The large pillared halls of the Ulsoor Someshwara temple, one of the oldest in Bengaluru, bustles with activity and hundreds of devotees. The Vijayanagara-style mandapa holds several stories — the most prominent of which is of a woman who shaped the Bengaluru temple paddhati of Bharatanatyam.
Though much of the city’s music and dance history has been lost in the sands of time, B.L. Rice’s Mysore Gazeteer is an important source of information. Published sometime after 1873, it mentions two temple dancers, Mariya Sani and her daughter Venkatasundara Sani, who were associated with the Ulsoor Someshwara temple.
Venkatasundara Sani was born into the hereditary dance community that performed in temples, and is believed to have lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Proficient in music, dance, poetry, and languages such as Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada, she had also studied ancient treatises and movement systems. In 1908, under the aegis of the Mysore Trading Agency, Venkatasundara Sani published a book titled Rasikajana Manollasini, also known as Sarasangraha Bharatha Shastra.
The book is a stunning revelation about dance of the early 20th century. Only four chapters survive, yet they cover a wide range — poetry, dramatics, music, gesture, posture, and temple rituals. Venkatasundara employs precision in her codifications, several of which are similar to those found in the Natyashastra and Abhinaya Darpana. The book is written in a complex combination of Kannada, Sanskrit and Telugu, often mixing phrases and vocabulary from each language in interesting ways.
From the language used extensively in the book and a study of dancing communities of Kolar and Bengaluru, it is likely that Venkatasundara Sani was of Telugu origin. The suffix ‘Sani’ is used by many belonging to the Kalavantulu community, and also, Kolar’s dance tradition indicates that the prominent hereditary nattuvanars here were of Telugu origin.
Her inclusion into the Bengaluru dance landscape points to the cosmopolitan cultural fabric of the city even at the turn of the 19th century. A contemporary of other famous dancers of the time such as Bangalore Nagaratnamma and Kumbakonam Balamani, Venkatasundara Sani was a woman of conviction. In the very first chapter of her book, she writes: “To be habitually isolated is my method. This human body is full of lust and is temporary. But the soul is permanent.” Her ruminations are intriguing — What made her pen such lines? Who was her target audience?
At the time when Sani was writing the book, there was an ominous shift in the political climate, with increasing hostility towards hereditary dancers. By the late 1800s, dancers were being replaced in temples with dolls. The year 1910 saw the beginning of a ban on dancers in temple spaces. The tradition was on the brink of fading away. Venkatasundara left for us her text as a reminder of a precious tradition. Perhaps she believed that the temple tradition would always hold relevance and thus dedicated herself to the project of documenting it.
The most important piece of repertoire mentioned in Rasikajana Manollasini is the ritual dance known as the Ashtadikpala Pushpanjali. Venkatasundara mentions each of the eight cardinal gods, followed by Eeshaana (the abstract form of Shiva) as being propitiated with different types of white flowers including jasmine, hibiscus, lily and tuberose. She incorporates ritualistic actions into the dance such as prokshanam (sprinkling of water to sanctify space) and even performs a small shlokam with specific mudras, movements and postures (karanas and charis). She uses the term ‘Bharatha Natyam’ to refer to her dance, by saying “Someshwarasya agre sthitham Bharatha Natyam karayeth” (performing Bharatha Natyam at the Someshwara temple).
The book also offers interesting insights into food and medicine. Venkatasundara includes a basic paanakam recipe with mulberries, as well as home remedies for cold, fever and joint pain. This not only indicates her vast education but reiterates that a dancer’s understanding of the human body remains essential, then or now.
As urbanisation took over, Venkatasundara Sani’s voice was drowned in the melee of development. Her contribution to the documentation of Bengaluru’s dance tradition is invaluable, and her perspective is surprisingly personal. Many such stories of the women, who shaped India’s cultural history remain hidden in forgotten temples and manuscripts, waiting to be discovered.
The Bengaluru-based writer is a dancer and research scholar.