HYDERABAD: After the Vilasini Natyam of Andhra-Telengana region and the Mahari dance of Odisha, it’s the turn of Assam’s near-extinct Deogharar Nati dance – all belonging to the outlawed devdasi dance tradition of India – for a respectful revival and restoration of its lost glory. Despite the lack of appreciation and patronage, a few committed artistes in the small town of Pathsala in Barpeta district of lower Assam have been making feeble but noble attempts for the past six decades.
Thanks to the efforts of Assam’s Bharatanatyam-Sattriya dancer Prateesha Suresh and her Mumbai-based Pratishruti Foundation, a well-planned event in Guwahati recently attempted to attract greater attention for the devdasi dance tradition of Assam while seeking support for its rapid revival. The unique event showcased a seminar and performance on the dance tradition.
Dilip Kakati, the flag-bearer of the revival movement in Pathsala, along with his troupe of experts in khol (drum), taal (cymbal) three female dancers made the enchanting and enlightening presentation at Rabindra Bhawan, the cultural hub of Guwahati. “As the name suggests, Pathasala means a citadel of education. It was known as an ancient centre of excellence in education and culture. It is also famous for its mobile theatre troupes. And it is here that the movement to revive and restore the forgotten tradition of Assam’s devdasi dance has been on since 1954”, lucidly explained Kakati, who trains the devdasi artistes and heads the Devdasi Nritya Preservation and Propagation Centre at Pathsala.
The devdasi system was prevalent in Assam since 7th century AD. As elsewhere in ancient India, girls were offered to Saiva, Sakta and Vaishnav temples to dance as a daily ritual. Ancient literary texts like Kalika Puran and Jogitantracarry references to this ritualistic dance practices. The Shiv temples at Biswanathghat in Darrang district, Dergaon in Sibsagar district and Dubi in Kamrup district had devdasis, as did the Hayagriva Madhav mandir at Hajo in Kamrup district. The Pariharsvara Shiv temple at Dubi was endowed with natis. They were also required to perform outside the temple during some annual rituals and festivals like the Durga puja, Chaitra Sankranti and Pausha Sankranti. The devdasis, who were known as natis in local languages, used to remain unmarried while living with their families and attending the temple services.
However, the 1000-year-old tradition, witnessed its decadence around the 17th century when the royal control and patronage receded due to repeated foreign invasions and the sacred girls of the temple were gradually forced into prostitution for survival. By the early 20th century, the tradition was abolished by the then British rule as part of the ongoing social reformation in India.
A quarter century later, it was an ‘outsider’ — Ratnakanta Talukdar of Pathsala, who didn’t belong to the temple tradition or the families of the devdasis but a visionary artiste himself — ventured to revive the almost forgotten nati dance tradition. Under the guidance of Kalaguru Vishnu Rabha, the iconic cultural personality of Assam, he spotted out the last two surviving devdasis who were very old then – Kaushalya Devi and Royabala Devi – and who had faint memories of what they had danced as natis. He further found a few old musicians who were aware of the music and rhythmic patterns of the bygone devdasi tradition. All that the team could achieve was the reconstruction of a dance number limiting to just 10 minutes. It revolved round the Snana-prasadhana (bath and dressing up) of the Lord that had been a part of the noon-time dance-ritual!
Braving the social stigma attached to the devdasis (natis), Ratnakanta Talukdar succeeded in convincing the parents of four school-going girls of Pathsala to teach them the temple-dance tradition of Assam. One of them was Dilip Kakati’s sister. “This is how I got involved in the revival process. The Guru also trained me in the system and I became a devotee of the missionary-minded Ratnakanta Talukdar whose only mission was the revival of the devdasi dance tradition of Assam. I remember the crude remarks that my sister and I used to hear for learning the ‘derogatory dance’,” Dilip Kakati recollected.
With Ratnakanta Talukdar passing away in 1980, the revival-mission received a jolt. But Kakati took over the responsibility. “Legendary Bhupen Hazarika visited Pathsala in 1982. When I met him, he told me these few but immensely inspiring words – ‘Son, you must not let the devdasi dance tradition die’. This was enough for me to be able to walk alone since then”, said the middle-aged devdasi dance exponent whose firm face showed no signs of retirement from the mission.
It was Odissi’s first exponent Adiguru Pankaj Charan Das of Puri who succeeded in reviving the lost Mahari (devdasi) dance tradition. It has gained so much of momentum in about 20 years that it was, finally, presented by Odisha Government in its most prestigious Konark dance festival last year. Similarly, Kuchipudi exponent and legendary dancer Swapnasundari’s single-handed effort for nearly three decades has established Vilasini Natyam as an emerging Indian dance style today. Even the Government of India has recognized it with its inclusion for the prestigious Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Prativa Puraskar, the national award for young Indian artistes.
Assam’s devdasi dance had a seer like late Ratnakanta Talukdar. It has the dedicated devotee like Dilip Kakati and a Kalakshetra-trained educated and intelligent facilitator dance exponent like Prateesha Suresh today. Together, they seem confident of taking the lesser-known but unique devdasi dance tradition across seas and shores.