced by the British occupation, Victorian morals, and ideas of European Orientalism (of an eternal, exoticised orient with ancient practices). It seems that the creation of BN was more about constructing an “unbroken” dance tradition that is said to have originated from ancient Vedic times (sourced from writings like the Natyashastra) which gave it an elevated status and reflected greater ideas about constructing a common national Indian identity and heritage. Pre-BN dance really isn’t one monolithic art form with little change throughout time. Even the Thanjavur Court which codified the concert format used today lived in an area said to be heavily influenced by different indigenous regional traditions of India (not all Vedic/Sanskrit of origin) and European influence from the British.

  10. continued...

    Women, and Devadasi dance, got caught up in the time period as Indian womanhood was constructed as a symbol of tradition. The Devadasis were corrupt and sinful, but their artistic work was full of ancient Hindu spirituality that needed to be rescued (even though every aspect of Devadasi history is a legitimate part of India’s varied and multi-regional history.) The regional dance styles were appropriated by upper-caste Brahmin women, codified, and given classical authority. They were now called Bharatanatyam, and their "predecessor" was given the name "Sadir," even though it was referred to by many different names throughout history and was essentially the same basic dance. Separating the names was intentional. In one fell swoop, the history of Devadasis and all the regional variations were erased. BN was the true ancient dance form now, and “Sadir” had a connotation of being lesser. The dance was now placed on a performing stage (away from the temple) and dancers had to create a spiritual atmosphere with deity figurines and such.

    So basically, the commonly-heard “line” that "BN is 2000+ years old and the Devadasis practiced a corrupt form called Sadir" is obviously much more complex. Rukmini Devi, after all, learned and taught the art form from Devadasis and their teachers who were from the traditional community of lineage. She learned straight Devadasi dance or what remnants of it were still practiced at that time, and then from what I understand removed what she felt was the erotic lyrics and hand gestures and made other minor style alterations (this is what I’m still not clear on). It seems that what makes BN and pre-BN/Sadir/etc different is simply a matter of emphasis, so can the two really be considered different, can one be considered evolved into the other? A lot of the differences stem from the setting, lyrical content, spontaneity and sophistication of dancer's ability, etc., rather than the actual dance movements.

    It seems pre-BN dance was a rich tradition of multi-faceted performers, whereas BN is practically the same dance but called BN because it’s removed from the traditional background and the dancers have a different profile of skills. Some feel that especially-beautiful elements and skills were lost in the transition to BN. What’s interesting is that one of the articles I read said that the Nattuvannar musicians/teachers who trained Devadasi dancers also came from a traditional lineage (in Tamil Nadu called Isai Velalar), but somehow they were able to continue practicing their learned music tradition beyond the 1930s without people associating it with “corrupt Devadasis” or seeing it as contaminated (MS Subbulakshmi was from this community). Their art form was not suddenly given two different names and cleaned up!

    Whew! There is my long and hopefully not-too-confusing response. Any corrections Ramesh? :) There’s just so much to talk about with this topic! I’ve left out so much, but I will end there. :)

  11. Minai,

    Thats well researched and mostly accurate. just a small point or two may make it clearer..

    1. The "isai Velalar" are the same community as the "devadasi". The instructors were the velalars, the practitioners were the devadasis.

    2. Rukmani devi has been given a lot of credit for "reorienting" the dance into a "bhakti " oriented dance, and while she did take ownership of the art form like no "upper caste" woman ever did before, her choices and changes were more in the spirit of the easy sense of entitlement a typical upper caste woman would treat a lower caste teacher, rather than someone trying to appropriate and high-jack the art form. What changed the content in "bharata natyam" was the fact that a lot of upper caste women, with their sensibilities, upbringing and (victorian) morals started dancing, and the "velalars" with their keen sense of survival, decided that the artform should change to suit the tastes of changed social milleu. Thus, when the "codification" happened, it was tantamount to a complete upper caste highjack. You have never more effectively defeated a people as when THEY feel the cringe of self debasement(as the "devadasi" community seemed to feel, in the reformist atmosphere of the 1940's/50's, about it's traditions).

    So people were right when they say they saved the artform from its destruction, without quite realizing that it was their holy sanctimony that was responsible, in part for this destruction.

  12. rameshram - excellent, excellent clarification. In fact, you've finally closed a "gap" in my understanding of the history of the dance. I had wondered how traditional teachers like Baby Kamala's guru had taught the updated version of BN even though they weren't connected to Rukmini Devi's school and tradition. Your mention of the teachers adapting their methods to "survive" the commonly-held attitudes of times, regardless of where they lived, makes perfect sense. It also gives the community a more active role in the process, as a lot of what I've been reading made the traditional community seem passive throughout the period of social upheaval. Certainly the new, upper class students had only one source to learn from- the traditional community! Your last two sentences are especially powerful regarding how the community internalized the negative opinions held about their art and the irony of the "rehabilitation" and "saving" of the artform.

    I also like that you've provided a fair view of Rukmini Devi. A few sources seem to demonize her quite explicity, but she was clearly a product of the times (and her personal life had some very interesting influences).

  13. There are some comments and discussion on devadasi dances and bharatanatyam in Amanda Weidman's "Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern:". For example, on page 306:
    "Allen...O'Shea provide more detailed ways dance performance became nationalized and 'sanitized". The conflict between the earlier styles practiced by those from devadasi community and the reinvented Bharata Natyam popularized by Rukmini Devi was framed by Devi as a conflict between expressing sringara (erotic sentiment) and expressing bhakti (devotion), two modes which she considered irreconcilable.. Tanjore Balasaraswati, who came from a family of devadasis and was a contemporary of Rukmini Devi would later insist that sringara and bhakti were one and the same."

  14. gaddeswarup - Hello! That book looks very intriguing (rest of the title is 'Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India')- thank you for providing a passage. I didn't touch much on the T Balasaraswati/Rukmini Devi issue in my post, but the little I've read of the two women's thoughts about each other and the dance form are very enlightening and frame the "sanitization" aspect well. I would be very interested to know if that book contrasts how music survived the social changes in India differently than dance did.

  15. I really do not know. Though I was fond of film songs and some of the dances, I could not stand carnatic music or bharatanatyam as a kid. Then I took to mathematics and now in reirement some of those, even the ones I did not like stir some memories. I was curious when I saw Amanda Weidman's book and read it. I posted some links in my blog:
    But I really do not know about these topics; I just seem to enjoy filmi stuff from anywhere.

  16. About the question "I would be very interested to know if that book contrasts how music survived the social changes in India differently than dance did.", there is some discussion in a paper by Stephen Putnam Hughes

  17. hey minai

    just stumbled upon this:

  18. you might find this one interesting too.

  19. gaddeswarup - Thanks for the article link- I love finding scholarly articles posted online. This one looks quite interesting. :)

    cram - That video was nice. Interesting angle about western Krishna followers and how they view "devadasis" and the dance form. I really liked the footage of the Odissi dancers and "real devadasis" (even saw some Kelucharan Mohapatra footage!), and the white chicks' Bharatanatyam was actually quite decent, I was impressed (usually I cringe at these kinds of performances).

    That paramparai link needs to hire a new webmaster! ;) Interesting concept by a westerner, from what I could see. Thanks as always for sharing!

  20. Just noticed another about the Telugu tradition:
    apparently, there are attempts to revive the tradition under the name 'kalavati natyam'. I am not really in to the topic but was fascinated by a dance from an old Pakistani film:
    and started googling about the origins of some of these dances.

  21. Oops. It should be 'vilasini natyam'.

  22. gaddeswarup - That's a great dance number from that Pakistani film! Love the Kathak influences. Really, really nice- thank you for sharing it. Making it part of my collection now. :)

    And also thank you for that Vilasini Natyam PDF! I hadn't been able to find much info about that revival; I had mentioned Vilasini Natyam and gave a link to a The Hindu article on the Bhakta Pothana song, but I'm happy to find more information on the subject. Thanks again.

  23. MinaiMinai,
    Thank you for a wonderful blog which I found only recently during asecond round of flu during which I could do nothing but listen to songs or watch dances on YouTube. I think that the blog addresses some questions which I have been wondering without any expertise, about what is 'natural'and 'formal' about these art forms and how common people reacted to these. Amamda Weidman addresses some of these questions in her book but she does not say much about the role of the cinema. Brian Larkin has a book "Signal And Noise" which looks at the popularity if Bollywood in Nigeria. Perhaps cinema acted as a great equalizer because of the money at the bottom of the pyramid. But I like discussions in blogs like these without too much academic trappings, accessible and with lots of videos illustrating some of these points. I like reading stuff which has something to do with ordinary people and how they react to and patronize various activities and also things which I enjoy ( I had some exposure before 1954; my mother used to practice carnatic music and also trained school students in dances for the school anniversary functions and also often sang film songs of various languages).
    I gave some links to vilasini natyam in my blog
    and will try to find out more when I visit Hyderabad next.
    Good luck with your research and thanks for a wonderful blog.

  24. Thanks gaddeswarup - That's what I hope my blog to be, a place where people can actually see videos of these dances instead of just words on a page- a "video" speaks a thousand words! :) Regarding your questions about common reactions to dance and film's role in it, you might find it interesting to read about Baby Kamala (Kumari Kamala/Kamala Lakshman) and her effect on the popular reception of classical dance. There are some great articles about her that I posted in the beginning of this post:

    It's all such a fascinating subject. Thanks for the appreciation for my blog, all the best. ~Minai

  25. My understanding is that sadir becoming more geometric, stylized etc was the stylistic influence of Meenakshisundaram Pillai.

  26. Hi Minai,

    Came across your blog while searching for something else. I cringed when I read the sentences "The dance of the Devadasis is like Bharatanatyam without the rules." and "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." But, I am not going to draw swords here. The only comforting sentence is "the Devadasi looks like an expert of a tradition that encompasses her whole being- she dances with her soul".

    In any case, the first two quoted sentences are not correct. Saying that they had sloppy movements and not rule-following is again not true. The current devadasis and those who lived centuries ago did follow rules and strict grammar established by their nattuvanars. It would seem that they lacked aesthetic sense and danced as per their will. I think all these conclusions are based on available clippings in the public domain. Our brains are so conditioned with the current form of Bharatanatyam that anything different seems sloppy. But, that's not the case.

    I beg you to kindly read the book "Nithyasumangali: devadasi tradition in South india"
    Their duty in life was three-pronged: to serve the temple by being associated with the ritual of Shodashopachara (16 types of offering/worship); to serve the society in practicing the art forms of music and dance and pass it to future generations; and serve the king. One should also remember that currently the term devadasi invokes a "romantic" view of a woman who dedicated her entire life to god and the king. But the real truth was different. Not all devadasis performed these three duties with passion, purity and dedication that was needed. Some took it as a profession, had a 9-5 job attitude towards the art form and societal roles. It was probably due this difference in attitude that lead to their "corruption".

    I am not an advocate of the devadasis/devadasi system neither am I saying that the current styles are the "perfect" ones. There has been a constant evolution in the dance form of Bharatnatyam. Thats why it is one of the living art form. Even the revived style has also changed in the last 50 years. Infact, pupils of one tradition went to make different styles that are seen today. See the dance of Radha Brunnier in "The River". Compare it with current Kalakshetra style.The dancer was one of the first students of Rukmini Devi. So, can we call her dance as Devadasi-like? Possibly yes-since it looks a bit sloppy as compared to others, possibly no-since that was possibly the revived form.

    Coming back to the main question you have asked: "What did the devadasi dance look like?" Trust me, every dancer who learns Bharatnatyam and then slowly discovers its past (even if some are exaggerated claims) this is THE question that comes to mind. Unfortunately the lack of documentation in Indian classical dance has lead to extrapolation of the possible answer. In this respect, I congratulate you on posting this blog with numerous videos. However, saying that these videos represent THE devadasi style of dancing (except for Balasaraswati's) is something that I am unable to buy. The influence of the director and another choreographer played an important role in these videos. But, the positioning of the accompanying artists with respect to the dancer, in the videos are accurate in depicting the sadir form.

  27. Hi Ragothaman,

    Im not sure Minai claimed anywhere here that the posted clips was **The** devadasi dancing style. She just drew some reasonable conclusions on the basis of the historical authenticity of the material that these women dancing were probably devadasis dancing in film, and doing so without any additional preparation...and thus these films were an authentic window into history of a time when Bharatanatyam was not yet.

    I, personally, also think these clips are representative of *a* set of devadasi dances from tamil nadu (and will not use the word sadir for them) even if it's my opinion that it is impossible to get definitive about a "style", unless the said definition, in part includes some bharatanatyam styles.

  28. the last comment from Rameshram

  29. Hi Rameshram,

    Point taken and agreed that Minai never said anywhere that these were "The" dances.

    Still, the post and the sentences I quoted are misleading enough to a reader to come to a conclusion, which is not correct in the first place.

    It is not fair to make such sweeping generalizations. Again, due to our current pre-conditioned mind their dances would look sloppy.

    I do not buy the point by you that they performed in the movies without additional preparation. Also, I did not understand what you meant by "these films were an authentic window into history of a time when Bharatanatyam was not yet."

    My two cents, anyway!!!

  30. ragothaman - Hello! In reading your comment, it appears that you honed in on the two sentences you quoted without reading the rest of my post. That stunts any potential dialogue quite a bit, but I'll go ahead and respond. I never say in the post that devadasi dance = sloppy dance, and I even note this stereotype in the description of the "Ea Paata Ne Padeda" song. The quote regarding the "general feeling" is exactly that- a statement regarding what the majority of people today seem to say about devadasi dance. I then go on to discuss why a perceived erosion of technique may have happened and hint that given how the dance survived it's likely that the good technique simply went underground (otherwise how could it have survived through nattuvannars to Rukmini Devi!).

    The other quote regarding "the rules" is followed by a detailed description above each video of what that means as the theory of the post. Vyjayanthimala dances very "rule-bound," "textbook," and with less emphasis on emotion. The "Devadasi-like" dancer dances not strictly-by-the-book but as one who has internalized the form completely (beyond rules) and emphasizes the emotions. This does not mean she dances without "rules," but rather that devadasis it seems did not follow the extremely codified, crisp, (some would argue sterile) "rules" that make up standardized Bharatanatyam today. What I tried to communicate in the post, in its entirety, is that it is this lack of formal "rules" that makes the devadasi-like dances in a way more interesting and real...and something to be mourned, perhaps. You are correct, as Rameshram noted, that I did not say that the dances were true devadasi dances- I address this multiple times in the entirety of the post. Last, thank you for that book link! It looks lovely, I will definitely check it out.

    c/rameshram - Problems with the comment box eh? Blogger is driving me crazy lately! Hopefully they will get the comments snafoo all ironed out. I do hope sometime you expound upon all the different types of dances you believe devadasis might have performed, beyond the obvious. :)

  31. "It is not fair to make such sweeping generalizations. "

    she didn't.

    "I do not buy the point by you that they performed in the movies without additional preparation."

    Oh I think this is the case. I think the party just showed up in the studio, and they pointed a camera at it and shot the dance. there was no "dance master" teaching anybody steps or "music director" composing music.

    which is why I think

    "these films were an authentic window into history of a time when Bharatanatyam was not yet."

    makes sense. you are probably operating under an assumption(which I don't have) that Bharatanatyam existed as some textbook scheme of dance , which either "was lost" or was "mixed up" and the dance of the devadasis was, again, a seperate stream/genre. You see, I don't think this is the case(at least not historically). I think that until the rukmai devi-isai vellalar intervention, the dances were substantially the SAME(which is why I refuse to use "sadir" as an appellation for the dance of the devadasis, except as a historically interesting term).

    Hope that explains..


  32. Ee Paata Ne Padeda (first Song), the first part of the dance is a shorter variation of a traditional Alarippu.

  33. "Ee Paata Ne Padeda" is the wrong title for this song. The correct title is "Nee Matale Mayera" (song title from the song book of the film, credit: which is a variation on "Nee Matale Mayanura" by the Telugu composer Pattabhiramayya.


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