Gayathri Iyer

Project 560
2018-2019

Grant Period: One year

Gayathri Iyer is a Bangalore-based Bharatanatyam dancer with a special interest in the Abhinaya tradition of the Kalanidhi Narayanan style. She has trained under Bragha Bessell, Vigneshwary Jeyagandhi and Minal Prabhu of Kalakshetra.  Upon completion of a Master’s Degree in Arts and Aesthetics with a specialisation in Bharatanatyam in the context of Visual Arts, Theatre and Cinema, she obtained an MPhil in Indian Art History from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. In the past year, Gayathri has been working towards democratising Bharatanatyam through experimentations in its content and spaces in which it is performed. Enabled with this grant under Project 560, Gayathri will create a performance and write a research paper based on the life and times of the devadasi Venkata Sundara Sani, who lived in the early 20th century in Bangalore.

In the 19th and early 20th century, Bangalore had a vibrant temple culture that supported the performing arts. While Mysore is widely known as a seat of artistic production, the work in Bangalore is often overlooked in the histories of art and dance despite its pivotal contributions by way of temples and traditions. This is the gap – both in practice and scholarship – that Gayathri hopes to address. Through this project, she seeks to explore the ignored contributions of the devadasi tradition in Bangalore by engaging with the life of the devadasi Venkata Sundara Sani who was associated with the Halasuru Someshwara temple.

Like other prominent devadasis of her day, Venkata was multi-talented, wealthy and educated. She had deep knowledge of dance, music, Sanskrit, Kannada and etiquette. In 1908, she wrote Rasika Jana Manollasini - a text in Sanskrit, written in Kannada script. In his book Unfinished Gestures, Davesh Soneji refers to this text as containing ‘theoretical material as well as analyses of compositions meant for courtesan performance from her repertoire’. He also draws attention to another undated text titled Bharatha Kalpalata Manjari, written entirely in Telugu, which he credits to her. Apart from these references, there is nothing else written about Venkata. Luckily, however, both these manuscripts are available as digital copies on archive.org

Building on this, Gayathri will further research into the life of Venkata. She will explore archival materials in Chennai and Bangalore, in an attempt to secure photographic references to Venkata, which give an indication of the textiles and jewellery that she might have used. She will work with a Kannada and a Telugu scholar to translate portions of the manuscripts and understand the manner of performing them. This research will lead to a paper that will analyse these sections of the text and examine the devadasi culture of Bangalore in the 19th and 20th century. Further, the paper will investigate the spacial organisation of the Someshwara temple, its construction and relationship to the performing arts. This research paper will become the basis for the creation of a performance as well. The production will contextualise Venkata in current times, highlight the compositions that she perhaps enjoyed performing, explore her opinions on the Natya Shastra and discuss the content of her favourite sringara padams while drawing parallels to modern love.

The performance is scheduled to take place at Seva Sadan and ADA Rangamandira in Bangalore in October 2019. Gayathri is also exploring the possibility of a performance in precincts of the Someshwara temple itself.

The deliverables from this project will be the research paper, and still and video documentation of the performances.

This grant is made possible with support from Citi India.