In the Telugu-speaking areas, Kalavantulu is the name given to hereditary singer-dancer women. I belong to this community. Kalavantulu are better known as “devadasis”. The term, “hereditary dancer”, has increasingly been used to label the women from my community, a fact that invokes mixed feelings in my family. Their apprehension and animated discussions today around this term make me question its sanctity and its integration with caste.
My maternal grandmother Chinagandham Kausalya was born to Kotipalli Madhuravani’s son. Madhuravani and her sister Pichayamma (Sarojamukhi) were patronised by the authorities of the Annavaram temple. My father Seshagiri Rao is the son of a Madhva Brahmin, whom my grandmother, Suryakantham, served all his life.
She herself descends from the families that served the Varaha Narasimha Swamy temple in Simhachalam, near Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. They extracted gandham, or sandal paste, for the deity – hence our family name, “Chinagandham”, which literally means “small sandal paste”.
With the Kalavantulu, the upper-caste zamindar and the elitist, upper-caste Brahmin numbering among my ancestors, who is to say which caste I belong to? What is my lineage? Is it defined by blood alone and if so, what is “blood”?
“We were never a caste,” my father once said to me. “We are a guild of like-minded people. Adoption from within the families and from other communities was the way of life.” My Kalavantulu teacher, Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, too was adopted by her mother.
Mine is a combination of many bloodlines. This complexity of caste/lineage is a part of my life, dance and quest.
I draw your attention to a set of practices, people and lineages that make me who I am, in order to question simplistic understandings of caste as defined merely by bloodline.
I focus on the forms of Kuchipudi, the masculine Brahmin dance form, and the feminine dance of the Kalavantulu, and argue that Kuchipudi exists at the intersection of caste, gender and patriarchal politics. I look at these intersections as they influence the performing body – specifically, my performing body – through recent histories. I complicate the concept of heredity and caste through blood, while also drawing attention to the disappearance of the art and the artists who are the building blocks of the celebrated Kuchipudi.
When I was a little over six years old, my mother Lakshmi gave in to my wish to dance and enrolled me in the Kuchipudi Art Academy, founded by Vempati Chinna Satyam. I love Kuchipudi, even though male Brahmins from the village of Kuchipudi claim the genesis of this dance form.
Perhaps, I love Kuchipudi because I also found out that Kalavantulu women lived in the temples around the Kuchipudi village and contributed to the creation of the solo form of Kuchipudi.
I love Kuchipudi, particularly what I learned from my teacher, the late Sobha Naidu. Teacher, as I called her, neither came from a devadasi lineage, nor was a Brahmin. But to me, she is synonymous with my dance and Kuchipudi. The “lineage” of my performance began with her. I embodied Chinna Satyam’s dance through Teacher.
As the male Brahmin aesthetic flowed through a female non-Brahmin body to another non-brahmin Kalavantulu body, I wondered how Chinna Satyam knew what “kaliki tanamu” or, femininity, felt like, when he taught her to raise her shoulders and chest with eyes closed, and lift her chin a little. Though I did not fully understand the sensuality, I always wondered if, given a choice, she would have done it differently. This was in such contrast to what I learnt from my devadasi teachers later.
I chose to pursue a master’s degree in dance, specialising in Kuchipudi, and researched it for my PhD. This is where the world of the devadasis opened itself to me. I found the character of Satyabhama, the epitome of intelligence, love, pride and surrender in the portrayal of the Kalavantulu, who enacted Bhamakalapam. Bhamakalapam is a theatre format believed by the Kuchipudi Brahmins to have been scripted by Siddhendra Yogi, and forms the identity of Kuchipudi. The heroine, Satyabhama, is played by men. But where is the female dancer? The narrative of Siddhendra in Kuchipudi, as academician Rumya Putcha says, has erased these women and camouflaged phenomenal literature.
Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, the granddaughter of the exemplary Buli Venkataratnamma, lovingly passed on to me the Bhamakalapam that Atkuri Subbarao wrote for their family. My Satyabhama then comes to me from multiple lineages.
Where is the art without the artist? I began my research by conversing with Kalavantulu women – women whom I thought had disappeared. When I am in conversation with these women, I talk, but they sing and emote. When I ask a question, they reply through expressions to a relevant javali. Now stripped of this repertoire, what is their means of communication?
When I asked them about the man in their lives, one sang the Kshetrayya padam: Yentha chakkani vaade naasaami (what a handsome one, my man is!). In another traditional padam, one sang: Nammagaraade sakhi magavaarini (never trust a man). Though padams are ascribed to male authors, these songs are in the voices of women. Kalavantulu women are the choreographers and even composers of the padams.
Why, then, do I see these intense female emotions performed by male bodies, which are in turn, transferred to female bodies – with male desire infused into the performance of the song – in the neo-classical dances of today? When I performed the overt sexuality camouflaged by devotion in Kuchipudi, I made myself conducive to the upper caste male gaze. I do not see the songs as worthless and crass when I perform, unlike colonial critics of shringara padams.
Such concepts are the prerogative of the privileged upper caste Brahmins, and are experienced and presented through the simple medium of ingenious literature and performative interpretation, breaking all hierarchy in the process.
Learning this was liberating for me.
While it was liberating, I also asked myself if I was carrying masculine energy in my female body when I danced. The awareness that the change in aesthetic is related to the change in the centre of power began to dawn upon me. Co-artistic Director of Sangam, Priya Srinivasan, speaks of what a bodily awareness of power can do to the “unruly spectator” and how to subvert it. In this moment, I became the unruly performer.
If women were to be brought back to performance, clearly the Kalavantulu women were not the choice, but their repertoire was. Female dancers from different castes came in. The male performer in the Kuchipudi Brahmin families now became a guru and began to teach for livelihood. The content was not drama, but the solo form. The role of the Kalavantulu women in Kuchipudi did not end there. It was the presence and the performance of the Kalavantulu practitioners that contributed to Kuchipudi’s classical status. This is a poignant and often overlooked reminder of the contribution of these women to the history of Kuchipudi .
Appropriation has no doubt taken place. The upper caste men found abundant support in the men of the devadasi dancing families and the so-called “self-respect movement” in rendering the devadasi woman invisible.
It is only when I painstakingly sit with my family and narrate our own story to them – while they listen with detachment, as if I am talking about something unrelated – do I realise how the Kalavantulu were systematically made to believe they do not exist. Yet, my father’s words come back to me. The Kalavantulu were never a caste. Social anthropologist Amrit Srinivasan says it was only after the reforms that these individual and distinctive service categories became castes.
My lineage is complex, and my experience with caste was never divorced from gender and patriarchy. Today, Kuchipudi dancers are mostly non-Brahmin women carrying on their bodies the male energy of the gurus, as well as a fragment of these marginalised artistes – the Kalavantulu women – through the semi-theatre form of Kalapam and solo pieces. These women will not disappear for as long as this practice continues. The bodies representing the art have changed, and so has the art and its purpose. As the representatives of the dance changed, the tastes of the audience were also meticulously made to change.
It seems as if devadasis have disappeared. But have they, really? The devadasi is a complex mix of blood and lineage. Many were adopted and their fathers were from various castes, so what is the devadasi? For me, the practice determines the guild, and the practitioner must acknowledge history.
I stand here as a Kalavantulu woman with my complex lineage by birth, by adoption, by caste, by blood, but most of all, a rich lineage of practice – of both Kuchipudi and the devadasi repertoire. My lineage goes a step further as I bring the knowledge of many researchers who have gone before me, who have written about the devadasi and Kalavantulu women.
While I build on their work, I research, speak and write for myself, I do not need anyone to speak for me. I study and experience the lives and memories of my family – the Kalavantulu women – as well as ancient Sanskrit texts. I do not put aside my training in Kuchipudi as a neo-classical form, nor do I ignore social history. If I identify as a hereditary artist determined by caste and blood, I am then a dancer with many genealogies and multiplied bloodlines.
Yashoda Thakore is the chair of the Dance Department at the University of Silicon Andhra.