I might never have given Bharatanatyam and the eroticism in the dance a second thought had it not been for two stories I read almost simultaneously – one that of Rukmini Devi Arundale, the dance form’s fairy godmother, and the other the legend of Arjuna, the Pandava, a character in the Mahabharata who is said to have created the dance during his days with Uloopi, the mystic snake princess who was, in the legend, one of his wives. While the legend and the later “Dasiattam” origins of Bharatanatyam seemed to point to an indisputably erotic past for the dance, students of Arundale’s Kalakshetra and other dancers seemed to be bent on proving to me that the “pristine” form of the dance was the benign movement that Rukmini Devi conceived of.
And so I began to look into what Bharatanatyam really stood for, and in this, came to encounter the enigmatic Devadasi, the traditional performer of this temple dance until the middle years of the last century. Who was this Devadasi? Certainly not the same as the courtesan of Lucknow, Jaipur or Agra. Nor did she practice, as a book I read delicately put it, “the oldest profession in the world”. No? Well, not really, I understood. No. They were, as their names indicated “slaves of the gods.”
Now I must digress in order to take my story ahead. (It’s one of those odd oxymoronic things one does). Chola Emperors, built some of the most imposing temples in South India. The temples of the Chola kings, often dedicated to Shiva, have beautiful bronze idols. Neelakanta Sastri, one of the greatest writers of South Indian history tells us the gods were often modeled after the Chola King in power, the consorts of the gods after the chief queens and the prince-gods after living heirs to the throne. In short, the King, in the intensely patriarchal culture of the medieval times, was god incarnate. Now was the Devadasi also the Rajdasi (slave of the king)? By derivation, yes.
The British began to exercise any real power in India circa the mid 18th century AD. What they did little by little over nearly two centuries of rule, was to dismantle country life in India, with their many taxation systems and doctrines that often drove landlords and princes from their lands into the tows, seeking employment for their education, if not leisure for their birth status. This left the Devadasi bereft of her patrons. She could no longer afford to live the life of power she was used to. But she still had to eat, didn’t she?
And so Devadasi began to do one of two things – either take up prostitution, or begin to perform for money. Money! Such a dirty word to post-Victorian India! To sell the movements of one’s body in tickets and let people come and watch was the greatest sin, it seemed. All of Madras society was scandalized. Apparently Muthulakshmi Reddy – yes the same one who was the first woman doctor in the country – thought so, while she was a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. Though herself the daughter of a Devadasi, she passed a law that – no it did not prevent religious prostitution – prohibited performances by Devadasis. Two things came out of this – one, Bharatanatyam lay on its deathbed, spluttering, coughing and waiting like Lazarus; and two, more Devadasis took to commercial sex work.
Enter Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Brahmin woman who had taken Madras by storm at the age of sixteen when she married the much older Britishman, George Arundale. Arundale decided to learn Bharatanatyam. In her hands, the dance changed. The erotica and the vibrant movements of the past were gone – replaced by a more fluid, less “virile” grace, as it was thought of. The tight sari was replaced by a flowing outfit and lo, Bharatanatyam suddenly became the prerogative of the upper classes.
This is where I begin not to agree with myself sometimes. Undoubtledly, Rukmini Devi Arundale did Bharatanatyam a lot of good. She in fact rescued it from the thralldom of an uncompromising “upper class”. But how? By modifying the dance to suit the conceptions of femininity that the upper classes held. What Arundale did in her revision of Bharatanatyam style was to remove the Dasi from the Attam and replace her with the more demure, less vigorous and outgoing typical upper caste woman. Is this the “pristine” form of the dance?
Bharatanatyam survives today, and has been a great platform for some of the greatest women performers in India, ironically, because one woman decided to pay the price that patriarchy demanded and resuscitated it.