Dancing to entertain
Natyasamgraha, in its continuous efforts to bring art and artist closer to the art lover, presented the forgotten dance of yore, the “dance of the courtesan”. The invite had a classy 18th century mural (from the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace, Ramnad, Tamil Nadu), depicting a Nattuvannar wearing a knee length Kalamkari lungi and a voluptuous court dancer in a dance procession
Natyasamgraha, in its continuous efforts to bring art and artist closer to the art lover, presented the forgotten dance of yore, the “dance of the courtesan”. The invite had a classy 18th century mural (from the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace, Ramnad, Tamil Nadu), depicting a Nattuvannar wearing a knee length Kalamkari lungi and a voluptuous court dancer in a dance procession.
On Sunday evening (14th) Saptaparni was once again the venue for a small audience that gathered to witness and appreciate this rare dance. Dr Yashoda Thakore and Dr Davesh Soneji, through their engaging lec-dem made it possible for the enthusiastic gathering, to peep into the Social and Aesthetic Worlds of Courtesan Dance in South India.
The presentation focused on the entwined worlds of social history and dance performance in the Telugu-speaking courtesan community of South India, also called “Kalavanthulu”. As the name suggests, they were adept at performing arts like dance and music, and entertained the rich zamindari clans. Dr Davesh threw light upon the community with the help of archival material while Yashoda performed their dance, as the complex layers of history, politics and aesthetics that have given rise to today’s classical dance forms slowly unfolded.
Tracing the environmental factors in which the dance thrived Dr Davesh noted that we cannot separate art from artist and it is impossible to disconnect the dance and dance repertoire from the community in which it was created. It was further explained how nationalism, caste politics, and other forces had a major role to play in what is called “devadasi reform” and how those women and their own voices were largely left outside this debate.
The presence of Kotipalli Hymavathi, a lady from the Kalavanthulu community made it even more interesting, as she quietly sat in the audience and watched the dance and the presentation with a smile. Later while chatting, she recalled how she was trained right from her childhood in music and dance by her grandmother. She also stated that she and her counterparts are still willing to perform.
Dressed in a saree, long plait, jada gantalu, nose ornaments etc Yashoda looked very convincing as a courtesan and performed with flowing movements, a few items from the community’s repertoire: salaam daruvu, pallavi, varnam, padam and two javalis. In the Khamas varnam she sat down on the floor to describe the ideal beauty of a woman, likening each part of the body to a beautiful entity, taking examples from nature/daily life.
She also displayed towards the end of the javali (“Athavaaru….”), a “Gaptu varasa” where the dancer improvises with rhythmic patterns. Rare archival video footage of Maddula Venkata Rathnam (a veteran courtesan), performing a Kshetrayya padam “Okka saarike…….” was also shown. Towards the fag end of the Bhakti Movement, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, Kshetrayya and Sarangapani wrote padams with overt sexual connotations, catering exclusively to the courtesan community.
Watching the abhinayam for this padam was no doubt an unusual experience, but its explicitness left many in the audience highly embarrassed. Daniel sang while Sikkil Balasubramaniam played the violin with flair as Chandrakant ably supported on the mridangam.