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VOL. XXIII NO. 18, JANUARY 1-15, 2014

As the annual Festival of Dance begins,
a three-part series on the progress from...

Sadir to Bharata Natyam

(by Arudra)

It was the Music Academy, Madras, which set its hand to the task of dispelling the cloud of prejudice that hung over the ancient art of Bharata Natya. By refining the performance and issuing an enlightening programme, it has brought the classic Indian dance within intelligent appreciation and thus rescued it from the danger of extinction. The dance now holds a place as an important branch of Sangita. It was largely due to those intimately connected with the executive and academic work of the Academy that the art attained its present wide vogue all over the country.

-The Music Academy’s Golden Jubilee Souvenir, 1976.

The Kalyani Daughters

When the Indian National Congress decided to hold its 1927 annual session in Madras during the last week of December, music enthusiasts in Madras, who had already met in 1926 and resolved to establish an institution to foster classical music, wanted to avail of the opportunity to hold an All India Music Conference, the first of its kind in South India. Dr. U. Rama Rao, E. Krishna Iyer and P. Sambamoorthi were entrusted with the work of organising the conference. The conference started on December 24th and continued for eight days. At the conclusion of the conference, a significant resolution was passed urging the formation of a permanent institution to promote the cause of music. This was taken a step further when, on January 22, 1928, it was resolved, among other things, that “an Academy of Music be started at Madras”. The Music Academy of Madras was inaugurated by Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer in August 1928 and it was registered formally under the Societies Registration Act the following year. The Academy started to publish its own quarterly Journal from 1930 onwards, and it is thanks to the Journal of the Music Academy (JMA) that we get a view of the recent history of Bharata Natyam.

E. Krishna Iyer, one of the Secretaries of the Academy and its driving force in its eventful life of the first decade, was himself a trained musician and dancer. He was eager to introduce the Sadir dance in the Academy’s programme but had to bide his time. In the autumn of 1927, the Council of State in Delhi discussed the motion of a member from Madras for the prevention of dedication of girls as devadasis. The motion was opposed by the then Law Member who held that the existing provisions of the Indian Penal Code were sufficient to deal with the immoral practices that were allegedly a consequence of the devadasi system. In November 1927, the Madras Legislative Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Madras Government to prepare preventive legislation to stop the devadasi practice. Subsequently, in 1929, the Council legislated an amendment to the H.R. & C.E. Act, empowering temple authorities to disenfranchise devadasis from their temple connections and revoke by civil proceedings the manyams (land settlement and privileges) granted to them. In 1930, S. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a doctor and social leader who belonged to a devadasi family, brought a bill in the Council seeking to prohibit the performance of the devadasi dedicatory ceremonies in any Hindu temple. This was the last straw for pro-art progressives.

The Academy, closely watching the developments and, realising the seriousness of the situation, felt that something ought to be done urgently to safeguard the continuity of the classical traditions in dance before the hereditary custodians of Sadir – who belonged to the devadasi community – were forced to give up their role. The Academy took a bold step; on March 15, 1931 it presented on its own platform two dancers known as the Kalyani Daughters. The performance drew only a small crowd, but it was a significant event. It was reported in the Academy’s Journal, “An entirely new line was struck this year by the Academy commencing its season with a Bharata Natya performance by the Kalyani Daughters of Tanjore. It has almost become a fashion nowadays to condemn the Indian Nautch and look askance at it. In our view this condemnation is least deserved. We are glad that the performance served as an eye-opener to those who came to witness it. We hope that in the days to come, public opinion will veer round and give unto Abhinayam its proper place.” The Academy thereafter continued to encourage the art of dance under its new name, ‘Bharata Natyam’.

A controversy broke out at the beginning of December 1932 over the nature of classical dance and the advisability of its revival. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy led the antagonists and E. Krishna Iyer the pro-art protagonists. The English language press made space available for the controversy which helped to open the eyes of the public to the richness of the art of dance. The controversy lasted several weeks.

The decisive discussion on the fate and future of dance was held on the sixth day of the sixth annual conference of the Music Academy. The venue was a special pandal erected for the occasion to the north of Ripon Building in the then People’s Park. The pandal could easily accommodate two thousand persons.

On December 28th the conference devoted the whole day to the ‘Nautch Question’ as it was called by the self-appointed social reformers. Meanwhile, Krishna Iyer gave notice of a resolution dealing with the encouragement of Bharata Natyam. Copies of the resolution had been circulated in advance and the participants were well prepared for the deliberations. G.A. Johnson, Assistant Editor of The Madras Mail, who had been invited to the proceedings, wrote a letter that read, in part: “There is a point which has occurred to me in connection with these discussions which I submit might usefully be raised. This refers to the public performances of the ‘Nautch’ which I understand many reformers wish to discourage. It is reasonable to suppose: (I) That if it is intended to reform the devadasis, they must be given an alternative profession. Public performances of the dance should provide them with lucrative opportunities to display their talents.(II) If the dance is to be free from its less respectable associations, the encouragement of public display appears to be the best way to do it. Private parties tend to encourage the notion of lack of respectability. Public functions, on the other hand, show the dance for what it is. Lack of respectability might best be removed by attendance at these public functions of respectable people.”

After the resolution was duly moved and seconded, as many as 16 eminent persons took part in the discussions.

(To be concluded)

The crucial controversy

In 1932, certain social events, in which Nautch was featured, gave rise to a crucial controversy.

The Raja of Bobbili (a prinicipality in the Madras Presidency) became Premier of the Presidency Government. When he assumed office, a public function was organised to felicitate him and it included a Nautch performance. The Raja took it in his stride.

But the Anti-Nautch movement people were enraged. Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the staunch leader of the movement who had introduced a bill in the Madras Legislative Council to abolish the devadasi system, shot off angry letters to The Hindu and The Mail criticising the Premier for associating himself with the Nautch party. Her ire was laced with pain because on the committee of hosts for the celebration were some of her friends who had given their unqualified support to her goals: even if they had not known that Nautch was to be presented, they had not protested or walked out.

Dr. Reddy was upset too that Nautch was performed at another public function, a garden party given in honour of M.A. Muthiah Chettiar, Kumararaja of Chettinad.

The letters published in The Hindu drew a response from E. Krishna Iyer and the issue blossomed into a full-fledged controversy.

Krishna Iyer was not against the right kind of reforms. He agreed that dance should not be used to lure clients for immoral purposes. But he wanted the art to be preserved. He noted that 50 years of the Anti-Nautch movement had nearly killed the art even while failing to eradicate immorality.

In the ensuing debate in the Press, few supported Dr. Reddy, while many sided with Krishna Iyer. Those who wished to save Sadir from extinction came to be identified as Pro-Art.

Swarajya, an English daily edited by T. Prakasam, the Andhra Congress leader, urged that the precious art be separated from the evil association, but added that this would be possible only if an increasing number of votaries of the art imparted to it something of the purity of their own lives. It was a call for girls from ‘respectable’ families to take up the dance.

Significantly, a cross-section of devadasis voiced their emphatic protest against the Anti-Nautch movement. They argued that, because some devadasis were living immoral lives, all of them should not be condemned as prostitutes and the dance associated with them as evil. They held that the art would die if it was disassociated from their caste. The twin arts of singing and dancing had been their inheritance and they knew how best to preserve their divinity, they asserted.

In the end, E. Krishna Iyer wrote an open letter to the President of the Music Academy of Madras requesting consideration of the matter and necessary action. “I request you to bring the matter to the notice of the music conference for the necessary lead in the matter and action thereon,” he wrote. In the event, the Academy brought the matter before its sixth annual conference and it resulted in a historic resolution which, among other things, resulted in the renaming of Sadir as Bharata Natyam.

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In this issue

Still waiting for a Tree Act
What does the Metro Plan for RSRM Choultry
Sadir to Bharata Natyam
The Madras Balloon
A Further Look at our Trees
Krishnan and his Tamil Writings
Headlines & Tailpieces

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Madras Eye
Dates for Your Diary


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