An artist reflects on her multiple caste lineages

In Telugu-speaking areas, Kalavantulu is the name given to hereditary singer-dancers. I belong to this community. The Kalavantulu are better known as “devadasis”. The term “hereditary dancer” is increasingly used to describe women in my community, a fact that causes mixed feelings in my family. Their apprehension and their animated discussions today around this term make me doubt its sanctity and its integration into the caste.

My maternal grandmother Chinagandham Kausalya was born to the son of Kotipalli Madhuravani. Madhuravani and his sister Pichayamma (Sarojamukhi) were patronized by the Annavaram temple authorities. My father Seshagiri Rao is the son of a Madhva Brahmin, whom my grandmother, Suryakantham, served all her life.

She herself descends from families who served the Varaha Narasimha Swamy Temple at Simhachalam, near Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. They extracted gandham, or sandalwood paste, for the deity – hence our family name, “Chinagandham”, which literally means “little sandalwood paste”.

With the Kalavantulu, upper caste zamindar and elite upper caste Brahmins among my ancestors, who can tell which caste I belong to? What is my line? Is it defined by blood alone and if so, what is “blood”?

“We were never a caste,” my father once told me. “We are a guild of like-minded people. Adoption within families and other communities was the way of life. My teacher from Kalavantulu, Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, was also adopted by her mother.

Mine is a combination of several lines. This caste/lineage complexity is part of my life, my dance and my quest.

Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru.

I draw your attention to a set of practices, people and lineages that make me who I am, in order to challenge simplistic conceptions of caste defined solely by lineage.

I focus on the forms of Kuchipudi, the male Brahmin dance form and the female Kalavantulu dance, and argue that Kuchipudi exists at the intersection of caste, gender and patriarchal politics. I look at these intersections as they influence the performance body – specifically, my performance body – through recent stories. I complicate the concept of heredity and blood caste, while drawing attention to the disappearance of art and artists who are the building blocks of the famous Kuchipudi.

When I was just over six years old, my mother Lakshmi gave in to my desire to dance and enrolled me in the Kuchipudi Art Academy, founded by Vempati Chinna Satyam. I love Kuchipudi, even though male Brahmins from Kuchipudi village claim the genesis of this dance form.

Maybe I like Kuchipudi because I also discovered that Kalavantulu women lived in the temples around Kuchipudi village and helped create the solo form of Kuchipudi.

I love Kuchipudi, especially what I learned from my late teacher, Sobha Naidu. Master, as I called him, was neither from a Devadasi nor a Brahmin lineage. But for me, it is synonymous with my dance and Kuchipudi. The “lineage” of my performance began with her. I embodied the dance of Chinna Satyam through Master.

As the masculine Brahmin aesthetic flowed through one non-Brahmin female body into another non-Brahmin Kalavantulu body, I wondered how Chinna Satyam knew what “kaliki tanamu” or, femininity, felt, when he taught her to lift her shoulders and the chest with the eyes closed and raise the chin a little. Although I didn’t fully understand sensuality, I always wondered if, if given the choice, she would have done it differently. This was in contrast to what I learned later from my Devadasi teachers.

Chinagandham Kausalya, the author’s grandmother.

I chose to pursue a master’s degree in dance, specializing in Kuchipudi, and did research for my doctorate. This is where the world of devadasis opened up to me. I found the character of Satyabhama, the embodiment of intelligence, love, pride and surrender in the depiction of the Kalavantulu, who promulgated Bhamakalapam. Bhamakalapam is a theater format that Kuchipudi Brahmins believe was scripted by Siddhendra Yogi and forms Kuchipudi’s identity. The heroine, Satyabhama, is played by men. But where is the dancer? Siddhendra’s story in Kuchipudi, as Academician Rumya Putcha says, erased these women and camouflaged a phenomenal literature.

Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, the granddaughter of the exemplary Buli Venkataratnamma, lovingly transmitted to me the Bhamakalapam that Atkuri Subbarao wrote for their family. My Satyabhama then comes to me from several lineages.

Where is the art without the artist? I began my research by talking to Kalavantulu women – women I thought were missing. When I am in conversation with these women, I speak, but they sing and grow dull. When I ask a question they respond with expressions to a relevant javali. Now stripped of this repertoire, what is their means of communication?

When I asked them about the man of their life, one of them sang the padam Kshetrayya: Yentha chakkani vaade naasaami (what a handsome boy, my man!). In another traditional padam, we sang: Nammagaraade sakhi magavaarini (never trust a man). Although the padams are attributed to male authors, these songs are in female voices. The Kalavantulu women are the choreographers and even the composers of the padams.

Why, then, do I see these intense female emotions performed by male bodies, which are in turn transferred to female bodies – with male desire infused into the song’s performance – in today’s neo-classical dances? today? When I executed overt sexuality camouflaged by devotion to Kuchipudi, I made myself conducive to the male gaze of the upper caste. I don’t see the songs as worthless and crude when I play, unlike the colonial critics of the shringara padams.

Such concepts are the prerogative of privileged upper-caste Brahmins, and are experienced and presented by the simple means of ingenious literature and performative interpretation, breaking down any hierarchy in the process.

Lakshmi, the author’s mother.

Learning this has been liberating for me.

While it was liberating, I also wondered if I carried masculine energy in my feminine body when I danced. The realization that changing aesthetics is linked to changing the center of power began to dawn on me. Sangam co-artistic director Priya Srinivasan talks about what a bodily awareness of power can do to the “unruly viewer” and how to turn it around. In this moment, I have become the unruly performer.

If women were to be brought back into performance, it was clear that the Kalavantulu women were not the choice, but their repertoire was. Dancers from different castes entered. The male performer of the Kuchipudi Brahmin families has now become a guru and started teaching for a living. The content was not dramatic, but the solo form. The role of the Kalavantulu women in Kuchipudi did not stop there. It is the presence and performance of the Kalavantulu practitioners that has contributed to Kuchipudi’s classic status. It is a poignant and often overlooked reminder of the contribution of these women to Kuchipudi’s history.

The appropriation has undoubtedly taken place. Upper-caste men found abundant support among men from Devadasi dancing families and the so-called “self-respect movement” to make the Devadasi woman invisible.

It’s only when I sit down painstakingly with my family and tell them our own story – while they listen with detachment, as if I’m talking about something unrelated – that I realize how much the Kalavantulu have been systematically led to believe that they did not exist. Yet my father’s words come back to me. The Kalavantulu have never been a caste. Social anthropologist Amrit Srinivasan says that it was only after the reforms that these individual and distinctive service categories became castes.

My lineage is complex and my experience of caste has never been divorced from gender and patriarchy. Today, Kuchipudi dancers are mostly non-Brahmin women carrying the male energy of the gurus on their bodies, as well as a fragment of these marginalized performers – the Kalavantulu women – through the semi-theatrical form of Kalapam and solo pieces. These women will not disappear as long as this practice continues. The bodies representing art have changed, as has art and its purpose. As the representatives of the dance changed, the tastes of the public were also meticulously brought to change.

It seems that the devadasis have disappeared. But do they, really? Devadasi is a complex mixture of blood and lineage. Many were adopted and their fathers were from different castes, so what is devadasi? For me, the practice determines the guild, and the practitioner must recognize the history.

I stand here as a Kalavantulu woman with my complex lineage of birth, adoption, caste, blood, but most importantly, a rich lineage of practice – both from the Kuchipudi repertoire and the Devadasi repertoire. My lineage goes even further because I bring the knowledge of many scholars who preceded me, who wrote about Devadasi and Kalavantulu women.

While I rely on their work, research, speak and write for myself, I don’t need anyone to speak for me. I study and experience the life and memories of my family – the Kalavantulu women – as well as ancient Sanskrit texts. I don’t discount my training in Kuchipudi as a neo-classical form, nor do I ignore social history. If I identify as a hereditary artist determined by caste and blood, then I am a dancer with multiple genealogies and multiple lineages.

Yashoda Thakore is the chair of the dance department at Silicon Andhra University.

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