Temple dancers


Temple dancers


The feminine classical dance format or the lasya nrityam in Andhra Pradesh owes its origin to the temple dancers of this region who no longer exist but once were the torchbearers of art and culture. These dancers were said to be a devoted class of people well versed in Agamasastra (temple norms) and the Panchamahakavyas. They were erudite, could hold discussions on religion, literature and philosophy with the scholars and poets of their day. They were revered by the priestly class, honoured by the kings and the landlords and loved by the people. These dancers were sworn to serve the deity of the place, dedicating their lives to the service of the temple, which was handed over to them as a hereditary right. There were no temple celebrations without a performance by these dancers.

The themes of their dance were mythological, enacted with grace and with facial expressions. The dance form derived and developed by these dancers was in keeping with the natya sastra and since it was not Bharata natyam in the strict sense of the term, Dr. Nataraja Ramakrishna, a veteran dancer and scholar chose to call it Andhra Natyam. His extensive research of ancient forms of dance in Andhra Pradesh has brought to light some of the most artistic thematic combinations of classical dance as practised in the region ages ago. The rich delta areas of Krishna, East and West Godavari districts, Bobbili and to some extent the Telangana regions had some of the best dancer-singers of their time who carved a niche for themselves in the field but left the world without a trace of their greatness for posterity.

For instance, Kapileswarapuram in East Godavari district, is said to be dotted with nine Janardhana Swamy (Lord Krishna) temples. The dance form developed in these temples was called Nava Janardhana Paarijaatham — a romantic story based on Krishna and his consort Satyabhama's mischievous row. The then Raja of Pitapuram and the Vaishnavites of the area patronised this dance with fervour. The song of the dance was dedicated to Kunthi Madhava (Lord Krishna) in keeping with the tradition of the times.

The Pendela family of dancers were well versed in enacting this dance for nine consecutive nights in the temple culminating with the recitation (paarayanam) of the tenth chapter (dashama skanda) of the Bhagavatam as a symbolic end to the mythological squabbles of Krishna and Satya. As temple dances fell to disuse, the dancing community declined 40 years ago.

But the vast treasure these temple dancers left behind is immense. It is for the present generation of dancers to cull out the hidden repertoire from ancient classical dance treatises of Andhra and from those living legends who are treasure houses of knowledge but choose to remain out of public eye due to old age and penury.

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