Bharatanatyam | From Temple To Stage

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    In Part I of this three-part series, we saw how art and architecture were used to demystify Bharatanatyam and take it from the exclusive precincts of temples to the people. The patronage of the Devadasis by royalty and the changes made by Maratha ruler Serfoji in Tanjore further helped it flourish.

    The mid-19th century signaled the decline in Bharatanatyam, the final straw being the abuse of the system by the British by terming it “ nautch” (dance performed by ladies to lure men)

    In Part II, we look at some of the artistes and activists who rescued the dance form from disrepute and debauchery.

    The story of Bharatanatyam, over the next 150 years, was to be one of twists and turns. The period between the beginning of the 19th century to the mid-20th, first witnessed its traumatic decline from a vibrant art form to a pastime of debauchery, and then its resurrection and relocation from temple to secular stage

    In fact, from the late-19th to the early-20th century,Bharatanatyam, then known as Sadir/Dasi Attam, was never witnessed by the general public. Confined to temples, festive occasions for the rich, and nautch parties, it continued to be the legacy of one community that was fast gaining the reputation of social disapproval, as dance girls of low moral standing.

    Their disrepute and easy availability to patrons and commoners visiting temples enraged society. Educated, English-speaking Hindus were determined to remove this evil, despite the tremendous opposition they faced from the traditional orthodox section of society.

    The emergence of the Self Respect Movement, known as the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu, provided a safe platform for women activists to spearhead women’s rights. They demanded the introduction of suffrage, abolition of the Devadasisystem and widow remarriage.

    Among the front line of these women crusaders were Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy (1886 -1968) and Movvalur Ramamirtham (1883-1962). They were the first to initiate the transition of Bharatanatyam in its journey from temple to stage.

    Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy: Legal Reform

    Movvalur Ramamirtham, herself a former Devadasi, joined the Periyar Self Respect Movement in 1925, and thereafter worked for the abolition of the Devadasisystem.

    Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy, daughter of a ( Dasi mother and a Brahmin father ;who had legal marriage), had been close to her maternal cousins. She had completed her higher education in England, and married Sundara Reddy, an alliance based on equality. As one of the first medical women surgeon-doctors in India, Muthulaxmi Reddy played a major role in the abolition of the Devadasi system and child marriagewhen she was appointed Deputy President of the Madras Legislative Council in 1928.

    A year earlier, she had proposed a motion to stop the dedication of young girls to temples. Now shemoved a resolution in the Madras Legislative Council. She observed, “It is a piece of injustice, a great wrong, a violation of human rights, a practice highly revolting to our senses of morality and to our higher nature of countenance to tolerate young innocent girls to be trained in the name of religion to lead an immoral life, to lead a life of promiscuity, a life leading to the disuse of the mind and body.”

    As a medical doctor, Muthulaxmi Reddy was aware of the alarming health problems among the Dasis, who suffered skin disorders, blindness, deafness, cancer, low immunity and early death, among many other ailments. She reasoned that ‘art’at the expense of the ‘health’of society and nation need not continue.

    Regarding the Devadasi system, she observed, “Of all laws, rules, regulations which for centuries have helped place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so powerful in creating in the minds of men and people, a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as a degrading idea of double standards of morals… degradation of one woman is degradation of the whole sex.”

    She believed that upper-caste men had nurtured the Dasisystem, and the practice of dedication in temples was encouraging immorality in men and women amidst the holy atmosphere of the temple. Hence, she concluded, Dasis should be allowed to worship in temples as other Hindus, but not to sing and dance.

    Freedom From Bondage

    Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy’slegal efforts paved the way for temples to revert to being abodes of worship, disassociating religion from immorality, and raising the age of marriage to 16 years for women. The Devadasi Abolition Bill introduced in 1927 was later amended in 1929 for temples. The Devadasis became free from bondage to the temples.

    Dedication and dancing in temples became illegal by law by the late-1930s, and by the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, which was passed in 1947.

    As temples began to adhere to the new rules, they reformed themselves, and thanks to her efforts, the art of dance and dance music were retrieved from the downward spiral to a level open field, disengaged from the clutches of priests and upper-caste men.

    Noble indeed were the intentions of Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy. But, as expected with all such legal decisions, there were to be serious repercussions. For total abolition signified the danger of anonymity and extinction of this ancient art of dance, besides frustration and deep anguish for the Dasicommunity.

    With the new Act, the gift of lands given to the Dasis for their service could be taken back. So their wealthy patrons now abandoned them. As a result, most went into financial ruin and were forced on to the streets. Many gave up dancing altogether, and the few who stayed on, continued to learn the art in the confines of their home and family, as a part of their “Kuladharma “(sacred duty).

    E Krishna Iyer: ‘Sharing’ Art

    It was at this crucial juncture that yet another luminary appeared in the arena, the renowned E Krishna Iyer (1897-1968). Hailing from a Brahmin family, E Krishna Iyer, popularly known as ‘EK’, was a multifaceted personality, a freedom fighter, activist, lawyer, dancer, dance-critic and reformer, all at once.

    He believed that art becomes art only when shared. Trained in dance and music at a young age, EK often donned the costume of a female dancer himself, to dance at public functions. Though the very idea of a male dancer from the upper caste in female attire dancing the Bharatanatyam was unimaginable, he did so in order to create a sense of awareness and acceptance for the Art of dance and dance- music among the discerning public.

    A revered figure ; along with being approachable and humble, EK was convinced that the ‘soul or essence of dance’ should not be disturbed. He believed that reformers were usually over-enthusiastic and did not think about the future of the dancers, or their means of livelihood. Hence a definite ground plan was needed to rehabilitate the Dasis, their economic and career prospects, as they moved away from the roots and traditions of the last 900 years.

    In his opinion, nothing was wrong with the“Art of Dance technique, which is divine and pristine - a valuable legacy of nine centuries”.Abolition of dance would mean anonymity and oblivion of a technique which had been nurtured by the Dasis in temples and courts. If only the public could see the Dasisperforming on the secular stage would they be able to see the beauty and get interested in the Art form.

    The Energy of hope along with the courage of his own conviction became his inspiration, as he undertook a series of steps to integrate Bharatanatyam into society. Inherently understanding the heart of the dance, he began creating a platform to allow the needed transition to happen

    Hand–holding this Ancient dance, preventing it from disintegration. By paving a safe passage from temples and closed performances ,to the secular stage and general public.

    His strategic stance of holding ground with fellow lawyer, Dr Muthalaxmi Reddy in fiery public debates, his writings as a critic of dance and music, his compelling voice moving his audience and the new phrases he coined along with his initials, were all trailblazers.

    While his newspaper articles in TheHindu and The Madras Mail began sensitizing middle-class, educated society on the positive aspect of the great Art, he assembled men of rank, lawyers, artistes, even Dasisthemselves to participate in the wave of revival.

    Wave of Revival

    Amidst all these efforts, unexpected support came from some British quarters too. G A Johnson,Assistant Editor of The Madras Mail, supported the cause with statements like: ”If nautch was to be reformed, Devadasis were to be trained in alternative professions; the best way to gather support for the dance form was to get the public to see it.”

    EK proved to the world that not all upper-caste men, are exploitative. There are also men who understand the beauty of the ‘Art of Dance’ as distinct from the dancer herself. His contributions to the world of dance are epic. Every public post he held became an opportunity to transform the image of Bharatanatyam and bolster the lives of the Devadasis.

    Elected as Secretary of the Music Academy, he convinced the Dasicommunity to emerge from its status as Devadasis and dance on the secular stage, resplendent as artistes, without fear of public outrage or disapproval. Thus he invited and encouraged great dancers like Varalaxmi, Jayalaxmi Pattu, Bhanumathi, Swarnasaraswati, Saranayaki, and Mylapore Gowri Ammal among several others.

    When he became Founder-Secretary of the Madras Sangeet Natak Academy or Isai Nataka Mandram, as it is called in Tamil, he encouraged women from Brahmin families to learn this magnificent art. Along with like-minded individuals like Dr Raghavan and T Prakasham, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he invited the famous dancer Balasaraswatito dance on stage at the Music Academy in 1934, and begin her classes at the Academy.

    As Secretary of the Teacher’s College, Krishna Iyer invited the famous hereditary dance teacher or nattuvanar, Muthukumar Pillai to teach dance at the Academy. He also invited Adyar Amma, Rukmini Devi Arundale, to come and watch the dance performances of the Dasis at the music academy.

    Thereafter, he worked with her to transform the dance from Dasi Attam or Sadir Attam, to Bharatanatyam, rendering it in a purer form by removing movements and expressions that conveyed vulgarity. Rukmini Devi Arundale took on the task of popularizing the dance further by its new name, through her famed institution Kalakshetra.

    Recognition finally came for Krishna Iyer’s sustained efforts. EK was honoured with the Padmashri by the Government of India and a prestigious fellowship from the Sangeet Natak Academy, in the 1960s.

    The Dasis, well aware that Krishna Iyer knew what they stood for, had deep affection and an overwhelming gratitude for his genuine and tireless efforts. They enthusiastically responded to his call for change, as he instinctively knew their anguish.

    Despite all his efforts, the social stigma was so deeply rooted in the societal psyche that future generations of the Dasicommunity was compelled to hide their past. As society came to know more about the Dasi community, , many talented Dasis ,exited from the world of dance and dance music in the time to come.

    However , consistent efforts of EK did work their magic. With the upper classes taking to dance, the future of Bharatnatayam as a dance form appeared to be secure.

    In the annals of History of Dance ,this transitional phase needs to be deeply respected by humanity, The Great Unseen Hand, "which made it strong at the broken and static point of the flow . To be taken forward by many “ seen and helping Hands” aided by their tireless efforts.

    Their thoughts in action conveyed that there is no way anyone , can go back to the past and change it The only way is to change is in, the present situation. To create enduring foundations for the future.

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