Step into the past

Step into the past

Lakshmi Viswanathan is a dancer who is as captivated by ‘mudra’ and ‘abhinaya’ as with the life and times of dance and dancers down the ages, writes hema vijay.

The word devadasi raises eyebrows, more often than not. “That is a pity. The notion of devadasis being some kind of ‘fallen women’ is a terrible misconception. On the contrary, they were highly respected women of grace and intellect, revered by the people and the king of the land; and in those times when most women didn’t even get an education, devadasis were poets, philosophers, philanthropists and orators, not just dancers. If the magic of Bharatnatyam is in our grasp today, it is because of the devadasis who carefully nurtured the dance form and passed it down to their daughters in a ceaseless progression down centuries,” says an animated Lakshmi Viswanathan, the accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer who has done much to bring to light the glory of Bharatnatyam on the international dance arena.

Well, Lakshmi should know. This internationally acclaimed dancer-choreographer has been painstakingly researching on the devadasi heritage for many years now, venturing into numerous temple towns and little-known villages, trying to chronicle the functions of the devadasi tradition and examine the devadasi reform movement in a political, religious and social context.

One of the few thinking dancers in the country who have taken traditional dance forms to great heights without compromising on its structure, Lakshmi is equally comfortable in the Indian dance milieu as outside it. For instance, along with standing at the forefront of temple dance festivals, she happens to be one of the few classical dancers invited to teach at the famed Mark Morris Modern Dance School in New York. Of course, it does help that she has several awards tucked in her achievements, such as the Sangeet Natak Academy Award and the Nritya Chudamani Award. But what makes her career noteworthy is perhaps her work as a dance historian. And this has been possible because she is one dancer as captivated by mudra and abhinaya as with the life and times of dance and dancers down the ages.

Glorious past

Actually, the research into the devadasi heritage began over 30 years ago. The research was spurred on by a eureka moment at the  magnificent Chola Temple at Thanjavur, when scholars from the Saraswathi Mahal Library at Thanjavur (this library stores priceless ancient manuscripts) pointed out inscriptions on the temple’s walls which state that 400 devadasis were attached to the temple during the time of the Chola emperor Raja Raja Chola. “The inscriptions were elaborate and respectful, and even mentioned addresses of these dancers,” Lakshmi shares.

So, it came to light that far from being considered women of dishonour, devadasis sang at temples, showed arthi, and stood in front of deities as revered citizens of the state, and the muse for a whole lot of artistes, poets and sculptors. “Devadasis belong to an ancient tradition that is over a thousand years old, surviving through numerous overturning dynasties and invasions. They were the guardians of our music and dance for 1,000 years. They had a place in society as did the nobility and mercantile class.

 When the kings fell into poverty, the devadasi tradition fell into doom, as did many of our martial art forms,” Lakshmi remarks. While devadasi has become a generic term now, in ancient times, there were specific niches, even within the devadasis, such as the rudrakaniga or the servants of Lord Shiva, who had a right to conduct rituals. Apparently, kings gave devadasis titles of honour, such as the ‘Vaikunta Perumal Manikkam’ (Lord Vishnu’s Ruby). “Nobody gives titles for the sake of a personal relationship,” Lakshmi points out.

During the course of her extensive research, she visited numerous temple towns. Thirupanandal, Pandanallur and Kumbakonam figuring among the list. Painstakingly tracing out descendants of devadasis, she met Kamalam, a renowned dancer of Thanjavur in the 1970’s, the noted palace dancer Veenabhashini Ammal, and others. “The decline of the court dancer had begun as early as the early 18th century when Britain began its domination of South India...

 The sociological changes affected people’s perceptions to such an extent that the once venerated dasi fell from grace, never to regain her position of respectability. Only a few of them survived this downfall purely because of their courage, their extraordinary talent, and the support of patrons who were committed both to the ‘art’ and the person of the devadasi,” Lakshmi discovered.

 Lakshmi’s research on the devadasi tradition can be accessed through her book, Women of Pride: The Davadasi Heritage, a book that has caught critical attention from dance connoisseurs across the world, including the legendary Vera Komenei, who notes, “It is a fantastical historical account of a marvelous heritage”. The fact that she is a gold medalist in literature from the Madras University explains how well she manages to bring to life those historical times she explores. Lakshmi has other books to her credit, such as Kunjamma: Ode to a Nightingale (on M S Subbulakshmi), besides documentaries like Poetry of Dance.

Divine art

Life evolves, so does art. “Bharatnatyam is a divine art; over time, there came to be a taboo attached to it, as did the notion of devadasis. Now, we have come a full circle, with Bharatnatyam back in repute again. In a sense, Bharatnatyam is renewing its association with temples, thanks to modern dance festivals at temples,” she points out. For instance, on every Shivaratri, at various temples such as the Chidambaram Temple, the Sirgazhi Temple, the Kumbakonam or the Thanjavur Temple, thousands of dancers congregate to dance their hearts out and dedicate their dance to the gods. Sums up Lakshmi, “In India, artistes are taken too lightly. Let us not be self-conscious about our own culture; let us take pride in it.”

Among her unforgettable choreographies include ‘Navarasa Sita’, that shows Sita’s moods and features poems on her by various composers, and of course, ‘Vata Vriksha’ and ‘Chaturanga’. Now, Lakshmi is working on her forthcoming choreography based on her own experiences as a dancer, something of a choreographer’s dance diary that will explore untapped compositions meant for dance. “I remember I had my arangetram when I was seven, at the Rasikaranjani Sabha in Mylapore in old Chennai. But really, I can’t say when I started dancing. It feels like I have been dancing all my life.”

This dancer, who takes pride in the ancient roots of Bharatnatyam, is not against modern dance. What irks her is that some current Indian dancers pass off distortions of Bharatnatyam as modern dance, mixing it up with martial arts and yoga and the like. Someone who likes to experience art wherever possible, and this includes even experimental films, Lakshmi muses, “But I appreciate that these young dancers are trying out something. Unfortunately, there is no support system here in India for modern dance.” 

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