Between sacred and profane

A short, abstract film that introduces viewers to a wandering Telugu poet, Kshetrayya, was screened recently.
'O Friend, This Waiting' came out of the filmmakers’ love of the poetry of the 17 century wandering Telugu poet Kshetrayya. Kshetrayya was especially known for his padams, love poems that are often set to music and used in dance.
But it soon became clear that to engage with Kshetrayya’s life was to engage with the lives of the Devadasi women of the time. From the few padams presented in the film – sung in the original and presented as subtitles – one could get an idea of the fervour of the typical Kshetrayya padam. One poem spoke, with impactful directness, of love ending in tears. Another had evocative erotic imagery (my lips are red / with love bites).
After setting up this context, the film goes on to talk of the scenario in the post-Independence era, when the Devadasi practice was criminalised. The dancer was known by various names – prostitute, temple girl, heavenly nymph. The coming of the law can also be read as a criminalisation of her profession, suggested the film. The intersection between the sacred and the profane is what seems to have interested the filmmakers. It then goes on to speak of the ‘new custodians’ of Kshetrayya’s poems: Veena Dhanammal and Rama Ravi.
For those who are not very familiar with the work of Kshetrayya, 'O Friend, This Waiting' can be an eye-opener into a new world of effusive, expressive poetry and music. But the slightly more experienced viewer may have a few bones to pick with the filmmakers’ choices. This did happen, at the post-screening discussion. The fact that they could not meet a single Devadasi or family came up. The film is short, at about 32 minutes. Its visual style tends towards the abstract, with frames of temples, feet, faceless bodies. It is shot largely in Tanjavur and Madurai, where the culture was particularly pronounced.
Neha Mujumdar
The Hindu | Bangalore | 22 Nov 2012
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