Dance of the Devadasis

A GRACEFUL FORM: Anupama Kylash, vilasini Natyam dancer. Photo: K. V. Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

Kuchipudi and Andhra Pradesh have become practically synonymous. Its vibrant synergy has made it a popular dance form over the past few decades.

A relatively lesser known, though not less worthy, classical dance style that was practised by the Devadasis of Andhra in the past century, is now seeing a renaissance. Collated from various first hand sources by renowned dancer Swapnasundari, the Vilasini Natyam (as it is now being called) is the dance of the Andhra Kalaavanthulu (the Devadasis) tradition A valuable heritage, in danger of dying out, has been given a new lease of life.

Dr. Anupama Kylash, a student of Dr. Swapnasundari, was recently in Chennai for a Vilasini Natyam performance, organised by Lalitha Kala Vedika. She has authored 'Nayika in Kshetrayya Padams,' published by The Writers Workshop and has extensively presented Kuchipudi in India and abroad. She also runs Anubhav, a centre for dance in Hyderabad. During a fascinating chat, she shed light on the background and future prospects of Vilasini Natyam.

You were basically a Kuchipudi artist, so what made you switch to this form ?

The first time I saw it being performed was in the Ranbag temple 10 years ago. I can vividly recall Dr. Swapnasundari dancing the Bali Harana to the Ashtadikkpalakas. I was immediately captivated by the movements, which were so graceful, and whose totality differed from Kuchipudi.I started learning from her and in 2006, gave a two-hour recital. I continue to perform in this style.

It must have been difficult to recapitulate the body of work of the Kalavanthulu, as the practitioners are out of the mainstream and the art minimalised. How was this revival accomplished ?

Yes, the task was challenging. But Dr. Swapnasundari's passion and focus made it possible. She painstakingly located and interviewed the surviving Devadasis and assimilated the adavus and the repertoire directly from them. Many of the women were very old, and in some cases the daughters too chipped in with the rendering of the items. This entire body of work was then collected and formatted in a systematic manner and the result is that she has been performing Vilasini Natyam as a live tradition at the Rang Bagh temple for the past 15 years.

Obviously temple traditions are a strong part of Vilasini Natyam. What is the complete range of this art form as it was practised?

The ambit of Vilasini Natyam is threefold - ritualistic, aatta bhagavatham and kutcheri aatta. There was a special repertoire for the court, which would be performed at the royal court, before special guests and patrons. Then there are the dance dramas or operas, which are the parijatams, staged for the public as dance theatre.

Has this any link to the Navajanardana Parijatam that is so famous?

Yes. The name is apparently derived from the nine Janardana temples in the East Godavari district. This was a body of work by many poets and dedicated to the nine Vishnu deities. This was performed for nine nights, in turn by nine devadasis.

What is the source of lyrics for the present day performers?

The songs are collected from palm leaf manuscripts, works of different classical poets such as Gaddam Subbaraya Sastri's librettos and those sourced from the Devadasis' own collection.

During a recital, I noticed some specialised hastas (hand gestures) you used that stood out for their novelty and the deeper sense they conveyed.

This is a unique language that has been evolved by the Kalavanthulus and has its genesis in the Natya Sastra texts and Abhinaya Darpana. But the beauty lies in the phraseology. Instead of just indicating Siva by using the Siva hasta, the dancers would embellish it with ideas such as ‘one who has Parvati as his second half' or ‘the three eyed one.' This is where the true charm lies. The dancer draws upon her skills as a musician, a connoisseur of poetry, knowledge of mythology to embroider on the written word. The chamber concerts would go on for hours with the dancer enlarging just one word and building on the many stories or incidents with it.

As I see it, the present day performers are those who have come to this form after years of training in other disciplines. So what is the actual training process like and how different are the body kinetics of this form?

It is a very controlled and graceful form. We are often flooded by requests from those who want to learn the rich abhinaya that this art offers. But Dr. Swapnasundari insists that we learn the adavus first. They have been classified, depending on their flow of movement and sometimes according to the woman from whom it was learnt. Dr. Swapnasundari's teaching sessions have been recorded and these are with The Sahitya Natak Academy (which has accepted it as a genuine classical dance form of India). So there is authentic documentation.

This is a deceptively soft art; perfect control is required of the dancer so as not to emphasise too much or too little of the movements. There is the araimandi stance similar to Bharatanatyam, and then little wrist movements, so we move gradually. The student is taught to sing each piece first before learning the dance. Some of my students who learn Kuchipudi can vouch for the difference and difficulty in the way the energy is tapped here.

What is the creative challenge a Vilasini Natyam dancer faces and how does it quench the artistic thirst in you ?

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the work that exists and for the first few years, it took all my energy to just recreate what was already there. But now I can feel my visual scope enlarging and growing. Take the Siva example: when I can depict Siva ‘as one who bears the poison in his throat' and in the padams and javalis too, I can draw upon my originality with ease.

On the practical side, there is enthusiastic response from the Government and sabhas in hosting Vilasini Natyam and this has led to a steady increase in students too. The performances of dancers such as Purvadhanasri and Yasodha Thakore in addition to those of Dr. Swapnasundari are proofs of its growing acceptance today.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 1:34:25 AM |

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