CHENNAI: In the small hall at the Arkay Convention Centre in Royapettah, the audience listens raptly to Nrithya Pillai, a Chennai-based Bharatanatyam dancer, as she talks about the unique politics of the art form. Organised by Madras Local History Group, the talk — Dance and Politics — is a part of their Madras Week celebration.
Through a highly detailed powerpoint presentation, Pillai traces the origin of the dance form, which began with the devadasi community. These dancers, who were believed to belong to a lower caste, danced on sets that were passed down from generations of devadasi dancers. Yet, many associate them with prostitution, or so-called ‘immoral behaviour’.
“At the end, the patrons, who victimised the devadasis, got off scot-free. Sabhas or concerts were funded by the same upper caste men who engaged with devadasis. But their reputation was intact,” Pillai explained.
The male patrons who engaged with the devadasis were never questioned or ostracised in the way devadasis were, Pillai added.
This, she explains, is one of the first examples of double standards in the dancing world, where the reputation of the upper-caste men was protected at the cost of the reputation of the lower-caste women. She explained how this phenomenon was reinforced by upper-caste women as well. This led to one of the many instances of women oppressing women.
After the devadasi community was pushed to the margin and they stopped getting as many opportunities, many upper-caste women entered the dancing community. They adopted the dances that were traditionally practised by devadasis. The performances now had the veneer of an upper-caste performer, and thus stripped off all its so-called ‘immorality’, Pillai added.
“If I am to perform something from my lineage or my heritage, it will be considered to be risky, or unadvisable. But it is acceptable for upper-caste women to do the same content. From this, it is understood that some bodies are acceptable, and some aren’t,” said Pillai, the granddaughter of Bharatanatyam guru SK Rajaratnam Pillai.
“Madras is a cultural society, and we are not an old town. In fact, we are only 300 years old. Memories of the past are still there with people and have not vanished into history. We organise these series of lectures to highlight the various voices we have in the city,” said Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, author, historian, and founder of the Madras Local History Group, which has over 19,000 Facebook members. This series of lectures is the first non-virtual meeting for members and enthusiasts alike, he added.
‘No healthy social conditions can be based on inequality’
The male patrons who engaged with the devadasis were never questioned or ostracised in the way devadasis were. Their reputation was intact, Nrithya Pillai, a Chennai-based Bharatanatyam dancer said. She quoted the dossier of the Madras Rudrakanigai Association, which read, “No healthy social conditions can be based on inequality and injustice against some. There cannot be female chastity without male chastity. Morality is not just meant for women.”