Thursday 11 December 2014

Javalis- Abhinaya in the 21st Century

As part of Antara’s effort to situate South Asian dancing from an aesthetic, historical and social perspective, we carry reviews and analysis of some of these embodied practices.

This week’s blogpost is by Ajay Cadambi, a graduate student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore who studies biophysics. His interests include the history of science, temple architecture and dance history. 

Javali, Raga Atana, Roopaka Tala
In 1920, the dedication of women to temple service was banned. This was directly in response to a nation-wide agitation that viewed women associated with temples as prostitutes. In Andhra, strangely enough, the art form of hereditary female performers survived well into the 1950s, in what are referred to as salon performances or mezuvani (from the urdu word mezban which means host). Contrary to popular belief, the devadasi did not perform excluslively within the precincts of the temple. Nationalists seem to want to skew over this fact, in their reconstruction of the history of art forms like Bharatanatyam which they describe as temple-centric.
Consequently, a large number of hereditary female perfomers or sanis were disenfranchised and their art form would have altogether disappeared into oblivion if not for the efforts of a wonderful woman named Vakkalanka Swapnasundari. With the support of her Kuchipudi guru, Pasumarthy Sitaramayya, she convinced various illustrious sanis from all the three major regions of Andhra, viz. Telangana, Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra to teach her their art. Important amongst them were Late Maddula Lakshminarayana, Late Chirutanipuram Pottigari Ranganayaki, Late Saride Anasuya and Late Golconda Bharathamma. Swapnasundari single handedly resurrected this art form and brought it to the proscenium stage.
A javali from this repertoire is presented by one of her students in the link I have pasted below.  
Unabashedly erotic, javalis are the quintessential marker of salon performances by courtesans. Soneji notes that “javalis are also signs of the volatile, sexually charged space of the salon, one that was diametrically opposed to the contained, private sexuality of the conjugal home." Like their predecessor, the padam, javalis are also tripartite and contain a pallavi (refrain), anupallavi (a sub-refrain) and charanams(stanzas). Like the padam, the narrative content of the javali is subject to multiple interpretations. The unravelling of this layered meaning through the medium of abhinaya (mime) via the use of hastas(hands) and facial movements that depict objects and ideas in multiple ways, in accordance with classical imagery associated with shringara (erotic love) is what would be expected from a good dancer.
A sani would also be expected to sing the javali in addition to performing abhinaya to it. The raga(melody) that the song is set to, the poetic devices used in the lyrics of the javali , and the tala(rhythm) enable narrative and aesthetic movement through the text. The narrator of the javali is almost always a woman and she is mostly in conversation with a patron, even if the lyrics themselves are directed towards a local representation of Krishna. The javali is always about the sexual subjectivity of the individual female performer and it is for this reason that sanis also talk of the proximities of their own lives to the narrative of the javali.
It is indeed, a rare opportunity to be able to witness elaborate abhinaya and to witness such a rare composition that is mostly unknown outside of the sani repertoire. Most of these javalis have not been documented in textual formats. There is an element of spontaneity in the performance as well which would be expected of a sani, because abhinaya was never “choregraphed” per se.  The distinctive feature of javali renditions in coastal Andhra is the gaptu-varusa, or improvised dance sequence, at the end, which apart from being exquisite in this particular rendition, undeniably marks the technical and aesthetic continuity of javali renditions in the courtesan community.
A brief description of the Javali is as follows:
The nayika is married and is trying to ward off the sexual advances of the hero. She might be doing so because she does not think highly him. He may not be a refined man for example. Or she may not want to engage with him because he has approached her at an inopportune moment and she does not wish to be caught by her husband. The dancer, Pujita Krishna Jyoti very skilfully portrays both these ideas.
“Expect nothing from me.
If my husband were to know, he will think me a cheat.
I am not like that lotus-eyed whore of yours, so these antics won't work.
I know you are only after my jewels, but I am not flattered by how handsome you are.
I can only tell smooth talkers like you to get lost.
Don't ask for things you can't have (like the moon).
I am appalled that you aren't even the least bit coy at approaching someone as exquisite as I.
Go away!”


- Soneji Davesh, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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