Sunday, September 23, 2018

Devadasis, Bharatnatyam and The Theosophical Society

By January 3, 1932, when Mylapore Gowri was presented [a concert] as part of the December Music Festival at a pandal behind Ripon Buildings, the crowd was more. It increased further successively on January 1, 1933, when the Kalyani Daughters performed again and on August 26 the same year when Balasaraswathi was featured.

The first of these took place on March 15, 1931, featuring Rajalakshmi and Jeevaratnam, the daughters of Tiruvalaputtur Kalyani and therefore billed as Kalyani Daughters. This performance was at Gana Mandir, Thambu Chetty Street, a portion of what is now known as Rama Rau Buildings and named after Dr. U. Rama Rau, founder president of the Music Academy. The attendance was small, largely because people feared witnessing dance.

How the Sadri dance of the Devadasis (temple prostitutes) became classical Bharatnatyam in 1935.
Devadasis were girls (age 7-36) "dedicated" to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of her life.  The Devadasi were trained in music and dance, and a veneer of religion covers prostitution and the supply of concubines to wealthy men.

The dance and music of the Devadasi's were erotic and considered vulgar. This style of dance was called sathirattam and left to nautch girls with no connotations of culture.

In around 1920 the wheels of motion for were setting in place.  Rukmini Devi at the age of 16 married 42 year old George Sydney Arundale who came from England at the invitation of Annie Besant to help with the educational programmes and other activities of the Theosophical Society in India.

Rukmini Devi born  29 February 1904 was the daughter Neelakanta Sastri and of  an upper class Brahmin family in Madurai. Neelakanta Sastri had come under the influence of Theosophical Society and its leader Annie Besant. Rukmini Devi came to the notice of Annie Besant, who saw in her the possible making of a World Mother, just as in J. Krishnamurti she had seen a World Teacher.  Within the Theosophical Rukmini Devi studied Greek dancing , acted in plays including Malini, a play by Rabindranath Tagore.

With George Arundale, Rukmini Devi travelled the world and was exposed to the finest of the arts - theatre, music, painting, sculpture, opera and ballet. She learnt classical western ballet  from the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.  Anna Pavolova persuaded Rukmini Devi to study the dance form practiced by women of the devadasi class, who were considered prostitutes, and a stigma attached to their art.

In 1933 after watching a performance by two Devadasi dancers, Rukmini Devi started learning privately the dance from Mylapore Gowri Amma, a well-known devadasi. This created storm and protest from conservative society specially at the time an anti-nautch movement was on against the revival of Sadir, the dances of the devadasis.

The rest is History as they say.  Rukmini Devi renamed Sadir the dance of the devadasis to Bharatnatyam, popularized the dance form and made it acceptable to  all.  The first presentation of the Bharatnatyam was in 1935 during the Diamond Jubilee Convention of The Theosophical Society
Rukmini Devi went on to establish the Kalākshetra dance academy.

Update from Vijay
Coming to think of it, that might be a narrowl perspective. The drive to move the dance from the devadasis to modern world (not supported by temples, and no “prostitute” connotations) was driven by social reformers from 1900s to 1930s.

“That is when (~1931) E. Krishna Iyer, the secretary of the Music Academy, took steps to showcase what South Indian classical dance really stood for.

By the time Varalakshmi and her sister Saranayaki danced on December 28, 1933, once again behind the Ripon Buildings, the crowd was huge. Billed as the granddaughters of Kumbakonam Gowri (Gowri Ammal), they were part of a larger troupe of cousins, the others being Bhanumati, Sulochana and Pattu. It was universally agreed that Varalakshmi was the best of the lot. She later paired with Bhanumati and was repeatedly featured at the Academy on December 31, 1934 and in 1936 as evinced from the surviving brochure. Somewhere during this journey to present the art to the public, the dance rechristened itself as Bharata Natyam. This was probably in 1932 when we first see this term being used to refer to what was earlier termed variously as Nautch/Sadir/Dasi Attam.

Much later, the Music Academy would take credit for coining Bharata Natyam as would others but a resolution to name dance this way does not survive in the Academy archives. Suffice it to say that by the time Varalakshmi and Bhanumati danced on December 27, 1936, it was firmly termed a Programme of Bharata Natyam.

Where did this happen? Those were years when the Congress Party organised a Khadi and Swadeshi Exhibition and put up a music festival to attract crowds. In 1936, the Music Academy was the official partner for entertainment and held its programmes on General Patters Road, of all places, on the site where the Congress Party headquarters Satyamurti Bhawan now stands.

Note that almost all of the above were daughters of Devadasis. {In India, having daughters named as daughters of mothers (no father mentioned, is often an indication of devadasi birth. Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbalakshmi is the most famous example} Thus, there was a push to move the children of Devadasis away from temples and prostitution, and into dance for nearly 15 years. All of which culminated in “Madras abolition of Devadasi act” 1947.

Thanks to Vijay and Bharotshontan's comments which made this write up possible.

Sex, Death and the Gods is a film about the devadasi system shown on BBC4

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