Nearly a thousand years ago in the Kakateeya Kingdom of Andhra Pradesh, a devadasi — a servant of god — ‘married’ a deity and dedicated her life to its worship and service.
Thus began the tryst between the temple and court dancers. After India gained independence from the colonial rule, the Bharatham, or formal dance of the Telugu hereditary female temple-court dancers, did not receive adequate attention. Therefore, critical historical facts about this tradition remained unknown to the general public.
“Temple dance was known by many different names, but it was reinvented as Vilasini Natyam in 1995,” says dancer Swapnasundari, who has learnt the dance tradition from the descendants of erstwhile temple and court dancers of Telugu regions in 1990.
“Vilasini Natyam is the comprehensive representation of the way temple and court dancers danced to traditional Carnatic music, accompanied by instruments such as violin, flute, mridangam and natuvangam.
“The theme of my performance is worship, court culture and includes pieces that court dancers performed during festivals. The temple court dancers perform various rituals in the Hindu temples, that mostly house Shiva and Vishnu deities, but not all of it can be represented on stage,” explains Swapnasundari, who is associated with the 500-year-old Vishnu temple, Ranganatha Swami temple in Hyderabad.
The devadasis faced a low phase after the British invasion, as they did not understand our culture, explains Swapnasundari, adding that another problem that court dancers faced was temple corruption where they were exploited. “My teachers were over 70 years old when they took me under their wing,” says Swapnasundari, who received the distinction of Padma Bhushan in 2003.