Eroticism steps out of Indian classical dances

Ratna Venkat – 

One of the many perks of being an Indian Classical Dancer, besides entertaining the audience of course, is that we get to illustrate through our Art how human society operates.

By human society, I do not mean the religious relationship between Devotee and the Almighty for which Indian classical art is most well-known, but the different facets of love and sexual relationships between different types of people.

Love compositions

This complicated and ‘shocking’ nature of our society has been present since time immemorial and hence characterised in the South Indian Classical Dance forms of Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, grouped into love compositions known as ‘Padams’ and ‘Jaavalis’ and its counterpart in the North Indian Classical Dance form of Kathak known as ‘Thumaris’ and ‘Dadras.’

However, one must remember that no matter how scandalous or controversial these relations may be, in the ultimate analysis, the basic theme of Hindu philosophy is expressed through various creative paths: the yearning of ‘Jeevaatma’ (Living soul) wanting to reunite with the ‘Paramaatma’ (Universal soul).

Basis for research

eroticism-steps-out-swaroopa-unni-webAttending Dunedin-based Bharata Natyam dancer Swaroopa Unni’s programme, ‘Sringaram – Dance of Love,’ held on October 6 and 8, 2016 at Q Theatre in Auckland made me ponder on a question that has haunted me for several years.

That is now the basis of my on-going research on ‘Does Art imitate Life, or is Life influenced by Art?’

Swaroopa’s solo dance programme, ‘Sringaram’ (meaning love or erotic love) was entirely devoted to the development of Padams and Jaavalis in the Bharata Natyam repertoire, which also pondered on whether these compositions are sacred or profane.

She was the ‘Nayika’ or heroine, presenting a total of six items that showcased ‘her’ journey of erotic love and the many shades of it. From a young woman turning down a man’s offer, to being shamed by society for having an extra-marital relationship to inviting her lover to spend the night with her while her husband is away, the programme also included a unique item composed in part-English due to the influence of British colonial rule in India in the 19th century.

The Devadasis

Padams and Jaavalis of South India were traditionally performed by a community of women temple dancers known as ‘Devadasis,’ and due to the Jeevaatma-Paramaatma concept, compositions were mostly about longing for love, separation in love or betrayal of love, along with other human emotional needs such as eroticism, desire and sex.

These Devadasis then proceeded to perform as salon dancers and courtesans in the Indian Royal Courts up until the early 19th century, much akin to Kathak dancers who received royal patronage during the Mughal Era, before their art was labelled vulgar and banned from practice when the British took over India.

Bharata Natyam Today

The Bharata Natyam that we know today is in fact, a refurbished version of the distant past, a ‘family-friendly’ type that was revolutionised by the efforts of freedom-fighters such as E Krishna Iyer and Rukmani Devi Arundale.

By the late 1940s, at the turn of India’s Independence from Britain, the art slowly gained respectability in the Indian society and was no longer exclusive to the Devadasi community.

Unfortunately, this also meant eradication of certain Padams and Jaavalis that are still deemed too risqué to perform in front of today’s varied audiences, and thus are slowly dying out.

Sacred or Profane?

Swaroopa was one of the few artistes who researched, explored and performed some of these Padam and Jaavali masterpieces in ‘Sringaram,’ challenging a world in which modern Bharata Natyam exponents are expected to adhere to guidelines on moral conduct for women that were put forth by individuals such as Ms Arundale.

Whether these song lyrics and emotions of love, longing, desire and eroticism are sacred or profane are up to viewers’ interpretations depending upon their spiritual understanding of the Jeevaatma-Paramaatma concept.

Women’s mind

Padams, Jaavalis, Thumaris and Dadras reflect a woman’s state of mind and give many opportunities for an artiste to explore womanhood with the freedom to step out of her boundaries considered taboo in human society.

In my opinion, this idea of exploring illicit affairs or doomed relationships was derived from the complicated relationship between Lord Krishna and His already married companion, Radha, of whom both came from very different sectors of society.

Their complex relationship inspired countless composers across the Indian Subcontinent, who were ardent devotees of Lord Krishna, to stretch beyond the limits of their human imagination on what it is like to be in love with Him (that is, the detached Divine soul) from the perspective of Radha (the worldly-attached Human soul).

I believe this Jeevaatma-Paramaatma philosophy delves deep into these love compositions, allowing the woman to freely express her thoughts, fantasise her actions and consequences through her Art, whether true or not in her actual life.

Padams and Jaavalis as such, are about understanding the human psyche in a divine manner and gives the artiste scope to showcase ‘Abhinaya’ or expression in a delicate and perhaps controversial manner.

However, such treasured compositions cannot be performed if one is not sensitive or mature enough to understand and accept its parallel existence in human society.

Ratna Venkat is an award winning Indian Classical Dancer and Choreographer based in Auckland. She is renowned for her novel concepts and innovative performances at many prestigious events. She was the recipient of the ‘2016 ANZ Diwali Young Achiever Award’ for her contribution to Indian fine arts in New Zealand at the Diwali Luncheon hosted by ANZ at Sudima Auckland Airport Hotel on October 21, 2016. Ratna is the Editor of ‘Artlink’ of Indian Newslink.

Photo Caption: 1. Ratna Venkat 2. Swaroopa Unni

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