Reborn to flourish

Reborn to flourish

dance revival

Reborn to flourish

Quietly and without fanfare, history was created in independent India with a performance of Vilasini Natyam 2 decades ago, at the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple in Rangbagh, Hyderabad.

In 1996, eminent dancer Swapnasundari’s performance of Vilasini Natyam, enacted within this temple as part of religious rituals, made it the only living Hindu temple in post-colonial India to re-align worship and classical dance. This history is now repeated every year, since then, during the temple’s annual Brahmotsavam function. Also, more dancers have become part of these annual performances.

So, Vilasini Natyam exponents are the only present-day artistes of a traditional dance form to regularly perform ancient dance rituals inside a live temple as a part of religious worship.

This annual event is now a significant part of the recent resurrection of the Vilasini Natyam art — an aesthetically rich dance form, in abhinaya especially, that flourished in South India and then went into oblivion. The Sangeet Natak Akademi recognised it as a traditional dance form when Vilasini Natyam was included in the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar award category, which was received by dancer Purva Dhanashree in 2008.

Sacred platforms

Centuries ago in India, the temple was an important centre for a variety of artistic activities. Indian dance was and is considered deeply spiritual and thus an integral part of worship of the deity. So there were ‘sacred dances’. There were temples where rituals of worship were considered incomplete without these sacred dances, which were customarily performed only by consecrated temple-dancers, a class to which the then-Telugu devadasis (aka kalavanthulu or hereditary dancers) belonged.

Unfortunately, in British-ruled India, many artistes and dance forms were impacted by the British policy of discouraging Indian traditional arts. This included the Bharatam or dance form of the Telugu devadasis.

With the abolition of the devadasi system and the ban on the performance of worshipful dances in temples, the temple dancers gradually fell on bad times and their art began to decline.

However, beginning around the 1990s, the performing art of the Telugu Devadasi was researched, explored, and subsequently brought to public platforms thanks to the efforts of late Dr Arudra, cultural historian and an erudite Telugu and Sanskrit scholar; and Swapnasundari, eminent Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, choreographer, teacher, and author of 2 scholarly books on dance.

This revived art of the Telugu devadasis was rechristened as Vilasini Natyam by Dr Arudra, Swapnasundari, and a panel of scholars and artistes who were invited for their opinion on a suitable name. Since the exponents were traditionally known as bhogams, vilasinis or saanis, the Telugu Bharatham tradition was recast as Vilasini Natyam.

The details of how a traditional dance performance was enacted within a living Hindu temple as part of religious rituals are interesting. Also, it took years. Swapnasundari was at the height of her fame as a performer when she happened to see a brief Vilasini Natyam performance by the ageing exponent, Maddula Lakshminarayana, in a small town in Andhra Pradesh. Enchanted by its sheer artistry, she decided to learn it.

It was tough, given that most of the exponents of Vilasini Natyam were old, little-known and scattered around several villages of Andhra Pradesh. They were disinterested and disillusioned because of the loss of patronage and public interest. Also, there were no general records about the theory and practice of the dance, and the teachers adopted a horizontal approach.

But Swapnasundari persisted, painstakingly learning and researching the form, assimilating the adavus, and uncovered its repertoire. She was helped on occasions by the devadasis’ daughters who rendered a few items for her and also shared their personal written records. In this manner, an entire body of work was developed and formatted systematically by her and Dr Arudra. Subsequently, Swapnasundari also trained other dancers and authored Vilasini Natyam: Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers.

Today, there are several well-known exponents of this dance form — all trained by Swapnasundari — like Kuchipudi dancer Dr Anupama Kylash, Purva Dhanashree, and Sanjay Kumar Joshi, the only male exponent. Yashoda Thakore also performed the form for a few years.

Says Anupama, a well-known and long-standing Kuchipudi exponent, “Vilasini Natyam is a captivating dance form — graceful and rich in abhinaya and technique. Having learnt Kuchipudi, which originated as a male dance tradition, I was eager to learn a purely female dance tradition so I could experience and perform both forms. For me, this was fulfilling as an artiste.”

Sanjay Joshi believes the form is “a simple yet powerful means of expression”. “I hope more men will come forward to learn this art,” he adds.

Vilasini Natyam is a stree sampradayam (female tradition). It has 3 major components — the temple tradition or alaya sampradayam, which includes rituals of worship in temples in accordance with the aagamas. The second is asthana sampradayam or court tradition, which includes kacheri atta and nritta and nritya presentations like swara pallavis, salaam daruvu, varnams, keertanas, padmas, javalis etc. Padams and javalis are presented in a style unique to the Andhra kalavanthulu called meyzuvani aka mejuvani. This is often referred to as a chamber presentation of abhinaya. In this segment, the dancer assumes a sitting posture when she delineates the abhinaya for certain items.

Aata bhagavatham (theatrical presentation) is a highly developed performance structure. Before, they presented parijatams or operas based on the story of Lord Krishna and his favourite consort, Satyabhama, for 9 consecutive nights in 9 Janardhana temples of Andhra. Hence this presentation became popular under the nomenclature Nava Janardhana Parijatam.

Borrowed words

The lyrics for different contexts of Vilasini Natyam are drawn from various sources. Firstly, there are the aagamas. The compositions of Kshetrayya, the composer who is celebrated as the king of padams in South Indian classical music, and dance traditions, are a major source.

The compositions of famous composers like Sarangapani, Narayana Theertha, Sadashiva Brahmendra, and librettos of Gaddam Subbaraya Sastri, as well as songs collected from palm-leaf manuscripts are the other lyrics you hear in Vilasini Natyam.

In addition, lyrics have been sourced from the collections of devadasis and their descendants. Interestingly, parijatam presentation uses wooden, handcrafted jewellery called ganiyam, as in the earlier times.

The dance is increasingly seen on stages around India on several platforms, and is well-received by critics and audiences. The compositions and characters may be traditional, but since human emotions are universal, there is timelessness to aspects in the repertoire of Vilasini Natyam.

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