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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh Talks About The Journey Of Bharatnatyam From Temples To Proscenium

  • IWB Post
  •  April 14, 2018

A popular face in the South, Swarnamalya Ganesh is an actor, a TV anchor, and a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. Known not just for her extraordinary creativity, Swarnamalya is a unique artiste whose interpretation of history is something that stands out every time she puts on a costume and takes the stage.

Swarnamalya’s Sadir performances have been perceived as open windows to history and an era bygone. But ironically that is what she wishes to destabilise, too. That Sadir does not have to be the dance of the bygone era, but an art form that is very much a part of our present cultures and traditions.

She works on the destabilising by re-imagining the past, creating those very spaces where specific kinds of dancing and singing existed, and reinterpreting the texts so that one best understands the past in tandem with the present. And this week, Swarnamalya brings to Delhi a very special production, “Where Stories Take Form”, based on the stories of music and dance in the British Raj of 18th and 19th centuries of the Madras Presidency.

Swarnamalya Ganesh

Talking about it to The Hindu, she said, “the idea comes from another production of mine called ‘Dancing in the Parlour’, which seeks to look at the kind of repertoire that was performed in intimate spaces like salon performances. The Madras Presidency had patrons knows as the dubashi – men who spoke two languages and were interpreters to the British company. They were extremely influential, and were the go between the British and the locals. One of the things they did was entertain. Madras had 600 odd private gardens, with fountains, lakes, deer parks, etc., owned by the dubashis. They had small gatherings of people called the sadas, a name that has stuck on. The sadas represents their patronage to new-age poets. Anybody could go, and present their art. It was not elitist at all, even though elite people owned these spaces. On any given evening, there would be a music soiree or a dance performance. There were also small manuals that introduced the art form to the British officers. These became important 18-19th Century texts for self-learning of Bharatanatyam and are in the archives now.”

The base for her production is a Sanskrit text called “Sarvadeva Vilasam” that goes into immense detail about the life of the dubashis in Madras, the patrons, etc. “This is the time when dance and music started to move out of the temple spaces, villages and came to this cosmopolitan city. It could not have jumped from the temple to the proscenium, so the in-between lies here and started to reform as what we see as Bharatanatyam now,” she added.

Because the temples were starting to get heavily taxed and could not afford to patronise the dancers anymore, the dancers started to move out for sustenance. These were non-prosceniums ones that were not temples. The repertoire comes with specific stories of performing particular things at particular times. Says Swarnamalya, “You can call these women the non-dedicated devadasis. When these new dancing spaces met the non-duty-bound dancers, a new repertoire was created. The congregation in many of these gardens were also named sabha, hence the name sabha. The sadas was presided by a chief patron, much like an open-mic today.”

Swarnamalya Ganesh

What is fascinating here is the Carnatic nawabi culture, which was replete with Persian and Urdu poetry, Kathak, and Hindustani classical music. One would not usually think that Madras would have this kind of a culture. The Carnatic nawabs were immensely popular but do not get talked about much. These nawabs also extended patronage to the South Indian tawaifs, who were called kanchanis.

“The era reflected the multilingual nature of Madras presidency; there was Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian. The kanchanis brought so much Kathak to Sadir, and there were these Hindustani musicians who jammed often. What came out of those sessions was captivating. There was an array of Persian and Urdu poets who sang ghazals and khayals written here in Madras, performing in these intimate spaces. And I feel like we tend to miss these stories that occurred in music and dance. I am only trying to highlight those,” she sums up.

To make things real, Swarnamalya and her team call themselves the Madras Sadir Company that will perform at Nawab Sadullah Khan II’s court, where she will render a thumri written by the Urdu poet Maulana Baqhir Agha Vellori of Vellore. The show scheduled for April 14, 7:30pm onwards, will be presented by designer Sandhya Raman’s Desmania foundation, at the Atelier in Lado Sarai.

H/T: The Hindu

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