On 20 June 2011, the Asian Performing Arts Forum co-sponsored the launch of a new book written by Padma Bhushan Swapna Sundari entitled (http://www.swapnasundari.com) Vilasini Natyam: Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers (2010). The book launch, which was officially ‘released’ by the High Commissioner of India, Shri Nalin Surie, who was in attendance with his wife, Mrs Poonam Surie. The launch took place at The Nehru Centre in London, and was co-sponsored in collaboration with the Nehru Centre, Milapfest, Akademi, Pulse Magazine and Arth Dance Company.
Swapnasundari is known in India as the Queen of Kuchipudi Dance, and is celebrated as one of India’s most accomplished ‘classical’ dancers, a multi-stylist with a background in both bharatanatyam and kuchipudi. She teaches dance at her institution Kuchipudi Dance Centre in New Delhi and also performs traditional solo dances and creates solo dance compositions and group choreography. Honoured by the Government of India with Padma Vibhushan award, Swapnasundari became in 1996 the first present-day performer dancer to dance annually in the rituals of worship inside a temple.
Swapnasundari’s book Vilasini Natyam is the product of decades of practical research into the dormant tradition of temple dancing in Telugu-speaking parts of South India in collaboration with the late scholar-historian Dr Arudra.
The temple dance tradition that Swapnasundari and Dr Aruda have dubbed Vilasini Natyam was performed in the past by Andhra’s hereditary female dancers, known as Bhogam-Sanis . These dancers, like Devadasis in other parts of India, were consecrated to deities associated with particular temples. They did not come from one caste group, but rather were identified for their potential as dancers at around the age of 7, when they started to take dance and singing lessons. They entered into a formal regime of training when they entered puberty at around the age of 11, and took on the official designation of bhogam. Girls graduated as sani at around the age of 15, taking on an official role at a temple. Being a sani was a lucrative profession and allowed women much agency. After a sani stopped dancing, she was able to continue her career as a trainer of bhogam. Though the dance found its primary base in temple rituals, it was also adapted into a concert format and performed at the royal courts and public theatres of Andhra.
In a film, talk and discussion, Swapnasundari described how she and Dr Aruda documented the last living sani dancers. Swapnasundari took lessons from sani (some of whom had never had pupils in the past), and thereby collated a vocabulary of dance moves, and successfully revived Vilasini Natyam’s extensive repertoire.
While firmly believing that the Devadasi ban of 1947 was just, Swapnasundari has found her own sense of spirituality in the reconstructed Vilasini Natyam. She dances for the divine, not for a human audience. She is emphatic that while Vilasini Natyam shares some formal features with the dance traditions of neighbouring provinces, it is not derivative of them. Proof of this is that a student, even those ‘multi-stylists’ coming from a background in another ‘classical’ form, will need at least five to six years of studying Vilasini Natyam to achieve competency.
In a polemical mode, Swapnasundari suggested that the whole category of ‘classical’ needed to be challenged. Some practitioners and historians vested in so-called classical dance forms (bharatanatyam among them) take great notice of the endorsement of classicisim by Sangeet Natak Academy conferences going back to the 1950s. However, Swapnasundari contested the right of any cultural body to determine classical status, claiming that Sangeet Natak itself no longer espoused an arbitrating role.
(Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen)