ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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​The Hereditary Artists of Naatyam

Nrithya Pillai ( is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher from the hereditary Isai Vellalar parampara.

A new social media project tells the stories of hereditary dancers through their own eyes.

There are two commonly accepted theories about the origins of Bharatanatyam: that it came from theNatya Shastra written by sage Bharatha, or that it has been revived from the hereditary dasi attam or sadir of the devadasis and the nattuvanars (conductors of the performance) by the revivalists from upper castes.

As one of the few practitioners of dance from a hereditary family from around Thanjavur, I have started a social media project called “Humans of Naatyam—Untold stories of Hereditary Artists.” I hope that this project, which is currently a Facebook page, will throw light on how these hereditary artists lived for the arts and were instrumental in keeping the art form alive. Through this project, I also want to throw light on how the concept of revival itself is questionable, as the art was taught by these living “Humans of Naatyam” to the so-called revivalists.

As a part of this project, I have been sharing pictures of men and women from the dancing community of the Isai Vellalars, with details on their art, families and oral histories that have been long forgotten. I believe that the reality of how these hereditary artists were treated, the inner turmoil that the community underwent as an effect of the Devadasi Prohibition Act, its effect on the women and the men of the community, and the treatment meted out to this community needs to be understood, even though what happened to them is because of a complex set of events.

Pre-independence India was indeed polygamous. It is a matter of context to a great extent—of culture, of time, space and social norms—that the system of dedicating women and men to temples happened. The culture then was also inclusive of child marriage and many other such practices that are now redundant. I feel it is unfair that the culture and livelihood of the community were vanquished in the name of reform. The Humans of Naatyam page is my way of reviving articulation on the subject, to open more perspectives, particularly those from within the community.

One of the stories from Humans of Naatyam, for instance, is accompanied by a short video (courtesy of dance scholar Saskia Kersenboom), which gives us a glimpse of the life of “Tiruttani Ranganayaki (P Ranganayaki),” with her singing, as part of her daily ritual practice at the temple. This aspect of music and dance emanating from the dancer is almost forgotten today. It also documents important nuggets from P Ranganayaki’s life (with content and photographs courtesy of Saskia Kersenboom), such as the time of her muttirai, the branding or dedication ceremony at the Tiruttani Subramanya Swamy temple. It showcases a 17-year-old Ranganayaki, a devadasi accredited by 10 priests and 10 devadasis, and empowered by the permission of the Raja of Karvetinagar.

A short excerpt from the post reads:

P Ranganayaki was trained by her grandmother Subburatnamma who wrote down her entire repertoire for agamic temple ritual, “atta kacceri” and social samskara functions in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu. After her dedication P Ranganayaki mainly performed agamic ritual songs and dances as part of daily and festival worship ... Two months after her “Muttirai,” a customary public concert called “Prayojanam,” functionally an “Arangetram,” was arranged where cultured patrons were invited to appreciate the newly sanctioned auspicious devadasi artiste ... In 1977, T Sankaran introduced Saskia Kersenboom to P Ranganayaki who accepted her as her lawful student and heir of her and her grandmother’s legacy. Saskia’s apprenticeship with Smt P Ranganayaki resulted in her dissertation “Nityasumangali, Devadasi Tradition in South India” (1984 onw. six editions). Smt P Rangayanaki’s repertoire lives on in this 5-generation transmission from Tiruttani devadasis to a Dutch scholar–dancer in Hungary and India.

The Humans of Naatyam page is now home to numerous pictures with short stories on these traditional practitioners, what they did, and how they survived difficult times. Tales of love, tales of loss, tales of virtue and truth, all unheard before. It has created an interest in dance and history enthusiasts too.

These snippets of human history, for me, is a way of making people see hereditary artistes as respectful, kind, simple and courageous people who loved art, people and God.


Updated On : 20th Aug, 2018


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