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Do we need the revival?
- Ranee Kumar
Photos courtesy: Lakshmi Mangathayaru

July 26, 2015

Surfing the television on a sultry Sunday afternoon, Sringaram caught my eye and the first ten minutes through, I got engrossed in the movie, which triggered off my dormant thought process once again and here we go into this journey about Devadasis and their art. Being a dyed-in-the -wool newspaper journo for decades, I wouldn't like to linger on historical happenings and the fall out but come straight to the point.

Coming across a section of dance veterans/gurus who have gone hammer and tongs to delve into the Devadasi dance and that era of 'divine' romanticism verbatim, recreate it on the public platform and propagate it under the banner of an individualised art form. Their peg: the Devadasi dance is the fountainhead of all the present day classical dances, urgently in need of resurrection.

The fact is that this very dance structure had already been adapted with amendments, reviewed, refined and redefined by the likes of Dr. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the Odissi trio, and accorded the label of classicality. Decades later, from one quarter of the dance world arise a few obsessed voices again to revisit the source and reinstate it! When the shodashopachara (16 temple rites) have been abandoned long ago, is it not a natural corollary that Devadasi ritualistic dance also loses its relevance?

Bulli Venkataratnam

Bulli Venkataratnam performing Bhamakalapam

Bulli Venkataratnam and daughter Satyabama

Lakshmi Mangatayaru and her mother Satyabama
"It was a natural death of a system that has lost its relevance. Yes, there was a time when the practitioners like my great grandmother were custodians of the art legacy that entailed the bulk of the 64 fine arts! But that was in an era of which we have no clue, except here say. Later, the art and the artistes had fallen into rapid decline; there is no denying this. Until my generation, we are matriarchal lineage. No longer. My children have long joined the mainstream and have no intention of looking back. My sister and I are into teaching whatever is left with us to a few interested pupils. At best, the only revival that is worth its name is to treasure and archive certain regional forms like the Gollakalapam which was the fame of my mother Satyabhama and grandmother Bulli Venkataratnam for academic purposes so that it is not totally lost after us," says Annabatthula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, a Devadasi of East Godavari district (Mummidivaram). As an afterthought she adds, "None of us need sympathy nor like to be identified as Devadasis anymore, it impacts our progeny."

Dancer Aniruddha Knight, a direct descendent of the famous Balasaraswati (Balamma) lineage dismisses it off with, "What is totally out of context cannot be labelled a performing art. Ritualistic dance in temples were limited in their context. Any recreation should always entail value addition. By re-enacting the sensuous songs of the Devadasis in the name of original tradition, we are reinforcing the idea of Devadasi and the prostitute to be frank. And not all in the clan were literally Devadasis, like all Brahmins are not necessarily archakas in a temple."

Says Kalakrishna, a dance faculty at the Potti Sriramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, and the inheritor of the late doyen Nataraja Ramakrishna's Andhra Natyam, "There is nothing wrong in reviving the dance technique of the Devadasi. But we should be able to reconstruct their devotional fervour, not the eroticism and to a select appreciative audience. And yes, this ancient dance technique with mild modifications can be a standalone repertoire; the corpus is that rich and large. The best place will be the temples which should reopen their doors to this art form not necessarily by Devadasis but by anyone willing to learn and perform as a service to the divine," he adds as a footnote. His guru had dedicated his entire life to resuscitating the Telugu Devadasis and their dance form.

Dr. Yashoda Thakur, a Kuchipudi dancer and an avid researcher of the 'aalaya sampradaya nrityam' opines that there is no point in teaching or presenting the ritualistic dance of yonder years as "we have no tangible evidence of what exactly was the raga, tala, and even the gait adopted for a particular deity as part of the temple ritual like the 'Baliharanam' etc. Devadasis also had their own hierarchy. Their art was a niche sector and totally individualised. The only record of authenticity is the courtesan repertoire which comprises the padam, javali and even the varnam. These have been so polished and presented over the years that the original is totally forgotten. I'm taking my academic interest to demonstrate this on stage."

This fanatical urge to go back to roots has caught on in many other fields of art and culture. At best it can be a study to be archived as past can flow into the present only in the form of evolution.

Ranee Kumar, a journalist for the past two decades, has worked with mainstream newspapers from Hyderabad. She later took to freelancing for The Hindu in art and culture as their art critic. Ranee has hundreds of articles, reviews in music, dance and drama published to her credit.


How did the writer come to the conclusion that the Devadasi art has lost its relevance? Is it not chronicled in history of Bharatanatyam that the present margam pattern followed is set up by the Tanjore Quartet (TQM); and this structure of presentation is based on the technique of Devadasi art form called sadir.
All sampradayas of Bharatanatyam use the TQM for teaching the art form of Bharatanatyam to their students. The arangetrams of the students are conducted in this format.
Nowadays too, when it comes to performing on stage, there aren't many artists who have moved away from this format and technique. Even those who have, call their art as 'contemporary Indian dance' or 'neo-Bharatanatyam.' Many still follow this art of Bharatanatyam through the TQM pattern with innovations such as 'interpreting the old songs in the modern and contemporary context' and 'entail value addition' to the art.
I think the Devadasi art form lives through the TQM and will continue till one can find another 'standardized' margam format that can be followed by all both academically and performance wise.
- Chandra Anand (July 28, 2015)

I understand from what this article states is that the writer is asking whether a revival of the Devadasi art is required and ends it by stating that it should only be archived. Reason being it has lost relevance it should be forgotten and done away with and last be spoken about only for academic value.

The fact is that the art form of Devadasi and their very dance structure had already been adapted with amendments, reviewed, refined and redefined by the likes of Dr. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the Odissi trio, and accorded the label of classicality - means the revival is done. That which has been omitted during the process has already been made history and archived or forgotten.
The only record of authenticity is the courtesan repertoire which comprises the padam, javali and even the varnam. These have been so polished and presented over the years that the original is totally forgotten; means old has been replaced and the present form is an evolved form. Well, then how does one understand how the present art form evolved, its history and what the roots of the present Bharatanatyam structure are? Whether the present dance form that has evolved has gone better or worse?

I think the seminar like Varnam by Spanda Dance Company will be an eye-opener to what was the old format of varnam as revived by Rukmini Devi or performed by Balasaraswati, as have been handed carefully to the great masters and what they had to say about the varnams of the Tanjore Quartet or Thanjay Nalvar. I think we will get many answers, particularly to the confusion whether the dance form of the devadasis which is called Bharatanatyam today is evolving or deteriorating.

I think one has to go back and keep checking and see if anything good has been missed out? What is left to study, define and archive is the spirit and fervor of the original format and study and define what is contemporary - which means also draw a line between what is past format and what is evolved format? Is this possible? What is good/ bad in the old and new formats… one can go on… this topic is never ending.
- Anonymous (July 27, 2015)

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