CHENNAI: It didn’t take much for the world to join in on the conversation about nepotism in the Hindi film industry. When the practice was suspected to have influenced the mental health of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput and perhaps even led to his death, us common folk had no trouble schooling others on the dangers of privilege and what it does to silence those struggling to find a voice.
This courtesy has never been extended to the arena of Bharatanatyam — an art form whose history (and even present-day reality) is mired in control, denial, appropriation, caste politics and Brahminical imposition. It took the resurgence of a TEDx video to start a conversation about caste in ‘classical’ dance — for a lot of people, even the practitioners, it was news.
But so limiting were the terms of this discourse that when dancer Nrithya Pillai called out the video for its problematic generalisation, the tide lost no time in turning against her. She had to take to Instagram, in a live session (with fellow artiste Karthik Hebbar) that ran for over two hours, to call for a nuanced understanding of 200 years’ of history.
In a nearly 25-minute video titled Caste dynamics in classical dance: History vs Narratives, dancer and scholar Aranyani Bhargav talks about how history was reimagined to suit the narrative of Bharatanatyam having been a dance form of the Brahmins.
She recalls the role of the British (without a mention of the role of the Indian elite, middle class and the members involved in the nationalist movement) in the order of events that eventually led to the art being removed from its original practitioners — Devadasis of the Isai Vellalar community — and handed over to the Brahmin women. She also mentions — in broad sweeping terms — the sexual freedom, financial independence and education enjoyed by these courtesan dancers.
“The TEDx video has been around for three years. As such it did not create a controversy. But it started when an anti-caste Facebook page, run by a Brahmin man who acknowledges his privilege and wants to call out the same among the people of his community, shared the video. The intentions behind posting the video have been fairly good. But it received two kinds of reactions: one was predominantly where people acknowledged that there is caste in dance.
And this is a good starting point. The other was mainly from anti-caste activists (including Dalit activists) and those insisting on caste annihilation,” she narrates. The latter began sharing the video, assuming that she was talking about Devadasis in other marginalised communities like the Jogini, Vasavi, Yellama, where such a practice and its abuse continues even today. While the practice of dedicating the women to the gods was prevalent across castes, it’s irresponsible to conflate two different communities and practices, she argues.
“The term Devadasi was not used in South India before the British came in and it was used as an umbrella term for all dedicationary practices. But only two communities come into the purview of performative traditions — the Kalavantulu of East Godavari region in Andhra Pradesh and Isai Vellalar of Tamil Nadu. When you say the Devadasi had sexual freedom, who are you talking about?” she questions as nearly 100 people stay glued to the live video response.
It is true that the Devadasi women of the Isai Vellalar community fared relatively better than women of even upper caste communities. They had some sexual freedom, they had the temple and court, duties that came with it, got land to live on as maanyam, and an independent professional livelihood of being artists.
The women in other communities were more often than not restricted to the patriarchal households, engaged primarily in domestic work. On the other end of the Devadasi spectrum, those dedicated to the goddesses in marginalised Dalit communities faced abuse and were forced into sex work.
This continues to happen even today in rural Kanchipuram and Telangana. This is where reform is required; activists should look for justice for these women but have to be careful when they use the word Devadasi as an umbrella term at this point in time, she offers. And it shouldn’t come at the price of silencing her, she adds.
Karthik Hebbar, while moderating the sessions, chips in to say that Nrithya has faced a lot more backlash trying to talk about the caste politics that continue unabated in the world of Bharatanatyam even today. While Aranyani’s TEDx talk has been shared by so many on social media platforms, Nrithya — a woman from the Isai Vellalar community — was told by a famous critic (in a magazine article) to learn to not spew venom.
Women of the Isai Vellalar community still do not get the space to perform their art and experience the stigma of their past. So complete is the path of appropriation that even the TEDx talk that attempted to shed light on Bharatanatyam’s coloured history doesn’t even say the word out loud. This has been the case since the ‘reform’ brought about by the nationalist movement to end the Devadasi practice, says Nrithya.
“What about the Isai Vellalar women who opposed the reformation? Bangalore Nagarathnamma was able to get nearly thousand women against the Devadasi Act that was supported by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. Duraikannamaal, who led the then Madras Devadasi Association, was also against it. People just see that Muthulakshmi Reddy was of the Isai Vellalar community and if she opposes the Devadasi system, it must be good. But it isn’t as binary as that. She has written three autobiographies. Nowhere does she identify herself as from the Devadasi community; it is her mother (Chandramma) who was a Devadasi and her father was a Brahmin. It is with the social privilege of her father that she could become a doctor, an MLA, a woman powerful enough to drive the reformation. Even today Isai Vellalar women cannot do this. She had unquestionable intentions in driving the reform but it also spelt the end of the only way of life they knew," she explains.
One reason put forth for ending the Devadasi practice was sexual abuse they faced. Yet, it was the courtesan dancers who were denied their art, livelihood and living quarters, while the abusers had nothing to lose, Nrithya points out.
"When I ask people to be critical of the Devadasi reform, I get name-called. Many from anti-caste circles, even while I am openly anti-caste, refuse to indulge in any criticality. But there has been no reparation or rehabilitation for the displaced communities. No reform comes at the stake of the oppressor. Give power to the oppressed people to dance, let them decide the aesthetics because it came from them after all. Today, Brahminical aesthetics is forced on me," she shares.
Suggesting that our problem is to look for instant answers for complex problems, that too from the oppressed, she opines that change must come from those in power, just as the policing. "Here I am doing the emotional labour of calling out what’s wrong. The change cannot happen from down under," she says.
Road to awareness
Asking people not to base their history to anecdotes, Nrithya suggests that reading is necessary to learn more about the world out there. She offers Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures and Srividya Natarajan’s The Undoing Dance as reading material — to understand the transformation of Bharatanatyam as we know it today, and the life of Devadasis from performative courtesan traditions.
Acceptance from academia
Even as the Internet’s reaction ranged from denial to confusion to ambivalent acceptance, Nrithya says that support came in from academics and research scholars from all over — like Saskia Kersenboom, Vidya Natarajan, Anna Morcom, sociologist Kalpana Kannabiran, and Raya Sarkar
Srimathi Pudukkottai Ammalu Ammal, born to Tiruvaiyyaru Angu Ammal in 1835, signed her letters with the prefix ‘Bharathanatyamu’. This refutes the general belief that Bharatanatyam was coined by upper caste revivalists — a common narrative taught today.