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The Devidasis (Servants of the Gods) were female temple dancers of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. These were not ordinary girl children; they were the most comely and the most talented candidates. The Natya Shastra, the Indian bible on sacred dance, theatre and music which was written around the time of Christ, lists the qualities required of a female dancer:
Devidasis were dedicated in the temples to learn and perform the dance required for the rituals. and were married to a god, but they could choose human partners and lovers. Since they were legally married, their children were legitimate. Since they could never become widows, their presence at an event was considered a blessing. Their function in the worship of the god was considered essential and their heriditary rights were protected by law. The greatest dancers were honored with titles, gifts, and inscriptions in temple chronicles.
A class of dancers called Rajidasis performed for non-religious court events. Alankara-dasis provided dance entertainment for social events like marriages.
A class of male dance-masters, the Natuvans, oversaw the dance training of the devidasis and the rajidasis. They were also musicians and composers who had heriditary rights protected by law as well.
When temple dancing was outlawed by the British and the temple dancers fell on hard times, some families of Natuvans and Devidasis continued to train their children in their obligations to their god. In the 1920s and 30s, the efforts of educated Indians (such as the notable E Krishna Iyer, who gave the dance its current name of Bharata Natyam) and interest by famous Western dancers (most notably Anna Pavlova, Esther Sherman, a.k.a. Ragini Devi, and La Meri ) sparked a revival, and some of the surviving musicians and dancers were summoned to teach and perform again... but this time, in dance studios and concerts. In the foreword of La Meri's book on Indian Dance Gesture (published in 1941) an Indian arts scholar, Ananda Coomarawamy, pleaded for an end to the changes he saw being applied to the dancing for purely aesthetic reasons, diluting its role as the representation of the stories of gods and heroes. In the case of Bharatanatyam, the dance and music technique was never lost... but its context changed.
Today, the education of young girls of respectable Indian families frequently includes training in Bharatanatyam, and the young woman's public dance debut (Arangetram) is often as elaborate as a coming-out ceremony or a marriage, with music, photographers, programs, gifts and a feast. Indian families in the US continue the tradition.
In contrast, the fortunes of many of the existing devadasis did not take a U-turn when their dance arts did. There are still many devidasis who are dedicated to the service of the gods in India, but the temples no longer support them, and they earn their livelihood with manual labor and/or sex with patrons and customers.
Author: Maura Enright
©2012 by Maura Enright
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