• Gitanjali Kolanad

The poetry of Kshetrayya, a 17th century Telegu poet, formed the basis of courtesan dance repertoire in salon performances as part of a rich gestural and mimetic tradition that comes to us today as bharata natyam. The art of interpreting this poetry is often misunderstood as direct translation from literary work into gestural language, like sign language. This is not the case. In fact, what the dancer does is elaborate and embody the poetic voice, usually a woman addressing her lover. The male writer is thus subjected to the female dancer’s interpretation; she provides sub-text and context. 17th century male expressions of female sexuality are inverted to become intimate contemporary explorations of the dancer’s own emotions and desires. My paper will look at the process of embodied engagement with the poems, examining how and what kind of meaning arises in the counterpoint between poem and dance.

Keywords: bharata natyam; Devadasi; Kshetrayya; padam; darshan


The poetry of Kshetrayya, a 17th century Telugu poet, formed the basis of courtesan dance in salon performances as part of a rich gestural and mimetic tradition that comes to us today as bharata natyam. That repertoire of vivid, bawdy and evocative songs still resonates with dancers because the poems are open to expressing a contemporary emotional reality. My essay concerns the ways in which embodied engagement with the words can subvert a 17th century male poet’s expressions of female sexuality, reflecting changing attitudes to these danced poems over recent and remembered time.

Since very little factual history is available about Kshetrayya, we must rely on the apocryphal. One popular version of the hagiography of the poet goes like this: When he was a young man, he fell in love with the ritual dancer/courtesan (devadasi) associated with the temple in the village of Muva, but since he had no accomplishments, the beautiful dancer rejected him. Bitter at being spurned, he meditated day and night until the god of the temple, Gopala, a form of Krishna as a cowherd, gave him the facility to write songs for her. And though he might then have had her love, he instead began to wander, visiting the great temples, (hence the ‘Kshetra’ meaning ‘temple’, in his name) and spending time in the courts of kings.

The story tells us first of all that Kshetrayya was not a poet in our present-day understanding of the word, but a vaggeyakara, someone who wrote words set to music — padams. Secondly, these padams were from the beginning meant for devadasis to dance, making them at the same time literary, musical and theatrical works, thereby reminding us that such disciplinary boundaries are not descriptions of universal categories (Spatz 2019: 23).

This is only one story about how Kshetrayya became a poet. Other versions emphasise different aspects: his wandering, or the devotion of the devadasi he loved to her deity, commanding him to write songs in praise of that Muvagopala, or his time in the courts of kings, and his competition with other poets there. In one such poem, he claims to have written 4,500 songs; today four hundred or so can be found that carry his name. So little is known about the historical Kshetrayya that a recent researcher has theorised that the poetry attributed to him is actually the work of multiple authors, perhaps including the courtesans who kept alive this repertoire (Karnath 2019).

While we cannot know anything with historical accuracy about the actual author, there is a body of work that bears the name ‘Kshetrayya’ that to this day is held in high esteem as poetry and as a repertoire to be sung and danced. The padams attributed to him are in a musical, vernacular Telugu eschewing Sanskritised word forms, elaborate puns or poetic devices, with a lilting, playful and intimate style that lends itself particularly well to the expressive qualities of the dance style we call bharata natyam.

The way the temple and the courtesan intersect in Kshetrayya’s popular history is emblematic of a paradoxical connection that inhabits both the poems and the dance style, between profane themes with a god as the protagonist enacted by sexually available women with ritual roles in the temples. The male poet most often speaks to the god through this female courtesan persona caught somewhere on the spectrum of desire. Devotional and erotic are completely entangled, allowing for the sensual and sexual to express spiritual transcendence. Many of Kshetrayya’s poems are conversations between lovers in bed, with the language and intimacy that such a setting implies, using a gestural language that could express an explicitly sexual vocabulary, with gestures for ‘the woman on top’, ‘sixty-nine’ and the clitoris. Nevertheless, it is equally the case that ‘we should not make the mistake of underestimating the vitality of the devotional impulse at work in the padams. These are still poems embodying an experience of the divine.’ (Ramanujan et al 1994: 36)

Because they were for and about courtesans, the padams are pornographic in the etymological meaning of the word, from the Greek ‘porne’ ‘prostitute’ (Ramanujan et al 1994: 32). Within the strictures of Indian aesthetics and spirituality, this may not have presented problems at the time when the padams were written but certainly over the last hundred years they have fallen in and out of favour as our moral compasses have shifted.

When devadasis performed these padams during the 1920s and 30s, it was in salon settings for all-male audiences of elite, wealthy high caste men (Soneji 2012: 86). Judgements of artistic merit formed about a woman, no matter how skilled, without the protection of marriage, presenting herself in public to be gazed upon, and where the possibility of intimacy between performer and audience may have added an extra layer of titallation, were ‘fundamentally linked to the capital of an erotic and (at least theoretically) available body’ (Morcom 2008: 129). The category or role of ‘dancer’ outside of hereditary and caste obligations had not yet come into being.

As modern, independent India was being envisioned and fought for, such customs as the coercive and often abusive process whereby a very young girl was initiated as a devadasi, along with child marriage, the disenfranchisement of widows and discrimination on the basis of caste, all once considered acceptable, began to be reassessed in the light of values to be enshrined in the legal code of the new nation (Subramaniam 2006: 115).

On the one hand adult devadasis led relatively independent lives, were often literate and cultured, with control over their own money, practising an art form of recognised artistic value; the sexual relationships they entered into with men were accepted by society and even by the men’s wives (Vijaisri 2005: 389). But while they may have been free from some constraints imposed on married women, they were nevertheless part of a rigid, gendered and hierarchical socio-economic structure: they weren’t allowed to marry or enter into relationships with low caste or even men of their own community (Forbes 1996: 182), and like sex work even today, it was not considered very ‘respectable’. Since girls were initiated at a young age, which reformers fought to have raised to 12, and then 16 (Jordan 2003: 75), they couldn’t be said to have freely decided that this was the life they wanted to lead.

Because of the connection to temple and art form, the question of how to address abuses within the system was fraught and not even the devadasi community could agree on the right course of action. Some wanted the institution to be abolished altogether. Others insisted on their right to continue to perform the ritual and artistic roles while disclaiming, minimising or ignoring the sexual role (Halasanghi 2018: 12). High caste men who would lose religiously sanctioned sexual access to women outside of marriage resisted abolition on the grounds that devadasis were a sacred tradition with which the British legal system shouldn’t interfere (Soneji 2012: 129), while radical women, the two most vocal abolitionists coming from within the community itself (Munsi 2013: 297), argued that the welfare of young girls and women trumped such appeals to customs of the past. The Self Respect movement in South India, with its strong anti-Brahminism and secularism lent support to Devadasi abolition, as did Gandhi on the national stage (Anandhi 2008: 34). Legislation first brought up in 1927 was finally written into law as the new nation came into being in 1947. At some point in this history, the word devadasi went beyond its literal meaning of ‘god’s servant girl’ and became synonymous with ‘prostitute’.

A song with sexually explicit lyrics sung and danced for an all male audience in the erotically charged atmosphere of the salon would not necessarily appeal to a mixed audience watching the dancer on a proscenium stage. Moreover, as the dance form became more egalitarian rather than caste-based, connoisseurs wondered out loud about the value of such eroticism, especially if middle class dancers could do justice to devotion expressed in those terms, or if they might even be harmed by having to express a sexuality they knew nothing about. E Krishna Iyer, a vocal supporter of dance and dancers, expressed his concerns thus: ‘Is it proper or safe to encourage present day family girls to go in for Ksetraya padas (sic) and are they likely to handle them with understanding of their true devotional spirit? At any rate can a pada like “Oka Sarike” [“if you are so tired after making love just once”] ever be touched by our girls?’ (Ramanujan et al 1994: 28). 

We should not be surprised by such re-evaluations; after all, even Shakespeare underwent similar processes, with historian Henry Hallam wishing in a similar vein that, ‘notwithstanding the frequent beauties of the sonnets’, they had never been written (Matz 2014: 178). Both hereditary and new generation dancers adopted the strategy, aesthetic and ideological, of shining the spotlight on only the more benign aspects of the dance form’s temple associations while keeping in darkness the abuses.

Some padams would have made that very difficult, for example this one, in which a pre-pubescent girl, addressing the older woman pushing her toward a particular man, says, ‘He pinched my unripe breasts, just sprouting, until it hurt, while I protested’ (Kolanad 2015: 25). Dancers had to decide which padams were or were not appropriate in the new setting for dance. At the National Dance Seminar held by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi in 1963, the question was taken up by two women whose personal histories influenced them to take opposing positions (Higgins 1993: 116). Balasaraswati, the last of the great hereditary devadasi dancers, was of the opinion that all padams were suitable, but that the high caste (Brahmin) dancers were simply not capable of handling the potent combination of erotic and devotional which the poetry made manifest. On the other hand, Rukmini Devi, who was at the vanguard of creating the profession of ‘dancer’ in the modern day sense of the word, severing aesthetic from sexual and religious roles, said, ‘The dance should not be sexy. Sexiness has no place in our arts’ (in Ramnarayan 2003). While the chairman of the session judged Balasaraswati to have made the better argument, Rukmini Devi didn’t change her opinion, and the general consensus seems to have been more in line with her way of thinking.

The structure of a padam consists of an opening line, the pallavi, with a following line, the anupallavi, and verses, the charanams. The pallavi line repeats between each verse as a refrain that provides closure or reiterates, differently inflected, a previous lament. The textual and musical themes are initiated in the pallavi, and both singer and dancer can return to the melodic and dramatic idea expressed therein in infinite permutations. The anupallavi often has the signature or ‘mudra’ of the poet as the deity to whom the padam is dedicated while further developing the melodic ideas and exploiting a different range of the raga. Though pallavi is considered to be the first line, Kshetrayya padams usually begin with the anupallavi. The charanams are verses which instantiate separate melodic as well as dramatic ideas. According to carnatic vocalist Jon Higgins, ‘no other compositional form effects a comparable integration of sound and meaning’, testing ‘the limits of a dancer’s interpretive range and artistic resources’ (Higgins 1993: 111).

These padams give voice to a limited set of stock characters acting and responding in predictable and even formulaic ways: the man (who is also a god, or at least a king) most often being addressed directly, or being talked about with a maid or friend, and sometimes, rarely, talking himself; the woman, who could be the wife of the man she’s addressing, sviya, or another man’s wife, parakiya, or a courtesan, available to anyone, samanya; and the maid, confidante or senior courtesan who may be addressing either the man or the woman, to give advice, tease or act as intermediary. When it is the woman talking to the male lover it is usually to express her anger, hurt, sadness or pain over their separation, because of his unfaithfulness, indifference or the loss of affection that had once been strong. Kshetrayya puts words into the woman’s mouth; the dancer takes those words and makes them the expression of an emotion she can accurately and authentically portray as her own.

When I began studying bharata natyam in 1970 at Kalakshetra, the dance school started by Rukmini Devi, only one or two Kshetrayya padams were considered mild enough for young girls from middle class families to learn and perform. This is one I learned there, where the woman addresses her friend:

Anupallavi:          Maybe that other woman has been keeping an eye on my lord Muvagopala.
Pallavi:                         Today is auspicious, let him come like a prince.
1st Charanam:     So? dear friend, my body, after all, is his property.
                          What will people say about me if I complain?
                                     Today is auspicious. Let him come like a prince.
2nd Charanam:    Is it right to desert him just because he is gracious?
                          Tell him I won’t get angry or even mention her name.
                                     Today is auspicious. Let him come like a prince.

The words only hint at the woman’s status as a courtesan, who can’t complain when her lover visits other women and is equally gracious to them all; the further charanams, where love-making is explicitly mentioned, were conveniently omitted from my lessons. Moreover, words like ‘my body, after all, is his property’ can be interpreted to foreground the devotional, since the lover is anyway also God.

A decade later, when I encountered the full eroticism of Kshetrayya’s padams in studying abhinaya with Kalanidhi Narayan, it came to me stripped clean of context. Just as I might have learned tango without the steps evoking the brothels of Buenos Aires, I moved freely through the hand gestures and facial expressions appropriate to bharata natyam without being weighted down by the moral and cultural baggage of the past.

My teacher Kalanidhi Narayan had learned bharata natyam as a young Brahmin girl in the 1930s and danced until she was sixteen, not from any particular enthusiasm on her part, as she told me, but because her mother loved the dance style. Then, when the stigma attached to dance made it difficult for the family to find a husband for her, she was made to give it up, which she did with the same equanimity. She married, had children, lived as a good Brahmin wife, never giving much thought to dance. Towards the end of the seventies, when times had irrevocably changed the place bharata natyam occupied in Tamil Nadu, and even India and Indian diasporas, a man who had seen Kalanidhi dance as a teenager encouraged her to start teaching. He had held the memory of her expressive qualities, which he felt were not being given adequate importance in performance, over all those decades. She took the permission of her husband and began accepting (only female) students, among them the top dancers of the time. Her way of teaching and performing had a profound influence on the look and content of the bharata natyam we see on stage today.  

It is hard to put into words exactly what the dancer is doing when she takes on the expressive task presented by the padam. The term for that aspect of bharata natyam is abhinaya, which literally means ‘to carry forward’. According to the rules and categories invoked by those who taught me dance, the point of performance was to refine and distill real emotion — bhava — to yield a universal, abstract aesthetic mood — rasa. Rasyate anena iti rasaha means ‘rasa is that which can be relished, savoured, tasted’, with srngara rasa, the erotic mood distilled from desire, being the most delectable.

How does one take the poem and carry it towards the audience in such a way that they want to taste it? Dance, an embodied activity, works very differently from the way words work. At the same time, embodiment, like language, includes cognition, manipulation of symbols, complex knowledge systems and various levels of culture; in dance it is dynamically embedded within a process that has the body itself as both the means and the end. Since the concept of rasa, or aesthetic enjoyment was first expounded by Bharata in a dramaturgical text, and later expanded, further theorised and applied to poetry, the padam genre is especially apt for critical discussion of rasa on many levels. I will however confine my discussion to the performance.

I will attempt to describe the process by delving into one very popular Kshetrayya padam, Indendu vachitivira.

Here is my translation, based on the way I came to understand the words while working with Kalanidhi:

Anupallavi:           You who carry the Mandara mountain, Muvagopala, desiring that girl with teeth like                                      jasmine buds
Pallavi:                          Why have you come here? That woman’s house is not on this street.
1st Charanam:       In this bright moonlight, have you lost your way, dazzled by her eyes like darting fish.
                             I’m not the one in whose embrace you found solace.             
                                     Why have you come here?....
2nd Charanam:      At midnight, you and she embraced, I see all the signs of your union. I heard how eager                                 you were with that girl, untying the knot of her blouse on the street like a thief.
                                     Why have you come here?...
3rd Charanam:      Overcome by desire, you look longingly at me. You’re not letting me go. No! Go away!
                            You make love to me with redoubled passion. It’s morning. Wake up, the womenfolk will
                            see you.
                                     Why have you come here?

The reason why Kshetrayya padams are so engaging for the bharata natyam dancer shows up in the pallavi. In my own personal involvement over 30 years of performance, this (and other Kshetrayya padams) allowed me to freshly create a world and enter it to reveal and revel in new possibilities of emotion each time. The dancer can use the language of gesture and stylised facial expressions to ask: ‘Why have you come here?’; as if she’s genuinely surprised: ‘oh, it’s you! Why are you here?’; sarcastically: ‘After all this time, you’ve come here. I suppose you have some reason?’; showing real, or pretended anger: ‘How dare you come here?’ — humorously, contemptuously, imperiously, with infinite subtlety and nuances of emotion. It is important to remember that the movement of the padam as danced doesn’t have the linearity of words on the page, but is a constant spiraling as this line is repeated, each return to the refrain from the other lines serving to intensify the mood. So the pallavi will actually reveal itself more like this:

Why have you come here?
Why have you come here?
Why have you come here? That woman’s house is not on this street.
That woman’s house is not on this street.
That woman’s house is not on this street.
Why have you come here? That woman’s house is not on this street.
Why have you come here? That woman’s house is not on this street. Go, go away.

The musical phrases, the ease of their flow from one line of the poem into the other and the way they fit within the rhythmic structure can determine line breaks and repetitions. This recursive movement between lines can be repeated as many times as the dancer can imagine and express subtle differences in the inflection of meaning for the audience to register as a thickening or concretising of the emotions, with the shape, intensity and dramatic impact building through their unified interaction, dance melded into words and music.

The dancer is not specifying one interpretation of the words, but suggesting all the possibilities, as if in parallel universes where this scene between a woman and a man who has been unfaithful is being enacted, so that not any one specific emotion, but all possible emotions are brought into play and converge. When the poem unfolds in the real time of the dance, the audience experiences only the moment-by-moment revelation; certain tensions are kept at bay until called for, or called back. This is similar to the way a musician delineates a raga, each variation adding further understanding rather than closing off the definition. Each subtle gradation in the colour of the emotion is only suggested, less being more in accordance with the greatness of the artist, with Kalanidhi being able to evoke the change through a glance or a tilt of the head more than by a precise rendering of stylised hand gestures. Facial expressions appear only to disappear as the dancer enacts a minute and detailed examination of emotion; she is showing us what the presence of her lover in this situation makes her feel, her skill the only limit to the range of her emotional response.

The dance expresses what the words do not. The poet says only ‘that woman’ leaving open to the dancer whether the other woman inspires contempt, feigned admiration, envy, anger, or hurt. Later, when he says she has teeth like jasmine buds and eyes like darting fish, the dancer can draw on and play with a set of conventions around the attributes of beautiful women: long braid like a snake that swings as she walks, brow like the half moon, eyebrows like the bow of the god of love, lips stained red with betel (supposed to be an aphrodisiac). Each time the singer returns to those words, the dancer has the freedom to delineate the other woman’s qualities to more effectively contrast with herself, to express more sharply: ‘she’s so beautiful, so why come to me?’; or to subtly denigrate her while pretending to praise: ‘she practices wiles, she’s flashy, she shows off her big breasts — if that’s what you want, why come to me?’

In the last charanam, the poet moves directly from ‘Go away!’ to ‘You make love to me with redoubled passion’. In salon performances by devadasis, where at least the possibility of sexual availability might have added a certain frisson, such a transition could well have been in keeping with the mood the dancer was trying to establish in the men watching her. Kshetrayya exploited the erotic potential of quarrels, infidelities, misunderstandings, trampling of boundaries, ignoring of ‘no’, in a context of real-life sexual improprieties.

Today, going from repeatedly saying ‘no’ to saying ‘yes’ is difficult to square with notions of sexual agency and consent. Most contemporary dancers choose to leave out the problematic charanam, ending firmly and irrevocably on the ‘go away’ of the pallavi, by miming pushing him out and locking the door. This is not censorship or bowdlerisation but an artistic decision: given the intimacy of abhinaya, some words for some dancers will render impossible the melding of muscles with meaning required to fashion a legitimately authentic interpretation.

Rather than reconstituting the devadasi past as a field of radical possibility, as some dancers and dance researchers attempt to do in the name of ‘authenticity’, the dancer succeeds best when she avoids the anachronism inherent in reading devadasi desires as expressive of our own and uses the poet’s words to ignite her own exploration.

When Kshetrayya describes the full range of intimate relationships between men and women, he includes,  along with more general infidelity and lies, rape, sex with pre-pubescent girls, threesomes, and abortion, breaking taboos against sex during menstruation. He does so not as a historian, but as a poet, telling us ‘not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place’ (Frye 1962: n.p.). Given the recently publicised rapes, judges who decide that a feeble ‘no’ can mean ‘yes’, and the pervasive ongoing sexual harassment of women under the label of ‘eve-teasing’ in India, his depictions are not unrealistic.

At the point in bharata natyam history when dancers chose to restrict performance ‘conceived in the intimacy of private discourse and only subsequently elevated in status’ (Hickey 1993: 32), they did so precisely because they recognised and acknowledged the power inherent within transgressive material. The present day dancer who performs these padams, responding to the dance style’s formal qualities without being disturbed by the subject matter, is admitting the loss of that power: ‘if no one thinks an image is dangerous, it isn’t’ (Hickey 1993: 29).

While one possible response is to leave out problematic material such as the 4th charanam, the tools of abhinaya equally free the dancer to create and enter the world of those words, if that is her artistic impulse: the space between ‘No! Go away!’ and ‘You make love to me with redoubled passion’ can be expanded to contain either rape or seduction. But we the audience cannot help but be implicated as the instants between saying ‘no’ and making love are unfurling. There is no neutral position either dancer or audience can take in viewing these padams: their value is not inherent and objective, but the resonance that arises from the dynamics of a system we have both created and inhabit.

The dancer, clearly at one level, is seeing and being seen by the audience, on a stage, in a costume, with make-up on, under spotlights, to the sounds of music, and so forth. But at the same time she is projecting, enacting, performing, embodying, another ‘seeing’. She is seeing her lover. He isn’t there, obviously, but the dancer sees him nevertheless. Her gaze goes repeatedly to him, or more accurately, to the space containing his absence. As John Berger made clear, the act of seeing entails the being seen (1972: 29). In fact, the dancer’s seeing is rendered meaningful by the effectiveness of her embodiment of being seen. Her glances are full of longing, anger, jealousy, hurt; they are coy, indignant, amorous, contemptuous, mournful, because he is watching.

She is being watched, of course. The audience sees her through him, seeing her as he would see her. She looks as she would look to him. Wherever the dancer may be in the physical space, the lover is the focal point. Rather than being seen by a sea of eyes, she is seen by a pair of eyes, the eyes of the non-existent, invisible lover, nowhere to be found on the stage, through which all the individual pairs of eyes are directed. The gaze pulls spectator and performer into that shared space where the full imaginative potential of the performance can be realised.

Until recently critical attention was directed towards ‘the hegemonic, binaristic aspect of the gaze, which was characterized as fetishistic, voyeuristic and objectifying’ (Jacob and Lovejoy 1999: 63). Recent theories have moved away from viewer and viewed held in a static duality, allowing the emphasis to shift towards the possibility within seeing for knowing, self-realisation and empowerment in marked similarity to the concept of darshan. Like Richard Davis’s ‘devotional eye’, the reciprocal seeing of darshan takes place through an active rather than passive looking, with something vital being claimed by the viewer and bestowed by the viewed: the absence on stage becomes a ‘congealing of form and limit from that larger reality which has no form or limit’ (Eck 2007: 38).

Transgression, in opposition to the strictures of society, is recognised as a valid route to transformative power within this radical mode of engagement with god. Precisely because ‘Muvagopala’ is not reducible to Harvey Weinstein, the poetry becomes a conduit, through which the dancer explores the realm of desire — danger, intrigue, deception, disgust, vulnerability and surrender. In the inherent tension between real and imaginary, the actualisation of the sexual self becomes the paradigm for transcendence.

In being called to the subject position by our seeing the dancer enact her being seen, we participate in a shared experience; both rasa and darshan demand it. It is only insofar as the dancer sees the lover, that she can surrender to the being seen through the skill of her embodied performance, and to the extent that the audience enters into the lover’s outline, sees the dancer through his eyes, possessed of moods, expressions, and qualities of character that the lover brings out in her by his presence, that rasa arises.

The dancer, transformed into the woman of the poem by seeing and being seen by the lover/audience, is like the devotee transformed by seeing and being seen by the deity in the temple. The pivot on which performer, lover and audience spin is that gaze, the performer always seen twice, observed while being observed. Our eyes follow the action instigated by those imaginary eyes — having looked at her as she responded to the imaginary lover, in looking at him, she saw us. Beholder and beheld converge in the experience of that transformative seeing, of darshan. 


Works cited: 


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