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Contemporary understandings of Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam (also known as Indian classical music and dance, respectively) as ‘religious’ arts that represent Hinduism and Indian culture originated within a very specific historical context: the Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s colonial city of Madras; Partha Chatterjee, discussing a similar movement in Bengal, describes this as ‘Classicization’ (Nation and Its Fragments, 1997, p73). The nationalist movement in Madras was a ‘culture-defining’ project in which music and dance were carefully re-constructed by pruning specific practices and traditions to represent the ‘pure’ inner sphere of spirituality that would displace the outer sphere of colonial politics. Such re-defining of performance arts mystified music and dance performances as ‘religious’ (read: Hindu) experiences and gendered the performances by defining femininity within the politics of nationalism. According to this emerging nationalistic patriarchy, whilst the outer/’material’ world belonged to men, the inner/’spiritual’ world ‘assigned’ to women had to be protected and nurtured. The nationalist politics created a new hyper-feminine middle-class woman defined by monogamous conjugal relationships as the Hindu way of life. This woman was defined by her sexual propriety who, through her spirituality, had to maintain the cohesion of family life whilst the man succumbed to the pressures of the material world.

Discourses on women’s sexual propriety as a pivotal point of re-defining performance arts specifically targeted communities traditionally performing music and dance, the devadāsis. Devadāsi (literally: ‘Servant of God’) referred to diverse categories of women (and occasionally men) who learned and performed dance and music within diverse settings such as temples or royal courts, festivals and private ceremonies for their patrons. They lived in a matrilineal set-up within a patriarchal society in which they had the right to education and property and enjoyed a high societal status as nityasumangali (eternally auspicious). However, in the early 20th century discourses on ‘purifying’ performance arts focused on two aspects of their tradition: a) they were not bound by monogamous conjugal arrangements; these courtesans went through dedication rituals after which they entered concubinage of the king or became mistresses of their patrons; b) traditionally they performed (among others) compositions that were erotic poems portraying explicit sexual acts (usually between the hero and heroine of the poem/story). A focus on the devadāsi community, which had a historically significant presence in South India, as a symbol of immorality emerged due to a set of historical developments beginning in the mid-19th century. As court patronages diminished devadāsis moved to Madras and set up salon performances for the newly urbanized audiences, both native and European. The mid-19th century saw transformations in colonial representations of devadāsis from performers of arts (from a tradition outside of monogamous conjugal relationships) to ‘prostitutes’ who could perform dance and music. This description, ‘prostitutes’, was affirmed by a series of Anglo-Indian laws passed during the late 19th century modeled after Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act that targeted ‘prostitutes’ catering to British soldiers, and brought devadāsis under the laws. Judicial definitions, coupled with the influence of the Purity Campaign in 1880s Britain, triggered a politics of morality that resulted in a ‘devadāsi-reform’ movement, which saw devadāsis as moral deviants from whom sacred music and dance had to be rescued.

The early 20th century focus on nationalism and Hinduism, in addition to transforming perceptions of devadāsis, resulted in the movement that defined female sexuality in the public sphere by drawing distinctions between the divine and the erotic. Thus, not only was the divine redefined to indicate a nostalgic pure religious and Hindu past, but the erotic was also redefined as sexual impropriety. Reformers petitioned the government to abolish the devadāsi tradition; the movement was spearheaded by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was born into a devadāsi family but rejected the tradition. Her movement received support from (among others) the theosophist Annie Besant and Gandhi, who argued that music and dance were sacred but had been despoiled by devadāsis who had to be rehabilitated to become respectable middle-class women bound and defined by their monogamous conjugal relationships. Despite opposition from the devadāsi community, the Devadāsi Abolition Act was passed in 1947. Devadāsis were thus banned from performing dance and music within a salon set-up.

Whilst the vacuum in the performance space left by devadāsis was being filled by middle-class Brahmin women encouraged by nationalists and organizations such as the Madras Music Academy, these spaces were also being deified. Specifically, Rukmini Devi Arundale, a prominent theosophist and protégé of Anne Besant, employed stagecraft that reified Bharatnatyam as ‘religious dance’ by conducting a series of performances where she incorporated chants of Sanskrit verses and displayed an icon of Natarāja, an incarnation of the god Shiva in his form as a cosmic dancer, thereby representing the cosmic connection between art and the divine. She introduced sets of compositions in her performances that extolled Natarāja. While the devadāsi repertoire was removed from temple settings, Arundale adopted temple settings to her performance stage through portable temple background sets, thereby deifying the performance space. In contemporary Bharatnatyam performances, the presence of Natarāja idols and temple-setting backgrounds are ubiquitous.

(In this video, The image in the background is of Shiva, of whom Natarāja is an incarnation. The song is about Natarāja.)

The history of Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam posits a focus on (among other issues) questions of embodiment and the female body. That the female body is impure had been established in the case of devadāsis within the politics of nationalism: music and dance representing the divine, their ‘sacred’ (read: ‘Hindu’) past therefore had to remain ‘pure’. The dimension of embodiment of music and dance permitted by patriarchy represents a dichotomy between the soul and the body in which the soul is the pure inner sphere that connects the performer to the divine, whilst the body represents the material outer sphere that needs to be removed from the context. Women as custodians of this inner spiritual sphere were to learn and perform these arts, thus embodying them, but had to remove the erotic from their performances, which were seen as belonging to the sacred inner space. This solidified the understanding that ‘true religion’ was sacred and must be distinguished from the non-sacred.