Poignant tale of the devadasis... 
- Lada Singh, Delhi 
e-mail: lada.singh@gmail.com  
Photos courtesy: www.sringaramthefilm.com  

November 9, 2006  

Long shot/night time: Madhura standing behind the window bars and looking at the sky, visible to her eyes. Talking to her friend, Kama she refers to the sky being so wide that every star has enough space to shine. 

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 conditions. 

Aditi Rao
Sringaram, works on multiple narratives. The most obvious is class/caste struggle where the Mirasu as wily landlord pronounces severe judgments on the "criminals" from weaker sections. While the immediate lower rung blindly supports, perhaps also contrives Mirasu's vision of truth and justice, the widespread resentment for the Mirasu and his coterie is all too apparent but because of the class conscious, no one can cross it, not even Kasi, the temple watchman, who offers an anti-thesis of the Mirasu to Madhura, through his contrasting vision of Madhura's art and her body's sanctity.  

Sringaram, 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 industry. 

Lada 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 year.