Photo credit: Kaveri 'River of Life', photo by Thomas Voorter.
Please access the video at https://youtu.be/zfdSZRekRX4 for a reading of the scroll and listening to Ranganayaki’s topical songs.

 

A Devadasi Remembers

Excerpt from the article The Crack in the Mirror - A Devadasi Remembers, South India, 1877-1947 by Dr. Saskia Kersenboom


Text: Dr. Saskia Kersenboom

Dr. Saskia Kersenboom studied Indian languages and Theatre Studies at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Parallel to this academic curriculum she trained and performed devadasi repertoire from temples and royal courts. This resulted in her PhD Nityasumangali (1984) that was published as Nityasumangali – Devadasi Tradition in South India,, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987-2020, 6 editions.

Saskia Kersenboom has developed this intersection of Performing Arts and Academic Studies further as Associate Professor of Linguistic Anthropology and Theatre Studies at University of Amsterdam (1990-2013). Her work includes Guest Professorships at Conservatoria for Dance in Europe, USA, and India. For the Internationaal Danstheater she co-produced the evening-filling Ballet ‘Mother India’ that toured both in The Netherlands in India. She was Co-Curator at Museum Rietberg, Zürich, Switzerland to the major Exhibition Shiva Nataraja (2008). In 1994 she founded Paramparai Arts to foster Devadasi Heritage through UNESCO Consultancy, cultural programs, long and short courses in Hungary and India. For further information: https://www.paramparai.eu

Read the full article (in German) by Saskia Kersenboom in the programme book for La Bayadère.


In her essay, Kersenboom recollects the voice of her devadasi teacher as she narrates her family tradition, life and dedication to the Murugan temple in Tiruttani as well as the tragic rise and fall of the devadasi tradition.

HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?

I was dedicated to the temple as a child, as were my grandmother and great-grandmother. We hold the hereditary ‘right to perform’. An application for my admission to temple service was signed by ten elderly devadasis and priests prior to being sent to the King. The King is the ultimate authority over our temple and several other temples in this region. Such an application takes six months. My grandmother trained me in vocal music and dance, while a traditional scholar taught me reading, writing, recitation and memorisation of the ancient legends of our gods. Once the application was approved, my maiden dance performance was celebrated in a private function by tying the customary dance bells. These anklets turn a dancer into a musician…every step of that performance was not only seen but heard as well! They opened the door to my ‘marriage’. Devadasis are not married to a mortal husband but to one of the god’s weapons. In my case, Murugan’s dagger was brought to our house; there my marriage rituals were conducted. The next day, my family, well-wishers, and the priests took me to the temple with all ritual and musical pomp to perform a full dance concert in front of God. In conclusion, a‘Trident Emblem’ was burnt onto my arm by means of a hot iron. This ritual is called‘marking’ and allowed me to perform the Kumbharati ritual for the first time. More about that later.

We believe that our world is just one of Triloka ‘three worlds’, namely that of Gods, Mortals, and the Nether Regions. Sometimes gods and goddesses manifest themselves spontaneously, as a miracle stone or tree in the field, or as an anthill where a snake has taken its abode. In a temple, the gods live here, right in front of our eyes. It is by their goodwill that they descend into a statue that was made by human hands. Priests know the procedures for inviting gods into the world of mortals, to establish them there in such man-made form, be it stone, bronze, or other metals. It is our duty to take care of this divine presence so that the gods do not leave and are accessible to devotees. Our songs, dances and rituals serve this purpose. Ritual manuals, stone inscriptions, sculptures, and paintings on the temple walls record our presence for over a thousand years.

You can read the full article (in German) by Saskia Kersenboom in the program book for La Bayadère, which will be available in the web shop from May 24, 2023.

 

 

Bildnachweis: Kaveri ‚Fluss des Lebens‘, Foto von Thomas Voorter, Abbildung von Göttern, Sterblichen und die niederen Regionen

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