Kalavantulu/Devadasi Dances in the films Muddu Bidda and Periyar (An Ode to Davesh Soneji's Latest Book)

Thursday, August 16, 2012
I've been posting a bit less frequently lately because I've been completely distracted by the discovery of a decent amount of fascinating scholarly research and writing on the subjects of the history of India's "classical" dance forms and "devadasi" women, the movements in the early to mid-twentieth century to "revive" these dance forms and mark traditional practitioners as degenerated and debased, and the history of early cinema and sound recording in South India. 

One of my favorites among the scholars writing on these subjects is Davesh Soneji whose most recent work has greatly inspired me and fueled the fire for this post.  Soneji has worked on two very fascinating compilations, first as the co-editor for Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India and second as the editor for Bharatanatyam: A Reader.  The former has some enlightening essays, and includes the excellent piece "Memory and the Recovery of Identity: Living Histories and the Kalavantulu of Coastal Andhra Pradesh" by Soneji himself that I linked to full-text in my post on devadasi-like dances in South Indian films.  The latter work I found particularly valuable in the way that it provides an excellent overview of the varied and complicated history of what we today call Bharatanatyam. 

But it's Soneji's latest work, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India (click the link to preview at Google Books), that astounded me by presenting perspectives and bits of information that I've hardly seen in most other scholarly writing on the subject. For this post, I initially wanted to simply present videos I tracked down of two "devadasi" film dances Soneji discusses in the book and highlight the intriguing details he unearths.  But it's flowered into a fuller, but still brief, overview of the "secular" aspects of devadasi dance in South India that Soneji highlights. Or rather, this post is basically a long string of quotes from Soneji's book because I cannot possibly say it better than he does. :)

For those that may not be as familiar with the history of "devadasis" in South India, I thought Soneji's overview was worth quoting in full:
"From the late sixteenth-century Nayaka period onward, devadasis have functioned as courtesans, secular dance artists organized in guilds called melams, and temple workers, some of whom performed in the public spaces of certain Hindu temples.  However, these communities have always occupied an ambiguous status in South Indian society.  On the one hand, devadasis possessed a degree of social agency in that they were not restricted by the norms of patrifocal kinship.  They lived in quasi-matrilineal communities, had nonconjugal sexual relations with upper-caste men, and were literate when most South Indian women were not.  On the other hand...courtesans were commodities regularly bought and sold through the intercession of the court.  In other contexts, as the concubines, mistresses, or "second wives" of South Indian elites, they were implicated in a larger world of servitude focused on the fulfillment of male desire.  Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, vociferous social reform movements in South India aimed to dislodge communities of professional dancing women from their hereditary performance practices.  Over the next hundred years, their lifestyles were criminalized on the basis of their nonconjugal sexuality, which was understood as prostitution.  The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, implemented in 1947, officially outlawed the social, ritual, and aesthetic practices of these women." 
Soneji's focus on the functions and lives of the "devadasi" community outside of their temple work is supremely interesting.  At one point in the book, he outlines his concern, “But why do we not hear of the secular "salon performances" of devadasis in cultural histories of South India?  Why are historical representations of dance in South India linked almost exclusively to temples and temple culture?  How has the use of the term "devadasi," full of ritual and religious connotations, eclipsed possibilities of thinking about the nonreligious lives of professional dancing women in this region?"

Soneji is careful to point out the word "devadasi" is a term that, especially today and in the media, is often "falsely linked" with "unrelated and distinct groups of women" with performing/dedication or prostitution functions (such as the Dalit girls dedicated as jogatis to the goddess Renuka-Yellamma-Mariyamma) that do not necessarily descend from the "devadasi" community that is the subject of his book and had the unique characteristics described above.  He supplements his "use of the term devadasi with the language of courtesanship, rarely used with reference to professional dancing women in South India" which he chooses in order to "foreground the modernity of devadasis social and aesthetic lives not as "temple women" but instead as professional artists in a shifting colonial sexual economy, exceeding the trope of devadasis as essentially religious subjects."  The "focus on the temple-based and religious lives of some devadasis in scholarly and popular writing....have reified historical narratives about the "degeneration" of devadasis and, in a sense, have come to justify the politics of revival and the reclamation of a "temple history" for modern Bharatantayam dance by its middle-class, upper-caste practitioners." In addition, the focus has "fixed devadasis in the past, and in idealizing their practices has shifted attention away from women in contemporary devadasi communities."

I can't do any sort of justice to the remaining wonderfully insightful and wide-ranging information in Soneji's book, so I won't even try to summarize it or discuss it further, at least for now...I simply highly recommend it be read in full!  Note: As I heavily quote Soneji throughout this post, I am not using the diacritical marks he does in transliterating Sanskrit, but I am leaving them as is.

"Devadasi" Film Dances

Much to my absolute delight, there are two film dances that Soneji discusses (Yes!! Scholars are paying attention to film dances and their historical and archival importance!!).  The first is a kalavantulu dance in the 1956 Telugu film Muddu Bidda, and the second is a temple dance in the 2006 Tamil film Periyar.  I've known about the Periyar dance for quite some time, but the Muddu Bidda analysis provoked me to immediately acquire the film and make the description and measly screencaps come alive on screen, which I'm very excited to share here.

Muddu Bidda (Telugu, 1956)

In the chapter "Whatever Happened to the South Indian Nautch? Toward a Cultural History of Salon Dance in Madras," Soneji presents what he calls “the first critical account of salon culture in Madras [Presidency] in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."  As introduced above, he discusses how the "professional women dancers who performed in artistic guilds (melams)…did not have much, if anything to do with temples.  Even in communities...where temple dedication was a key marker of status and ritual privilege, normally only one girl in each generation would have such honors.  Other girls in the household would simply become nondedicated courtesans who lived in the quasi-matrifocal home and participated in the nonconjugal sexual lifestyles associated with these communities."

He then focuses on the “Telugu-speaking parts of the Madras Presidency" where "professional guilds" composed of several courtesan performers (known as kalavantulu or bhogamvallu) "were contracted to perform in the homes of Brahmin and non-Brahmin elites” and also perform at temple festivals and "high-society" weddings.  "Most of the women were trained in music and dance by one community elder, who would usually be the troupe leader" known as a nayakuralu.  The nayakuralus "directed the troupe in the sense of producing and negotiating performance contracts, and also by playing the talam or cymbals during the performance.  For the most part, male dance masters (nattuvanars) did not accompany courtesans in this region as they did in the Tamil-speaking regions.”

The javali is a dance genre Soneji feels was the "most representative performance genre" of salon performances.  He describes how the javali is a genre of dance very similar to the padam but “unabashedly erotic, sometimes sarcastic, and always upbeat” and unique in “the very context of its performance, the relationship it proposed between dancer and audience.” He then notes, “Like the culture of salon performance itself, the history of the javali is unfinished.  It has eluded critical historicization and has traveled through salons into the writing of Orientalist scholars, and moved into the cinematic imaginary, only to be neglected as an "inappropriate" dance genre in the contemporary world.

The “cinematic imaginary” he is talking about is the bhogamvallu dance scene in the film Muddu Bidda.  The dance is a javali named “Amtalone Tellavare” which "describes a married woman after a night of illicit lovemaking.  She wakes in the bed of Krsna, who is "full of desire" (makkuvato gopaludu), and sings: "In the meanwhile, dawn has come.  Ayyo! What can I do?"  The ever-helpful Gaddeswarup, who comments here regularly, graciously translated the gist of the full song for me.  The song describes a woman whom Krishna flirted with the night before, and she talks of the ways he seduced her (his youth, eating pan, touching her cheek, laughing, speaking erotically) and how the morning came so soon and now she is afraid her husband will be hurt. 

Soneji notes that this film dance is important for many reasons.  First, the identities of the actors.  The main dancer is the actress Krishnajyoti who was from a “kalavantulu family in the coastal Andhra Pradesh region.”  The women playing the troupe leader is "Surabhi Kamalabai (1913-1977), a woman born into a community of Telugu drama artists and the first woman to act in a Telugu film (she played the role of Lilavati in the 1931 Telugu film Bhakta Prahlada)."  The man assisting the trouple leader is "a Brahmin dance-master from the all-male kucipudi village tradition.  The film was made at a time when kucipudi was being reinvented as an urban, "classical" dance form in Madras, and thus the idea of Brahmin men as teachers (and thus custodians) of courtesan dance was ubiquitous."

Second, the structure and presentation of the dance. The “distinctive feature of javali rendition in that region [coastal Andhra Pradesh]--the gaptu-varusa, or improvised dance sequence, at the end--undeniably marks the technical and aesthetic continuity of javali rendition in the courtesan community."  Soneji notes that while a young boy in the film is reprimanded for watching the bhogamvallu performance, the film "seems to celebrate the culture of courtesan dance, leaving the viewer confounded by a spectacle that animates the simultaneous desirability and vilification of the courtesan and her art, an anxiety that is so much a part of reform discourse in this period."

Third, the film “in many ways represents one of the last official nods to the culture of the salon in Telugu-speaking South India” as it was released the same year that Andhra Pradesh added an amendment to the 1947 Madras Anti-Devadasi Act to not only ban “temple dedications, rituals, and temple-oriented performances by devadasis” but also “performances by women from hereditary courtesan communities at marriages and other private social events.”  Prior to this amendment, “salon performances by courtesan troupes [had] continued well into the 1950s” in South India.

With that said, here is the dance (the javali begins at :55)

While the dance wasn't quite what I was expecting (especially with the lack of defined hand gestures), it's incredible to see the visual record of a woman (and perhaps other women) from the kalavantulu community and the way bhogamelam's of the region could have been performed (although Soneji doesn't address if the adaptation has been heavily altered for popular film tastes).  And of course, it shows us an example of a salon javali, a genre which Soneji laments "like the salon lives of devadasis, slipped through the cracks of historicization and historiography."

Periyar (Tamil, 2006)

In the chapter "Subterfuges of 'Respectable' Citizenship: Marriage and Masculinity in the Discourse of Devadasi Reform," Soneji discusses how devadasis were "constructed" as prostitutes and takes a look at the legislation that resulted from "twentieth-century reform movements [that] promised to grant devadasis full participation as citizens in the emergent nation-state only if they were able to "reform" themselves through marriage."  One of the prominent voices of the "devadasi abolition" movement was Muvalur Ramamirttammal (1883-1962) who was adopted by a "dasi" as a child and was later active in the Congress party, the Self-Respect Movement (Dravida Kazhagam [DK] launched by E.V. Ramasami Naicker [Periyar] who "was a strong supporter of devadasi abolition"), and later the Progress of Dravidians movement (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK]), both of which were enormous movements in South India.  She seems best known for the novel "Tasikal Mocavalai..." she published in 1936 that "provides a fictionalized account of what Ramamirttammal claims to see around her--unscrupulous, money-hungry devadasis who ensnare young men ("minors") into their deceitful world of pleasure."

Soneji notes that Ramamirttammal held deep "convictions about the respectability of monogamous conjugality," and "the connections between Ramamirttammal and marriage run deep in public memory and continue to be invoked through mechanisms of the state." The footnote notes an example of this in the 2006 Tamil film Periyar, "directed by Gnana Rajasekharan and partially funded by the Tamil Nadu State Government" which "contains an interesting scene featuring Muvalar Ramamirttamal" and Periyar.  Soneji describes it as follows:
"The scene opens with a devadasi dancing in a temple mandapa before a large image of the god Siva-Nataraja.  The song she sings is about her oppression, couched in the metaphoric language of bhakti.  Suddenly, Ramamirttammal bursts onto the mandappa accompanied by a young man who has come forth to marry the devadasi.  Periyar too arrives, and after a lengthy debate with the audience gathered at the  mandapa about the oppressive nature of devadasi culture, Periyar marries the couple right there and then...these kinds of popular depictions of Ramamirttammal inevitably frame the 'normalizing' of non-Brahmin women's sexuality as one of the key features of non-Brahmin respectability..."
I've not had any luck locating this film online or on reputable DVD, but there are some clips available from the 2010 Telugu dub (I think), Periyar Ramaswamy Naiker.

Here is the scene that Soneji describes above (Update: Relinked April 2013, poor quality unfortunately!):

Unfortunately, the scene ends right at the point that Ramamirttammal enters, so we miss seeing the debate and subsequent marriage.  Even still, it’s fascinating to see a filmic representation of this piece of cultural history, and one that is quite a contrast to aesthetics and spirit of the Muddu Bidda javali above.

OK, I think that's enough Soneji quotations for one post. :)


  1. Nice post Minai. It was wholesome to read. I am yet to read two of the books you have mentioned here (I have the Bharatanatyam: A reader). He is an amazing dance historian. The dancer in the Periyar movie is Swarnamalya Ganesh.
    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Its Ironic that the periyar dance used Kuchipudi to substitute for a dasi dance (sadir? bharatanatyam ?) performance. while some dasis did learn and perform kuchipudi, it wasn't the language of andhra dance / north madras dance at all.

    As regards Salon dance and the Javali, I don't remember if I made the point to you before , The javali is alive and well as film song/dances in sounth indian film. think early Savitri and saroja devi (black and white) film songs which are all full throated javalis(as musical forms alone).

    eg: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUFiNhC8CcA&feature=related


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2mIZcb7uqg&feature=related ( the irony of using a (telegu) javali to speak highly of tamil (tamil is also called nectar...) is not lost on us...

  3. this is a beautiful patriotic javali


  4. There seem to be similar themes in North India

  5. ragothaman - Thanks for the Periyar dancer's name! I was really curious who she was. Interesting that she looks much older in the film than she does on her website. Highly recommend you read Unfinished Gestures ASAP! :)

    rameshram - I wasn't able to identify her dance as Kuchipudi, but now that you say that I can see it in parts. I didn't realize that the javali was a stand-alone musical genre, I had thought it was specifically created for dance? Learning more about the genres of traditional Indian is on my big list of things to research. :) Thanks for sharing those film song links. If those are javalis, it seems they took the genre and heavily "filmi-ized" it in terms of adding popular instrumentation of films songs of the period? That last one you listed is indeed beautiful!

    gaddeswarup - Thank you for that article! I will need to save it to my collection and digest it more fully. Soneji in his book makes a similar point briefly, that there are "striking parallels (and perhaps even real historical connections) between" SI devadasis and NI tawa'if or baiji communities (page 10).

  6. Thanks Minai, for the recommendation. I will read the book soon. Looking at the comments, It seems to me that there is a confusion of what can be called as a javali. Songs in the genre called Javali were composed from 17th century onward. As Soneji says, for a song to be called a javali it has to be "unabashedly erotic, sometimes sarcastic, and always upbeat". So, filled with Sringara Rasa. There are songs recently written that can be considered as a javali.
    Having said this, most of the tamil movie songs that's listed in the comments can be classified as javalis, expect for the ones that indicate nationalistic/patriotic mood. It is improper to call them as javalis, on the basis that they are upbeat and have one line that can be interpreted as erotic. They are best to be classified as a Krithanai. Since it is in praise of the whatever subject of the song is.

  7. Ragottaman, That is not completely true (which was my point when I posted the three songs that i termed javalis).. Sringara is not just an erotic mood. its also a "mood of beauty " or "a mood of joy/happiness" often modern academics want to treat kshetrayya and annamacharya compositions (many of which are explicitly sexual) as sringara. I am NOT saying that the savtri and saroja devi songs of early tamil film are sringara , just that they are too javali. (Keerthanai, which is a modern carnatic music word , just means composition, and is a catch all for ALL musical forms - padam tillana javali (varnam) etc.)

    Carnatic music has quite a few javalis that are not explicitly sexual in nature, even if they are what the performers like to term "lighthearted".

    OS Arun here singing a patnam subramania Iyer Javali


    They do the javali as a thillana substitute in bharatanatyam concerts these days.

    This is Bhargavi gopalan performing a naughty but pretty non erotic periyasamy thooran javali


  8. rameshram,
    I am not able to follow the words well in some of the javalis above.Are some of them (telugu ones) available on the net? Thanks.

  9. Gaddeswarup,

    the Telugu portion of the patriotic song goes

    "manasithi neekoasam manugada neekoasam
    manasithi neekoasam manugada neekoasam
    mamathaa avaedham maayani mathupaasam
    mamathaa avaedham maayani mathupaasam
    manasithi neekoasam manugada neekoasam

    nee kaN kaNaraagam
    aah ha haan
    nee madhi anuraagam
    aah ha haan
    mana ee vaibOgam
    aah ha haan
    bahuthan alayOgam
    aah ha haan
    valapula bhullaasam
    aah ha haan
    nerapula dherahaasam
    aah ha haan
    vahadhena avaaagasm
    aah ha haan
    saa nalivulu aavaesam
    ah ha ha....

    The OS Arun/ Pattanam subtamania Iyer JAvali I can't seem to find the lyrics but there's a clearer rendition of a DK Pattamal version of the song here (you need to download the MP3 and listen) http://www.index-of-mp3.com/download/lagu/896bf31b/dkp-033-cheli-nenetlu-sahinthune-paras-adhi/

    The other songs are in Tamil.


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