Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

March 6, 2014

First published March 5, 2014

 in Mid-day

The Nautch Girl Strikes Back

Published on 3rd November, 2013 in Mid-Day.

Every time I watch a Bollywood item number, that is increasingly becoming a sought after art form by both aspiring and waning stars, and I watch ‘empowered’ women displaying their sexuality, objectifying themselves, tantalizing men with their bodies and their flirtatious gaze, challenging them to accept their invitation, I can see beyond them the faces of hundreds of smiling devadasis and nautch girls, women well versed in song and dance who were mocked and rejected by puritanical society as ‘prostitutes’. This is what happens when we deny one aspect of dance and favour another.

Somewhere in the 19th century, active efforts were made to strip dance of sexuality and sensuality. It became all about spirituality and union with God. That was the only way it could be rescued from the critical gaze of social reformers who saw anything feminine and physical with suspicion. So yes, the girl could sing and dance above love and longing but the fact that the body was being used to communicate desire had to be denied by making every word, every phrase, and every action allegorical. The lover she called out was the inner divine. The beloved who tortured her was not allowed to be a physical person who made her juices flow; it had to be an abstract idea.

Juices? Yes, rasa. But we want this rasa to be emotional, intellectual, spiritual, not a bodily fluid. Not the saliva, not sweat, certainly not blood or vaginal fluids or semen. In fact, even as I write these very vivid words that leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader, I see my conditioning rising up, and censuring me. We prefer allusions and suggestions to direct reference.

But when one reads the padams — songs written in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada between the 15th and 18th centuries, even in translation — one realizes such a divide did not always exist. The physical was not seen to the exclusion of the philosophical. These songs, written by men like Annamacharya and Kshetrayya, but in a feminine voice, were sung by devadasis, women who were dedicated to temple deities. In these songs, the divine was addressed as a lover, a customer, a husband, often one who has cheated on them, broken their heart, preferred someone else over them, or returned after spending days with another. Yes, at one level, these are allegorical, songs of separation, affection and longing of the devotee for the deity. But simultaneously, it expressed the real events of the devadasi’s life, her relationship with her rich patron whose wealth sustained the temple, and over whom she had no real rights, as her real husband was the deity in the temple. The physical was not seen as inferior or lesser aspect of the art; the philosophical was not seen as the purer or true expression of the art; together they created the magic of the performance.

Later the dance of the devadasis, once known as sadar kacheri, became the much sanitized Bharata-natyam (a word that did not exist a century ago, I am told by dance historians) following the outcry of social reformers influenced by both Hindu monastic orders and Christian missionaries in the Madras Presidency. So the audience sought its entertainment elsewhere, where sexuality and sensuality was openly acknowledged — on the screens of cinema as the cabaret performance in the night club, the mujra of the tawaif in her kotha, then around trees in dream sequences, and finally atop tables in bars by the uber confident item-girl. No attempt is made to equate the beloved with the divine anymore. In attempting to reject physicality, we ended up rejecting all philosophy.

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