In the performance cultures of south India, expressions of sexuality and sexual desire converge and diverge from expressions of gender normativity. As scholars who are also trained in south Indian dance, we draw on our academic expertise and embodied training to call attention to the myriad ways that gender and sexuality are expressed through performance practices and texts. Centering on three figures—one who is mythic and the other two historical—we argue for a theorization of performance that includes rather than precludes the materialist politics of the body. In other words, we seek to decenter continental theories of performance, offering instead a theory that does not reify identity. Finally, as scholars of Telugu performance traditions, we offer a counternarrative to accounts that have suggested that what qualifies as performance in Telugu-speaking areas can be adequately understood through discourses of comparison of “difference” with other communities. Our three figures—a proud queen, a compelling courtesan, and Telugu film star—reshape our understanding of normative Indian womanhood through their performative acts in text, in everyday performance, and on the silver screen.
Three Stories of Indian Womanhood: A Queen, Courtesan, and Actress
Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Rumya S. Putcha, Yashoda Thakore
A Proud Queen (Harshita Mruthinti Kamath)
The most famous verse in the sixteenth-century Telugu epic poem Theft of a Tree (Parijatapaharanamu) features a kick. Satyabhama, the daughter of king Satrajit and one of the eight wives of Krishna, is distraught upon hearing the news of her co-wife Rukmini receiving a rare parijata flower. Upset that Krishna gifted a parijata flower to Rukmini instead of her, Satyabhama retreats into her the anger room of her palace, resembling the fiery queen Kaikeyi of the Ramayana. Unlike Kaikeyi, however, Satyabhama is not sulking for the sake of the glory of her lineage, but simply wants to be first in line among her co-wives. When Krishna comes to her palace, he finds Satyabhama tossing and turning on her bed, and fuming with anger. He bows to her feet, and she responds with a kick:
He saw no way to appease the anger in her heart.
The kick proves effective, and Krishna yields, promising to bring the entirety of the parijata tree from the heavens, even if he has to wage war against the king of the gods, Indra, himself. Ultimately, the mission is successful: the parijata tree is stolen, a divine battle ensues, and the tree is finally planted in Satyabhama’s garden, ensuring her everlasting glory.
As a queen, Satyabhama is known for her pride. A few verses after the kick, she tells her husband:
Pride is a woman’s jewel.
Pride is greater than life.
Pride is the source of all respect.
Without pride in herself,
can a woman live? (Theft of a Tree 1.129)
While later theatrical and cinematic retellings of the stealing of the parijata tree discipline Satyabhama and teach her how to quell her pride, the sixteenth-century epic poem Theft of a Tree contains no such punitive resolution. Tradition tells us that Nandi Timmana, the author of the poem, arrived in the court of the famed Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya as a gift from the family of Tirumaladevi, his senior wife. One day, Krishnadevaraya awoke to find Tirumaladevi’s feet touching his face and became upset. Timmana composed this poem, featuring the kick of an angry wife on the head of her divine husband, to help Tirumaladevi win back Krishnadevaraya’s affections (Narayana Rao and Shulman 2002, 179).
Although Satyabhama appears in Sanskrit textual sources, she gains her full force as a proud queen in Telugu-speaking South India. Following Timmana’s Theft of a Tree, Satyabhama appears also in the dance drama Bhamakalapam, performed by female Kalavantulu dancers from the east and west Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh, Turpu Bhagavatam performers from northeastern Andhra, and brahmin men from the Kuchipudi village in coastal Andhra.1 In a palm-leaf manuscript likely intended for courtesan performance, Satyabhama announces herself to her confidante Madhavi, proudly describing herself:
I am Bhama
I am Satyabhama
Woman, I delight Krishna
I conquered Hemadama with my beauty
I am the beloved of Krishna, who lives in Dvaraka.
I am the graceful Satyabhama. (Bhamakalapam R. 429, Palmleaf 4a)
Unlike Timmana’s Satyabhama, the Satyabhama of this Bhamakalapam text experiences intense longing for the absentee Krishna. In her state of lovesickness, the cool mountain breeze feels like a torrential wind, the songs of the cuckoos are unbearable, even the moonlight seems harsh (Bhamakalapam R. 429, Palmleaf 25a). Yet, she is still resourceful, and later in the dance drama, she outlines a lengthy recipe for magical drugs concocted to win back her errant lover:
Bring musk, curry leaves, dried ginger, lotus bulb dust, fresh turmeric root, tender leaves, asafetida juice, honey, flower of a drumstick tree, juice of a citrus fruit, and camphor. Grind it all with the milk of a black goat. This is the best antidote of all medicines. You have to make it into a tablet and think of Krishna. Put this into a betel leaf and then give it to him. Within an instant, he’ll become enamored by you. (R. 429, Palm-leaf 18a)
Ultimately, her resourcefulness yields the desired result as the Bhamakalapam dance drama ends with Krishna returning to Satyabhama’s side.
The queen Satyabhama, performed by courtesan women and impersonators alike, is a complex character whose pride is central to her depiction. In both Theft of a Tree and Bhamakalapam, Satyabhama’s pride serves as her greatest strength, and enables her to conquer her co-wives and win Krishna’s affections. This mythic queen, who is performed by a range of performance communities in coastal and northeastern Andhra Pradesh, takes on distinct expressions depending on which bodies enact her. When enacted by Vaidiki brahmin men from the village of Kuchipudi, Satyabhama’s pride becomes the means for enacting normative forms of brahmin masculinity (Kamath 2019). When performed by Kalavantulu performers from the east and west Godavari districts of coastal Andhra, Satyabhama’s pride showcases the breadth of female sexual experience, longing, and desire. The next section features Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma, a Kalavantulu performer well-known for her enactments of kalapas, including Bhamakalapam.
A Compelling Courtesan (Yashoda Thakore)
Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma (1911-1978) was a hereditary singer-dancer from the village of Mummidivaram in Coastal Andhra. I have never seen Buli Venkatratnamma, but I am a disciple of her granddaughter, Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru. I too belong to these families called the Kalavantulu. Traditionally known to perform at the temples as part of the rituals and at the courts, the Kalavantulu women constantly moulded their repertoire and lives to adapt to the changing politics of the Nation. The aesthetic of their dance and lives are intertwined with the socio-political history through the years. My deep association with these women through lineage and training informs me of the inseparable connection between their lives and the repertoire. Their oral histories continue to be revealed during my embodied and auto-ethnographic research.
Buli Venkatratnammma’s life and personality echoes the lives of the Kalavantulu through courts, temples, patrons, governments, and society at large to their erasure from the very art. By centering my own engagement and experience alongside the narrative of her granddaughter, Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru, I foreground the history of caste at the crossroads of patriarchy, gender, and state politics.
Originally from the district of Nelapally, Buli Venkatratnamma was sent to Mummidivaram along with her family to serve at the Uma Sureswara Swami temple and the elite. Her family were custodians of lands from the temple, allotted to them by the zamindar of Peddapuram. The Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act in 1947 deprived women of any rights over the produce from these lands.2 They were made taxable and mostly taken by the men of the families (Srinivasan 1988). Stripped of their agency, income, and respect most of these dancers were rendered invisible.3 Buli Venkatratnamma asserted her right over the lands. She shared the lands given to the men and continued to dance.
The repertoire of the Kalavantulu was written off as overtly erotic. The Act banned them from performing the same, branding them as prostitutes if they did. Buli Venkatratnamma moved from the exemplary abhinaya pieces she was known for to the semi-theatrical forms of Bhamakalapam and Gollakalapam. Penned by brahmin scholars, the scripts of Bhamakalapam and Gollakalapam involve knowledge of the language, social politics, and history, coupled with a critique of patriarchy, caste, and power politics. Bhamakalapam crafts feminism on the canvas of a conflict between Krishna and Satyabhama, as outlined in the previous section.
By contrast, Gollakalapam is a subversive text that features the dialogue between a milkmaid from the lower rungs of society and an upper caste brahmin priest. In the dance drama, the male brahmin priest speaks condescendingly to the milkmaid owing to her lower caste, her native dialect, and supposed ignorance. Gollabhama, the milkmaid turns the argument around by arguing that all gods, saints, and humankind belongs to her Yadava4 community. She even warrants her argument with unquestionable evidence from esoteric texts generally accessible only to the elite class. She questions the priest about the meaning of the rituals he mechanically performs. After explaining these to the priest through the actual performance of the gestures, she urges him to go beyond the obvious and understand the layered meaning of the rituals. She negates animal sacrifice and narrates the development of the fetus to impress upon him the equality in this Creation. Laden philosophical content is communicated by her through humor, ardour, intelligence, knowledge, and generosity.
Both Bhamakalapam and Gollakalapam are essential features of the Kalavantulu repertoire, and dance dramas that Buli Venkatratnamma performed. Even today, Buli Venkatratnamma is remembered for her compelling voice and grip over language and concepts. She was so sought after that she constructed two houses with the income she earned through performances of these kalapas. Her grandchildren continue to live in the house today.
During the Nationalist period, these families were given the supposedly respectable name of Devadasi by the British government, which were later made into a caste by the Indian government. Aggressive reform movements ensued with men from within and outside the families protesting the circulation of bhogam melams, as the dance troupes were called. Men from within the families formed collectives called ‘Surya Balija Sanghams’ after changing the families’ names to represent a caste under the name ‘Surya Balija’, removing the feminine connotation in ‘Kalavantulu’ to a blatantly male name. They collected signatures to ratify their cause of erasing dance from their lives. Even in this history, Buli Venkatratnamma was a subversive figure by refusing to sign the document. She said hers was a dancing body unlike any of those in the room and that she would continue to dance.
Figure 1. Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma (1911-1978).
Buli Venkatratnamma was a constant teacher to her granddaughters Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru and Leelasai. According to Mangatayaru, Buli Venkatratnamma believed the wheel goes full circle and returns to the source. It is her conviction that has kept history accessible through the repertoire, even if in fragments. The house she built opened possibilities for me to learn the kalapas. Today, when documents supporting the ban on these women from dancing are published with signatures of men and few women with patriarchal mindsets, the absence of Buli Venkatratnamma’s signature is more conspicuous than those scripted. From my experience, I am sure most families from the Kalavantulu guild distanced themselves from her as she chose not to toe the line. Yet, her virtuosity, aesthetics, knowledge, and sheer strength, insulated and supported her as she relentlessly created all her life. Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma lives on through the courage she passed to us. I am a grateful receiver of her grace.
Indian Womanhood (Rumya S. Putcha)
As a political category, Indian womanhood appears most acutely through performance. In such performances, which both extend and subvert established norms of gender comportment and sexuality, it becomes possible to understand how womanhood is contested. One of the sites where performance does this kind of political work is cinema. In the Telugu speaking context, womanhood, whether revered and reviled, has been negotiated, defined, and litigated through the bodies of women—variously understood as hereditary performers or “courtesans”—who appear on screen. Importantly, through their appearance on screen such women were often able to either subvert or otherwise obscure their caste identities (see Putcha 2022).
One of the earliest and clearest examples of the way performance allowed and arguably still allows for a blurring of the boundaries between representational and social ideals of womanhood appears in the actresses who appeared on screen as dancers and singers in 20th century Telugu cinema. Beginning in the 1930s, actresses like Chittajalu Krishnaveni (b. 1924), who could trace their music and dance training to their natal communities, had entered the film industry and were shaping public conversations on Telugu womanhood specifically, and Indian womanhood, more generally.
Indeed, in the era immediately following the rise of sound films, an actress with a similar background, Paluvayi Bhanumati (1925-2005), better known as R. Bhanumati, emerged as a Telugu film star. Over the course of Bhanumati’s career, which spanned decades and eras of south Indian cinema, her star power not only shaped notions of womanhood, but also beauty, fashion, and musical citizenship. Bhanumati’s immense influence on Telugu society vis-a-vis cinema and in the early years after Indian independence offers context to the synergies that seem to link marginalized communities and their expressions of gender and sexuality to formations of stardom and celebrity. These expressions can be perceived most clearly through the on-screen song-and-dance sequences, which also circulated into the home through gramophone records and printed songbooks.
Figure 2. Songbook cover for Gollabhama (1947) featuring C. Krishnaveni
Figure 3. Vinyl cover featuring Bhanumati, Malleswari (1951)
Moreover, though the matter remains an open secret, Bhanumati is said to have shared a surname with her predecessor, Krishnaveni. In other words, both Bhanumati and Krishnaveni could arguably trace their aesthetic legacies to the hereditary communities today often known as Kalavantulu. To be sure, the circuits of aesthetics that circulated from communities that experienced disenfranchisement to popular mass media and elite stages in the early to mid-twentieth century continue to generate affective force in the contemporary moment.
These three figures—Satyabhama, Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma, and R. Bhanumati—illustrate radically distinct conceptions of female sexuality and Indian womanhood. In textual sources, Satyabhama is known for her pride, exemplified through her kick on the head of her husband who happens to be god. Her range of portrayals are unique to Telugu-speaking South India, and she is embodied by Kalavantulu dancers and Kuchipudi brahmin men, as well as in twentieth century plays and film. Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma, a dancer from the Kalavantulu families of Telugu-speaking South India, embodied caste critique through kalapas such as Gollakalapam, as well as her refusal to accept the patriarchal reframing of Kalavantulu identity. R. Bhanumati, a Telugu actress from a courtesan background, encapsulated brahmin forms of beauty on the silver screen. Through their embodied acts, spanning from Satyabhama’s kick to Bhanumati’s song-and-dance sequences, these figures present possibilities for resisting normative modes of Indian womanhood and grounding performance in the materialist politics of the body. Annabattula Buli Venkatratnamma’s insistence to hold dance in her body sets her apart as an exceptional figure. While her signature was erased from the record, her memory lives on in the repertoire and memories of courtesan dance, and we turn to her to conclude our story of queens, courtesans, and ideal Indian women.
For a more robust discussion of Bhamakalapam and Kuchipudi, see the work of Anuradha Jonnalagadda (1996a, 1996b), Rumya S. Putcha (2015, 2019), Davesh Soneji (2004, 2012), and Yashoda Thakore (2020, particularly Episode 4). See also Kamath (2019, forthcoming).
For the full text of the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947, see: https://www.latestlaws.com/bare-acts/state-acts-rules/tamil-nadu-state-laws/tamil-nadu-devadasis-prevention-dedication-act-1947/.
Movements like the anti-nautch movement and the Act in 1947 did cause the dancing Devadasi to disappear. The women, who were shamed and stripped of their income and agency, had nowhere to go. They had no identity until the Indian government categorized them and other unmarried women under a caste called Devadasi. The indigenous names of Mahari, Kalavant, Kalavantulu, and Tevar Adiyar were forgotten. The families were given the supposedly respectable name of Devadasi by the British government to be made a caste by the Indian government. For more on the figure of the Devadasi, see Thakore (2022).
The community that makes a living out of dairy by tending to cattle.
Bhamakalapamu R. 429. (n.d.). Palm-leaf manuscript. Tirupati: Tirupati Oriental Research Institute.
Jonnalagadda, A. (1996a). “Bhamakalapam Texts—An Analysis.” In Kuchipudi Mahotsav ’96 Souvenir. Mumbai: Kuchipudi Kalakendra, pp. 78-82.
———. (1996b). “Tradition and Innovations in Kuchipudi Dance.” PhD diss., University of Hyderabad, Sarojini Naidu School of Performing Arts, Fine Arts and Communication.
Kamath, H. M. (2019). Impersonations: The Artifice of Brahmin Masculinity in South Indian Dance. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. (Forthcoming). “Sanitizing Shringara in the Service of Brahminical Patriarchy: The Transformations of a Kuchipudi Dance Drama.” In Banerji, A. and Purkayastha, P. (eds). The Oxford Handbook on Indian Dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Narayana Rao, V. and Shulman, D. (2002). Classical Telugu Poetry: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Putcha, R. S. (2015). “Dancing in Place: Mythopoetics and the Production of History in Kuchipudi.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, 47, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.5921/yeartradmusi.47.2015.0001.
———. (2019). “Gender, Caste, and Feminist Praxis in Transnational South India.” South Asian Popular Culture, 17(1), 61-79. https://doi.org/10.1080/14746689.2019.1585608.
———. (2022). The Dancer’s Voice: Performance and Womanhood in Transnational India. Durham: Duke University Press.
Soneji, D. (2004). “Performing Satyabhāmā: Text, Context, Memory and Mimesis in Telugu-Speaking South India.” Phd Diss., McGill University.
———. (2012). Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Srinivasan, A. (1988). “Reform or Conformity? Temple ‘Prostitution and the Community in the Madras Presidency.” In Agarwal, B. (ed.). Structures of Patriarchy: State, Community and Household in Modernising Asia. Delhi: Kali for Women, pp. 175-98.
Thakore, Y. (2020). “Her Story of Dance.” Podcast. Produced by Suno India. https://www.sunoindia.in/her-story-of-dance/.
———. (2022). “Hidden Archives of Kalavantulu Bodies.” In Jammulamadaka, N. and Ul-Haq, S. (eds.). Managing the Post-Colony South Asia Focus. Singapore: Springer, pp. 278-89. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-2988-5_14.
Timmana, N. (2022). Theft of a Tree. Translated by Harshita Mruthinti Kamath and Velcheru Narayana Rao. Murty Classical Library of India. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harshita Mruthinti Kamath
Harshita Mruthinti Kamath is Visweswara Rao and Sita Koppaka Associate Professor in Telugu Culture, Literature and History at Emory University. Her research focuses on textual and performance traditions of the South Indian language of Telugu.
Rumya S. Putcha
Rumya S. Putcha is Assistant Professor in the Institute for Women's Studies as well as in the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. Her research interests center on colonial and anti-colonial thought, particularly around constructs of citizenship, caste, race, gender, sexuality, and the law.
Yashoda Thakore is an exponent of Kuchipudi and Devadasi Nrityam (the repertoire of the hereditary women dancers) and reinforces her repertoire with her understanding and practice of yoga. She was awarded a doctoral degree from the University of Hyderabad for her research on the interrelationship between Yoga and Indian Classical Dances. After fourteen years of training in Kuchipudi, Dr. Thakore began to reclaim the art of her family by training under the Kalavantulu women, particularly gurus Annabattula Mangatayaru and Leelasai. Dr. Thakore is now Chair, Department of Kuchipudi, University of Silicon Andhra, California where she teaches dance history, theory, and practice to graduate students.