Unspoken No Longer
The figure of the Devadasi is no longer a mystery. In recent times, discourse especially in the field of dance has with renewed vigour addressed her significance, contributions, sanctions as well as the conditions around her ‘disappearance’.
But did the ‘Madras Act’ and others it followed really erase the devadasi? Yes, the act stripped these ‘carriers of art’ of their right to perform and of their agency. It directed that these tevatiyal and kalavantulu alone could not dance – not in the temples, or in the weddings, nor on the streets or even in their own homes. Yet, 70 years later we now know they danced on - in their own world, behind closed doors, unknown to each other and many others like them. They held on to their art passing it on to the few who approached them, even as they themselves were vilified in their realities while being glorified in the world outside as devis who lived in a historic past.
One must agree that the narrative has surely shifted, but one also knows it is time. It is time that we heard from the hereditary artists themselves, in their own voices. ‘Unspoken Realities’ an event conceptualized by Shreya Nagarajan Singh Arts Development consultancy is then truly historic. Because, it brings together two iconic hereditary artists - Padma Shri R. Muthukannamal, and Sangeet Natak Academi Awardee Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru to the mecca of Indian Arts, Chennai.
It marks the first first-ever meeting of two artists who have lived parallel lives in more ways than one – across the States - and built a legacy through their art, unbeknownst to each other.
While Muthukannammal (b 1929) is a seventh-generation Sadir artiste who hails from the hereditary Isai Vellalar families of dancers and musicians who were associated with the Pudukottai Royal Court and the Murugan temple in Viralimalai, Mangatayaru or Amma as she is fondly called by her students is a kalavantulu artiste from Andhra Pradesh. She is the granddaughter of the legendary Annabattula Buli Venkataratnamma, whose ancestors were invited to serve the deity and perform at Uma Suryeswara aalayam (temple) in Mummidivaram in East Godavari.
Trained extensively by her father Ramachandra Nattuvanaar and grandmother, Muthukanammal is the keeper of a rich repertoire, including pieces from the Tanjore courtly pieces and the Viralimalai kuravanji, and was all but seven when she had her ceremonial dedication to the temple or the pottukkattutal at the temple. An iconoclast, Muthukanammal despite being marginalised in the wake of the anti-nautch movement continued to identify herself as a devadasi, performed, practised and even today teaches Sadir.
And Mangatayaru (together with her sister Annabattula Leela Sai), is the last living lineage of a hereditary clan whose artistic lives were blotted out in the face of moral policing. And who like Muttukanammal, was extensively trained by her family in the rich Telugu repertoire and kalapa librettos unique to their family. The sisters who are deeply dedicated to ensuring their community’s art forms do not die have been imparting dance and music to those interested, even as their own folk continue to shun their art.
Surviving patriarchy, social and economic adversities, and even sharing a repertoire, the stories and thoughts of these women are not representations or reflections but lived memories and realities that are important to us all.
Capping the event will be the fact that the event is being moderated by Yashoda Thakore, a Kuchipudi and Devadasi Nrityam artiste who herself hails from a family of hereditary artists. As Yashoda poignantly says, “ It is iconic for me because, I have seen these women live behind their doors, and this, this coming out is a celebration. To be a part of the conversation of these two women, who lived in such close proximity, yet never met, and to listen to them discuss their art, and their lives, will be momentous... because with them it was always about inclusivity. ”
We agree – from a time when the art, life and caste of these women were taboo and could never be spoken about in public to witnessing them interact and reclaim their space today will be an event that cannot be missed.
The event, supported by Kalavaahini Trust (Founded by Malavika Sarukkai) is on Tuesday, 10th January 2023 at Amethyst, The Folly, Chennai.
AUTHOR: Sampreeti Malladi is a Kuchipudi dancer and a practising architect. Her interest in dance extends beyond praxis to stories related to culture and historical narratives to reflect on their impact on her art. She recently received her doctoral degree in dance from the University of Hyderabad for her thesis ‘Dialectics of Spatial Settings in Indian dance’.