Reviving the Dance of the Devdasis

On a pleasant January afternoon in Chennai’s Jagadambal Colony,a house comes alive with the sound of ghungroos.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Published: January 16, 2012 3:33 am

On a pleasant January afternoon in Chennai’s Jagadambal Colony,a house comes alive with the sound of ghungroos. Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind is teaching a dance piece based on an 18th century javali (classical love song) to a group of budding dancers. The choreography that has Govind sitting down,narrates the tale of a woman who wants her husband to leave the house so that her lover can sneak in. “Here is the real test of a dancer’s abhinaya (physical expression of a sentiment). Her eyes want him to leave but her lips can’t say so,” says Govind,“There is passion and rawness in the eyes and no hidden meanings.” This piece once formed an important part of the devdasi tradition.

Unabashed eroticism was one of the hallmarks of the dance of the devdasis (temple dancers who were adept in music and dance),and Govind is attempting to revive this style. “References to the man in this old javali have been replaced by the name of Gods in modern Bharatanatyam. Passion has been tempered with spirituality,” says Govind,who is a hoarder of memories of the devdasis. “Padams and javalis are ancient poems that,over a period of time,have been interpreted so as to become more acceptable to modern Bharatanatyam. I am trying to be true to the old meaning of the poetry,” says Govind,who learnt javalis from Bharatanatyam doyenne Kalanidhi Narayan. “I did not choose these javalis because of their erotic presentation,” she adds.

The javalis were an important part of Bharatanatyam in the 17th and 18th centuries,when the dance form was practised in temples and courts. When Rukmini Devi Arundale,an eminent Bharatnatyam dancer,revived the art form in the early 20th century,anti-nautch movement had abolished the devdasi system. Arundale lifted the dance,then considered vulgar,to the realm of the sacred and gave Bharatanatyam its modern “respectable” avatar,where the classical heroine was “pure”. What got lost was dancing to the erotic poetry that had formed a part of the devdasi tradition.

In keeping with the devdasi style,Govind mostly performs in a simple Kanjeevaram sari. As she cuts through the reluctance that clouds the pieces,Givind adds that she is keen to explore the other emotions of the devdasi dances also.

Purists are frowning upon this initiative,but Govind seems undeterred. “Promiscuity of a classical heroine may sound out of the ordinary to purists,but this has existed for long. It is all about what the artiste believes in,” she says.

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