La Bayadere

I had to post this one before others. Continuing in the theme of ballet that we saw in the previous post. There is a link between one of the famous four-act ballet and India, specifically with Devadasi. This particular ballet is considered as an important classical performance. Performing in this ballet as a soloist is considered as a dream for many ballerinas and danseur (male ballet dancer). Most of this post has been covered by Prof. Joep Bor titled “Mamia, Ammani and other Bayaderes: Europe’s Portrayal of India’s Temple Dancers” in the Bharatanatyam: A reader edited by Davesh Soneji. Prof. Joep Bor is presently a professor of Extra-European Performing Arts at Leiden University.

It is the “La Bayadere” ballet that I am talking about in this post. To understand this ballet’s background and how it became famous, we need to go back in time. From the year 1786 to be precise. A travelling Dutchman by name Jacob Haffner or Haafner (1754-1809) came to India and saw devadasi dance and in 1786 fell in love with one particular devadasi named Mamia, who loved him in return, selflessly.

Jacob Haffner (Haafner)Image Courtesy: Wiki

Jacob Haffner (Haafner)
Image Courtesy: Wiki

Unfortunately, their love doesn’t last long. Mamia dies early making Haffner heart-broken, as she is responsible for saving his life from a ship-wreck. After his return to his homeland, in 1808 he wrote his memoirs titled “Reize in eenen Palanquin”. The genre that his writing belonged to was of the romantic type. In 1811, this was translated in French. Based on this romantic-tragedy story it was adapted as a ballet “I Riti Indrani” by Gaetano Gioja.

By the 1800’s there was an enormous interest in France about the orient as there was availability of literature depicting asian stereotypes and translation of Kalidasa’s Abhijyana Shakuntala. The image of a temple dancer falling in love with a traveller and becoming the victim at the end was seen as a superb plot by writers. Moreover, due to not so accurate writings, that portrayed the temple priests consummating their relationships with devadasis, it gave rise to the character of a wicked priest who falls in love with the temple dancer. Thus, a love triangle that has a tragic ending became quite popular.

Around this time, a word that became part of the French vocabulary by now was “Bayadere” that was probably derived from the Portuguese word “bailadeira” meaning “a professional female dancer of India”.

The first among such plots that involved bayadere’s was the poem “Der Gott und die Bayadere” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1797, a few years after Jacob Haffner’s account. In 1830, this poem was presented as a ballet called “Le Dieu et la bayadere” in Paris.

Authenticity was not an issue of course. The ballet was specially designed for the ethereal Marie Taglioni to display the spirituality of the heroine, a bayadere who was an exotic stereotype of the sensual and mysterious Oriental dancing girl.

The above lines are quoted from the chapter by Joep Bor in the Bharatanatyam: A reader edited by Davesh Soneji. One can read more about it in here, written by dance historian Sunil Kothari.

Another influence of the current ballet production was also due to the touring of real bayaderes in Europe from 1838 to 1839. These were a group of devadasis from the perumal temple in Tiruvendipuram, near Pondicherry. It could possibly be Thiruvaheendrapuram Vishnu temple. Their names are Tilammal (age 30), Ammani (age 18), Rangam (age 14), Sundaram (age 13), and Vedam (age 6). They were accompanied by a nattuvanar, Ramalingam Mudali, a mridangam vidwan and a tutti (drone like instrument resembling a bagpipe) player.

The Bayaderes; or dancing girls of India 1838.
Image Courtesy:

This was so popular in Europe that the sculptor Auguste Barre made a bronze sculpture titled “Amany” in 1838. One can buy a replica of this bronze even today (Sotheby link).

Auguste Barre “Amany” 1838
Image courtesy:

Coming back to the current ballet “La Bayadere”, it was heavily inspired by the above mentioned accounts and the ballet “Le Dieu et la bayadere”. The choreographer Marius Pepita staged the production for the first time on 4th February 1877 with the music composed by Ludwig Minkus at the Maryinsky theater  currently hosting the Kirov ballet company.

So, here is a brief outline of the four acts

Act I – Nikiya, the temple dancer and the wealthy Kshatriya Solor are in love with each other. At the same time, the temple priest known only as The High Brahmin is also in love with Nikiya. He professes his love to her and she refuses. Later when Nikiya and Solor promise their love secretly over the sacred fire, The High Brahmin witnesses this and vows to take revenge.

Act II – The ruler of the kingdom Dugmanta, the Rajah of Golconda arranges for the betrothal of the princess Gamzatti to Solor and Nikiya unaware of this arrangement, agrees to perform during the betrothal. Solor falls for the princess and agrees to the bethrotal. The High Brahmin when realizes about the arrangement tells the Raja to get rid of Solor. Instead, the Raja decides that Nikiya is the one that should die. Meanwhile, the princess tries to bribe Nikiya to forget Solor and in a fit of rage, Nikiya takes a dagger and almost attacks the princess but stops. So, the princess also vows revenge. In the ceremony, Nikiya plays the veena (in other versions she carries a jug) and dances sorrowfully after realizing the fact about Solor and Gazmatti. Thinking that Solor presented her a bouquet of flowers, she dances with it. Unfortunately, a venomous snake is hidden in the bouquet and it bites Nikiya. The bouquet was from the princess.

Act III – Solor in sorrow of losing Nikiya, has opium and has a hallucinating dream of him and Nikiya together.

Act IV – Awaking from the dream and realizing it is his wedding day, Solor and Gazmatti go to the temple. However, the Gods get angry with the false love of Solor and Gazmatti. The Gods destroy the temple killing everyone including Solor. Afterwards, Solor joins Nikiya in after life and travel to Himalayas.

Read the accompanying dances that come with each act here

In my opinion, the plot is an awesome example of a romantic melodramatic tragedy. But, the names for the characters sounds quite exotic. In the 2004 reconstruction of original versions, the costumes and some elements remind of the Indian connection. However, in subsequent versions (one that includes the “Bronze Idol” or “Golden Idol”) one could see that the intent was not on authenticity of temple dancers from India, rather on the exoticness of the orient. The temple, which was originally thought of as Shiva’s, in some is shown as that of Buddha, which again shows the overdoing of oriental themes by the west. Invariably, that the devadasis left a mark on the western classical dance seems to be a concluding point.

One need not go to Russia or wait when La Bayadere comes near to your city. Hail Youtube and Wikipedia! Here are three youtube videos that show the entire ballet. The version by Rudolf Nureyev does not have the fourth act, though.

First video is the 2004 performance by Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet, reconstruction of Petipa’s 1900 revival staged by Sergei Vikharev. Featuring Igor Kolb and Sofia Gumerova

Second video is the 1991 performance by Royal Ballet, choreography by Natalia Makarova with Altynai Asylmuratova, Irek Mukhamedov, Darcey Bussell, Anthony Dowell, and David Drew.

Third video is the  2012 performance by Teatro La Scala, choreography by Natalia Makarova with Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle.


2 responses to “La Bayadere

  1. Pingback: Indispensable ornament of the religion – Jacob Haafner on Devadasis | Bharathanatyam and the worldwide web·

  2. Pingback: La Bayadère: hoe de devadasis inspireerden tot een Westers ballet - Indiase klassieke dans in Nederland·

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