16/06/2019 8:33 AM IST

How Ragini Devi Brought Back 'Social Status' To Indian Classical Dance During The Anti-Nautch Movement

In 'Dancing in the Family', Sukanya Rahman writes about her grandmother Ragini Devi, who won many hearts with her art at a time when women performing in public was condemned.

Speaking Tiger
Ragini Devi in Bangalore, circa 1933. 

Ragini Devi stepped into India’s dance scene just as the Anti-Nautch Movement was gathering momentum and reaching a crescendo. A missionary from London known only as Miss Tenant, who was the driving force behind the movement, had crusaded zealously to abolish Indian dance. The “notorious nautch,” performed by dancing girls, was a typical after-dinner entertainment Indian merchants provided for their customers from abroad. European men were beguiled by the charm of the dance, but European ladies, scandalised by the dancers’ languishing glances and sultry smiles, declared them wicked.

The Devadasis, socially ostracised by the British, had similarly fallen into disrepute. Loss of royal patronage had forced some into dubious professions. Their ancient art, rooted in the sacred Vedas, was deemed immoral. A Devadasi bill prohibiting the employment of dancers in the temples was proposed in the Madras Assembly. Disdainful English puritans, as well as upper class Hindus who had adopted Victorian attitudes, condemned indigenous artists, yet tolerated foreign ladies performing in public.

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Occidental theatrical conventions—the proscenium stage, special lighting effects, beautifully crafted sets, a price for admission—imbued public performances by foreign artists with a semblance of propriety and sophistication. The moral conduct of an individual artist was seldom an issue. Ballet, symphony, opera, theatre and art exhibits were essential components of “civilised” societies.

When Anna Pavlova toured India in the early twenties, her ballets were received with reverence. When Ruth St. Denis performed her interpretation of the Nautch during her 1926– 27 tour of India, she brought the house down with roars for an encore. Pavlova’s early interest in traditional Indian dance coincided with the country’s changing political climate: a growing surge of nationalism, bolstered by Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to emancipate women, had sparked in some Indians a renewed pride and awareness of their ancient heritage.

Krishna Iyer, an orthodox Brahmin advocate and freedom fighter, challenged opponents of dance by dressing in female Bharatanatyam costume and performing in public. His campaign to remove the stigma attached to dance further fueled the battle between supporters of Miss Tenant and supporters of the Pro-Nautch Movement.

Yet dance had not been entirely wiped out. Numerous dedicated Devadasi families, believing it was their sacred duty, disregarded the ban on dance and continued to practise their art in secret. Mylapore Gouri Amma, a retired Devadasi living in Madras had, as a young woman, been the principal dancer at the Kapaliswaram temple. She agreed to take Ragini on as her pupil.

A Bharatanatyam dancer of dignity, grace and expressiveness, Gouri Amma excelled in the art  of abhinaya, and possessed a wealth of rare dances, taught to her by her mother. In the two months Ragini spent with her in 1931, Gouri Amma, with the help of her daughter who spoke a little English, passed down to Ragini the intricacies of expressive dance, gesture and music.

Each gesture Gouri Amma imparted came with quotations from the Natya Shastra, with demonstrations and discourses on the subtle aspects of aesthetics connected to each minuscule glance.

By the time her training in Madras ended, Ragini once again found herself short on funds. Although Venkatachalam had arranged for her to stay with friends, there was still the tuition to pay, plus a small salary for the nanny she had hired to care for the baby. An invitation from a charitable organisation in Bangalore to participate in a performance of music and dance brought her back to the comfort and security of 6 St. John’s Road.

Her performances in Calcutta, a stronghold of puritans eager to banish the arts, had caused a stir.

Ragini was not properly prepared to perform since she was still without her costumes. It was a while before she discovered that Bajpai had taken possession of her costume trunk. Although she had contacted a lawyer in New York, claiming her husband had no right to her things, she had little hope of ever seeing the trunk again. With a small advance from the sponsors she managed to have some new costumes hastily tailored in Bangalore. She pulled some of her New York repertoire out of moth-balls, added the Kite Dance she had learned in Mysore, and began to practise daily. Musicians, both North Indian and South Indian, also participating in the performance, volunteered to accompany Ragini’s dances. Since there was no printed programme, she prefaced each dance with brief explanations of the themes and gestures in English. The audience and the press were charmed. Many were convinced she was “a high caste Hindu lady.”

Spurred on by this enthusiastic reception, Ragini set off to conquer and to educate modern Indian audiences in other cities. She became her own impresario, stage-manager, lighting designer and costume designer, and booked herself into the Royal Opera House in Bombay. The week’s engagement drew glowing praise from the Indian audiences and received extensive press coverage.

“The purity and precision which characterized the dances of Ragini Devi...” wrote the Times of India critic, “reveal the reverence with which she approached her art, and the care with which she has mastered the symbolism of the ancient dance of India.”

Her performances in Calcutta, a stronghold of puritans eager to banish the arts, had caused a stir. Would pure Bengali society tolerate a white dancing girl who had mastered the technique of Indian classical dance? Ragini believed they would. Calcutta was ripe for appreciation of her art. Genuine lovers of art had flocked to her performances at the Dalhousie Institute. Close to fifty respectable Hindu ladies, seated in the lower priced seats, were exposed for the first time to the vast possibilities of the technique of classical Indian dance in a modern setting. Ragini’s dances, one observer commented, gave expression to “a quiet enjoyment of healthy vigour and the joy of life, ingredients essential to the nation in its present stage of progress.” 

“At the formative period of reconstruction in art,” another observer commented, “the Nation needed the assistance of those like Sri Ragini Devi who could give the degraded and decadent art of the dance, intellectual and social status”.

O.C. Ganguly, renowned art critic, wrote in The Amrita Bazaar Patrika: “Our thanks are due to Ragini Devi, an enthusiastic lover of Indian Art, and a skillful and accurate interpreter of Classical Indian Dancing for proving through demonstration that the great traditions of the old art of Indian Dancing and Dramatics are still living, foolishly neglected by modern exponents of so-called ‘Oriental Dancing’ and awaiting to be recognized, understood, learnt, and interpreted in its true and correct spirit, as a marvellously articulate and developed language of gestures, ready to hand, bequeathed to us in an unbroken sequence of development by generations of old masters and expert exponents from century to century.”

For the next few years Ragini toured India from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. She performed in theatres, movie houses, railway sheds, universities, and in grand palaces for nawabs, begums and maharajahs. India’s finest musicians including Abdul Karim Khan and Bismillah Khan often shared the stage with her. Ragini’s entourage, in addition to her daughter, included four musicians, a variety of instruments, trunks bursting with costumes, and a Pathan bodyguard.

Describing her arrival into Sholapur for a performance she said: “My tonga led the procession, the bells on the horses jingling merrily. On the way we passed a brass band escorting a huge sign fixed on a bullock cart announcing the dance performance of Ragini Devi, world famous dancer. People stopped to stare at our cavalcade of musicians with red fezes, turbans, and musical instruments, and the baggage carts in charge of the Pathan, in his turban and pajamas. It was like a circus coming to town!”

'Dancing in the Family' by Sukanya Rahman.

Excerpted with permission from Dancing in the Family by Sukanya Rahman, Speaking Tiger.