From Devadasis to Bhattathirippads

 

Pallavi Muraleedharan

pallavi muraleedharanAs I was perusing the newspaper the other day, the photo of a teenager caught my attention. It wasn't a very unusual thing to see a beautiful fair-skinned young girl winning the Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi competitions in the school youth festivals. After all, those are perhaps the only competitions that satiate the readers and hence the photographers, unlike the more boring and less popular items like writing (sigh!). Now, I was actually struck by the name of the girl. It ended with 'Bhattathiripad'*. Not surprising enough, yet for a 15-year-old, after all the there-is-nothing-called-caste-anymore notion held by many around, especially in Kerala.

Thinking about the evolution of the Indian classical dances, everyone will acknowledge the important role of the devadasis. How it all began among the lower caste temple girls, who later resorted to begging and prostitution for survival, following the overthrow of the system, thus stripping them off their high status bestowed upon them by the society earlier.

Beginning with Rukmini Devi, coming from a Brahmin family, who revived Bharatanatyam to Jayaprabha Menon, it is very interesting to note that Indian classical dances have become the forte of caste Hindu women (with a few exceptions, perhaps). Looking at caste and class at the same time, it isn't difficult to decipher why.

So this whole thing reminded me of a piece that I read on the Hindu's Friday Review a few months back by Aranyani Bharghav who very beautifully asks if caste/class played any role in the evolution of classical Indian dance forms. She points out that among the six hasya rasas, the Natyashastra establishes that only three, smitam, hasita and vihasita alone fitted the women of higher social stature. Now these three forms ranged from the gentle charming smile to the gentle laughter. Now the other three were Upahasita, apahasita and atihasita. The last two were silly meaningless laughter and loud and roaring laughter which were portrayed by women of adhama or lower status. The writer goes on to narrate the obsession of the present classical dancers with the first three, particularly the gentle smile. Obviously, we know how our culture has somehow defined the righteous women, the fair, comely and obedient one, in contrast to the dark skinned vamp. And there is no explanation required on how they depict them. Reflect upon any movie where Silk Smitha plays the vamp, and think about how the heroine is portrayed.

pm 1

Now when you search for the names of popular and successful Indian classical dancers, most of them belong to the higher castes (of course, there are exceptions, but I am stressing on the word 'most'). Why? Class and caste have gone hand in hand for the past decades. Very few from the lower castes tend to take up dancing professionally, although there are a lot now who take regular classes. Is it sheer disinterest or is there something else that plays in between?

So what once started among the lower rung women is now claimed by the upper caste/class. Besides, this claiming was done very carefully. And they very thoroughly and cautiously cleansed the art too. Not just refining, but changing its complexion and mannerisms. Now they have rescued the future of art!

And even today the devadasis are a reality. Although the system was outlawed in 1988, poor rehabilitative interventions from the part of authorities and poverty still force many women into 'sacred' prostitution. The president of National Alliance of Women, Dr. Ruth Manorama, called Devadasi system 'an organised crime against Dalit women'. Now, even if one argues it is never an 'organized' crime, it is indeed a crime that all of us are aware of and silently been ignoring for a very long time. And even today, when there is such great outcry over exploitation of women at work or in public transport (the caste politics in all of it is worth thinking about), very less attention do Indians give towards this injustice.

pm 2

An annual Devadasi national dance festival or award (just naming the award) doesn't help the actual devadasis. They still live in their villages, married off to a god, each one's virginity being auctioned in public, and then become prostitutes and end up in brothels and suffer from sexually transmitted diseases and stigma. And their turmoil begins as early as age 8. Where is the urban middle class of India staging a protest in a metro? Well, it isn't their business, is it?

Today there are thousands of devadasis in the country. They are a bleeding community that sends their daughters into a tradition that has now become a necessity for survival. Surveys show that to find a devadasi above the age of 50 is rare. Poverty, malnutrition and debilitating diseases plague them. Moreover, they are plagued by their own past and uncertain future.

pm 3

It is amusing in a very dark way how that young girl I saw in the papers is carrying on the legacy from these unfortunate women. Her high caste name follows the first name her parents have given her - they know perfectly well its advantages. Yes, she is probably going to be a starlet in our film industry. After all, our movies have always loved the heavy surnames... You know who they are... The devadasis do not dance anymore, not the refined and fair-complexioned classical dances of our country...

*Bhattathirippad is a Brahmin surname.

~~~

 

Pallavi Muraleedharan has a Bachelor's degree in Nursing from the University of Calicut, Kerala; pallavimuraleedharan-at-gmail-dot-com

 

Other Related Articles

Embracing my Dalit-hood while rejoicing in accomplishments
Tuesday, 12 December 2017
  Chandramohan S During the award ceremony of M. Harish Govind Prize, many asked me why I need a "Dalit Poet" labeling. They were shocked that there were just a handful of Dalit poets who write... Read More...
Call for Papers: “Doing Ambedkarism Today: Issues of Caste, Gender and Community”
Monday, 11 December 2017
  Call for papers for workshop on: “Doing Ambedkarism Today: Issues of Caste, Gender, and Community” Dates – 19th to 22nd February 2018 Deadline for Proposals – 31st December... Read More...
कास्टिस्ट मुंबईस्पिरीट
Saturday, 09 December 2017
  Somnath Waghmare मुंबई... नो नो, बॉम्बे! स्वप्ननगरी!! माझं गिरणी कामगार कुटुंब ठीक २५... Read More...
Why Dalits in Pakistan are reluctant to convert to Islam en masse!
Saturday, 09 December 2017
Sufi Ghulam Hussain Mukhi, the panchayat headman of Oad [Dalit] community begged in the name of holy Gita and even threw his turban at Seetal's feet, but Seetal just didn't care much and... Read More...
Defining Ambedkar: Icon or Ideal?
Wednesday, 06 December 2017
  B. Prabakaran Every year Ambedkar is celebrated and remembered across the globe, at least twice a year, on his birth and death anniversary by the political parties, social movements, NGOs and... Read More...

Recent Popular Articles

No Mr. Tharoor, I Don’t Want to Enter Your Kitchen
Saturday, 16 September 2017
Tejaswini Tabhane Shashi Tharoor is an author, politician and former international civil servant who is also a Member of Parliament representing the constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. This... Read More...
Bahujans and Brahmins: Why their realities shall always collide, not converge
Wednesday, 16 August 2017
  Kuffir My grandfather,The starvation deathWhich occurred during the drought when men were sold;My father,The migrant lifeWhich left home in search of work to pay off debt;I, in ragged shirt... Read More...
Cow, ‘backwardness’ and ‘Bahujan’ Women
Monday, 10 July 2017
  Asha Singh  My Ahir-dominant village in Bhojpur district of Bihar has a school only up to standard seven. After the seventh grade, if somebody (or their family) decides to study further,... Read More...
The beautiful feeling of falling in love with a Bahujan Ambedkarite
Friday, 28 July 2017
  Priya This is not going to be a long write-up, the sole purpose of writing this is to share the beautiful revolutionary feeling that we derive when we have fallen in love or have driven... Read More...
Casteism in Kashmir: My Observations and Experiences
Thursday, 06 July 2017
  Mudasir Ali Lone We usually shrug our shoulders when it comes to casteism in Kashmir. If you're in a mood for horrible stories, go to the homes of Greest (peasants) and hear about the horror... Read More...