In early 2021, Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer and dance historian Gayathri Iyer produced and staged a dance drama, Sundara, at the Seva Sadan in Malleswaram. The cruel second wave of the pandemic was yet to start but only a handful of people were invited to attend the performance, which combined theatre and dance to tell a fascinating story about a remarkable woman. In all the frenzy that followed the second wave, however, Sundara was threatened by the same obscurity its protagonist had remained in for over a century.
The play is based on the life of a devadasi, or temple dancer, from the early 20th century who was associated with a magnificent, centuries-old temple situated in the heart of Bengaluru: the Ulsoor Someshwara temple. The “living” temple, a centre of religion, commerce and culture that continues to draw devotees, dates back to at least the 16th century.
The temple had a vibrant devadasi tradition, and sometime in the early 20th century, was home to the proficient dancer Venkatasundara Sani. Despite the social movements against the devadasi tradition at the time, it continued to flourish in many southern temples, though records of individual devadasis and their practices are few and far between. Sani was an exception—a dancer who decided to record her own observations about life and dance in a book in 1908.
Published by the Mysore Trading Agency, only four chapters of the book, titled Rasikajana Manollasini, are available today but they cover subjects associated with the dance practices of devadasis like Sani—poetry, dramatics, music, gesture, posture, and temple rituals, says Iyer, who has researched Sani’s life for over three years. The book was written in a combination of Kannada, Sanskrit and Telugu, and the English translation of the parts still available, undertaken by Iyer with the help of a team of scholars, is on, complicated by the multiplicity of languages and technicality of the references to dance and music.
While Sani does find a few mentions in books on temple cultures, such as Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, And Modernity In South India by Davesh Soneji (2012) or one of British historian B. Lewis Rice’s Mysore Gazetteers, published between 1873-97, these were passing references. Iyer is keen to bring Sani’s life and work to greater prominence and the play, put together with the help of a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, is a beginning.
“Just imagine how radical it was for a woman to be publishing a text in her own name in 1908,” says Iyer. “And we know she was an incredibly scholarly woman—she had read the Natya Shastra because in the book, which has an alternative title as well—Sarasangraha Bharatha Shastra—we find that she quotes from the Natya Shastra and then adds her own commentary to it, which is really cool because we don’t have access to that kind of annotation in most other historical sources. The text traverses music, dramaturgy, dance, poetry and it includes sort of prescriptive codes for all these things—it is a really valuable document.”
Besides being a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Iyer, who grew up in the US and moved to India in her early 20s, is a researcher with a master’s degree and MPhil in art history from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, where she is pursuing a PhD in temple architecture. It was during her PhD fieldwork that she started reading more about devadasis.
“I realised that there was a lot of stuff about Bharatanatyam that nobody had told me. I never knew that the art was appropriated from a lower-caste community. I never knew that it was modified to suit more Brahminical sensibilities, that it was taken from the devadasis and converted into a more ‘respectable’ form. When this struck me, I was sitting in the JNU library late at night, all by myself, and I was discovering all of these horrific truths about a practice that I thought was mine. That was the turning point in terms of how I got into dance research and started looking up the devadasi tradition,” she says.
She also found that while the devadasi cultures of Tamil Nadu, and to some extent Andhra Pradesh, were documented, there wasn’t much of a record for Bengaluru, which also had large and prosperous temples. The only similar figure who is well known today is Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who came from the devadasi tradition and became a prominent Carnatic musician, cultural activist and scholar in the 1920s.
“As I started reading more about the Bangalore-Kolar school of dance, I realised that the devadasi culture was absolutely thriving here as well. Coming across the reference to Sani in Rice’s Gazetteer finally led me to her and to her incredible book,” says Iyer.
The research has come with its own peculiar challenges. “As I kept digging, I realised how problematic it was that I was doing this research—that I am an upper-class, upper-caste woman with ancestors who have a very murky history with all of this. And I didn’t realise that until I was knee-deep into looking at all of the historical sources,” says Iyer. She says she has faced “a lot of backlash from both sides of the aisle”, referring to hereditary dancers accusing her of appropriation, and traditionalists telling her to focus on more “respectable” aspects of the art.
For long, the voices of people like Sani were suppressed by a dominant cultural establishment that deemed people like her less than respectable and wanted to “save” them from the life of a glorified prostitute—but the truth is more complex. Yes, the devadasi system was exploitative but it is also true that devadasis enjoyed a degree of freedom and the ability to immerse themselves in the world of art and culture that ordinary women of the time would have found impossible. As we hear more of their voices through the work of scholars and historians, these questions remain: Who does a story belong to, and who gets to tell it and how?