letter from india: dancing for the divine

a meeting with one of the last living devadasi dancers

photo by cylla von tiedemann, www.cylla.ca

excerpted from the print magazine...

Professor Hari Krishnan is the artistic director of inDANCE, a Toronto-based dance company, artist in residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and the sort of friend whose passion inspires you and makes you jealous, all at once. Originally from Singapore, Hari came to Canada to pursue his higher education in Sanskrit, Tamil, and linguistics, and to establish himself as an artist. Today, he is one of the leading figures in the world of experimental Canadian choreography, but he also returns to South India year after year to pursue artistry of a different sort. He invited me here for a month to record him learning from his teachers, the last living devadasis in India.

Literally, devadasi means "servant of God," but beyond that definition is an enigmatic idea that has been used and misused in countless ways.

Not so long ago, many temples in South India supported devadasis, all of whom underwent a dedication to a local god. With their families, they formed a matrilineal community of artists who practiced karnatak music and a dance known as sadir-attam, which in the twentieth century would be remodeled and transformed into what we now call Bharatanatyam. Today we are on our way to meet Muttukkannu, whose name means "pearl-eyed." She is eighty years old. When she was seven, Muttukkannu married Shanmukhanathasvami (a local form of the Tamil god Murugan), the young warrior son of Shiva and Parvati.

Simon Reader traveled to South India in 2005. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Concordia University. He lives in Montréal.

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