Bharatam is a generic term which refers to the performing arts which have their origins in the Natya Shastra, Bharata Muni’s classical treatise on the arts. Every Indian classical performing art is therefore a form of Bharatam which then developed its own unique features over time in its region of origin. The Bharatam of the Telugu temple and court dancers – now referred to as Vilasini Natyam – did not go through a period of revival like many other Indian classical dance styles did around Independence, a period of cultural revival. By the 1950s there were very few active performers and this unique dance tradition was in danger of disappearing altogether.
Swapnasundari, the book’s author, is a renowned Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer who rose to fame during the 1980s. She is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Padma Bhushan which she was conferred at a young age. Her dance career suddenly moved in a different direction after she had the opportunity to see an ageing temple dancer, Madulla Lakshminarayana, present a short performance in a small town in Andhra Pradesh. This was a life-changing experience. As Swapnasundari watched her from the audience, she was deeply moved. “The power of her art came like a flash. I was simply staggered and humbled by it. I told myself this is where I want to go, become an artist, not a dancer. I had everything going – youth, fame, affluence, popularity and she had nothing. But what she had I had not acquired in 25 years of dancing. She wiped away my sense of achievement.” (Source: The Times of India Crest Edition, 22 January 2011)
For the next five years, Swapnasundari took a break from her prolific dance career to follow her newfound passion. She travelled all over Andhra Pradesh and neighbouring Telugu-speaking regions to meet and interview the hereditary dancers of this dance tradition. She carefully documented everything she learned. She also had a great desire to learn this dance herself. It was only after a great deal of persuasion that some of these hereditary dancers agreed to teach her.
Speaking at the book launch, she described the challenges of learning this dance:
“What I learned from these hereditary dancers was what they had preserved. This had plus points and minus points. I was not getting a very sophisticated version of the Bharatam of the Telegu temple and court dancers. I was getting it in a raw state. And it was for me to adapt it in the way I was required to do for my time. That’s a plus point. The minus point was that they were not used to teaching it as a system in a way that we are used to. When studying a classical dance, you usually start with adavus and then go on to items, etc., but here there was no such system. Since they had never followed such a system, they did not dream of teaching in such a way. So my first guru would make me do a few adavus and then after a while she would start singing a padam, or whatever item I was learning. After she had finished singing the pallavi and anupallavi she would simply move to something else, like the abhinaya of a sloka. After teaching me two lines she would take a break and when she came back she would start teaching me something else. For me this was terribly confusing because I thought I would learn in a vertical way and go deeper and deeper whereas she was going in a horizontal way and trying to teach me all aspects at the same time, bit by bit. Much later I adapted to this system and I would sit with a tape recorder and a notebook and tapes around me and try to take everything down. That was the only way for me to absorb everything that she was teaching me! So there was a practical difficulty in reclaiming this material. Also, I had to struggle to disinherit my training in Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi. So those dynamics had to be disinherited in a sense and I had to start from zero.”
She spent years learning and researching the dance, contributing significantly to its revival. In 1995 the dance form was renamed Vilasini Natyam. Previously this performing tradition was referred to Bharatam, Karnatakam or Tsaduru, among other names. She now performs and teaches Vilasini Natyam to a dedicated group of students. Every year along with her students, she presents a traditional recital of Vilasini Natyam at the 400-year-old Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple in Rang Bagh, Hyderabad. This is an example of how the ritual element of this dance tradition has been reintegrated into temple worship. (Left: Vilasini Natyam dancers at Rang Bagh temple, Hyderabad.)
Swapnasundari’s book Vilasini Natyam: Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers explores the history and revival of this dance form which was performed exclusively by hereditary female dancers. It gives an account of its origin, rise, decline and renaissance into the form Vilasini Natyam.
The book opens with a dedication by Joseph Campbell which was a pleasant surprise for me:
‘Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again’
This is followed by a line by Swapnasundari:
‘With gratitude to those who inspired me to find that space.’
The lovely photo of a dancer posing in a temple in the banner photo of this blog I’ve called Sacred Space happens to be Swapnasundari!