ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Traditional Knowledge as Life Praxis: the case of the devadasi’s dance


SRINIVASAN Amrit - IIIT-Delhi, SSH, Delhi, India


33 – Transmitting know-how in a shifting world – the case of contemporary India


 The paper will take the example of the Natyasastra (2nd C AD)to refute its understanding as just a compendium of rules or a practical handbook. In an apparent complete divorce of practice from theory, the sadir or the devadasi dance was traditionally taught within community gurukulams with no standardised textual choreography. But it was in the life praxis of the devadasi that the dichotomy was resolved. This connection was historically broken in the early 20th Century by the stigmatisation of the devadasi as a “temple prostitute”. The sadir was taken over in its new avatar as Bharata Natyam by the nationalist Brahmin elite of Free India after the devadasi stopped dancing in the temple and in elite people’s homes. Textual materials from anywhere are now being danced to; but the training remains linked to the oral demonstration mode of the dance originally performed by the devadasi. Premiere dance training institutions like the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai needed the gurus and dancers of the devadasi community to first establish themselves.Their focus remains amateur and liberal with no degree granting or professional accreditation authority. In the absence of the classical dance art as a means to a “livelihood”, it is Bollywood cinema and Reality TV, the modelling business and Beauty Pageants which permit professional dance talent to get rewarded albeit transformed.