The rebellious streak in Yashoda Thakore doesn’t intimidate. Here is a dancer who has been striving hard to give dignity to a dance form that has, for long, been yearning for recognition and acceptance as a ‘respectable’ art form. She could have easily slipped into the life of a Kuchipudi dancer, but, instead, Yashoda devoted her time and energy to courtesan dance, the dance of the Devadasis. She was in the capital city as part of the Mudra Festival at Vyloppilly Samskriti Bhavan where she led a session on the dance form and gave a performance.
An exponent of Vilasininatyam as well, she clarifies at the outset, “Courtesan dance is not Vilasininatyam. I have learnt the latter from veteran Swapna Sundari. But after a point I realised that there is more to it. With the help of Devesh Soneji who has done authentic research at length about Devadasis and their dance tradition, I went in search of the dancers who are still living in East Godavari region of Andhra Pradesh,” she says.
There was no going back. Now, even though she performs Kuchipudi, she devotes equal time to talk about and perform courtesan dance. It is not easy. To begin with, she has to start with explaining what the dance form is, thanks to the stigma associated with the community and the dance. “For instance, many people don’t know that the term Devadasi as we know it today didn’t exist until the British named all those who worked in temples as Devadasis. They were called Kalavant in Maharashtra, Kalavantalu in Andhra Pradesh, Isaivellalar in Tamil Nadu and Mahari in Orissa. There were variations in the dance depending on the region and the patron’s choice,” she explains.
As she talks at length about how the dance was adapted and at times modified to the extent of losing its intrinsic qualities and the difficulties she still has to face when she takes the dance form to the audience, a question nags you. Why did she take the trouble at all? With a disarming smile, she says, “Because I am a Kalavantalu myself….”
She elaborates: “I am a sixth generation Kalavantalu from my mother’s side. I did not know about it till I was in my 20s. I took to dance at the age of six-and-a-half and learnt Kuchipudi. When my mother told me about the lineage, I gradually started delving into it much to the chagrin of a lot of family members. Half of my family has shut down on me, thanks to the stigma associated with Devadasis,” she says.
However, all that matters for Yashoda is learning more about the dance that she learnt from veteran Annabattula Mangatayaru. Working in close quarters with the community, Yashoda has been able to “shatter certain concepts and facts about classical dance forms. Like, I asked one of them what they call their dance. She replied, ‘Bharatanatyam’, which means the term Bharatanatyam was used several years ago.
“The repertoire of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi are indebted to this dance. Even Mohiniyattam bear influences of the dance of the courtesans from Thanjavur. When you learn a dance you must learn its history and social aspects related to it. Now, we know how the Devadasis were a liberated lot, and how the colonial rule made way for their decline. Their status was frowned upon. They only knew to sing and dance; even if they wanted to say something they would do so through their padams and javalis. These dancers were forced to stay indoors by their own family members. In fact, when I went to learn from a dancer, she told me to come only after her son had left home for work,” she says.
For Yashoda, learning from the veterans is a continuous process; she performs the dance at major venues and festivals like the Khajuraho festival last year. She also gives Kuchipudi performance, but makes it a point to compare the two. “I have held sessions outside the country, in France and Russia. Some of them are moved hearing the plight of these dancers. They are so open to it, for they attach no stigma to the dance. Here, the responses have been mixed. I took to courtesan dance only in my late 30s. I am 43 now. I am marginalised in the Kuchipudi circles.
“I comment about how female dancers are made to do steps that suit male dancers. The intrinsic femininity is replaced by masculine energy in the postures, steps, movements and the like, whereas the courtesans had lucid movements and they performed what came naturally to them. For instance, they sit while performing a padam – they can perform a padam for an hour with a live orchestra. The javalis are performed while standing and they would break into a flourish or impromptu dance in the end. I keep going back to the courtesans and learn something new. Some of them have forgotten, some don’t want to remember,” says Yashoda.
She has resolved to keep her work going irrespective of the criticism. Yashoda can’t thank enough her husband, Prandeep Thakore, who works in the film industry. “Make sure that your children, however successful they become in work and academics, know about your dance, music and literature. In my case, I want people to focus on the art and not on the stigma.”