The works of two foreign artistes helped fight the stigma against devadasis and paved the way for Bharatanatyam
India’s classical dances have long fascinated the world, and Madras, being in many ways, the cultural capital, has witnessed many interactions between Indian and western artistes. These have given birth to interesting cross-cultural collaborations.
Sleepy Madras was all agog when Ragini Devi arrived in 1930. Despite the name, she was no Indian. Born Esther Sherman at Michigan in 1893, dance was a passion for her, since childhood. She specialised in Indian history and culture at university, where she also married an Indian.
Moving to New York in 1922, she began giving dance performances under the name of Ragini Devi. Separating from her husband in 1930, she arrived in Madras to learn dancing formally.
Here, she gave birth to her only child — the dancing star of the future — Indrani Rahman. In Madras, Ragini Devi learnt dancing from Mylapore Gowri Ammal, the devadasi who had been attached to Kapaleeswarar Temple. From Madras, she moved to Kerala to become the first woman to study Kathakali. She then embarked on a performing tour with Kathakali maestro Gopinath and travelled all over India between 1933 and 1936.
In October 1933, Ragini Devi spoke at The Music Academy on her impressions of Indian dance. This was to be a crucial intervention at a time when there was a debate raging in Madras on devadasis and classical dance. She was to remain a regular visitor, and in 1972, she published her seminal work Dance Dialects of India. She passed away in the US in 1982.
Another interesting personality was British-born Constance Harding. An indefatigable traveller, she was arrested in the Soviet Union in 1922 on charges of being a spy. In later accounts, she was to say that the only way she kept warm in Russian prison was by performing south Indian ritual dances. These, she had probably seen during an earlier visit to Madras. Released in 1923, following British diplomatic intervention, she became a “world-wanderer” in her own words.
In 1932, thanks to a grant, she arrived in Madras, to make a ‘sound film’ on the ritual dances of devadasis. She involved herself in debates surrounding nautch and spoke at the Music Academy’s conference of 1933. She was one of the first to suggest that the hereditary practitioners of the art could teach it to young aspirants from all classes of society. She was also of the view that the devadasis ought not to be discriminated against and that their private lives were their own business.
Sadly, her attempt at filmmaking was not to succeed. She returned to England in 1934 but remained interested in south Indian dance. Photographs taken by her during her visit to India now form part of a private trust in England.
The two women are not remembered today but in their own small ways, they ensured that our own Bharatanatyam retained its place under the sun.