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Daisy Barman
Date of Publish: 2016-12-03

                              Resurrecting a Dying Art: Devdasi Dance

 

Pathsala,a town located in the Barpeta district of Assam has remained a cultural hub for various artistic heritage. Pathsala lives, breathes and sings- it has the resonance of a vibrant soul.

Photo- Daisy Barman

Brisannala Kristi Samaj, a cultural platform in the town with the extraordinary collaboration with student unions came forward to hold workshops and seminars interestingly on a seemingly dying art- Devdasi dance. Derived from two Sanskrit words “Dev” and “Dasi”(meaning “God” and “servant” respectively) devdasis devoted their entire life in the name of God. Scholars have it that the origin of Devdasi dance can be drawn to the seventh century AD. Ancient Kamrup being a centre for tantric practices probably had brought Devdasi tradition to the region.Parihareswar temple at Dubi, Pathsala was one of the prominent centers for Devdasi dance.

Photo- Daisy Barman

It is believed that Menaka, Rambha used to be the first devdasis in heaven. It appears to be a corporeal form of truth and beauty on earth. The holy premises of temples turned out to be the only place of practice for this divine art. It embodied the life-long unconditional worship for Lord Shiva, the master of this earth is also their master.

Photo- Daisy Barman

The term devdasi is known to have been found first in a stone inscription in Madhya Pradesh from the reign of Ashoka. Devdasi tradition is found in Kalidasa’s Verses (Meghdoot Kavya) where it is depicted that in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain every evening was inebriated with the rhythm of devdasi’s jingling anklets. During Ahom rule in Assam in various temples the custom existed. And under the British rule until the fourth decade of the Twentieth century the devdasis of Hajo and Dubi even participated in marriage ceremonies and other festivals. The system was inherently bound within sacred metaphors. However gradually the system found itself deteriorating when instead of gods the privileged men began to be their lords. A time came when the devdasis became steeped in downfall of morality and utter promiscuity. Under the pressure of strong public demand the British banned devdasi dance in India. However, in Assam until the advent of freedom the custom was greatly in fashion. Many years before the system saw  stop in places of Assam Haygreeb Madhab mandir of Hajo, Bilbeswar Dewalay of Belsor, the shiv temple of Negheriting at Dergaon etc. There came to an end a remarkable form of aesthetic practice. They remained concealed and abandoned in the pages of history. The contribution of Devdasis to the cultural history of the nation is astounding. The classical forms of dances as those of bharat natyam and odissi are claimed to be the offshoot of this very form.

Photo- Daisy Barman

Ratnakanta Talukdar, an artist from this region could not take the shunning of this practice easily. In the early 1950s he created a platform called “Pathsala Art Society” where several students enrolled. Ratnakanta had the intense desire to bring back the art regardless of the circumstances. The old Devdasis Kousalyabala and Roiyabala, the instrumentalists(Khol-Drum)Besaram Bayan and(Taal-Cymbal) Kinaram Bayan were in their old age then. Ratnakanta approached them all and sought help, which they did. It is interesting to note, given the stringent prejudice of society for the dance form on moral grounds it was incredibly courageous of an artist to attempt to revive it. In 1954, to a conference of Assam Sangeet Sanmilan a group of artists  from Pathsala Art Society was sent to perform.

Photo- Daisy Barman

It was a golden opportunity for Ratnakanta because the great cultural visionaries Bisnu Prasad Rabha and Pradip Chaliha were present where he could delineate about the tradition in details. They were impressed with Ratnakanta’s efforts and encouraged him further to work on it. In subsequent times, the great artist and revolutionary  Bisnuprasad entered to the Pathsala scene. In his eyes every little nuance of the dance form was captured as meaningfully beautiful. To see the practice many people from various corners flocked to Pathsala. Rabha himself explained the meanings to everyone. He guided  Ratnakanta how to fix the errors and for  the propagation of  this priceless art he mentored him throughout. Soon after with the help of scholars like Dr Maheswar Neog a group of four girls formally started  performing Devdasi dance again and Ratnakanta himself took to play the khol. Ratnakanta not only revived this art, he gave it the most colorful form.

Photo- Daisy Barman

However, before this chapter was not too long following the demise of Ratnakanta Talukdar the legacy came to a halt. But Pathsala as vibrant as it always is soon must have realized what keeps her alive. The efforts of Brisannala Kristi Samaj reflect a powerful perspective of the place and its place to overcome what goes into the conspicuous flux of change and nonetheless retain the essence of culture.

Daisy Barman

(A doctoral fellow at the Department of Folklore, Gauhati University, Daisy Barman is a scribbler and translator. She can be reached at maa.daisy@gmail.com )

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