With Incense and Music, Sripad ’04 Brings Traditional Indian Dance to Andover Stage

Pooja Sripad’s Abbot Scholar Presentation began in a dark room, where music and the smell of burning incense filled the air. On a stage illuminated by white and red lights, in a costume of a white sari with gold jewelry and bells, she opened her presentation with a traditional Indian dance. On Tuesday night, Sripad explained to a full audience the intricacies and history of Indian dancing, both as an art form and as a religious ritual. Her presentation, which was entitled An Aritst’s Journey through Time: From the Devadasi Tradition to Present Day Bharatnaytam, covered the evolution of traditional dances, from its origins in village temples over 2000 years ago to its revival during the 20th century. Dancing started in the temples of rural Indian villages around 100 B.C. Young girls were chosen to take on the role of the devadasi, a dancer who acted as a protector of the people and intermediary between humans and God. They trained under the careful supervision of the village’s artist community, until they were ready to undergo their rites of passage, which included a solo debut that marked the beginning of their careers. The solo debut signified the dancer’s marriage to God, as well as granting her the right to interpret dances rather than to simply perform memorized movements. After the solo debut, the devadasi moved from her home to quarters provided by the temple, where she lived the rest of her life tending to the temple, making offerings, interceding for the people, and dancing. She earned money through the patronage of local families, and continued as a revered servant of God until about 600 A.D., when the culture began to change. Since the devadasi was so valued and respected, she soon became a necessary adornment in the wealthier courts of the period. She was hired to maintain private temples and to entertain wealthy families with her dancing. Slowly, the role shifted until she was protector of the family, then the personal servant of the patron. However, in 1500, during the Tanjur Court Period, her responsibilities had dwindled to being her employer’s mistress. As sexual relationships between the devadasi and master grew more common, and jealousy between the wife and devadasi infected the courts, the dancers were looked on as promiscuous. Soon, families stopped allowing their daughters to dance because they wanted to protect them from a career that had become prostitution, and the custom died. In the 1920’s, the Bharatnaytam dance was created. This classical dance style incorporated movement and style from the devadasi, yet changed many rules of that custom. For the first time, men were allowed to become dancers, and the expressiveness of the movements was filtered out, so as to allow no trace of promiscuity to taint the new style. However, studying was expensive, the career was discouraged, and a social stigma for dancers emerged. Sripad then explained her own experience with dancing. Since the age of eight she has been studying with her instructor in India, and returns each summer to continue training. In September of 2003, she had her own solo debut, which, in the Bharatnaytam technique marks her proficiency in dance and her maturity to express herself. Though the devadasi viewed dance as religion, Sripad also views it as an art form and her expression of life. She said, “A journey is a dancer’s dream of discovering her origin through meaning.” Despite her love and devotion to dance, she explained that she has always felt a barrier between herself and the other students native to India, because she needed to surrender to emotion, divinity, and art when performing the more advanced feeling dances. Now, after studying the culture of Indian dancing, she feels that barrier has finally been removed. Though she does not know how far she will take her dancing, she knows that she will continue to choreograph in the future. At the end of her presentation, Sripad performed an improvised dance expressing the eight stages of devotion that a devadasi feels for God.