tale of the devadasis...
November 9, 2006
As the final credits of Sharada Ramanathan's maiden directorial venture on Tamil silver screen, 'Sringaram: The dance of love' roll, you realise Madhura's (a devadasi living in South India of 1920s) vision is rubbing your conscience, that often sits muted in a highly competitive world where power exerts itself through its tangible worth. Madhura's flight for freedom is as much a yearning of an artiste to blur the societal (in this case fiercely patriarchal) boundaries as it is an extension of female bonding of four women (of Madhura, her friend Kama, her mother Ponammal and her Patron Mirasu's wife) who find their fates entwined with each other like an umbilical cord where cutting one would bleed the other.
The film which
is primarily centered around the relationship between a devadasi and her
patron, and the problematics attached to it, is India's official competition
entry for the upcoming International Film Festival in Goa this month. Sringaram
grows on you for two main reasons: One, the sheer maturity of the director
to handle and present the world of devadasis, where the actual insecurities
of being in that "profession" are camouflaged by aggressive investment
of sentiment in the rituals and rights of the temples that not only insulate
the devadasi from the world outside, giving her the status of the temple
lord's wife but ironically de-mystify the virginal beauty and talent of
the woman, who becomes a mistress of her patron - in this case, the Mirasu.
The second reason is the movie's cinematography and art direction. The
movie takes you into an era which is disconnected from the world we inhabit.
The period-drama is alive and real, with no stress to romanticize the actual
while interrogating the mother-daughter relationship between Madhura and
Ponammal, clearly situates it in the confines of market- where their art
/ body while being respected is also rated. 1920s was socially an era that
represented a great decline of patronage (because of migration of the patrons
to the bigger cities for economic/political reasons) which also led to
the fall in the socio-economic conditions of the devadasis – represented
here by Madhura. In the following decades, devadasis came to be addressed
as prostitutes. Ponammal's desperation to seek a safe haven for her daughter
stems from these insecurities. The fact that devadasis' status as repositories
of art had become merely symbolic, sharply comes out in certain instances
which however problematise Madhura and Mirasu's relationship.
However, the very structure that Mirasu tries to use to corner Madhura and which also suffocates Mirasu's wife and Ponammal at very different levels, ends up forcing Mirasu to fly the scene. So, ironically, the one who calls the shots all through out the film has to run away. Mirasu's wife decides to stay back just as Madhura holds on to her quest for independence which makes a parallel discourse with India's yearning for freedom. And just as the freedom fighters - young men in their early 20s - have tremendous passion and respect for their cause, similarly they show the respect and love for Madhura, on very platonic terms, led by Kasi.
The intermingling of Madhura, India, Goddess principle happens at various instances - where each becomes the foil of the other - with Kasi remaining the eternal devotee for all the three.
Towards the end of the film, the viewer is left bewildered having witnessed the life of a devadasi lived with such passion and honesty that the historical narratives of the community, as written and camouflaged by the "social cleansers" lose their shine before this fictional account.
The film has brilliant acting from the lead, Aditi Rao, who is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer. Jayan as the Mirasu and Manju as Ponammal make for convincing portrayals. Sringaram has some of the best lines up, be it Lalgudi Jayaraman's music score, Madhu Ambat's cinematography, Thota Tharani's art direction and Saroj Khan’s dance direction. The film is an important point of departure in period-films because of the authenticity it comes attached with. No loud and garish costumes and sets here, no heavy duty music scores, no over the top histrionics.
While the movie
could have done with better editing in parts and more accurate sub-titling
at places, it's nonetheless a welcome respite from the world of Dons, especially
since the movie celebrates dance, womanhood and freedom all in one! Last
but not the least, Sharada Ramanathan is a great discovery for the film
Guruden Singh is an arts and culture columnist with the Statesman. A Bharatanatyam
dancer, he is a published poet with two collection of poems. Lada is also
the youngest guest editor of SNA's quarterly Sangeet Natak and has just
wrapped up anchoring a docu-series on the Himalayas. A regular contributor
with narthaki.com, he is one of India's youngest biographers as well, having
authored veteran critic Subbudu's biography. ‘Beyond Destiny: The
Life and Times of Subbudu’ was published by Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan last