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Powerful Style: Swapnasundari strikes a pose.

Powerful Style: Swapnasundari strikes a pose.  

WHEN she first saw the elderly devadasi Maddula Lakshminarayana perform, Swapnasundari was struck by the beauty of the dance and the talent of the performer. "Here was this woman, old and wrinkled, who without make up or adornment of any sort held us rapt with the power of her art," she says.

Swapnasundari, who had trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, became passionately involved in researching and rejuvenating the dance of the Telugu devadasis. Guided by the late poet-historian Arudra, who named it "Vilasini Natyam", she sought them out. "I felt that this art which was covered in layers of neglect had to be dusted and chiselled."

That was in 1994. For the past few years Swapnasundari, who heads the Kuchipudi Dance Centre in Delhi, has been giving performances in this style. "We have revived the tradition of performing during the Brahmotsavam celebrations at the 400-year-old Ranganathaswamy temple in Hyderabad," she says. The devadasis, who belong to a professional group of performers called Kalavanthulu, were for centuries an intrinsic part of temple rituals. They had an enormous repertoire that provided for their temple, court and public entertainment traditions.

These women solo performers had been swept into oblivion after 1947 when the custom of dedicating devadasis to temples was abolished. "The Devadasi Act of 1929, which was initiated for the abolition of the dedication of devadasis to temples, put them in a deep freeze. But their power of recall was astonishing. I found there was enough material to be formatted into a concert programme after giving it a certain amount of polish for the stage. In Pudukottai, the work of the Devadasis was collated and it became Bharatanatyam. But this did not happen to the Telugu devadasis. I wanted to salvage it first and then collate it."

But it was not an easy task. Many of the performers did not want to be identified as belonging to this group as it had brought them disrepute. The family members too wanted to keep their identity under wraps.

There are certain features in the style that she finds particularly appealing. "I love the way the dancers hold their body and their comfort level in all aspects of dance." Both sringara and Bhakti elements are strong in the padams and javalis and the Parijatham is riveting. "The Nritta appears softer and rounder than in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. But it is very difficult to meet its demands," she says.

The devadasis were taught not in the linear mode but in the circular mode where in the course of a day, they would have lessons in music, Sanskrit and Telugu, then learn snatches of abhinaya before going on to the recitation of slokas. The artistes are very strong in abhinaya. "Some dancers have approached me in order to learn abhinaya. But the style has its own idiom. I'm prepared to share all of the art but it cannot be learnt piecemeal."

In her recitals, Swapnasundari demonstrates the rati hastas (hand gestures) through which the unbridled eroticism of many of the padams is expressed. Asked whether these evoke criticism, she says rather sharply, "Bhakti and rakti are equal in status to reach salvation. A certain class of people is perhaps uncomfortable with it. But how many would have understood if I had not explained the rati hastas? There is hypocrisy in our society. If the song is in Sanskrit and the viewers cannot understand the words, they won't mind. Generally, viewers are amazed that sexual motifs can be so beautiful and artistic. While the motif of eroticism has been commented upon, it has not been adversely commented upon."

Swapnasundari's eyes glitter with rage when she talks about how the devadasis received a raw deal from society. "She was the Nithyasumangali whose help was needed for auspicious occasions such as the threading the black beads for the mangalsutra. But society has exploited her at every stage. Their plight after 1947 was dreadful. Many have been almost reduced to begging. I have offered to bring them to the city and help them become dance teachers at schools but the Kalavanthulu Sangam has taken a contract that they will not sing." And how well does she think this dance can be perpetuated? "I have four to five pupils who are in the performance stage. I have confidence in their ability."

As for recognition for this form, she feels it has enough going for it. "The artistic arsenal of this style is so powerful I don't have to wave a flag for it," she replies with quiet assurance.

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