Sometimes, all it takes is one spirited intervention to change a context. One event, one book, one photograph, one performance can become the tipping point for a paradigm shift. Personally, I consider 1985 as a turning point, when choreographer Chandralekha’s Angika was first performed at NCPA, Mumbai. Indian contemporary dance has never been the same again.
Douglas Knight’s magisterial biography of his late mother-in-law Balasaraswati, one of India’s most accomplished artistes, is destined to contribute that same energy to future debates and studies on Bharatanatyam. After a long time, here is a book on classical Indian dance that throws to the winds the historic hypocrisy associated with Indian dance writing. Having little stakes in the local dance context, yet having deep access to Balasaraswati’s inner circle and to the family archives, Knight has been almost unselfconsciously candid. He has succeeded in communicating the anxiety, anguish and anger experienced by this family of ‘traditional’ artists of the Devadasi community who were being systematically denied and erased from the newly emerging nation-state.
At one level, it is a sort of flawed book, focusing obsessively on one family to the exclusion of a larger social process. The last fifty pages are appendices and notes. The main narrative has seven chapters, of which the last three are jumpy and inconsistent. There is a curious endorsement here, in one instance, of the caste system, with a currently fashionable ‘Hindutva’ position that “the notion of hierarchical distinctions arose only when outside (sic) forces began politicising religion”. But the first four chapters are of a quality not witnessed before in scholarship around Indian dancers.
Knight’s intensity is unrelenting; his critique of the cant, casuistry and cussedness that accompanied the systematic marginalisation of the Devadasis, the hereditary ‘owners’ of dance and musical forms, and the simultaneous ascendancy of the new, urban elite, Brahmin appropriators of the form, is unsparing.
The demise of Dasiattam or Sadir dance during the 1920s and ’30s and the vocal repudiation of its aesthetic was overlaid on to the discourse on the ‘morality’ of its performers, a slur that went hand-in-hand with new (mostly conservative) ideas about the role of women in the emerging nation. From the turn of the 20th century till roughly the time of independence, the Devadasis were targets of attack, even as they were disenfranchised from their artistic wealth and livelihood through stigmatisation and parliamentary legislation. It is ironic that the Devadasi Abolition Bill became an Act in 1947. As Knight writes: “By the end of 1947, the defamation of the Devadasi had been legislated and it appeared that both the art and the artist had been banished and replaced.”
Within this process, one major mise-en-scene belongs to the role played by upper-class, upper-caste ‘reformists’ like E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale. Dance historians have generally tended to pussy-foot around the nature of their interventions and what it meant in a larger context. After Kapila Vatsyayan’s early works, it is only in the 1990s that some sort of a feature to dance scholarship emerged.
But once again that period of ‘reinvention’ of Bharatanatyam in the 1930s-40s has come under more rigorous scrutiny by dance scholars, mostly from universities abroad. The infamous stand-off between Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati on ‘appropriate’ dance content and gesture for a ‘modern’ audience has till now been cleverly sublimated by conservative commentators into an academic argument between ‘bhakti’ and ‘shringara’. It is left to Doug Knight to expose the latent hostility between the two artists as it emerged to the fore in 1945, at the All India Dance Festival in Bombay. Such honesty has been lacking in dance writing before and is sure to have a positive effect on contemporary discourse.
The real ‘masala’ of the book is a studio photograph some of us have seen in private before, but now made public, of Balamma and fellow Devadasi artist, the legendary singer M.S. Subbulakshmi, both in their teens, dressed in pajama suits, posing with cigarettes. It’s a peach and captures perfectly the insouciance of the book.