Courtesans — harbingers of doom?

A curse brings Urvashi to earth, spawning a line of dancers, including Madhavi

June 15, 2017 04:11 pm | Updated 04:11 pm IST

A couple of weeks ago, Arshia Sattar had written about the divine dancer and courtesan Urvashi. There’s a wonderful story that links the character of Madhavi, the dancer and courtesan in the Silappatikaram , to Urvashi. The epic has it that when sage Agastya finished composing Tolkappiyam , he was invited to rest and relax in the court of Indra.

Urvashi was to dance in his honour. But as she began to dance, she caught sight of Jayanta, Indra’s handsome son, and it was a case of love at first sight. She grew pale, feverish, and her steps faltered. Agastya was incensed by her mistake, and as the wont of angry sages, the trope that graces every epic, he cursed her and her lover to be reborn in the mortal realm, and that there would be no chance of their ever meeting.

Urvashi and Jayanta were understandably distraught and eventually Agastya calmed down and noted their distress. And so he amended his curse. The lovers would meet. Urvashi would be reborn as a dancing girl in Kanchi and Jayanta as the bamboo plant — the stalk of which is used to form the talaikkol , the staff of the ceremonial white umbrella that provided shade to the kings during battle and ceremonial occasions. The Talaikkol would also be placed on stage whenever Urvashi performed —and in this way the lovers would meet.

And so the tradition set in. That all dancers, and all those who were descendants of Urvashi from her incarnation as a dancing girl — such as the famous dancer Madhavi from the Silappatikaram, when she performed for the king, during her arangetram, as is described in the epic, the talaikkol would be placed on stage, invoking the divine love story of Urvashi and Jayanta.

Why? Perhaps it was because Urvashi, dancing before her love, would hope to please him with the excellence of her performance. But it is also perhaps a story that grants ritual power to the dancer, power to invoke the spirit of the son of Indra, a spirit that invigorates the ceremonial badge of office of the monarch; and a story that also grants the dancers of yore celestial lineage.

But are the dancing girls of the epics figures of empowerment or dis-empowerment or worse — harbingers of doom? Madhavi of the Silappatikaram is a fiery, independent woman, but her affair with Kovalan creates great distress for his wife Kannagi. And even when Madhavi and Kovalan separate, and Kannagi is reunited with her husband — the figure of the dancing girl still looms over their story, creating tragedy.

When Kovalan arrives in Madurai with Kannagi’s anklet to sell it, the King of Madurai has just had a tiff with his wife — on account of a dancing girl — and to pacify his queen he orders anklets to be made. The anklets, unfortunately for Kovalan, are identical to the ones owned by Kannagi. One of the queen’s anklets is missing; a dishonest jeweller places the blame on Kovalan when he attempts to sell his wife’s ornament. With the result that Kovalan is unjustly condemned to death.

And yet there are stories of dancers and courtesans who are saviours, particularly in the Buddhist myths — stories of women like Amrapali, and even Madhavi’s daughter, another descendant of Urvashi, in the Manimekalai .

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