Last week, the Padma Shri awardees were announced and among them was my guru, the 84-year-old Viralimalai R. Muthukannammal. She remains not only the torchbearer of her family—a long illustrious line of hereditary performers of which she is the seventh generation—but also a leader of a dance tradition that has, with great struggle retained its form, content and even its name as sadir in post Independent India. The announcement of the Padma Shri is a victory for not just her but for everything she embodies, her struggle as a hereditary community artiste, for sadir, and for practitioners like myself who have imbibed the dance form from her. The last few days have been ones of great joy, celebration, and excitement for all of us.
But two days ago, I came across an email thread between some senior dancers, questioning Muthukannamal’s lineage, credibility, and contributions to the field. Usually, I would have ignored such an email, which is a statement of resentment, bitterness brought on by a threat to their position in the mainstream. But I decided I could use it as an opportunity to share details about my guru, who deserves not just this honour but many more. It is such acts of recognition that can right some wrongs in history. For, in the history and undermining of sadir is a tale of deep prejudice, appropriation and caste discrimination. And M.K. Amma’s story is one of enduring all this and more.
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In the 1900s when India was fighting battles for civil liberties, freedom and social reform, society got into heated debates about the morality of the female performing class, of ridding society of licentious women and prostitution, and finally democratizing the arts for everyone to learn and perform. Back then, the arts, like most other professions, were circumscribed by caste lines. With these reform movements, sadir was transformed into bharatanatayam—sanitising itself and losing the vitality and multicultural ethos of sadir—for the privileged upper caste world. Change and improvements were needed in the hereditary system, but in this appropriation, caste discrimination, social bias and prejudice have been covert partners in cementing the role of bharatanatyam and its practitioners as “saviours” who resurrected dance from its ruins and disenfranchising the hereditary performers.
Viralimalai is a town about 28km from Tiruchirappalli in Pudukottai district of southern Tamil Nadu. Muthukannamal was born in 1937 into one of the leading families of sadir, attached to the Murugan shrine of Viralimalai. Her father, Sri Ramachandra Nattuvanar, was a well-known musician, while her grandmother Ammani ammal led the town’s cinna melam artistes (temple artistes associated with dance). Ammani ammal’s towering presence and the respect she commanded are not to be easily forgotten, M.K. Amma would repeat during our practice sessions.
In her heyday, Ammani ammal was a dancer who was dedicated through the pottu (marriage) ceremony to the temple. Part of the fifth generation of dedicated temple artistes, Ammani ammal was a dancer and a gifted musician who would also wield the cymbals (taalam) during the recitals of other dancers. It was not often that women were bestowed the position of conducting recitals, which in many towns, including Tanjore and Kumbakonam, was a male bastion at the time. Years later, in Chennai of the 1980s, my first guru, the celebrated Kalaimamani K.J. Sarasa faced many struggles to establish herself as a female nattuvanar (musician).
Ammani ammal was not only a trailblazer but an erudite scholar of languages, philosophy and the arts. She had seven children, most of whom became cinna melam artistes, playing the mridangam, flute, nattuvangam, singing or dancing. Among them was Ramachandran, father of M.K. Amma. He became a teacher of dance soon after he was initiated into the official position of temple nattuvan. He tutored over forty dancers from various families of Viralimalai.
Under the watchful eyes and supervision of Ammani ammal (called Appayi by the family), Ramachandran taught these dancers not only for temple service of dance and music but also sadir performances in other towns. M.K. Amma grew up watching 40 women learn and practice in her home every day. At the age of five, she was taken to the temple and through the pottu ceremony, initiated into serious learning of sadir. The days after she tied the pottu were delightful, she says. She would practice dance from the early hours of the morning, at about half past nine, she would hop off to the local school, and return in the evening to jump right back into practice. She fondly remembers how grueling her learning sessions were. Her father, who was a strict taskmaster, wouldn’t yell when they missed an adavu (step) but would gently chide them about coming to class, leaving their memory at home.
The extraordinary thing is Ammani ammal watched over not just the learning process but also the atmosphere of their home, which was also the classroom. She always instructed her son Ramachandran, who at that time was not much older than some of the dancers he taught, that he was a guru and had to take the role of a protective father figure. She would tell everyone that the sadir koodam (classroom) at their home was a space where every learner was equally important.
Between Ammani ammal’s instructions and Ramachandra Nattuvanar’s protective care, the 40 women who practiced sadir with the family learnt the art in a safe space with agency. This is more than what some so-called prominent schools of dance and gurus can offer today at a time when the dance world grapples with allegations of sexual harassment and wielding of power over students. Therefore, it is no surprise that M.K. Amma who grew up in an enabling learning environment always speaks to me of safety and protection for the learners in the classroom.
Among the many services that were to be rendered to the temple daily was the tradition of climbing the 120 steps of the Viralimalai Murugan shrine twice a day to do murai. Murai included grinding and making a huge flour based vilakku (lamp), carrying it up the steps and lighting it at the sanctum, after which the artistes would perform music and dance in front of the deity. The dancer would perform the evening allatti (lamp waving) song and the oonjal (swing) song while putting the deity to bed. Art and performance were integral to daily worship.
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These days, scores of dancers throng the precincts of every temple, clamoring to perform for a few minutes during festivals which are broadcast on television and in the media. In contrast, M.K. Amma and her colleagues performed every day for their deity, in solitude, without an audience or applause, singing in the quiet hallways of the temple, only for the eyes and ears of the deity. She says she can still recall the tasty sokkarai appams and rice balls that each murai-kaari (temple service provider) would be given in return for their service. There are no photographs to prove these exemplary services to art. Therefore, perhaps our clickbait world of dance is questioning such humility and service, love and devotion?
Finally, in that toxic email, along with M.K. Amma, sadir has been described as “unknown” and “obscure”. To counter such ignorance, one can say this much—if today so many people from various backgrounds are able to stake a claim to an art form called bharatanatyam, it is because the framework, nay, the very flesh of it, comes from sadir.
For those who conveniently bracket sadir as a dance of the past, belonging only to temples, let me tell you that by continuing to practice and teach sadir, refusing to let its name be changed, speaking of sadir and its generosity to Bharatanatyam openly, proclaiming her lineage and caste identity, R. Muthukannammal has brought the saga of appropriation a full circle. She has opened the gates to the future. She has readied not foot soldiers for her cause in me and my students, but also performers for the future who are bringing sadir back to its rightful place.
To still assume and profess that bharatanatyam has buried sadir and its hereditary practitioners and resurrected dance in a more respectable form is to live in a world of false knowledge fed by caste, gender, class and social bias. Beware, for it is more dangerous than ignorance.
Swarnamalya Ganesh is a sadir performer, dance historian, professor of practice at Krea University, a Fulbright Fellow and director of Ranga Mandira Academy of World Dance/ Performance and Indic Studies.