From temples to royal courts, and the proscenium stage: A social history of Indian performance spaces
A proscenium stage born in the West posits a distance between audience and performer to offer a visual experience. Yet, why is it that classical dance, which vehemently claims its origins in a text on Indian aesthetics, most widely performed on a proscenium stage? The history of performance spaces in India is a deeply sociological one.
The period between mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century saw a series of rapid shifts in venues of performance - temples, royal courts, aristocratic bungalows and proscenium stage.
This historical trajectory of performance spaces is inseparable from the social journey of the dancers who inhabited them.
Today, with new kind of performance spaces emerging, the classical dance is spilling out of auditorium spaces prompting the dancers to re-imagine their visual aesthetics and their relationship with the audience.
With an interest in generating accessible writings that makes the connection between the larger social and political landscape of the country and its performing arts more evident, this monthly column is an attempt to un-bracket the dance discourse from its contained category of “Arts for Art's sake”. Read more from the series here.
For Rasa, (the Indian theory of aesthetics) appreciating performances, like eating food, is a gustatory experience. One must truly savour a performance as if one is eating it with all their senses as opposed to just watching it with their eyes. The western aesthetic theories are ocular/visual, they ask us to “watch” performances, therefore requiring the audience to be seated at a distance suitable for viewing. A proscenium stage born in the West posits a distance between audience and performer to offer a visual experience. Yet, why is it that classical dance, which vehemently claims its origins in a text on Indian aesthetics, most widely performed on a proscenium stage? The history of performance spaces in India is a deeply sociological one.
The period between mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century saw a series of rapid shifts in venues of performance – temples, royal courts, aristocratic bungalows and proscenium stage. This historical trajectory of performance spaces is inseparable from the social journey of the dancers who inhabited them. The period before independence was a time of many dramatic developments in the cultural industry and they all worked severely against the interest of the traditional dancing community. The dwindling royal patronage, emergence of a strong reformist movement, the abolition of the practice of dedication (devadasi system) and finally the project of classicisation shut all doors on the traditional dancing community. Their journey tells us of their systematic marginalisation from the mainstream society, but the multitude of spaces and contexts they adapted to, echo their remarkable strength to fight and resist the oppression.
Temples of South India and Orissa are probably the most widely remembered pre-modern performance spaces for dance. Temples were occupied by Devadasis and Maharis, not just for their ritualistic significance but also as spaces of economic value. Temples were places where the dancers laboured with their bodies, built their networks, found their patrons and earned their living. The 20th-century abolition of the Devadasi system brought an end to all of this, including the tradition of female service to the deity, thereby turning temples into an all-male space. Puri temple of Orissa was one of the last temples where the Maharis were known to offer services to the presiding deity. Today temples are jubilantly accepted in the popular discourse of classical dance for their sculptures but not so much for the dancers inhabiting them. Many state-funded classical dance festivals are held against the backdrop of these sculpturesque temples, which frame the modern reconstructed classical traditions as belonging to a timeless national heritage.
Courts and Palaces
Professional dancers have populated royal courts and palaces across the length and breadth pre-modern India. Although one does trace the history of Kathak to Mughal courts, the royal courts of the south do not popularly find a mention in the history of the Southern classical form of Bharathanatyam. The deliberate overlooking of the court practices in the South could be associated with the stigma of being a court dancer (temples to some extent got re-casted within the devotional discourse of the classical). Because of the predominant male audience and sexual undertones of performances, the courtly cultural practice came under severe criticism by reformists for catering to the fulfillment of male desire. However, the social status of these women was complex and full of contradictions. These nuances of courtesans’ autonomy especially as secular artists in royal courts, often gets brushed under the carpet, only to be invoked under the generalising label of “prostitution”.
Mainstream society’s straight-jacketed gaze on the courtesans’ sexuality, blinds us to the social value produced by their labour in the royal courts. As a site of intense cultural exchange, these royal courts produced dance, music and literature which can destabilise the present dominant narrative of classical dance as a purely Hindu-Sanskrit practice. Scholarly writings that explore Thanjavur court as a site of cultural production situate it as a space that “produced a peculiar syncretic culture that integrated aspects of indigenous Tamil culture, Telugu literary material, the new Mughal style courtly practices from Maharashtra, and the modernity of European enlightenment.” (Soneji, 2010). As the princely power diminished under the colonial rule by the mid-nineteenth century, the court culture degenerated, forcing many courtesans’ to migrate into new cities like Kolkata and Madras.
Aristocratic Homes and Other Secular Spaces
The mass migration of courtesans into new cities resulted in the emergence of homes and bungalows as new performance spaces. The “native elites such as Smarta Brahmins, Mudaliyars, Nayudus, and Chettiyars sponsored performances of vocal music and poetry in their homes at the time of calendrical festivals.” (Soneji, 2010). While many dancers brought their court repertoire into the city, the “salon” performances of Madras are also known to have lead to the creation of new genres including the much-debated “Javali – padams”.
Concurrently, with the fall of the Mughal empire, the Tawaifs migrated from the North Indian cities to Calcutta, the then capital of British India. The upper-caste Bengali elite, patronised the tawaifs (who by then had come to be derogatorily known as “nautch girls”) to perform in their evening soirees for special occasions and festivals, mostly to show off their wealth and social status to the British gentry. This was the age of many baithaks, mujras and was mainly meant to serve the aristocracy. This was also the time when the dancers are known to have lived on the market streets of Calcutta – Bazaars and Mohollas. Kathak dancer Shama Bhate, in a recent Kathak workshop also said that the dancers also performed on the crossroads called the churahas.
This period of private performances was short-lived as the anti-nautch movement took a strong hold in both Madras and Kolkata. While the reform movement permanently stigmatised the dancers who performed in private venues to sustain themselves, the elites who patronised them largely remained unblemished by any taboo. These performances were probably the final moments in history where Devadasis and Tawaifs culturally participated in the public sphere as artists. Post reform, dance no more lived in an intimate space with its audience as it was permanently institutionalised and moved into a proscenium space.
The objective of the social reform movement was to do a lot more than end ritualistic dedication of dancers, the reformists endeavoured to change and revamp the whole “cultural world of performances.” (Basu,2018) This replacement of an old cultural world with a new one involved replacing all intimate spaces of performance with the modern proscenium stage. The first Bharathanatyam performance by Rukmini Devi Arundale in Theosophical Society was probably the first time the new Bharathanatyam was experienced frontally by the audience and marked the entry of Brahmin women into the world of dance. However, bringing dance into a proscenium required the revivalists to re-imagine the form in a frontal format and hence dance went through a period of rigorous experimentation. Drawing from Russian ballet, Rukmini studied and recast the Bharathanatyam body to suit a frontal format. However, creating a distance between the dancer and the audience, making changes to the geometry of the form, staging Bhakti as devotion without desire were all more than aesthetic choices. It was a part of giving the classical dance a new identity by making it a respectable pursuit and by dissociating it from the stigma of a devadasi.
Though Bharathanatyam was the first classical form to be performed on proscenium, it did not take long for other forms to follow. The desire to be recognised by the modern state as classical gripped the cultural industry and many revivalists from other forms travelled to Kalakshetra to understand the aesthetic work involved in classicising and codifying the form. However, classical dances that came to be staged in a proscenium denied its own multiculturalism and modernism. By projecting a sense of mythical and abstract time and space, where it claimed to come from, it permanently plucked dance from its context.
Today, with new kind of performance spaces emerging, the classical dance is spilling out of auditorium spaces prompting the dancers to re-imagine their visual aesthetics and their relationship with the audience. However, both classical dance and public dance venues remain far out of reach for the marginalised Devadasis, the Tawaifs, the Indian Nautch women, the original public women.
• Soneji, Davesh. "Critical Steps: Thinking through Bharatanatyam in the twenty-first century." Bharatanatyam: A Reader (2010).
• Basu, Priyanka. 2018. “Moving from Temple to the Studio-Space”. In The Moving Spaces: Women in Dance, edited by Urmimala Sarkar Munsi and Aishika Chakraborty
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