Swapnasundari on reviving the agamic dances of the Shaiva tradition and discovering the harmony of all faiths

How does one reach a state of harmony? Celebrated Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Vilasini Natyam exponent Swapnasundari has been subconsciously searching for the answer to that question through much of her professional life. Today she feels, “By fine tuning equanimously the intellectual, the spiritual and the emotional within us — for which a certain sadhana is advocated by every religion.” Therefore, she asks, where is the difference, where is the scope for fighting over different faiths? “Why are there barriers? Why should there be? The philosophy behind the religion is misinterpreted or unexplained; it diverts the attention of the people from the real core, which is the harmonising of the intellectual, the spiritual and the emotional.”

What is significant to the world in general about this deeply personal journey is that she has come to an understanding of the oneness of all faiths through a specific study of Hindu temple rituals: the agama dances prescribed for temples of Vishnu, Shiva and other deities of the Andhra Pradesh/Tamil Nadu region — a study that had its roots in her revival of Vilasini Natyam. “It’s so strange that my continued association with temple worship has made me see that God is not associated with any particular faith, chant, worship.”

On April 18, she is set to present, along with her students, a dance performance based on the Shiva agama tradition at the Ramappa temple, near Warangal city in Andhra Pradesh. The day is of great import to those engaged in the upkeep of heritage, especially of this temple that represents a high point of the Kakatiya culture of mediaeval India. It marks the 800th anniversary of the consecration of the temple, and is also World Heritage Day.

“We are talking about a chapter in history that is even previous to the one I was dealing with in the Vaishnava agamas,” she points out. While the invitation to dance at the Ramappa temple celebrations came only a few weeks ago, she and her students were mentally prepared as their earlier research had included the Shiva agamas too, even though they have been regularly performing temple rituals of the devadasis at an annual festival only at the Vaishnava temple of Ranganathaswami in Hyderabad.

It was in the mid-1990s that she first began to find a link between temple rituals and dance in a practical manner. “All our dances are rooted in religion, worship, temples, inspired by temples and applied to temple tradition.” Like other dancers, she had grown up hearing this statement. “But I tried to find the link between theory and practice.” Here she drew a blank. Since temple dancing was discontinued by law and the practitioners of the art were prevented from doing what they were trained for, “a situation existed where I couldn’t correlate the history with what was happening around me.” Although as a young artiste she continued dancing the stage repertoire as handed to her by her gurus, the missing link continued to bother her.

Once while explaining, during a performance in Kerala, the rituals of Vilasini Natyam as best as she could from her studies, a trustee of the Ranganathaswami temple suggested Swapnasundari take these dances back to their source, and thus came her introduction to one devadasi whose mother had performed the rituals there. At this point, she says, “I had a corpus of dance movements done by the devadasis of the southern and south-eastern part of Madras Presidency. I had notes (about where dance was featured in the temple, etc.) in theory. (And) this lady was like a living link. It was almost something like a call.”

Calling herself “obsessed” with her agamic studies, she says she cannot explain it even to her family, but when she was able to correlate the dance’s history and theory with practice, whatever strain the reconstruction took — finding how to execute obsolete ragas and talas, delving into meanings — she had a feeling that she had “come home”.

“So I was happy giving 70 per cent of my time to this and 30 per cent to other programmes to earn my bread and butter.”

While consolidating the agama dances pertaining to the Vaishnavite tradition, the urge grew that this should be done for other temples too. However, till now she has not had the chance to execute the project in any other temple. “Shiva, Shakti, Ganapati, Muruga…every tradition follows an agamic tradition where music and dance are mandated.”

The research included several meetings with the archakas (chief priests) of the various temples, who were “clueless” due to drying up of the practical tradition. “So we asked them to bring their manuscripts and I pointed out to them the places where dance was mentioned.”

During this ongoing research project she has answered another question she often asked herself: “Am I only an exponent of this evolved dance form, or is my work serving a different purpose (not necessarily better or worse)?”

She realised that dance was “not considered an entertainment alone, though it was also that. Women were expected to execute sophisticated ragas and talas. They were significant functionaries in the temple context.”

In mid-career she had wondered whether, beyond a cultural entertainment, dance was not “an entire education.”

“And it is. When I studied agamic dance, I saw dance is about ideas: why we should live in harmony with nature, ensure a healthy environment. Issues we talk about today are contained in the agamic dances.”

These ideas were encapsulated in ritual, she feels. Today too, people perform dance productions on themes such as saving the environment. But “that classical dance in such a pristine way should deal with these issues so directly — one is like preventive medicine, the other (contemporary work) is curative medicine.”

The performance

The performance at the Ramappa temple is a 55-minute-long “quasi ritual” the dancer explains, as the temple is not a live one and with some pillars and deities either removed or damaged by historical marauders or placed in the museum, the rituals cannot be completed as they are in the Ranganathaswami temple. Plus, she notes, at this relatively lesser known and less accessible temple, “We had to visualise something that would arouse the curiosity and interest of the audience.” The performance includes homage to the vahana of the lord (here, Nandi). Then there is ashtadikpala seva (homage to eight directions). There will be a danced procession from the temple to the stage erected on the grounds and the other dances will be performed there.

The programme is initiated by the Kakatiya Trust supported by the District Administration of Warangal, the Tourism Department of Andhra Pradesh and other agencies.