The need for an inclusive dance discourse

Yashoda Thakore first learnt of the famed courtesans Muddupalani and Rangajamma when she did her Master’s in dance. Her grandmother had recounted Muddupalani’s acclaimed work ‘Radhika Santvanam’ as a gem of Telugu literature, well-known for its ‘Radha bhava’. Yashoda was thrilled at the very idea that she could be a descendant of someone like Rangajamma who was renowned for her beauty and literary talent. Her professor painted these women as illusory beings!

However, she found a silver lining in her hard-earned dancing career when she witnessed Maddula Lakshmi Narayana first perform — a woman who was probably in her 70s and was certainly not an “ethereal beauty” by today’s ‘standards’. “Draped in a silk sari replete with a waist belt, kaasulaperu and bulaaq, she blasted to life,” says Yashoda. “I wept quietly in the darkness but I felt relieved. Here was Maddula Lakshmi Narayana, a Kalavantulu woman who sang and danced! She was real! Her hair was haggard like mine. She was dark-skinned and possessed a bony structure. She was me!”

Yashoda, in conversation with her student Sampreeti Malladi, captivates listeners through many such compelling narrations in her podcast ‘Her Story of Dance’. The expansive podcast discusses the alienation of Kalavantulu hereditary performing artistes of the coastal Andhra region from the dance discourse and educates the audience on caste, regionality and cultural hegemony in the context of the appropriation of art from these communities. A number of guest speakers bring in diverse perspectives to the discussion; the list of scholars and artistes who have pitched in is a long one — Saskia Kersenboom, Rumya Putcha, Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, Urmimala Sarkar, Yendamuri Subba Rao, Suneeta Rani, and Srividya Natarajan.

The need for an inclusive dance discourse

Finding herself

Yashoda’s search for her roots took her to little hamlets in Rajahmundry and other regions in Andhra Pradesh, where she met hereditary women like Kotipalli Hymavathi and relearnt pieces like ‘Salaam Daruvu’, a song of salutation presented as part of ‘Mejuvani’ sessions, which were typically private evening soirees for the elite. When Yashoda performed Devadasi Nrityam, she realised the responsibility and gratitude of representing the history of her community and became aware of the place of art in society.

Male members of Kalavantulu households were talented musicians themselves. “My maternal uncle Saride Subbarao was an accomplished violinist who learnt from the guru of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, whom he accompanied when he was young. Our families had several male professionals who played instruments,” says Yendamuri Subba Rao, a percussionist, who accompanies Yashoda when she performs Kalaapams, a forte of the hereditary women. Yashoda learnt the Bhama Kalaapam and the Golla Kalaapam from Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru and her sister Leelasai, who are presently the only persons from the community who teach these unique theatre pieces.

With the disenfranchisement of hereditary women artistes, especially in the post-Independence years, the fledgling members of the community discontinued learning and practising the art, as they were forced to look for more ‘respectable’ occupations. They adopted new social identities to gain acceptance. The male progeny took over the reins of the previously matriarchal families and eventually came to the conclusion that art was not for them.

Yashoda with her gurus Annabattula Leelasai and Annabattula Mangatayaru at their ancestral home in Mummidivaram. The portrait behind is of their mother Annabattula Satyabhama.

Yashoda with her gurus Annabattula Leelasai and Annabattula Mangatayaru at their ancestral home in Mummidivaram. The portrait behind is of their mother Annabattula Satyabhama.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Censure and Unlearning

The erasure of hereditary aesthetic sensibilities from modern-day classical dance is perhaps best reflected in the way shringara was viewed by the dominant cultural forces who ‘reconstructed and revived’ dance in the 1950s. “I learnt a Kshetrayya padam ‘Okasarike’, which was quite popular in the early 20th century, from Kola Subramaniam, a hereditary dancer. This padam is an explicit expression of female eroticism and teases Muvvagopala. It was censured by the ‘revivalists’ and deemed unfit to be taught to students,” says Yashoda. Dance was regulated heavily to reinforce patriarchal norms. “The sensual content in padams and javalis was used to keep hereditary women away from the art form but later the dance and the dancer were seen as distinct from one another to facilitate appropriation of the art.”

Yashoda, a practitioner of both Kuchipudi and Devadasi Nrityam, feels that performing solo in Kuchipudi is a structured enactment where all dancers learn and present standardised choreography. Devadasi Nrityam offers a customised approach and is organically executed, prioritising the dancer’s individual capacity and body characteristics. Training under the Kalavantulu women was an exercise in unlearning for Yashoda, who had to peel off animated expressions and be cautious of her posture.

An intriguing section in the podcast focuses on the transposition of the origin of regional dance styles based on mythological histories. Yashoda believes that these altered narratives played an important role in removing dance from the bodies of female hereditary dancers and relocating it to a distant mythical past, disregarding chequered socio-political events. Another segment details the Islamic and British influence on the culture of the hereditary artistes and reflects how classical dance was truly multi-cultural and syncretic.

Yashoda has faced immense opposition and othering in her journey to claim her identity. In the final episode, she divulges her lived experiences of how she was blatantly slandered by numerous peers and sniggered at for her shringara expositions due to her social location.

When it comes to reparation, there are no substitutes for representation and attribution. Yashoda hopes that the younger members of Kalavantulu families will take pride in their lineage and reclaim their rightful place in the art world. She also asks them to be mindful of the turmoil that their ancestors underwent to protect their clan amidst intense societal scrutiny. She says the hereditary performing community wishes to see everyone dance but expects that due credit is given, because this is largely the fountainhead of the current mainstream dance repertoire. “There is a certain grace in acknowledgement. These women not only existed in memory but will continue to exist in dance forever.”

The writer is a rasika of

classical music and dance and also plays the veena.

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 11:20:47 AM |

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