James David Forbes Collecting Prize 2022: A glimpse into the history and practice of South Indian Classical dance
We are pleased to announce that the winner of the James David Forbes Collecting Prize 2022 is Lakshmi Thiagarajan, who graduated last year with an MA in Management and Philosophy. In this blog she tells us about her winning collection.
Rain poured down on the small, narrow path as I made my way to the back of a large non-descript building located in the heart of the southern Indian city of Chennai. I soon found myself in a room surrounded with shelves of books on Carnatic music and Bharathanatyam, the south Indian classical dance form. This was one of the few bookstores in the city with a dedicated collection of books on music and dance. I have been learning Bharathanatyam since the age of seven, but it was not until my early teens that I grew fascinated with the history of this art form. My interest was sparked by the sculptures I came across depicting dancing women in temples in South India. Bharathanatyam is estimated to be over 2,000 years old and was practiced for centuries in temples and royal courts in this region.
My collection is broadly structured across three themes: (1) The story of its origins, (2) understanding lineage and the circumstance of the 1900s, and (3) elements of contemporary performance . Through these themes I hope to trace the artistic development and the evolution of Bharathanatyam from its earliest available written documentation to the present-day issues, discussions and norms that surround its practice with a particular focus on some of the lesser-known forces, perspectives and minds who shaped it into the form that it is today.
The first section ‘The story of its origins’ includes early texts that document the practice of Bharathanatyam as well as books and visual material on the cultural history, mythology and related artforms such as painting and sculpture that help provide an insight into the essence and roots of this art form. One of the first books I acquired as a part of my collection was a translated edition of a Sanskrit text called the Natyashastra attributed to the author Bharathamuni. This is one of the earliest surviving texts on South Asian dramatology and the first chapter of this text weaves a mythological story surrounding the dance form’s origins. Subsequent chapters codify movements of the hands, feet, eyes, neck and limbs and discuss different elements of stage design, makeup, music and the musical instruments used during this period. While elements of this can be seen across all the eight classical dance forms of India today, this text itself was not traditionally used as a part of dance training and consequently many of the movements prescribed here were lost in time. One of the first attempts to revive these movements was undertaken by Dancer-Scholar Dr Padma Subrahmanyam (1943-) and the DVD Karana Prakaranam showcases these movements along with the relevant verses from the text and the corresponding temple sculptures where it is frozen in time.
Another notable work in this section is an illustrated, translated edition of Nandikeshwara’s Abhinaya Darpana by Anita Vallabh. ‘Abhinaya Darpana’ translates to a ‘mirror of gesture’ and this text documents the single and double hand gestures used in dance and explores the ways in which it can be used to communicate meaning. Very little is known about Nandikeswara, the original author of this text or the period in which it was written, although some estimates place it between 11th and 13th centuries CE. Storytelling/communication in Bharathanatyam is based on the dancer’s interpretation of the lyrics of the song and so there is a close relationship between the dance form and the literary traditions (of Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit) in which it developed. Tamil (Cambridge, Mass., 2016) by Dr David Shulman (1949-) provides a cultural history of Tamil tracing the language’s evolution through its literature and exploring what its grammar reveals about the perceptions and usage of its speakers.
For centuries, Bharathanatyam was practiced by a hereditary community of artists known as the Isai Vellalar. Women from this community (known as Devadasi) were at a young age dedicated to temples to serve the presiding deity and they performed Bharathanatyam (then more popularly known as Sadir/dasiattam) as a part of both temple rituals and artistic performances that took place within temples and in the courts of local rulers. Men from this community were Nattuvanars, whose role involved teaching dance and leading the orchestra during a performance. The fiscal weakening of the kingdoms of south India, who had been the main patron, and changing social values during the colonial period resulted in significant hardship for the practitioners of this art.
Traditionally, Devadasi women were considered married to the deity of the temple and were not required by social norms to be bound to a relationship with a single individual. Changing social values and norms surrounding such relationships in the 20th century resulted in their ostracization. The 1920s and 1930s were also the peak of the anti-caste movement in India where rigid roles specified by India’s caste system was challenged. In 1947, the Devadasi Prevention of Dedication Act was passed banning both the performance of the dance in temples and the dedication of women due to the campaigning efforts of a section of women from this very community. However, the voices of devadasi women opposing this ban went unheard and the ban on dance in temples, the last remaining source of patronage, severely limited the practice of this form amongst women of this hereditary community. Several reformers, most prominently Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986) and E. Krishna Iyer (1897-1968), who sought to preserve the artform brought it to the secular stage in auditoriums, popularised it as ‘Bharathanatyam’ and opened out its practice to people from non-traditional backgrounds. While this brought it social legitimacy and popularised it across the country, it was at a great cost to the traditional community who had practiced it for centuries.
Through the section ‘Understanding lineage and the circumstance of the 1900s’ I hope to bring together books that examine the events of these years from a variety of perspectives. Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life (Chennai, 2001) by Douglas Knight Jr. documents the life, early training, and career of Balasaraswati (1918-1984), who was among the last artists from the hereditary community to be trained in the traditional way and renown her abhinaya/narrative dance. Women of Pride: The Devadasi heritage (New Delhi, 2008) by Lakshmi Viswanathan examines the religious, political and social context in which the devadasi system developed and documents the impact of the devadasi reform movement as told by the last surviving devadasi women in the 1970s. These books offer a way of preserving the voices of this community of artists who nurtured and shaped the practice of this art for centuries, but whose stories have faded from mainstream public conscious.
Other books in this section include Master of Arts: A Life in Dance (Gurgaon, 2013) by Tulsi Badrinath which documents the life and career of V.P. Dhananjayan (1939-) who was one of the first male artists to perform Bharathanatyam publicly, a role traditionally reserved for women. Rukmini Devi: a life (New Delhi, 2010) by Leela Samson provides an insight into the life of this key figure of the reform movement who established an institution for its practice and expanded the repertoire and creative possibilities of this artform by creating ballet-style dance dramas using the technique and framework of Bharathanatyam. Ashtanayikas and Navarasas are a collection of DVDs featuring classroom sessions with Kalanidhi Narayanan (1928-2016), a Bharathanatyam artist and teacher who played a vital role in preserving and transmitting these compositions and offer a rare insight into her creative process.
Through the ‘Elements of Contemporary Performance’, I hope to capture the features, challenges and debates that surround the current practice of Bharathanatyam. The book Why do we dance?, (Chennai, 2019) edited by Dr Apoorva Jayaraman, features contributions from young professional dancers of today, many of whom are the first generation of artists to have learned this artform from non-traditional teachers, on what they perceive as the purpose of their dance and on what spirituality means to them. This section also includes a collection of DVDs featuring full-length performances, documentaries and more detailed expositions examining aspects of the performance repertoire that document the aesthetics, technique, and features surrounding its current practice.
Putting this collection together has been an immense joy and I’m honoured to have won the 2022 James David Forbes Collecting Prize. The process of applying also encouraged me to reflect more deeply on my collection and my vision for it in the future. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to share some of it with you and I look forward to working with the Rare Books Librarian to select some items for the University Collections. If you would like to know more about this collection, please don’t hesitate to get in touch ([email protected])
Are you a current student at St Andrews? Do you have a collection which you would like to tell us about? The deadline for the 2023 competition is Sunday 5 March 2023. For further details, please see https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/library/special-collections/collecting-prize/
Lakshmi Thiagarajan (MA 2022)