Devadasi’s dance

upholding tradition
Last Updated : 16 February 2019, 19:30 IST
Last Updated : 16 February 2019, 19:30 IST

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Nrithya Pillai
Nrithya Pillai

Eons ago, the beautiful devadasi danced and sang at the temples of India. She was given away to the temple, more or less, where she would spend her life in service of the lord, the deva, as his servant, the dasi.

The community, Isaivellalar, comprised all kinds of artistes, including the devadasi and her nattuvanar (one who teaches and conducts the dance). She danced sadir, the precursor of bharatanatyam. But times changed for her sometime around India’s independence, with the Anti-Nautch Movement, when her dance was taken away from her with a total ban on being dedicated to the temple itself.

At the dawn of independence, the country’s need for a new morality clashed with her art. The claim of culture required the existence of a centuries-old art form, but we couldn’t quite let it continue in its own way as the Brahminical high morals meant the art was ‘sanitised’, with bhakti replacing sringara, and the dancer being deemed immoral.

Decades later, we watch and appreciate bharatanatyam as a high art of Indian culture, the torch of a Tamil-Brahmin household that a select few have access to. Today, the dance form is inclusive with artistes from a variety of backgrounds from the world over being practitioners of it.

But for someone like Nrithya Pillai, the granddaughter of guru S K Rajarathnam Pillai, and an important voice of the Isaivellalar community, her dance has more meaning than what the prosceniums or sabhas have to offer. As a hereditary dancer, she has more than one battle to fight for herself. To her credit, she is a writer, speaker and dancer who advocates the need to accredit the traditional hereditary Isaivellalar parampara for everything that bharatanatyam is today. She also shares the oral histories of the artistes of devadasi and nattuvanar families with a Facebook page called ‘Humans of Naatyam’.

Excerpts from an interview:

What was your childhood like, being the granddaughter of a legend like S K Rajarathnam Pillai?

My lineage is such that I am the great great granddaughter of Vaitheeswarankoil Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Kalyani ammal, great granddaughter of T K Swaminatha Pillai and Vazhuvoor B Ramiah Pillai, and last but not the least, granddaughter of Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai. There are several women in the family whose names have been long-forgotten, thanks to the social stigma and the transformation within the community from matriarchy to patriarchy.

I had a wonderful childhood, but I did start feeling the persecution of being from the hereditary community and the bias — some from within the family and much from outside. I was told in not so many words that dancing and performing were not for me. I was surrounded by upper caste and well- -to-do women pursuing dance, but I couldn’t be what they could be. I learnt by seeing and dancing and hearing the continuous classes and music that went on in my house.

How has your legacy of belonging to the Isaivellalar community shaped your dance? Did you always have the insight into bharatanatyam’s history
or was it something that you developed as your dance progressed?

At one point in time as a teenager, I was forced to start feeling that my dance wasn’t enough. I was stifled by the kind of choreographed abhinaya, mridhanga -style jathis, and very-set group presentations that bharathanatyam had become. I wanted to do something to keep my art going. And I was not equipped like the other dancers around me, I still think I am not. My ancestors were remunerated for their services, now dancers need to pay to dance. And after a trying time, I decided to delve into what I knew well and what came naturally to me. I believe I am an inheritor of srungara and manodharma. My dance is an embodiment of my lineage, the art of my ancestors and the fact that I am a modern woman of the 21st century who will speak against bias — based on gender, sexuality and social/economic affiliation.

My ancestors were remunerated for their services, now dancers need to pay to dance.

What are some of the burning issues faced by the Indian classical dance industry today?

As someone from a completely different background as compared to most dancers of today’s scenario, my biggest issues with classical dance is the fact that nepotism, favouritism and social/economic affiliation determines who gets opportunities, who gets what kind of audience and who gains repute as a good dancer. As someone who believes in social justice, I believe that it is imperative that my voice is heard. The dance community needs to take notice of the emerging voices from within the community, for we speak after years of being silenced.

Your style is quite different from the quintessential bharatanatyam repertoire with respect to your technique and themes. What sort of biases have you faced owing to this from the industry?

I’m proud to have been recognised as a torchbearer of the traditional parampara and for being one of the very few performing teachers from the community — practising, performing and inculcating the Vazhuvoor bani in its purest form. The journey hasn’t been easy. I have always had the grouse that the hereditary artistes did not get their due — both in terms of recognition and remuneration.

While every dancer wants to delve into modernities, they don’t show the same interest in delving into the history and the logic of the older format. Though rare javalis and varnams are in demand, the way they are presented is, in a way, wherein srungara is a mere caricature of how it was presented. It has taken years of persistence and speaking for my lineage that has led to the recognition I have got.

Could you shed light on how your style is different from most of what gets shown on the proscenium?

I emphasise on the ‘continuous tradition’ that my art is, despite the tumultuous conditions faced by my family, particularly the women of the community. I have also tried to learn and read about the art from other traditional families, be it Balamma’s (Balasaraswati) or Kitappa Pillai thatha’s.

Where do you wish to take your dance from here?

I think I like what I’m presenting in terms of quality. I will continue to do what I am doing and keep performing for as long as I can. I also wish to teach more and more, particularly to
promote dancing and performing amidst children in hereditary families. It is important that my ancestors speak for themselves through young talents from within
the community.

Published 16 February 2019, 19:30 IST

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