Asian Music and Dance

Vilasini Natyam – Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers 

After authoring The World of Kuchipoodi Dance, a seminal text on this dance form, Padma Bhushan recipient Swapnasundari recently launched Vilasini Natyam-Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers. A pioneer in the Indian classical dance styles of bharatanatyam and koochipudi, Vilasini Natyam is Swapnasundari’s magnum opus devoted to the tradition of temple dancing and its carriers, the Andhra Kalaavanthulu (the Devadasis).

Vilasini Natyam, as she explains, is a term coined in 1995 by the late Telugu scholar, poet and cultural historian, Dr Arudra. It was announced at a public function in Chennai at the 400-year-old Ranganatha Swamy Temple, which had reinstated ritual dance to regular worship for the first time since Independence. 

The author begins by stating her identity as a Telugu artist and her belief that the heritage of Andhra has not had the recognition it deserves. She gives the example of the 1881 Madras Presidency census report, which clubbed all dancers under the term ‘Tanjore’ to the dilution of the identity of the Telugu temple dancers. Through interviews and direct documentation of demonstrations by hereditary dancers the author establishes the unique identity of the Telegu tradition. In this task she also researched rare books and manuscripts, held in public and private collections.

In ten well-presented chapters the author traces the development of the form against the political and social changes as well as devoting some chapters exclusively to technique. In the chapters Bhumika and Charitraka she describes the roles and duties of temple dancers and how these compared with the practices of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia that also employed young girls to dance in the service of gods. She recounts the 10-12th century, which was ‘a glorious period for the dance as women vied for a position in temples, due to socio economic reasons’, and the 18th century, which witnessed the rise of European colonialism, which was responsible for the ‘corruption of Natya or dance to Nautch’, a vulgarised form that started the decline. Finally, she describes the dismal decay of temple dance from the middle of the 20th century, when under the Anti Devadasi Act of 1947, the practice was outlawed and the dis-enfranchised dancers had no means of holding on to their art form or earning their bread. 

The text pitches back and forth over the centuries to add interesting dimension such as the migration and travels of Telugu scholars, musicians, poets and artistes. This had a major impact on the cultural expressions outside the Andhra mainland – as far as Delhi in the North, leading to the propagation, assimilation and perhaps dilution of the Andhra traditions. 

The chapters on Angikam and Satvika are a delight for every dance lover as she elaborates the training, technique and repertoire of Vilasini Natyam, distinguishing between the material performed in temples from that danced at the royal courts. Interesting nuggets are highlighted such as abhinaya classes held in late evenings to enable the dancer to perform subtle nuances in the light of an oil lamp, and the use of manodharma (improvisation). She also describes the creation of ‘mezuvani javalis’ or songs deployed in abhinaya sequences which were created for the Muslim landed gentry patrons and so called ‘company javelis’, influenced by Western popular songs for the entertainment of the East India Company officials. 

In the chapter on Rupika she details the ornaments, dress, toiletries, make-up and hair-styles used in the Vilasini form as well as by the womenfolk in those centuries, with meticulous drawings and photographs. 

Her last chapter Nivedika, interestingly points out how the male offspring of the Telugu Devadasis forbade their females from dancing, while ironically, pursuing their artistic interests to become popular musicians, actors and film directors. 

Swapnasundari is an artful literary stylist. She has penned a definitive, vivid and convincing academic record of the Andhra temple dance traditions. With ten chapters, equally proportioned across 158 pages, enhanced by illustrations and over 200 photographs (many of which appear in print for the first time), the book is a sumptuous delight.

Early in the text, Swapnasundari quotes Joseph Campbell – ‘Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again’. It’s a sentiment that most succinctly sums up the book.



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