It’s high time we restore the original stature to the temple dance forms

Over the years, one can observe the drifting away from a strong basis in Shaivagāmas (the ritualistic texts of worship) to the present form in classical dances, especially in Bharatanātyam. This gap is widening day by day due to the global virtual world where international acceptance is pursued relentlessly. The shift from temples and royal courts itself left a void in all our traditional arts.

The history

The historical resuscitation of dance had brought about noticeable changes in the classical dance presentations that came to modern proscenium theatres, paring down the typical traits of Devadāsis’ performances. The focus shifted from a highlighted union with the deity as a consort – sringāra to a supplicated devotion – bhakti. Rasarāja sringāra which meant the entire celebration of life through art was reduced from sacred to profane. However, sringāra element in Sadir, the precursor to Bharatanātyam was never obscene but was an expression of unconditional love in self-surrender to the deity. But the aim of the reformers was to restore dignity to a dying art. The deepest shaivāgamic and tāntric elements had to be concealed in the background as tantra, the esoteric science behind so many traditions, became maligned due to some charlatans who had fascinated an all-consuming material world. Dance among other temple arts was now to get magnified as a divine art which it was anyway. The ‘puritan’ colonialism had got appalled by the portrayal of erotic love. The physical expression of love, whether in kāvya or nātya, was in Indian eyes, equally divine and not isolated from the absolute principle of God. On the one hand were our gurukula systems where transcendental knowledge – parā vidyā (including our arts) and conceptual knowledge – aparā vidyā were transmitted and transferred from guru to shishya through oral tradition and deep understanding of each other. On the other hand was the highly mechanized learning with a penchant for experimental philosophy and recorded history. In any case, it emerged later that the intentions of the mastermind rulers were much deeper. Politics was seen to be deliberately misinterpreting ritual and art with masked ulterior motives. Samskritam that is the ethos of Bharat and Sanskrit, as well as all the ancient bhāshas, were to get sidelined while English culture, education and a ‘baptized pedagogy’ mounted the pedestal.

Can we lift the curse of the Devadāsis?

The movement that was triggered to uplift the art and save from extinction failed to recognize the sincerity and helplessness of thousands of dancers, dedicated to temples – Deivadiyars in Tamil Nadu called differently in other places but meaning the same – servers of the deity. Shaivāgamas sanction the dances as one of the greatest offerings to the Lord. Those who were held in high esteem like the priests became plundered along with the temples. They were usurped of earnings and damaged for posterity. The hallowed word Deivadiyars became tarnished to Tevadiyar (prostitute).

Meanwhile, the dancing format underwent a cosmetic appeal with a certain western sophistication as against a rustic contour of the devadāsi, whose simple intentions had sadly become skewed. K Chandrasekharan writes in The Illustrated Weekly of India, 1961 that the fillip given to such ancient traditional forms as the Sadir, Bhagavata Mela, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, and Yakshagana by the revival movements in the country, has not been to their advantage completely. He adds that we often find corrupt tendencies and outlandish tastes that are insinuating, in order to make the art fashionable. Today, there is no definite demarcation either in styles of the Vazhuvur, Pandanallur, Tanjore, Melattur or even between the different classical dances themselves. The distinction between Odissi and Bharatanātyam, Kuchipudi and so on are getting blurred. Widespread ignorance of the origin and dancing without any supervision, benchmark or propriety is an alarming sign. Teaching standards have slackened off in general and there are hardly any survivors of the Devadāsi/Nattuvanar or Isai Vellalar communities who are teaching. The few male descendants who had moved to bigger towns in the past established schools offering good training – Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir in Mumbai of Tanjavur Parampara is one of them.

The scenario since last few decades and continuing

The tastes of today’s youth on a fast-track are like the Mexican wave, the monetary and lucrative gains forming the acid test of growth. Often the cornerstone in the development of children and choice of careers itself is – how much material profit is procured! From one dance form to another, the cafeteria approach of today’s quicksilver generation has led to a conflated identity. Canons have been replaced, if not subverted. The trend today in the arts is to conjecture a hypothetical presentation, mainly for social media, a mixed bag often flavoured with fusion and innovation; making any unequivocal interpretation genuinely unlikely. Dance artistes aspire for glamorous appeal in presentations, often commonplace, with mere teasers of erstwhile masterpieces. Facial expressions as soloists are usually the hallmark of Indian classical dances.

The spiritual significance of the dance can best be realized as a soloist with intense concentration. It is not possible to generate this while one has to dance in tandem with others in programmed/rehearsed movements. The constantly evolving dances have developed into reduced solos and increasing demand for group productions. Besides this, logistic constraints have reduced live performances to standardized record dances. Manodharma or intuitive spontaneity on stage being the cornerstone to determine the mettle of a dancer is rarely seen and devoid of scope when artists perform to pre-recorded music. There is also the unavailability of accompanists who are literally jumping from one rehearsal to another or consistently engaged by the Indian diaspora. In major cities and in many parts of the USA and other nations, teaching Indian dance as a social status for the elite is a lucrative profession and sometimes, intersperses with Bollywood dancing. Run of the mill, exorbitant Arangetrams are conducted with pomp in stark contrast with the initiation ceremony of a temple dancer.

Dasi to Diva 

Although aimed at, the exalted term ‘devi’ never genuinely replaced the undermined ‘dasi’- instead, we have ordained ‘divas’ today. How many dancers want to perform the typical traditional numbers, in a relaxed tempo, accentuating gradually, based on a composer’s journey towards the deity in the heart? How many dancers want to perform at temple festivals in smaller towns? This is hardly a choice opted for, instead of lobbying for a slot in the festivals of India at foreign lands, again curated to suit and match western taste and standards, known for group coordination with hardly any abhinaya. The demand from organizations to promote artists and biased platforms creates lobbying and a rat race for bagging prime slots. It is rather unfortunate that the aesthetic dance gestures using the hands are also being misinterpreted in some places. If one does not have love and devotion to the deities whom one personifies in the dance, then it is neither worth the effort nor the material reward as Bharata has clearly stated its higher purpose.

The drama off stage to present oneself on stage gets demeaning to the art itself. Artistes perform for the gallery too, for example, modify the dance movement to include acrobatics or faked dance steps beyond acceptable standards. Benchmarks have been laid to an Indian dance from the non-Indian panorama in this respect. The state and national organizations propagating our culture in place of the kings who were the chief patrons those days have their own parameters and justification, dominated by several factors, mostly beyond merit. These determine the journey that these performing arts have been taking.

Another development is that most universities propagating studies in our performing arts are doing so without due regard to the origin in Nātya Shāstra and the Agamas (Benares Hindu University is a rare treasure in this respect). In the bargain, these temple ritualistic arts are branded as ‘secular’! Well, ‘secular’ it is and mainly because it is rooted in the Hindu philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ with the many moods depicted as sthāyi bhāvās as predominantly inherent and discovered in all humans. This rasa or aesthetic bliss realized through the drama creates the ‘one experience of consciousnesses. Added to this is the supreme form of the divine embedded in the mime and movement employed in the structure of the dance. The very repertoire is the entry into the temple with alarippu, the sanctum in the varnam and circumambulation in tillana. Why not acknowledge this as the effect of the cause that it is Hindu art? By Hindu, is not meant a religion of dogma but a river that eternally flows, a way of life. Bharata the muni was a great Hindu Shaiva – a Trika Kashmiri sage who propounded this greatest treatise of all times.

Time to act

It is high time we restored the original unalloyed stature to the temple dances. Some time and effort can be directed towards identifying the senior ‘exiled’ practitioners in rural pockets of the country by locating them around Sri Venugopalaswamy temple or Sri Brahadeeshwara temple. Very few of them, who are learned, living in remote areas of Raichur etc in Karnataka, do not want to come out lest they become disreputable again. We need to bridge the gnawing gap between prayoga and shastra – practice and theory. A majority of the truly erudite in these shāstrās cannot express themselves in English. There are many terms that can never be properly translated like for example, any definition of ‘rasa’ seems a parody! Books on ‘rasa sutra’ in some universities in the west have raised several contradictions lacking innate understanding and the pundits here find them even disparaging.

Shiva (Nataraja) – The Cosmic Dancer

Progenitors of this supreme art are our rishis who eulogized the cosmic dancer Shiva, epitomized as Nataraja who adorns several modern laboratories as the closest image of the dancing particles! Let’s be ‘proud’ of our inheritance. ‘Bharat – awake-arise-act’!

About the author

Dr Padmaja Venkatesh (Suresh)

Experienced and noted artiste of Bharatanatyam, teacher, researcher, TV host and social worker, Dr Padmaja holds degrees in Commerce, Law, Diploma in choreography, a Masters in Philosophy and a doctorate. Her institution Aatmalaya Academy, Bangalore imparts training and has a charitable wing Kalachaitanya for propagating arts for lesser privileged and rural children.

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  • Very good effect and research and good information . We have to proud of our culture. I salute. you .; Congratulations and God bless you