The deity picture
A short film about the musical form, padam, occupies a nebulous region between the saintly and the sinful.
The world of the devadasi is one of intersections, of multiple identities that hinge on (and mutate as a result of) quicksilver changes in societal definitions that accord meaning to the consecrated and the sacrilegious. The devadasi, as religious tradition held it, was “married” to either a deity or a temple, and given that this godhead is eternal, could never become a widow. For close to four centuries before India gained Independence, the devadasi was considered a courtesan and a conduit to god, as a consort of the king, and, because the ruler held jurisdiction over the temple, as a sort of custodian of ritualised prayer. Being schooled in the classical arts, the devadasi was, in a sense, a chanteuse of the court and the shrine.
Her song was the padam – an allusive musical form that melds eroticism and that which is sacramental, and which accompanied bharatanatyam performances. The padam, especially those composed by the seventeenth-century Telugu poet Kshetrayya, animates 'O Friend, This Waiting!', a 32-minute film by Sandhya Kumar (a maker of documentaries and experimental shorts, who lives and works in Bangalore) and bharatanatyam dancer and musician Justin McCarthy (he has been teaching at the Shri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi for the last 22 years and plays piano and harpsichord). The duo spoke to Time Out about the film, which came about as a result of a grant made under the India Foundation for Arts’ Research and Documentation programme.
What were the impulses that lead to the making of this film?
Justin McCarthy For a long time my interest in Kshetrayya padams centred on hearing them, trying to sing them with whatever limited vocal skills I have and creating dance movements with which to present them on stage. I didn’t think too much about the apparent dichotomy between the unabashedly erotic texts and the education received about the devotional aspect of bharatanatyam. I was taught the usual parable of the heroine as symbol of the jivatma [soul] and the hero as symbol of the paramatma [supreme soul], but not finding that idea too interesting, virtually ignored it. Then a point came when I realised that Kshetrayya padams were rarely presented on stage. This lack of importance given to the padam in performance contexts disturbed me and spurred me on to further reading and then creating ensemble works using both Kshetrayya and his padams as structural and narrative concepts.
Could you contextualise for our readers the particular moment in history (and the specific circumstances) that lead to the creation of an art form like the padam?
Sandhya Kumar and JM The padams we are talking about, those of Kshetrayya, were not just born out of the blue. Various earlier poetic and musical forms, like bhakti poetry or the so-called ‘padams’ of Annamacharya, share a certain kinship with the Kshetrayya padams. In all of them there are sensual elements. In Kshetrayya the balance does seem to have tipped from devotional fervour to sensual celebration. Specific circumstances would be the dawn of the seventeenth-century where with the Nayaka kings began a period in which the exalted status of god became more and more conflated with temporal rulers, kings. The lines blurred between personal deity, god, king, ruler, lover, patron, customer – of divine origin or divinely ordained. Padams seem more concerned with the many miniscule shades of emotion found in a human sexual relationship replete with foibles, jealousies, etc.
The padam, like the thumri, is an oftendenigrated art form – how would you mark its passage through time?
SK and JM The padam seems to have been an important component of the devadasi/ courtesan’s identities both as a dancer/ musician as well as a sophisticated female companion for kings, princes and other noblemen. The padam survived in this form well into the twentieth century, through the Maratha and East India Company periods (the film very briefly illustrates this journey). When it was brought onto the modern stage, it was presented either without any thought as to its contextual origins or with deliberate refusal to recognise those origins. As a result, its present-day rendition in dance is fraught with problems at many levels – aesthetic, cultural, social, political, etc.
'O Friend, This Waiting!' will be screened on Wed Nov 7 and Thur Nov 8.
TimeOut Bengaluru | 26 October 2012
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