I first heard of Swarnamalya Ganesh a year ago when she was¬†invited to perform in Delhi on the¬†occasion of World Dance Day. She¬†is a scholar as well, having worked¬†on the repertoire of the Devadasi,¬†hereditary women artistes, who were¬†custodians of the performing arts until¬†mid-20th century. Catching her lecture¬†at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for¬†the Arts was a sheer stroke of luck.
Swarnamalya began learning from¬†KJ Sarasa on Vijaydashmi at the age of¬†three in 1984. ‚ÄúUnlike a few other gurus¬†in the city who had advised my mother¬†to wait until I was seven years old,¬†Sarasama readily agreed to take me in.¬†She said if a child has the potential, let us¬†catch her young,‚ÄĚ she recalls of the guru¬†with whom she trained for more than¬†16 years.
Next she went to the ‚Äėbaby sisters‚Äô¬†Periya Baby and Chinna, still nicknamed¬†thus despite being in their eighth decade.¬†Apart from being really good dancers¬†and meticulous gurus, they are living¬†history. Their mother had danced at¬†the prestigious Madras Music Academy¬†along with a daughter on 15 March 1931¬†in the first ever programme of Sadir, the¬†dance of the Devadasi, out of which was¬†born modern Bharatnatyam. The programme¬†was organised by the eminent¬†lawyer and social and arts activist E¬†Krishna Iyer in protest against the social¬†haranguing of the Devadasi.
Dance historians recall that Iyer¬†would himself dance in female attire to¬†protest against the stigmatising of the¬†Devadasi and her art. Thus the ‚Äėbaby¬†sisters‚Äô are representatives of an art¬†that lost out to the castigation of the moralists.
‚ÄúActually both of my gurus came¬†from different schools in Bharatnatyam. Sarasama was a faithful representative¬†of the Vazhavur bani (school)¬†with the Kalyani grand-daughters from¬†the Pandanalur School. But never once¬†did I hear them making an issue of it.¬†They were very accepting and were¬†concerned with the fact that I could¬†sing, having learnt from AS Panchapakesh¬†Iyer and Bhagwatulu Seetharam¬†Sharma, and could follow their teaching,‚ÄĚ¬†explained Swarnamalya, pointing¬†to the tolerant and inclusive nature of¬†traditional artistes, unbound by small mindedness.¬†‚ÄúIn fact,‚ÄĚ she added, ‚ÄúSarasama¬†was a guru to each one commensurate¬†with the needs of each. Since I¬†could sing well, she pushed the musicality¬†of the piece when she worked with¬†me.‚ÄĚ This is a remarkably modern and a¬†non-prescriptive way of teaching that¬†few gurus promote nowadays, resulting¬†in the mass production of copies of the¬†guru.
Fascinated by the direct and personal¬†links that these hereditary Gurus¬†carried, with historical figures in dance,¬†their intimate memories of such¬†personalities, and the socio- cultural¬†background that they were coming¬†rom, Swarnamalya, was drawn to more¬†than just the dance! ‚ÄúIn a particular¬†piece, ‚ÄėAduvum Solluval‚Äô, that they had¬†learnt from Mylapore Gowri Amma,¬†who incidentally became the second¬†Devadasi to perform at the Madras¬†Music Academy, the sisters would pull¬†down their upper lip on their teeth in¬†what appeared to be a rather coquettish¬†movement. They told me that is how¬†they had been taught by Gowri Amma¬†herself. I wondered why this peculiar,¬†later, while looking closely at some old¬†photos of Gowri Amma, I realised that¬†he had slightly buck teeth and this was¬†her attempt to cover them as she hit a¬†profile pose that could have ended up¬†looking somewhat unaesthetic!‚ÄĚ narrates Swarnamalya, somehow bridging¬†almost a century in that recounting.
Her academic rigour¬†has won her a high¬†degree of acceptance¬†despite the¬†uncomfortable aspects¬†of appropriation it¬†reveals
‚ÄúThe artistes of the hereditary community¬†are found everywhere in the¬†southern states, and I have also worked¬†with the Devadasis from Pudukotai,¬†Veeralimalai and Maringapure,‚ÄĚ¬†explains Swarnamalya, setting the ground for her work as part of the ‚ÄėRecovery¬†Project‚Äô that has resulted in her¬†milestone programme titled ‚ÄėFrom The¬†Attic‚Äô, where she showcases through¬†performance, lectures and exhibitions,¬†the repertoires of connected histories¬†and reconstructions of recovered¬†dance forms. She aligns her own¬†process as an artiste and scholar to¬†Sadir, the precursor to Bharat Natyam.¬†‚ÄúThis business of claiming a direct link¬†between the Cholas almost a millennia¬†ago, and the much earlier Natyashastra¬†with today‚Äôs Bharat Natyam¬†is farfetched. But one can discern the¬†commonalities of Sadir as performed¬†during the Nayak period, commencing¬†in the 14th century with today‚Äôs¬†Bharat Natyam‚ÄĚ explains Swarnamalya¬†drawing inferences from her doctoral¬†research.
She holds a PhD in Research and Reconstruction¬†of the Nayak Repertoire¬†from the University of Madras, her core¬†areas of work being reconstruction and¬†ethnographic study. She was a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow in 2014-15, invited to teach and pursue further research¬†at University of California, Los Angeles.¬†‚ÄúMy work with the Devadasis has been¬†most rewarding. They are so generous¬†in giving all the cultural knowledge¬†they hold. It was they who asked me¬†to wear this traditional costume that¬†they wore while performing Sadir. So¬†I dance both Bharat Natyam and Sadir¬†today. In fact they gave me one of their¬†costumes ‚ÄĒ almost a museum piece.¬†The ornate blouse is called ravikkai, the¬†pajama below the sari is called nijjar,¬†which sounds very Persian, and the¬†richly decorated fan in front is called¬†the salla,‚ÄĚ explains Swarnamalya.
Asked about the problematic of the¬†reconstruction, Swarnamalaya is quick¬†to explain that the problematic comes¬†from using unilateral reference material¬†‚Äď say, only a textual base. ‚ÄúI took care¬†to link with multiple reference points,¬†including many outside of dance, working¬†with historians, architects, musicologists¬†and period experts apart from¬†the texts of the Nayak period‚ÄĚ, exclaims¬†Swarnamalya in defence of the robustness¬†of her research. In her opinion, it is¬†the academic rigour that she followed,¬†which has resulted in muted objections,¬†if any, to her work which has received a¬†surprisingly high degree of acceptance¬†despite the uncomfortable aspects of¬†appropriation it reveals.
One of the most revealing insights¬†her study gave her has been the¬†polyglot literature that the Devadasis¬†would dance to. It was a reflection of¬†their inclusive way of life. ‚ÄúThey not just¬†danced to literature that used as many¬†as four languages in one song, but also¬†many languages in one line,‚ÄĚ ¬†nforms¬†Swarnamalya. An example of this is the¬†song for which she is well known ‚ÄėO my¬†lovely Lalana‚Äô which is written by Karur¬†Sivaramaiyya. ‚ÄúOnce the traditional¬†patronage of temples began drying¬†up, among the new patrons of the¬†traditional artistes were the bilingual¬†<dubhashes> speakers of two languages,¬†and the new elite. This accounted¬†for salaams and salutes entering the¬†repertoires, for Parsi javalis popularised¬†by the powerful Parsi theatre in Chennai,¬†and for the entry of English songs‚ÄĚ,¬†saiys Swarnamalya, proceeding to¬†demonstrate some of these features.
It is evident that the main takeaway¬†from her studies about the life and art¬†of the traditional hereditary performer¬†is how they blurred lines. ‚ÄúThe idea¬†of the classical and the folk blurred,¬†so did dance and music and different¬†languages. We inherited this embracing¬†culture but have failed to acknowledge this treasure and nearly ended¬†up losing it,‚ÄĚ exclaims Swarnamalya,¬†regretting the immense loss of cultural¬†wealth that has resulted from narrowing¬†the base of dance.