I started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of three but it wasn’t till 15 years later that I realised what I was learning was very different from what my friends were learning,” says dancer and historian Swarnamalya Ganesh, referring to the subaltern form of Bharatanatyam, and its precursor, Sadir. Performed by devadasis within the confines of temples, the form received its first setback with the abolition of the devadasi system and then, with its subsequent institutionalisation. As its exponents were swept to the margins, so was Sadir. “That Bharatanatyam is pedestaled irked me. The technique with which I imbued it was very different from ‘Bharatanatyam’. But my guru, KJ Sarasa, kept calling it Bharatanatyam because that was her way of finding validation in the midst of this elitist Madras crowd. So, for the longest time I thought I was doing Bharatanatyam, when really what I was performing was Sadir,” says the 37-year-old artiste.
Ganesh, who was in the Capital to participate at the Delhi International Arts Festival with pieces from her repertoire titled Choreographing Society — A Tryst with Destiny, performed Tuesday evening at the Central Park. Pegged on Nehru’s speech delivered on the eve of the country’s independence, through the performed pieces, she beckons a re-choreographing of India’s destiny — “particularly the destiny of its women” — mounting her performance on judicial verdicts. “If we want to understand our tryst with destiny then I think it is important to look at ‘democracy’. Democracy gives you the hope that if society does not choreograph itself well, then there’s someone, somewhere to tweak that destiny,” says the Chennai-based artiste.
The first piece explored the “fluidity of identities” and the moralities these identities straddle, furthering Justice DY Chandrachud’s judgement on Section 377, through the composition Pedi Aadal taken from the Sangam period Tamil epic, Manimekalai. The poem describes a man’s metamorphosis into a transwoman, ending with the declaration that he could mould himself, yet again, along heteronormativity. “This is the idea of fluidity that even the judgement spoke of. It is not per se the revocation of the ban but that democracy should allow you to be fluid with your identities. Of course, the social milieu gives you identities but we should be able to choose what we want to be,” says Ganesh.
Reflecting on the devadasi’s tryst with democracy, her passage from the Kumbha Harati (pot lamp) wielding worshipper, to the prakara and then finally to the margin before being absolutely ousted, Ganesh makes a case for shifting the moral lens. It is the referencing of a traditional form against progressive ideas that defines her work. “Having lived and worked with them, I know how dignified they are. And this is not even a vouching to their personal dignity but to the system to which they belong. It’s not as licentious, promiscuous or even sensational as we’d like to believe. We must remember that they were within a caste hierarchy and it is patriarchy that defined roles for them,” she says.
“When they banned them (devadasis) from performance, did they look at what they would do next?” asks Ganesh, with Nehru’s 1947 speech gesturing a re-contextualisation of not just social forms but also artistic ones. Ganesh evokes the question of entering the temple once again. With a reference to Sabrimala, she raises timely questions through a piece called Nirnaya. “I think the idea of re-entering the temple is a substantial move. It’s not about the devadasi going back and becoming the high priestess but it’s substantial. In the piece, there is a crescendo of movement and music that leads you to silence, a point of absoluteness and I thought interspersing that with what Nehru says,” says Ganesh, whose earlier works, such as Where Stories Take Form based on the music and dance of the 18th and 19th centuries of Madras Presidency or performance-cum-lecture series, ‘From the Attic’, which delve into the lost repertoires, too speak from a place of scholarly authority, intervening in popularly held notions that perpetuate the status quo.
No stranger to the cost of disrupting the status quo, she was unceremoniously dropped from an event organised by the Sahitya Akademi on December 11 and 12 for the support she lent to the #MeToo cases that surfaced against lyricist Vairamuthu alleging sexual harassment. “Soon after the movement gained support, they came back with the offer of presenting a lecture and not a dance performance. It is the nurturing of the thinking mind that they do not want. They want stagnant minds that can just reiterate what is comfortable with them,” she says.
Similarly, contrasting institutionalised Bharatanatyam with Sadir, Ganesh spoke of Manodharma (the concept of extempore) being rehearsed by many classical artistes. “In Bharatanatyam, you are really not encouraged to explore. So, at best you are pretending and you might be pretending very well but that is something these women never asked me to do.” Perhaps this is why, despite the similarities in grammar and vocabulary, the two forms yield very different stories. As Ganesh gestures her own, and those of the women who taught her Sadir, she tempts yet another tryst with destiny.