Dr. Aishwarya Preman
Amongst the most revered classical dance forms prevailing in South India, Bharathanatyam is considered to be the oldest and its social status seems to be elite with its high caste founding. The origin of this highly technical art form flooded with abhinaya/rasas(facial expressions) belongs to Devadasi community(Issai Vellaala community) who used to perform in temples to entertain upper caste temple clan.
Veteran writer and journalist TJS George in his book ‘MS -A life in music’ published by Harper Collins has portrayed the life story of legendary singer M.S Subbualakshmi, the first woman who was awarded with Bharat Ratna. He has narrated that this great singer belonged to Devadasi community and she strived enormously to get out of the tyranny of being a Devadasi. Unlike her mother, she desired to be a singer rather than a dancer chiefly to get out of the temple extravaganza in front of the landlords and upper caste people which made her abscond at the age of sixteen and reach Madras. The rest is the nation’s musical history.
In the 19th century, the colonial British government started trouncing the devadasi dance performed in temples. Little did they know that this art form had a divine power and it would blossom into one of the most fascinating dance form in the whole world.
Giving birth to the term Bharathanatyam, E.Krishna Iyer saved this art form from getting demolished. Although he was arrested and sentenced to prison for raising voice in favour of this classical art form, legendary dancers like Rukminidevi Arundale succeeded in growing and spreading Bharathanatiyam across the world and in 1940, it started flourishing outside the temples too enhancing the ‘aahaarya’, ‘abhinaya’. Illustrious legends like Padmabhushan Padma Subramaniam triumphed in nourishing this art profoundly.
It started sprouting more and more, even foreign dancers like Esther Sherman joined the movement to save ‘natya’, ‘nritha’ and ‘nrithya’. But the Britishers could succeed in provoking some of the upper caste nationalists who then manipulated the origin of devadasi art form ultimately sowing the seeds of caste bias in this angelic dance form too.
But while striving to make the history forget it’s devadasi foundation, they failed to grasp the fact that Bharathanatyam would have nurtured its divinity even if it was not given an upper caste origin. For this artistic yoga never knew the difference between a ‘vellaala’ and a Brahmin. The ragas would have had the same melodies even if it was not snatched from the ‘isai vellaala’ community(lower caste). Thaalaas would have remained rhythmic even if it was revealed that this art form has peer and solid relation with devadasi culture as it has with Natyashastra. The purity and richness would have been the same even if Bharathanatiyam was not alloyed.
The enchantress of ‘bhava’ remains the same in a Brahmin girl’s and a devadasi girl’s face. Its marvellous ‘lasya’ would haven’t changed even if there was not an involvement of caste in this auspicious art form. The gracious gestures in ‘vaishnavism’, ‘shaivism’ and ‘shakthism’ would have blossomed even if its roots had a ‘dasi’ foundation. It would have been more robust if the femininity of devadasis was not suppressed. It would have been great if the world appreciated their outstanding talent. The history of Bharathanatyam would have still been one of the most fascinating one even if it was not remodeled.