Archana Subramanian caught up with director Sandhya Kumar about the unconventional short film on the devadasi tradition that won a National Award this year

A wandering poet-musician, Kshetrayya wrote songs for devadasis, the dancing courtesans at the courts of the 17th century Nayaka kings. His padams became the most cherished songs of love. O Friend, This Waiting! reflects on the entwined fortunes of the padams and the women they were written for. The 32-minute short won the National Award in the Art/Cultural category for its wholly unconventional investigation of the Devadasi tradition in South India, combining an appreciation of this delicate and sensuous art form with sociological exploration.

Why did you pick devadasis as your subject?

One needs to understand the Kshetrayya padams and their connection with devadasis, which is why we could not make a film on this poetry without addressing the nature of the women who performed them. Padams are songs of love, their nature is passion — sometimes sublimated, sacred — other times consummated, profane. Here couched in metaphor, there stated plainly, blatant and sexual, padams were sung by the devadasi.

A social history of the devadasi is linked inexorably with the padam. The phenomenon of the dancing girl or the celestial nymph is apparent throughout large, if not all, parts of Indian history. She seems to have represented social ambiguity towards female sexual freedom. Celebrated for her artistry in royal functions, revered for her auspiciousness in the temple, she was also maligned as prostitute.

In the highly eroticised culture of the Nayaka period, the arts were a strong tool for re-enforcing as well as exploring this dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Within this paradigm, the padamwas an important vehicle.

What kind of research did you do and how did you then scale it down to a 32-minute film?

We did extensive research using books on the 17th century Nayaka society, on Carnatic music, on various translations of Kshetrayya’s padams over the years, and on devadasis. We met many musicians, musicologists and historians in Chennai including TM Krishna, Rama Ravi, and Dr. SAK Durga. Justin, my co-director, had been working on Kshetrayya’s padams for many years, studying and creating choreographic works based on his life and poetry. When he approached me to make a film, we both felt it would be a rewarding experience. Unlike the stage, the seamless movement between time and space that film offers was very attractive because we could move away from the proscenium stage and instead, in a matter of minutes, travel to the various spaces of performance of Kshetrayya’s padams in Tamil Nadu, from 17th century temples and palaces to the streets of Mylapore to the home of Rama Ravi, a present-day padam singer in Chennai.

How did the National Award happen, do you think?

I think our film won because of its unusual approach to film form and storytelling. From the start we knew we didn't want this to be a film only about the history of the padam. We wanted it to be sensual. How could we make the viewer experience 17th century Tamil Nadu without resorting to recreating sets. How could we make a lay person appreciate the aesthetics of the padam without having a musician explain them. And how do we communicate that the padam is not a lost or dying form, but very much part of the performance repertoire even today. I think the film stood out because we managed to accommodate all these concerns and make a film that is both visually and sensually rich.

What has the public reaction been?

People have been hugely appreciative and moved by its aesthetic sense. Many have said that they feel the film is like a padam in itself. There were people who had never heard the word padam before, there were people who didn't know the connection of devadasis to Bharatanatyam, and then there were people who knew many of Kshetrayya's poems and wanted to know why we had chosen the six we had and why we hadn’t delved deeper into his biography and instead spent so much time exploring the mind of the devadasi. In general, I would say the response has been positive, rewarding and even humbling for me as a filmmaker, because those who like the film have bought copies and shown it in schools and their friend circles.

A lot of culture and history seems to be dying as they remain untold. Do you think movies are the way forward?

I definitely think so. For instance, if Satyajit Ray had not made his film on Balasaraswati, we would have almost no moving images of her. Film has the ability to document and archive and do it aesthetically, while locating the subject in a context. I'd also like to add that the India Foundation for the Arts has made a tremendous contribution towards creating visual archives of dying and lesser known arts through film grants. Our film too was funded by one such grant.

What's in the pipeline?

Well, something very different, a film on hockey. Called Hockey in my Blood, it is about hockey in Coorg, set in the backdrop of the Kodava Hockey Festival, an annual tournament played between family clans. Hosted by rotation among families, the tournament features more than 3,000 players from over 200 families playing for little other than family pride. There is no bar on age or gender. The only rule of forming a team is that all members must be from the same family.