Last month, in the middle of Chennai’s famed Margazhi season, connoisseurs at the Brahma Gana Sabha were taken by surprise when they realised that the young Bharatanatyam dancer on stage was not winding up her performance with the traditional mangalam (an offering of thanks to god). Instead, Nrithya Pillai, 32, read out the preamble and concluded it by raising the slogan Jai Bhim.
Those who have followed Pillai’s trajectory in the last few years were not surprised, having seen the dancer ask tough questions of the Bharatanatyam tradition, to which she is linked by lineage. Pillai belongs to the Isaivellalar, a hereditary musical community living in Tamil Nadu for centuries. Some of the Isaivellalar women, known as the devadasis, occupied a place of power and prestige, through the practice of music and dance in temples, courts and public spaces . The devadasi system was abolished starting in the 1920s, after a campaign led by nationalist forces against its “immorality” and the suspicion that the women were “prostitutes”.
Pillai is among a handful of people from the community who continue to practice Bharatanatyam today. Even until the 1950s, the Madras Music Academy hosted artistes from the community, like Kumbakonam Varalakshmi, Bhanumathi , and the legendary Balasaraswati. “Why is that we do not get a space in the Sabhas anymore ?” asks Nrithya.
Pillai’s performances, and her talks on the history of her community, is her way of reclaiming the tradition. She points out that the 1927 legislation to abolish the devadasi system was led by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a medical practitioner and member of the Madras Legislative Council, whose mother was from the devadasi community. “Many devadasis wrote letters and legal petitions against it.
They termed the reform measures a human-rights violation as the devadasi community was disenfranchised and denied their right to livelihood based on art. But the entire community was targeted by the government and criminalised, the term devadasi itself now having become a slur word. We were treated like a morally fallen sect, and this label eventually cancelled our right to dance and access to our own heritage. Then, the art was opened up for others, upper-caste Hindus,” Pillai says. To arguments of oppression in the system, she counters: “But tell me which system doesn’t have it? Is the Music Academy in Chennai devoid of complaints of oppression and sexual abuses? What one should think about is why the victims were morally policed and branded as prostitutes while the male patrons were left unscathed.”
Last year, at a Natya Kala Conference, Pillai’s talk on caste, gender and privilege in Bharatanatyam earned her the wrath of a prominent critic, whose write-up was soon shared by many upper-caste dancers on social media, including those who learnt dance from her grandfather, the late Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai. It called her an “angry and venomous person,” and led to her being barred by prominent sabhas.
But Pillai’s decision to speak up has given strength to other dancers from her community. “It was almost a shame (to state that one belongs to the devadasi community) earlier,” says a Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai, requesting anonymity, because they feared a backlash from “a largely Brahmin-dominated circle of dancers”. Another dancer from Coimbatore, who follows Pillai’s performances and talks, says, “They labelled an entire community as fallen but Nrithya presents a more wholesome representation of the problem and allows us to engage in a new narrative that doesn’t brand them all as prostitutes,” she says.
Pillai argues that the abolition was sociocultural violence against the Isaivellalar. While the women were denied entry by law, “the society used the men from the same community to learn this art form, turning them into Bharatanatyam gurus of the new elite .” She remembers her own grandfather as a gentle artiste, who never got his due in terms of recognition and remuneration. “Even if he had dreams for me, women in the family were wary about my interest to become a dancer or artist because of the societal stigma. He was a kind teacher. But the situation of Isaivellalar men also did not allow them to be assertive or demand respect,” she says.
In her talks, Pillai speaks with pride about women in her community, pioneers of the dance form, their history and her family lineage, and dedicates each piece to a dancer from her community. “Even if the society did not encourage me to take pride in my hereditary lineage, I always instinctively felt proud about my ancestry” she says.
The reformers, led by Reddy, did not emphasize on the fact that the Isaivellalars were a matrilineal caste, where women enjoyed many rights. “It was a powerful system and ensured the social security of women…devadasi women had access to land, money and social structures, unlike most women from other castes and communities at that point in time ” Pillai says. A new, more conservative morality of the early 20th century failed to acknowledge that.
One of the padams she performed at Brahma Gana Sabha last month was Yaarukkakilum Bhayamaa, which asks, “Why should I be scared of anyone?” Do these radical steps, the chanting of “Jai Bhim” make her a Periyarist or Ambedkarite ? “I wouldn’t want to label myself as both at present although I definitely feel a sense of affinity towards anti-caste ideologies ” she says. The 1927 legislation that said that “any women dancing in a social gathering in the temple premises, or any place, is a crime,” was supported not only by Reddy but also a social reformer like Periyar, she points out. “Today Periyarists and Ambedkarites consider Bharatanatyam as an art form of the upper castes . Now with my political and social stance as someone from a marginalized community, they have started engaging with me,” Pillai says.
The Isaivellalar was disempowered both by the left and the right, says Pillai, because “morality for everyone is Brahminical” and female sexuality was suspect for all. Pillai sees the purge of the devadasis from classical music and dance as a “process of appropriation”. “Our saviours and enemies are the same. Those fighting for the ‘lower caste’ and marginalised are also upper caste… This has been so for time immemorial,” she says.
“The devadasi system is long gone but we are its remnants. But someone like me reclaiming my heritage is like saying we are the daughters of the witches you burnt.”
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