Visiting Mutthukkannammal, Revisiting Sadhir


(Durbar Prakashani, December 2017)

বাংলা অনুবাদ

  •  The ‘Devadasi Debate’  


A step forward in one direction is sometimes a significant step back in another. The so-called ascension of ‘Sadhir’: the precolonial ‘temple dance’ in Tamilnadu, to modern Bharatanatyam has been seen as a certain empowerment of Indian women and a campaign to denote the victory of certain Indian cultures. The 1947 Devadasi Abolition Act (Prevention of Dedication) and the consequent redecoration of Sadhir into Bharatanatyam was conceived as constructive means of uncovering and banishing an exploitative practice on women. The goal behind enacting this law was to put a stop to the transformation of innumerable ‘Devaradiyar’s: women pledged in the service of god in the temples of Tamilnadu, to ‘Thevadiya’s: sex-workers.

But to some, this reform came as a forced transfiguration of the art form and its performing body. During the process of redecoration and grammarization based on various Sanskrit texts, the form submitted to high-brow morals and religious sanctification on one hand. On the other hand, by all practical means, it ironically retained the politic of objectification of the dancing body (e.g. by idealizing the now-smiling-now-pining ‘Nayika’); the same objectification, which was referred as problematic by the reformists largely belonging to the urban upper class and caste. As a consequence, the reform led the performing body lose its purposeful and well-practiced act of spontaneity and the strength of its unabashed language exercising powerfully raw emotions and subversion of content.

This moment of redefinition of Sadhir also marked the beginning of a shift of this particular family of dance from a position in close contact with other public performance-forms in rural Tamilnadu – increasingly bringing it within the urban Brahmanical fold that it would later come to be synonymous with. This way the reformists promptly sealed the possibilities of this form being actively politicized on a mass scale, allying with the forces such as the Self-Respect Movement struggling against common oppressor powers such as patriarchy, class and caste-hierarchy and feudalism.

Having said that, for some others this reform actually signified a class shift, through which many artists financially dependent on the feudalist power-centers became struggling landless workers. “Dancing girl to working women”, as Vijaya Ramaswamy put it. However, before we continue, one must stop and admit that the deeply entangled class and caste identity of the Devadasis – or more generally that of the Isai Vellalar community to which the Devadasis belonged – have reportedly gone through so many shifts, that an attempt even to summarize the detailed history might distract us from our purpose of landing upon the tiny homestead of Mutthukkannammal, situated in a small red-light area in Viralimalai in the Pudukkottai district of Tamilnadu. The general history needs to be justifiably addressed in a separate study altogether, and has indeed been done extensively in the works of several scholars. Here, only the bare minimum required in order to establish the premise will be referred.

Coming back to our point, although historically modern Bharatanatyam was claimed to be founded as a counter to commercialization of dance and dancing bodies, today, this ‘daughter of Sadhir’ can no more be viewed as an endeavor existing solely for the lofty sake of creativity and divinity-clad philosophy. This form now possesses concrete socio-economic significances. It creates real sources of employment not only in Tamilnadu, but nationally and globally, just as a full-fledged cultural industry is supposed to do. Despite the initial reservation against the commercialization of dance in the practice of Sadhir, the present economic practice of Bharatanatyam is undeniably a continuation of the trend that Sadhir had set by creating employments nation-wide through teaching and performing, while spreading to various regions in Tamilnadu and other parts of India. Unsurprisingly, majority of the surviving Devadasis have had little to gain from the socio-economic boost that Bharatanatyam has achieved during its postcolonial development.

One must acknowledge at this point that none of the questions around the critical standpoints mentioned above have binary answers. It is not for nothing that the ‘Devadasi debate’ has been on for about a century now.

  • The Loss of Power

And yet, we can be sure of one thing, that indeed, there existed a bunch of artists – dancers, singers, ‘Nattuvanar’s and other musicians belonging to the Isai Vellalar community, who spent a lifetime under strict training and abundant opportunities to perform, unlike today, when it has become a mammoth task for majority of dancers and aspiring dancers to be able to afford rehearsal, teaching and performance spaces. The Isai Vellalar artists were born and brought up within an apparently safe system of powerful patronization, were given wealth and power in the form of money, land and reputation, along with a free ticket to practice art as an intrinsic part of their life. Even though patronized by the wealthy, in general this community of artists were not barred or inhibited from entertaining different classes in the society, nor afraid to subvert – in art as well as life – rigid feudal-patriarchal social norms like marriage, male-centric property rights, stigmatization of manual work and especially sex-work (Mutthukkannammal’s house being in the red-light area is one example of the ease with which these artists traversed in and out of this otherwise tabooed community). For many of the women members of the Isai Vellalar society, the entry into the life of an artist was a key to a certain matriarchal sense of independence as well as, perhaps, into a world of freedom and dignity that creative processes provide.

Screenshot 2017-11-16 09.25.17

Testimonies of several surviving Devadasis as well as the reports of the Devadasi protests in the form of rallies and petitions against Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy’s Prevention of Dedication Act indicate that many of these women did not see themselves as victims of an exploitative system, contrary to what was proclaimed by the petitioners for this Act. Nor did these women find the spirit of their art doused in “vulgarity and commercialism” as once depicted by Kalakshetra-founder Rukmini Devi. Indeed, a term such as ‘vulgarity’ is almost always subjective to class-caste-gender-based moralistic standpoints in complex ways. As for ‘commercialism’, the question revolves around the economy of public and privatized entertainment industry and where ‘art’ stands in that picture. In fact, similar debates are still very much relevant in terms of the penalization in many contemporary issues revolving around sexuality and entertainment – varying from rights to present various socio-cultural practices to professional sex-work and pornography. Irrespective of such debates, the practical fact remains that the Prevention Act acted as a means of social admonition from the top and did little in rehabilitation from the bottom, thus walking completely against the way of grassroot feminist movements, disenfranchising lives of thousands of women. As we mentioned earlier, these women who lived on Sadhir were not given a chance to exercise this craft under freer, less exploitative conditions.

A few contrasts come to the mind. For example, right after the Chinese revolution in 1949, an initiative of reform came from the Chinese Communist party to the brothels in Beijing – first banning prostitution, but then appointing several sex-workers as paid performers roaming in villages while presenting performative narrations uncovering feudal-patriarchal exploitations. In other cases, women, when given the exposure, have been known to join revolutions than remain in exploitative socially sanctioned relationships. It is not utopian to imagine that Sadhir too could take such turns. But more often than not, the reforms proposed by the urban upper class-caste lacked such inclusive, empathetic and dedicated vision: the movement around the Prevention Act only added to the truth of that statement.

Incidentally, some of the Devadasis who came from the background of comparatively higher caste and wealth, or were married to such, were more privileged in terms of establishing their art within the society of elite ‘Rasika’s in the urban and semi-urban areas, where the real source of fame and wealth increasingly started residing during the postcolonial era. Whereas, most Devadasis from humbler backgrounds lost their very way of life to the banishment. Mutthukkannammal – an over-80 ex-Devaradiyar was not an exception.

  • The Magic Box of Viralimalai Mutthukkannammal

Screenshot 2017-11-16 09.21.58

“I have been singing these songs to myself since I stopped dancing in my thirties. Sometimes I think, ‘Why do I bother?’ It might seem like I have lost everything, and these songs may not be important for other people, for you, but they are – and always will be – a part of me. So I keep singing.” – said Viralimalai Mutthukkannammal to researcher Davesh Sonaji. Mutthukkannammal is one of the very few surviving pre-Prevention Act Devadasis in Tamilnadu today. It was a visit to her along with performance artist Akila and cultural researcher Gandhi Rajan – associated with this Sadhir artist for over a decade now – that kindled my aspiration of revisiting Sadhir, as a performer and audience of dance.

Born in a family proficient in dance and music over several generations in Viralimalai – closely associated with temple dance in the local Murugan temple as well as the eminent Pudukottai Shiva temple – Mutthukkannammal was dedicated as a Devaradiyar at the age of seven. She trained under her father: the famous Nattuvanar Ramachandra, and other well-known Devadasis in her family such as her grandmother Nagammal and grandaunt Ammani. All these artists were disciples of famous and well-respected Nattuvanars who taught Thanjavur-style repertoires. This family of artists kept performing extensively in the Pudukkottai region almost till the 1950s.

Mutthukkannammal continued to perform over many years, in spite of the diminishing grants from the temples and the royalties, in the characteristic style of Sadhir, where the performer danced and sang simultaneously as against the modern demarcation that we see today. Her communications with Sonaji, profoundly coincide with another of his interviews with the old Devadasis in Andhra Pradesh. As a covering statement for that interview, Sonaji wrote – “Today there is no audience, but this is not a criterion for performance. The melams [Devadasi dance gathering] have become part of the interior world; they have moved from the realm of public spectacle into the realm of nostalgia and memory.”

As Sonaji notes in his book Unfinished Gestures, Mutthukkannammal’s repertoires can be divided in three parts: the Thanjavur-style presentations (praising the royalties), the temple events (praising the deities) and the more populist entertainment-based concerts (usually themed on romance and humour). Among the pieces she remembers today, there are songs reminiscent of the Western influence on Carnatic music (Nottusvaram), songs with unique lyrics – not to be found anywhere else across the South Indian music literature, songs which are bold and brave, funny and subversive, melancholy and sad. The religious songs are generally pious enough, but are often composed and accompanied with gestures created in a manner of addressing the god as a human, and not a distant ‘Nirguna’ deity. This tallies with the works of the Bhakthi and Sufi poets who addressed the almighty endearingly, or with others forms of people’s art that consciously or unconsciously questioned the ways of high art and high religions.

Not all songs, nor all ‘Jathi’s performed by the Devadasis were pre-notated with movements and facial expressions, as against the current practice; in that sense it feels, those days there was less of a difference between Dance and Theater in practice. The goal of both the form and the content of Sadhir was ‘characterizing the dancer’, and not the other-way-round, i.e. not fitting the dancing body into a strictly formulated form dominating the content as well as the performer’s self. This is quite an interesting way of dealing with Performance Art even today – asking whether the dancer’s self can become the vital ingredient of creation and performance. This discussion was in fact touched upon by Mutthukkannammal herself, when she spoke to us about her feeling of inadequacy in how ‘Abhinaya’ is dealt with in today’s Bharatanatyam, based on her personal exposure to it.

Mutthukkannammal has struggled all her adult-life – with her patronized lands selling out and the line of patrons disappearing, with the temple where she once performed objecting to her entry, with her art being slowly de-prioritized, de-commercialized and forgotten. But in many ways, she has not been defeated. It is not a thrilling story of art’s uplifting aura, but a much less ‘glorified’ one. A story of the inner artist remaining alive in spite of submitting to a conventional life that offered little appreciation or opportunities – in short, the adrenaline which is an unspoken – almost tabooed – but undeniably important ingredient of a creative mind. She stands as a typical example of what happened to the majority of Devadasis who did not fit into either of the extreme images of a cultural star or an impoverished destitute turning into a sex-worker. An almost-single mother outside the system of marriage in the conventional sense, an artist turned into a home-maker, raising two children, heading a working-class family, but still confidently defining her own sense of work and worth in her understanding of dance and the dancing body – that’s Mutthikkannammal and the likes of her.

What was magical in our visit to her was to see the natural osmosis of her art into her conversations. This art claims to provide neither a grand philosophical depth nor a radically progressive outlook in her understanding of life, but it does provide a subtle sense of rebellious play, which remains largely unaddressed in today’s dance, just as the significance of such small acts of everyday rebelliousness remains largely unrecognized by mainstream social movements. These unassuming playful little rebellions refer to the way of survival of many Indian women who define feminism in their own way within their own living practices: silently but constantly breaking norms and establishing new ones. It is this sense of rebelliousness that shows a kindle of how powerful Sadhir could possibly become as a form of artistic expression, had the reform walked another way.

  • The Voice of the Kuravanji

This sense of playful rebellions is best described through some of the Sadhir songs. These songs often directly or indirectly gesture towards locating the so-called lower-caste and class – especially women – in positions of power, though always in a tone of mockery or joke, possibly so that it would not become a direct attack on its patrons, or an obvious caste-backlash, especially since the Isai Vellalars were identified as Sudras during the colonial period, but enjoyed an elite status within that Varna identity.

Among such songs, Mutthukkannammal’s rendition of Kuravanji’s Song is going to stay with me for a long time, I feel. A Kuravanji is a woman from the Kuravar community: an ethnic tribe worshipping Lord Murugan, living in the Kurinji mountain range of Tamilnadu. Incidentally this tribe is one of the Southern denotified tribes still bearing the criminal stigma based on their caste identity. It is noteworthy that modern Bharatanatyam or other classical dances, or Indian dance in general, barely addresses such voices in their repertoires.

This particular song taught to Mutthukkannammal by her father is one of the most beautiful and empowering songs that I might have heard as part of a dance performance – complete with its swaying rhythm of a woman bounding down the mountain path.

Vanji Vandha, Na Kuravanji Vandha

I, Kuravanji am coming from the hills.
She, who belongs to the community of those having Lord Subramanian as their family-god, is coming.
Hear our caste-rituals:
We don’t wear the Minjimetti [toe-ring],
We don’t like to sleep on the bed,
We sleep in a cluster hugging one another,
We sing and dance for our Kanji [porridge] and we drink alcohol,
We perform Billisunyam [a voodoo using a lemon];
It is only the Kuravar community that knows how to untie the Billisunyam.
Mosquitoes are raised by us along with the eagles;
On that occasion we come together and play.
We can provide children to old, bent-down women,
They get breasts like younger women, and when they give birth, we go and play with the child.
We can bring speech to one who cannot speak,
We can tie the hill with our hair and pull it down…

Screenshot 2017-11-16 09.25.07

  • Revisiting the Forgotten…  

Human history and culture inscribe the past, enabling us to ask questions to the present, while molding the future. Certain histories and cultures, certain narratives of power-shifts are preserved with greater care than multitude of others that disappear fully or partially as rejected memories. The history of Sadhir is almost one such – uncared for not in terms of its existence, but its spirit, its sustainability and its lost decades.

If a dancer chooses, her dance can remain a matter of abstract aesthetic pursuit. But even though it is as valid a choice as any, I have had a lingering doubt whether or not it inflicts a floating character in her work, a certain lack of a political connect with a larger scenario, thus pushing it towards individualism, alienating it from the public domain and in turn alienating the public from it, such as what happened to Sadhir on its way to become Bharatanatyam. If yes, then that is precisely why a dance-training, or a dance-performance, or more importantly a dancer’s knowledge of her body and self – closely connected to the space and time not just around her performance arena but around her life – need to associate with the forgotten histories of dance-creations as much as possible; even if those histories were smeared with abuse and exploitation; even if they went through collective rejection by the very society to which this dancer belongs today.

After all, however far we imagine we might have travelled from the Devadasi era, these questions are still relevant to the critical minds of (classical) dancers and their audiences: ‘What is moral?’, ‘What is obscene?’, ‘What is a free choice?’, ‘What is objectification of the dancing body?’, ‘What is the intention of the dancing body?’ and so on. Nor have the various socio-economic discriminations and gender exploitations associated with the privatized patronage system – now in the form of ‘Sabha’s and grants – disappeared. Nor has the questions around “vulgarity and commercialism” in (classical) dance gone obsolete. In order to address these somewhat self-critical issues, a need to find the challenging voices of the Kuravanjis of today very much exists within the choreographic vision of the Indian dance community. The history of Sadhir, the histories of the Mutthukkannammals, play an important role in that search. The search also remains intensely relevant in the history and ongoing discussions on importance of performances in inspiring socio-political ideas such as class, caste and gender.

  • The Game of Revival

In our internet-clad world, information about artists like Mutthukkannammal are no more entirely lost. When artists like her are spotted, they are invited to conduct workshops or act in documentaries. They become subjects of research-works and themed performances.

Now the arrows towards questionable morality of the Devadasis or the Devadasi system have partially turned sides. Though there is no denying the fact that severe exploitation in the name of dedication exists even today in Tamilnadu and elsewhere, there is also no denying that there is more to the history of Sadhir than that saga of exploitation. Hence naturally, there have been a lot of interest to revisit that past. Out of such interests there have been several attempts to ‘revive’ and ‘commemorate’ this old and forgotten form. But have the attempts moved beyond appropriation and decontextualized exoticization? It is a foundational question that stares at the face of any research-minded dancer aspiring to understand the body and psyche of another dancer set in a different time, different body-principles, different aesthetic and altogether different contextual reasons for dancing. It is easy to ‘learn a piece’ and perform it as part of the revival ceremony.

But if revival means re-prioritizing the other dancer’s imaginations, or recreating her sense of empowerment through art, or relocating her in today’s time, society and economy, it must be something beyond vaguely clapping at this ‘other dancer’, placing her at the sideline like a cheer-girl.

Although, give a veteran Devadasi like Mutthukkannammal an honest chance to do a cheer-girl act, and she might just do such an excellent job of it that would shift the attention from the main game! Given the potential Sadhir could have had, if it was given a chance to flourish – once freed from its association with the feudal patronage – this line of though gives me an interesting possibility to cheerfully dream about.



3 thoughts on “Visiting Mutthukkannammal, Revisiting Sadhir

  1. Pingback: প্রাক্তন দেবদাসী মুত্থুক্কান্নাম্মলকে দেখতে গিয়ে ‘সাদির’ নাচকে ফিরে দেখা | parsleys

  2. Excellent article! very moving and very much needed. As noticed by the author life histories like these can be shared globally via digital networks. My own efforts to keep the memory of my Devadasi teacher alive are initially of an earlier, print bound date. Smt. P. Ranganayaki (1914-2005) was dedicated in 1932 to the Subrahmanya Svami temple in Tiruttani. She taught me her entire ritual repertoire as practised by her and her grandmother Smt. Subburatnamma, between 1977-1988. She tied for me a talibottu and handed over to me her grandmother’s manuscript containing not only ritual repertoire but also Kacceri and social Samskara songs / dances. My dissertation ‘Nityasumangali’ (1984) was published in 1987 by Motilal Banarsidass and will see it’s 6th edition soon. I try to conti her legacy by teaching her repertoire, and reconnecting it to continuing Agamic practices through fieldwork residencies. My strong belief is that the world that Devadasis formed part of is not lost. Its continuing traces can be revisited and could regain its functional propriety (Murai).
    Another Utopia ?

    • Thank you! I’ll try and get a copy of your dissertation. So far, I’ve mostly read only Davesh Sonaji’s writings about Devadasis. Would love to read more. And meeting Mutthukkannammal was really an experience for me in different ways.

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