The Bharatanatyam section of the Accelerated Motion website contains valuable information and scholarly questions about the bharatanatyam dance, its history, devadasis, and their disenfranchisement. Several pages are contained within this section; we encourage our readers to view each. The content is a clear, concise, and highly digestible introduction to the politics surrounding this beloved dance, and several scanned pdfs of further scholarly material are provided for free.
From page xiii:
“‘Nation, Woman, Representation: the Sutured History of the devadasi and her Dance’ examines the complex interplay of national and international events, the impact of Western modernization on the life and artistic practices of a class of South Indian women known as devadasis or temple-dancers…the traditional practice was radically transformed in the late nineteenth and twentieth century practices of Indian nationalism when devadasis and their artistic practices began to be idealized and hailed as the quintessential signs, symbols and metaphors of the ancient Indian nation. If the devadasis were derided as temple prostitutes in the 1890s, their artistic practices were reclaimed in the 1920s, and described by A.K. Coomaraswamy and Annie Besant, as the immortal dance of Shiva. The artistic practices were subsequently aestheticized and renamed in the ideological metaphor and name of India, that is, as Bharatanatyam, the national dance of India. The transmogrification of many names into the one name of Bharatanatyam manifested itself as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon in the history of Indian nationalism because five master-discourses— colonialism, Orientalism, internationalism, Indian nationalism, plus another indigenous discourse, which I identify as the local, artistic history of the devadasi— came to be imbricated in the cultural reconfigurations effected first in the 1890s, repeated in the 1920s. I shall here… describe how selected traces from the artistic history of the nineteenth century were carefully reclaimed, reassembled, and sutured on to the visual bodies of living devadasis and middle-class women in the twentieth practices of cultural nationalism.”
From Judith Judson’s review in the Journal of Dance Education: “Douglas Knight has given us an exhaustive biography of the illustrious bharata natya dancer T. Balasaraswati. An American percussionist, Knight is also her son-in-law, and his is an insider account of a career that triumphed over formidable social and political difficulties.
Knight has presented the story from the point of view of Bala and her adherents, because her loyalties were given to the principles that had shaped her upbringing. She came from a devadasi family, one of many south Indian families dedicated to temple service as musicians and dancers. These families handed down their art within their own clans, and Bala’s had a heritage of at least five generations of traditional Tamil musical and dance professionalism, closely associated with a royal court. Her mother and grandmother were almost legendary for musical skill. However, the matriarchal and matrilineal traditions of these families were alien to those outside their province, and the devadasis were often stigmatized by accusations of prostitution. Because of Western opposition to the concept of temple dancing, and because traditional royal patronage had almost vanished as the courts became impoverished, the devadasi families had lost most of their time-honored support, and many were forced to scramble for a living in any way they could. These conditions not only caused the loss of a great part of their long-established informed audiences, but aggravated the negative opinions of would-be reformers. Bala’s career therefore was opposed by those who were at first against the very idea of reviving a once vital south Indian dance form, and then, in the name of stamping out prostitution, in preventing its traditional families of practitioners from performing at all.”
Source: Judson, Judith. “Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life.” Journal of Dance Education 11.2 (2011): 68-9
Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans of Bombay Cinema is an important piece of scholarship detailing the representation of tawaifs in Hindi cinema and how these representations shape and were shaped by the culture in which they were produced. Throughout the course of writing this book, Vanita closely studied over 200 films; we encourage encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this valuable book for themselves or their libraries.
A substantial excerpt from this book can be found on The Daily O.
This summary was obtained from the Speaking Tiger website.
“Acknowledging courtesans or tawaifs as central to popular Hindi cinema, Dancing with the Nation is the first book to show how the figure of the courtesan shapes the Indian erotic, political and religious imagination. Historically, courtesans existed outside the conventional patriarchal family and carved a special place for themselves with their independent spirit, witty conversations and transmission of classical music and dance. Later, they entered the nascent world of Bombay cinema—as playback singers and actors, and as directors and producers.
In Ruth Vanita’s study of over 200 films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012)—courtesan characters emerge as the first group of single, working women depicted in South Asian movies. Almost every female actor—from Waheeda Rehman to Rekha and Madhuri Dixit—has played the role, and compared to other central female roles, these characters have greater social and financial autonomy. They travel by themselves, choose the men they want to have relations with and form networks with chosen kin. And challenging received wisdom, in Vanita’s analysis of films such as The Burning Train (1980) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), courtesan characters emerge as representatives of India’s hybrid Hindu-Muslim culture rather than of Islamicate culture.
A rigorously researched and groundbreaking account of one of the less-examined figures in the study of cinema, Dancing with the Nation is also a riveting study of gender, sexuality, the performing arts and popular culture in modern India.”
Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she is pleased to offer this and many of her other scholarly works at her SelectedWorks page.
In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act. Despite having the wholehearted support of the Indian women’s movement of the time, the Act represented the imposition of androcentric values on a matrifocal and matrilineal tradition, a tradition which had for centuries managed to withstand the compulsions of Hindu patriarchy. The devadasis were eventually forced to give up their profession and their unusual way of life. But the dance itself was not lost. It was, instead, reconstructed as a national treasure. One of the consequences of the 1947 Act is that, today in India and all over the world, the temple dance, once exclusively performed by devadasis, is dominated by women of the upper castes. What I intend to do in the following pages is to explore the much suppressed history of the devadasis through a reading of R.K. Narayan’s novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. It might seem strange to readers that I should press this wonderfully funny book into the service of my historical rescue because it is generally interpreted as a story about two male characters, Nataraj and Vasu. These characters are frequently understood as antagonists, with Nataraj symbolizing the harmony that Narayan is supposed to prefer and Vasu the chaos he apparently dislikes. There are alternative explanations.
Jairaj Parekh and his wife Ratna, aging Bharatnatyam dancers, live together in the home of Jairaj’s father, Amritlal. Having retired from an unfulfilling career, Jairaj and Ratna project their hopes for higher achievement onto their daughter, Lata, also a dancer. Generational conflicts abound: Lata attempts to balance her parents’ ambitions with her desire to marry her boyfriend, Viswas; meanwhile, Jairaj and Ratna struggle to work through their longstanding conflict with Amritlal, once a nationalist activist and now a conservative reactionary, who views dancing as the work of prostitutes and whose rigid views of manhood are constantly challenged by his artistic, expressive son. A movie based on the play was released in 2014.
While devadasis are not protagonists in this play, they are nevertheless thematically central: pre-Indian independence, Bharatanatyam was largely performed by devadasis, but the devadasi practice was shamed and outlawed during the Indian nationalist movement as an effort to appeal to colonial conceptions of gender and civility. (Indeed, Amritlal forbids Jairaj from learning dance from a local Devadasi.) This careful exclusion and suppression of female public performers and their associated traits informs much of Amritlal’s character, and by extension, much of the play’s conflict.
Consider the following questions:
- Amritlal, once an activist for the cause of freeing India from British occupation, nevertheless enforces strict binary gender roles. Do these seemingly-contradictory political stances mean Amritlal used to be progressive and is now conservative? Can he be both at one time?
- To what degree can Amritlal be forgiven for his sexism if sexism helped to achieve India’s independence? Similarly, to what degree should women and other marginalized groups be expected to bear oppression in the name of progress? Can progress ever be simple, linear, and teleological?
- In presenting Bharatanatyam as a worthy art form for all genders and non-devadasi dancers, does the narrative appear to validate the devadasi practice, devadasis themselves, and/or devadasis’ artistic skills? Alternatively, is the dance form separated from the devadasis? What assumptions are made about devadasis, if any?
This article explores the state-sponsored dance festivals that emerged in 1950s India and their role in ‘elevating’ certain regional dances and performances to the status of ‘classical.’ Shah explores how this designation of ‘classical’ status acted as a form of appropriation, claiming regional traditions as part of a national identity and shifting ownership of dance traditions away from temples and devadasis to the social elite, altering the dances to fit more ‘classical’ ideals in the process. Shah describes several dances, in both their traditional and classical forms, to illustrate this process of decontextualization and appropriation.
Janet O’Shea explores the differences between the main styles of South India’s bharata natyam dance form and explains the rivalries within this artistic world. Her article compares the kalakshetra style associated with Rukmini Devi and the Tanjore court style of Balasaraswati, examining the differences and similarities between these legendary artists as well. Of special interest is the discussion of how Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati viewed the place of eroticism (sringara) in bharata natyam. O’Shea proceeds to explain the contributions of the devadasis to the development of bharata natyam, moves along to a treatment of the problems of authority and authenticity, and covers other important topics, including the search for a historical origin for bharata natyam.
This paper describes the changes that affected an artist community of Tamil Nadu in the wake of the reform agitation concerning the idiosyncratic life style of a section of its women-the devadasis. The first part reconstructs the devadasi system as it prevailed prior to the 1947 Madras Devadasis Act. The second half describes the effect of these reforms on the social, religious and domestic status of the devadasis. The anti-nautch campaign led to the suppression of the regional dance tradition which had been sustained by the devadasi, while simultaneously the art was being revived in its ‘pure form’ as Bharat Natyam. Srinivasan argues that the paradox of the emergence of two parallel equally vociferous reform and revival movements can only be understood by examining the colonial context and native political activity. While the reformers presented the Hindu temple dancer as a ‘prostitute’ in order to do away with her, the revivalists presented her as a ‘nun’ in order to incarnate her afresh.
From the introduction: “The Promise of critical liberation that postcolonial and transnational perspecties offer by urging us to think the complex imbrication of the global in the local remains an unfulfilled promise in South Asian dance scholarship. I will elaborate this point by describing the global thrust of Rukmini Devi’s art and education movement, which could not be recuperated within the territorializing intellectual framework of Indian nationalism, and explain why she, in fact, manifests herself as a discursive failure in standard scholarly accounts of Bharatanatyam in the United States.”