TM Krishna-MS Subbulakshmi row: What a thinkpiece on dance, devadasi system gets wrong

Editor's note: TM Krishna's recent comments about MS Subbulakshmi — he said the renowned singer had to 'brahminise' and distance herself from her devadasi roots to gain wider acceptance —stirred up quite the debate about caste dynamics in the cultural world. Among the thinkpieces Krishna's comments prompted, was a column by Sadanand Menon in The Hindu, which asked: 'Isn’t it time we began to trace the origin of our arts without the baggage of hypocrisy?'. This is a response to the points raised by Menon.


First TM Krishna made some progressive but controversial pronouncements that were taken seriously because they were delivered from the singer’s high perch of privilege, having just won the Magsaysay award. On cue, Brahmins responded to his prodding, exactly as he might have expected. Then Sadanand Menon, from his position as one who ‘explores the charged space linking politics and culture’, jumped into the fray (The Hindu, 9 December 2017).

Menon tells those of us who dare take issue with Krishna, that we shouldn’t be proud of our birth but only of what we make ourselves — say, our music. But I ask, why should one be proud of anything, since we’re all products of nature and nurture, neither of which we ourselves are responsible for? Miss World just happens to have genes for good looks, Stephen Hawking, for intelligence. Menon, like Krishna, just happens to have been born into a family that provided him with a good English-speaking education, which gives him a voice and a soap-box that those less well-versed in the rules of the present discourse don’t have.

 TM Krishna-MS Subbulakshmi row: What a thinkpiece on dance, devadasi system gets wrong

The brahminical social media backlash against TM Krishna over his comments regarding MS Subbulakshmi is just an excuse for some writers to yet again trot out their pet theories about devadasis and dance

But the brahminical social media backlash against Krishna is just an excuse for Menon to yet again trot out his pet theories about devadasis and dance. I write as a dancer, whose understanding of the history of our art forms is, in his words, ‘infantile and undeveloped’ and needs to be narrated ‘divested of hypocrisy’. I’ll try my best to meet his standards, but that involves refuting his own demonstrably false claims.

First of all, the little bronze statue of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro is not, as he states, in ‘tribhangi’. Her posture is remarkably straight, with not even a slight bend at the waist. She may be a dancer, she may be a warrior, but the only fact that is absolutely clear is that she is young, prepubescent — just budding breasts and smooth pubic mound — standing almost naked with one hand on her hip, and another on the bent knee in front of her.

I don’t know why the archaeologists who named her ‘dancing girl’ did so; maybe it was as Menon speculates, because the abolition of the devadasi system was being discussed in the papers every day in 1926 when the statue was discovered. Does he have evidence for this? If so he should cite it. But let me speculate as well. Maybe they named her the dancing girl, not for her pose (which I repeat, is not ‘tribhangi’), but because she is so obviously a child, and it is prepubescent girls who were initiated as devadasis. Let’s remind ourselves that dance had little to do with why the institution was abhorrent to those who wanted to abolish it; it was for its god-awful abuse of girls. This fact is the one Menon and other apologists for the devadasi system always manage to omit.

So I accept, Brahmins have nothing to be proud of in being Brahmins, per se. But if we shouldn’t be proud of our caste because it’s nothing but an accident of birth, we also shouldn’t romanticise a system that forced girls into religiously sanctioned sex work because of their birth. Nor does accident of birth grant any caste, isai vellallars for example, any special right of access or ability or claim of authenticity over an art form.

If devadasis were, as Menon puts it,  ‘universities of extraordinary artistic knowledge’ it was not by choice, but by that same accident of birth and accidents of nurture we don’t need to feel pride in, involving practices such as the selling of the privilege of their deflowering, and a future that precluded marriage or a profession of their own choosing. As the granddaughters of Ranganayaki, a famous devadasi, said in an interview, “My mother and I, we didn’t learn dancing. I have an MA in Social Sciences. We are not for the devadasi system, we are against it…My grandmother feels sad about this. Even her sister feels sad. She says, ‘Your grandmother is there, there is so much knowledge.’ But I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” The choice of that young woman to reject dancing was made possible by the abolition of the devadasi system.

Given that we are plunged deep into the #MeToo movement, where even the groping I grew up taking entirely for granted as an Indian man’s birthright is now being justly condemned, isn’t it also time to stop with the valorisation of institutions like the devadasi system that practiced the much more severe and disturbing exploitation of young girls? When one admires the art that the devadasi system produced, it should be with a distinct unease.

I’m not proud of my birth — nothing much there anyway, as I’m a mongrel — and I’m not proud of my dancing either, as it was the accident of birth that allowed me to pursue it as a career, while girls with much more talent had to give it up. But I do think I have the right to be proud of not following agenda-driven narratives, either the one that upholds the Bharatanatyam tradition as being thousands of years old, or the one that Menon propounds, going against all available information, that it was ‘invented in the year 1929’.

That statement is rather like the beginning of the Phillip Larkin poem, ‘Sexual intercourse began/ in 1963’. That was too late for Larkin, but it was just right for me. I’m glad that I grew up at a time when the fact of my dancing didn’t define my choice of sexual partners. Had I been alive in 1927, when Muthulakshmi Reddi first mooted the abolition of the practice of keeping certain castes of girls indentured to provide entertainment and sexual pleasure for elite men, I like to think I would have fought on her side.  She was an amazingly accomplished and empowered woman. Now, she is someone who would be justified in feeling proud, not for her Brahmin father or devadasi mother, but for her own iconoclasm in breaking out of the shackles of both.

Updated Date: Dec 17, 2017 13:31:45 IST