Vilasini Natyam – Dance of the Devadasis

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Purvadhanashree performing Vilasini Natyam (all images)

Devadasis has been a long debated issue- as a temple ritual as well as a dance form, although it has been into existence for centuries and perhaps older than many other classical dance forms. As a social ritual it was discredited a long ago and even many laws were brought to abolish the system. Even the dance form went into oblivion, until it was researched and revived in last few decades.

Vilasini Natyam is said to be the dance of Telugu Devadasis. It was traditionally performed in temples as a ritual, in courts for the royalties and in the chambers for intellectuals for their aesthetic experience. It was also performed for the general public at dance theatres for their infotainment, to educate them, to entertain them through dance. 

People say that the Devadasi dance was the original dance forms, from which the various other dance forms emerged, specially in the south India, where this Devadasi practice was more prevalent. But as the other dance forms started getting prominence and a classical structure, puritans disregarded Devadasi dance, even as a dance because they didn’t consider it respectable. Hence it was well forgotten until few dancers decided to search for its roots and bring this dance back to life, minus all its social baggage. In recent era, this dance was researched, recast and revived by famous Bharat Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer Padam Vibhushan Swapna Sundari in the 1990s.

Also read: Spring in Khajuraho – The dances

Even for the revived Devadasi dance, there have been two different schools- one which classifies as straight Devadasi dance and one which refers to it as  Vilasini Natyam. Famous Kuchipudi dancer Dr. Yashoda Rao Thakore performs it as a Devadasi (courtesan) dance and she proudly declares herself to be part of the Kalavantalu origin, i.e. dancers of the temples. On the other hand, well known Bharat Natyam dancer Purvadhanashree performs it as Vilasini Natyam. Both differ on which is the actual Devadasi dance, although they both learnt it from veteran Swapna Sundari. Although I am very illiterate on this subject to comment upon any of these things, but one thing is for sure that both thrive to give some sort of respectability to the dance form of erstwhile Devadasis. 

Also see: Expressions: Divinity of Bharatnatyam by Purvadhanashree

Vilasini Natyam’s complex abhinay is widely admired. Swapna Sundari said some time ago that, ‘Vilasini Natyam is an age-old dance tradition of the Telugu hereditary dancing community comprising female dancer-singers dedicated to temple-service and court-service. Its “classicism” is evident in the dance itself. This form has survived for over 1000 years on its intrinsic artistic strength. It will continue to do so through the present dedicated efforts to sustain and further it.’

Well, our artist here Purvadhanashree learnt Vilasini Natyam from Swapna Sundari for 14 years from 2000 to 2014. She was selected for young talent scholarship by Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2002. In 2008, she was awarded Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar award by Sangeet Natak Academy in 2008 for her contribution o Vilasini Natyam. She is an empanelled artist with Spic Macay as well as ICCR. She is top grade Bharat Natyam artist with Doordarshan. She has been awarded with many other awards and performed at many prestigious dance festivals and performances in India and abroad.

Have you ever seen a Vilasini Natyam or Devadasi dance performance? Share your experience with us in the comments section below.

Also see the video of full Vilasini Natyam performance by Purvadhanashree on my YouTube channel by clicking on the link below-

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  1. subalternin says:

    I did. Luckily, it was Purvadhanashree only who was performing on stage. Though I could not recognise her at that time, I could recognise her because of her references in your blogpost. Thanks for writing this informative piece.

    1. swamiupendra says:

      Thanks a lot. It was my pleasure!

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