Fifteen minutes after I was born, my father knocked on the doors of Pandit Sethuraman, renowned numerologist and astrologer. He recorded my birth chart and wrote at the bottom of the page that I will attain fame and name and it will be very hard to protect me” and then named me Swarnamalya (as a name sake after my mother’s favourite attai, Swarnambal).
Swarnambal was beautiful, strong woman force in our family. She was many things to many people. She was a child who had undergone child marriage and widowhood, a teenager who had to be mother-like figure to her younger siblings, a befuddled twenty-something whose beauty and strength were her enemies, the woman who bolted away with a man who showed her a way to a second lease of life and therefore devalued by her own kin who of course didn’t hesitate to take her support for their life and living. Sometimes despondent, sometimes blissful, but at all times austere, controlled and unblemished and very very strong woman (voice)- this was her.
Combination of my stars and the soul of Swarnambal perhaps, I seem to have inherited the spunk for contentions, thankfully with the strength and neatness from her too.
My neighbour Kausalya Akka (student of Chitra Visveswaran) was a constant presence in my childhood life and my memory holds vividly, the feeling of my baby hands holding her dance arangetram brochures, imagining the pictures to be me. I wanted the costumes, the jewels, the make up and the glamour, and I was encouraged. Bharatanatyam had come a very long way by then. Socially it was not sacrilegious to want to become a dancer anymore. I was a free, young woman to choose what I wanted to become. Our society had come of age!
As a child or teenager or even later in all my dancing years, I have never heard my Guru, K.J.Sarasa (who belonged to the nagaswaram, nattuvanar family of Karaikal Sri Jagadeesan Pillai) make any proud mention of her lineage etc. She was a very strong woman (see my blog on my guru to know more about her). She gained a lot of voice within the sorority of dance as well as the society at large. Even then, she seldom spoke of her ancestry, barring the ambiguous mention of her lineage to the dancers in the court of Raja Raja in the arangetram brochures of her disciples. A couple of stray interviews about her childhood and early years do mention some facts but they all quickly focus on the economic constraints she faced, her learning under Vazuvoorar and her move to migrate to Chennai. I have personally tried speaking to her about her lineage but was shot down very quickly by her. It seems she had unflattering memories, economic limitations and other social debases that she was only willing to let die with her. She didn’t want it any other way and I didn’t probe.
To Madras, she was a new age Bharatanatyam guru who had a stamp of approval from the turnpikes of tradition (vazuvoor). In her own words. her Guru had blessed her to become a nattuvanar (dance teacher) for what she lacked in beauty and glamour of Baby Kamala and others she gained in her lilting voice, strong layagyana and dynamism. Thus the daughter of Karaikal Jagadeesan Pillai became, Guru K.J.Sarasa. Even as a teenager learning dance in her class, I have observed how she would curve ball the various social forums that held the new-age Bharatanatyam’s locus and social concurrence. She was a young woman, willing to build on a new, cosmopolitan distinctiveness to her personality. As a brilliant guru who was training phenomenal young girls into groomed classical dancers (Ratna Papa, Jayalalitha, Padma Subrahmanyam and many others) she was Ramaiyya Pillai’s protege (he himself carving a niche in cinema and public life through his choreography for Kamala and others), was a resident of Madras (Mandaveli) and therefore an accepted entity into the urbanite.
For decades that followed even until after her demise, her laurels are always traced back to her training years, her certitude as a matriarch in leading her band of sisters, her glowing student body and social recognition for all the above in the form of awards and honours. Her immediate ancestry had been buried and done so, willingly by her.
This willingness of hers to loose her ancestral identity could be seen when I observe her life and career graph. She would speak the urban language (Tamil of course) that reflected her “modern” adaptations. She learnt to sign her name in English and would do so with great pride. Open to choreographing for new age compositions and making way for any au -courant trends in Bharatanatyam, she was an accepted traditional practitioner cut and sewn successfully into the fabric of modernist Madras. She didn’t rebel or resist change. Not only did she go with the flow but also was in some ways a forefront example of how such an operation could be done. She so successfully turned the tables of gender, race and ancestry, the same evils that buried several of her sisters (from the fraternity) so consummately towards her. She is hailed as a “Nattuvanar”, one of the first females to wield the cymbals for dance in a very strong male domain of Nattuvanar parampara.
It is interesting to see the relationships and reactions of her male counterparts like Swamimalai Rajaratnam Pillai, Dandayudapani Pillai and others who were her seniors, her brothers (related and she addressed them as “anna”) who became her colleagues and contemporaries at work.
Almost always she ran the race with this newly built identity. Rarely I have witnessed the enfeebled ancestry in terms of discussions, down the memory lanes, attitudes or actual family members, only to be very quickly nipped and tucked and trimmed at the edges to fit in. Her participation in this post colonial social operation also extended to her being sometimes a part of controvert movements against any social constructs that she was so carefully demolishing. That which she belonged to and had let go but that, some other sisters of hers hadn’t.
As a student of Tiruvazaputtur Kalyani grand daughters too, under whom I trained later to quench my thirst for more on the Devadasi dances, repertoires and thereby life and norms, I got to see a very similar phenomenon in them too. When I met them the first time, they addressed themselves as family of Wodeyar’s. Even though I had gone to them for learning the art which was an identity only relatable to their matriarchal lineage, i.e; Kalyani ammal and her daughters the Kalyani daughters, they insisted I understand and think of them as family of Wodeyars.
These are all very important social and personal revisions that many many women from the hereditary communities for dance made, post the 1947 Devadasi Abolition Act. How many of these personal transmutations were successful and how many of them willingly participated in this process, forms the various biographies of these women and their community at large. Its a very complex social order that is nonpareil and therefore challenging. It has issues of gender, caste, colour, religion, social sanctions, methods, western and foreign movements, politics of various parties in the Indian soil, policies and views of colonial sovereigns, feudal and capitalistic concerns and finally personal choices.
It is extremely significant to react to all this through studied approaches. No amounts of high strung emotions or simpleton views in black or white based only on some racial or political illiberality will help.
From the time I was a toddler, through the times of being an obsessed teenager and in my later years I have been engaged in these thoughts on dance both at a practical level and for the last decade on an academic level too. I ask, I seek and I reflect. It is what my gene has given me. What perspectives I have gained through earned academic degrees, long years of practical learning and interactions, steadfast gathering of facts and preparedness for public deliberations of all this cannot be outcry-ed with simple hysteric intolerance. This country is not the place for that.
We will revisit our past at all times, for that’ s the way we shall calibrate to our future. We need policies, social understands, cultural curation and political insights. We cannot hole ourselves up. That is not going to happen. We are not willing to loose our identities and stay muted, are we?
I am Sarasama’s pupil and Swarnambal’s blood, a combination that put me in ascendance and authority to write and speak. That I will more and more.
I answer all the various social and anthropological questions I have raised in this blog and more in my forthcoming book on the Devadasis. There have been voices before and there will be more. I am one among them. I speak with social and academic warrant.
Await the book…
Warned but not badgered by the cracks in the ladder!
My Parama Gurus- The Kalyani Daughters
Me in their foot steps