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Those Who Glorify the Devadasi System Ignore Its Sexism, Casteism – Gitanjali Koland

Classical dancer, martial-arts expert and author Gitanjali Kolanad on her latest book and the system of devadasis in India.

Toronto-based Gitanjali Kolanad has a lived a life immersed in Indian art, history and culture. She practised and taught bharata natyam for over 40 years, performing solo or choreographing shows in major cities across the world. Her work is often multi-disciplinary, arising out of collaborations with international artists.

But dance is only one aspect of her creativity. She also practises and teaches the ancient Indian martial art of kalaripayat, and is an award-winning writer of two non-fiction titles.

We caught up with her about her riveting debut novel Girl Made of Gold (Juggernaut), set in an older time in India when girls of lower castes were “married to the gods” as devadasis and left at the mercy of predatory temple priests.

In your book, there is an element of sexual slavery for the devadasis. However, many today including dancer Aranyani Bhargav present India’s devadasis as enviable figures – women with sexual independence and individual freedom, unlike regular women. What is your take on this image of devadasis so glorified today?

I asked a North Karnataka devadasi a similar question. She responded with her own question: “If it was so great to be a devadasi, why were only low-caste girls initiated? Wouldn’t high-caste girls also be eager for all these benefits?” After that, I shut my mouth and listened.

Sexual freedom is a double-edged sword – it means no one protects you from the sexual demands of high-caste men. These women spoke of constant harassment once their status was known, even when they got educated and took other kinds of jobs.

And it is one thing to choose to be a devadasi as a grown woman, it is quite another to force it on a child. Just like child marriage and caste injustices of various kinds, the institution of devadasi, which is both casteist and sexist, had to be abolished once the newly emerging India began to recognize and enshrine within its Constitution the equal rights of its citizens. 

The most outspoken opponents of the devadasi system came from within that community. Muthulakshmi Reddi’s mother was a devadasi and Moovalur Ramamirthammal was a devadasi who ran away so she could marry the man she loved rather than be forced to take a patron.

Both of them were deeply involved with the Indian independence movement, they were fiery revolutionaries but in order to fit the facts to their agenda, Western or Western-educated academics had to paint them as ‘bourgeois’ or influenced by ‘Victorian morality’.

Is it really ‘Victorian morality’ to fight for girls to have control of their bodies, their sexuality, their career choices? Here are the words of the granddaughter of Ranganayaki, the famous devadasi of Tirutani: “But my mother and I, we didn’t learn dancing. I have an MA in Social Sciences. We are not for the devadasi system, we are against it. We have developed an aversion for this dancing.” Shouldn’t she be able to make that choice? The system didn’t provide that autonomy.

The glorification of devadasis by young women dancing today is an indication of the success of the process Rukmini Devi and others of her generation initiated, whereby the dance form was severed from sex work; this allows them to engage in dance but pay no price, as those women had to.

If these dancers found it impossible to get married (to an Indian man), or hard to rent an apartment, or were approached by men for sex after a performance, since dance equals sex work, all of which were still part of my experience dancing in Madras even in the 1980s, maybe they wouldn’t think being a devadasi was so wonderful.

Even within the Tamil devadasi community, not all of them were great dancers or musicians. For example, while performing a javali that’s still quite popular today, Nimattale mayanura – in which the dancer asks, “Where is that nose ring you promised me?” – my father told me that the dancer would come down and feel around in men’s laps, stroking them surreptitiously.

When dancers glorify devadasis, they do so by ignoring a whole range of practices like this one, the worst being the rape of young girls for a price.

Almost every ancient culture has its ‘levels’ of prostitution that segregate sex workers into those for ‘regular men’ and those for royalty. How would you compare the devadasi system in India with other similar systems in the world?

I think it is most comparable to the geishas of Japan. Many of the same obsessions existed – with paying a high price and having the rights to a girl’s ‘first night’ for example, and the deep connection to cultural practices such as music and dance and the tea ceremony. And the way the art forms flowered within that hothouse setting – beautiful talented women dancing for an extremely knowledgeable and receptive audience, tuned in to every nuance of the performance. That is the same environment within which bharata natyam developed.  

Gitanjali Kolanad demonstrating the art of kalaripayat

The devadasi system may have been dismantled legally after Independence but does it continue in some other form today, away from public glare?

The word devadasi is pretty amorphous and is used to cover a lot of different practices. In North Karnataka, there are women called devadasis who are associated with a temple, come from low castes, do sex work and are considered ‘auspicious’. Western academics like Saskia Kersenboom make much of that ‘auspiciousness’, but when I asked these women about it, they laughed derisively: “So? They call me in through the back door, I remove the evil eye, they give me 10 rupees and I leave. They won’t even let me have a glass of water.”

Their first night is sold for a high price even today, and among the women I spoke to it was as young as 11, and definitely before 16, except for one girl where the family waited till she was 18 because she was somewhat mentally deficient. The NGO that was working with them told me that even if they were put into school and got good jobs, once the background of the girls came to light, they were expected to have sex with any man who wanted it.

Another system that comes close is the bar girls of Bombay. They generally belong to performing-arts castes, and men come to them not for sex but for the illusion of love. In fact, it was when the law prevented them from dancing in bars that they were forced into sex work.

When did you start learning bharata natyam?

I studied ballet as a little kid in Winnipeg, so when we came back to India for two years when I was 10, my mother organized bharata natyam classes for me. The first teacher was a very traditional guru, he tied me to a pillar to get aramandi properly and beat me with a thin stick from a broom when I made mistakes, very stinging blows on my bare leg that really hurt! I complained to my mother, and he was changed for a nice teacher who said everything I did was great. Between the two of them I didn’t learn much.

When I was 16, getting into sex and drugs, my parents took the drastic action of spiriting me out of Canada and dumping me with my grandparents in Trichy. I was desperate to get away, so when I saw an article about Kalakshetra in Femina, I convinced my parents to let me go there. That’s the first time I really saw bharata natyam, and what was needed to do it properly.

I describe the experience as falling in love, because it isn’t rational. Just like that bad boyfriend you keep trying to leave and end up going back to, I tried to quit many times and get a ‘real’ job. But eventually I’d drop whatever I was doing and go back to dance. It’s not a very forgiving art form. It is all-consuming, you have to give your body over to it – train, eat properly, and practise for hours whether you have a performance or not. 

L-R: Gitanjali with dance guru Kalanidhi Narayanan

How is the dance form connected with devadasis, and is that what sparked your interest in their history?

While I was studying bharata natyam at Kalakshetra, in the early 1970s, I had the opportunity to see many dancers. There were many more stylistic variations in those days, Pandanallur style, Tanjore style, Vallavoor style. So I could have switched and gone to one of the hereditary community of dance gurus, many of whom were teaching in Madras at the time.

But to me the Kalakshetra style of doing adavus seemed the most beautiful – precise, neat lines and an unfussy way of dressing and being on stage. I never actually saw the great devadasi dancer Balasaraswati, though she was performing in those days.  The choice as I remember it was between seeing Bala, the legend, or Yamini Krishnamurthy, the rising star, and I chose Yamini. I don’t regret it, because Yamini’s performance is burned into my memory, it was unforgettable. 

I started researching into the history of devadasis when some of the statements that academics were making about dance didn’t accord with my experience. For example, they claimed Rukmini Devi was ‘sanitizing’ the dance, based on some brahminical version of puritanism. She was still very much an iconoclast when I studied at Kalakshetra and I knew that the academics were misrepresenting her.

I saw many erotic padams and some of them expressed a rather regressive view of female sexuality. Rather than a censorious attitude, a decision not to perform such padams was grounded in a contemporary understanding of the artist’s role, and frankly an artistically valid choice. I myself didn’t always want to dance about yearning for some man who was treating me badly.

How long did it take you to write your new novel, and how different was the process this time compared with your previous books?

The novel has taken about 10 years, from the first idea to completed book. I don’t like to think about how long and difficult the process was, because I want to write a sequel. My first book, Culture Shock: India, which was aimed at long-term visitors to India, helping them negotiate the cultural potholes that might spoil their journey, took about a year. My second book was a collection of short stories, Sleeping with Movie Stars, about my experience learning dance, which took about three years.

I had no idea a novel was so difficult. You have to have the time and solitude to let the characters come to life inside you, and it’s really very intense. I honestly don’t know how other writers manage to do this while also doing some regular job. I could only write when I had uninterrupted time with nothing else to do.

What have you observed about sexism in classical arts such as bharata natyam? Does it affect men as well?

The classical arts tend to be sexist, since classicism develops according to strict rules. Look at ballet. Bharata natyam promotes a certain restrictive idea of women and men and their relationship. Both sexes can easily get trapped within that limited understanding, but these ideas that have become enshrined are in fact not intrinsic to it.

That is what Rukmini Devi was able to recognize and that’s what I love about the form – one needn’t be held back by those strictures. Bharata natyam is a physical language capable of expressing radical and transformative visions if the dancer is willing to use it fully. Some of Rama Vaidyanathan’s performances, most recently, have moved me with their sublime beauty. 

Gitanjali pratising kalaripayat

When did your association with kalaripayat begin, and do you still practise it now as a form of exercise? 

I saw a performance by Kavalan Narayana Panicker’s troupe in New Delhi, and it was stunning, so powerful. The next day they held a workshop and I was the only one to attend. So I had all these gorgeous Malayali actors to myself. They used kalaripayat as their training technique. I became so fascinated I went to Kerala to learn more, and finally found a teacher in Madras, P A Binoy. I have been practising ever since.

When I started having knee problems from bharata natyam, I took the kalari massage as treatment, which I continue to take once a year. I credit my health and well-being to the practice and the massage. It is such a beautiful form, sinuous, powerful, graceful, with a deep philosophical aspect, and so much to learn that you can do it your whole life. It is a powerful antidote to the elitism of bharata natyam.

My first guru told me, “When you enter the kalari, you leave every sign of caste and class at the door.” I practised with auto-rickshaw drivers, bus conductors, shopkeepers. Now I study with Vikas Gurukkal in Calicut.

You’ve had a long association with the performing arts. Please share something about your most memorable performance and what stayed with you.

I loved performing, but I didn’t have that many opportunities so I can remember almost all my performances. One, in Italy, with a troupe put together by the very handsome dancer Kama Dev, was on a stage constructed in a fountain, with curved staircases on either side. The setting was exquisite.

Similarly, I danced in Suwon, Korea, and the stage had an ancient stone wall and massive gate as the backdrop. That was spectacular.

I danced once in Delhi with my guru Nana Kasar doing the nattuvangam. One piece was an Ashtapadi from Gita Govinda, in which I enact Krishna teasing me by hiding while I search for him in the dark forest. I became so immersed in it that when I mimed the sudden touch of Krishna’s hand, I reacted, startled as if by an actual touch. Guruji noticed and said afterward, “That was you dancing, not any of your teachers,” and I felt so joyous. 

Another time in a performance that I’d choreographed, The Seven Deadly Sins, my musician and friend Babu Parameswaran, said, “That was sexy”. That was a great compliment, coming from Babu.

First published in eShe’s August 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control and Azhimukham (Malayalam)

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