Some historical snippets of BN – Part 12 – The western gaze

If you have given BN performance to an uninitiated audiences either in India or abroad, the following might resonate with you. Before or after the performance, most audience are quite mesmerized with the costumes, jewellery, and makeup. For some, they are transported to another world. In the case of audiences abroad (mostly in western countries), the eyes that are used to no-makeup dance and/or minimal makeup ballet have an unique experience of seeing Indian classical dance, specifically Bharatanatyam. If that’s the case in a globalized world, then

  • How did the westerners respond to an age, when India was just getting discovered?
  • How did they look at this dance form, which is totally alien to them?

We do have answers, thanks to travelers who have been attracted to Asia since many centuries ago. These travelers have keenly observed the practices of society, the customs of so called “natives”, analyzed them and tried to understand them from a western point of view. Although this is not an exhaustive list, you can get an idea of how Bharatanatyam in its previous form was perceived from a western gaze from five travelers at different centuries of time. To make the reader take a fair judgement I have quoted the passages profusely, hence a lengthier post. Let’s see them chronologically.

1. 13th century – The Venetian merchant, Marco Polo witnesses devadasi dance, customs and rituals. Write elaborate accounts in his book “Livres des merveilles du monde” aka Description of the world.

Marco Polo
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

After reaching Malabar, Marco polo describes the dancers. Quoting from the translation by Hugh Murray, published in 1845 [1]

Their monasteries are filled with idols, to whom many young girls are devoted by their parents. They must go to the monastery whenever required by the superior, which is usually several times a-week. They there sing, dance, and make great rejoicings. These young ladies also prepare savoury dishes of flesh and other food, which they carry to the sanctuary, and place before the idol as much as would make a good meal for the great lord. They then dance, sing, and rejoice, till time has been given for him to feed on the substance of the meat, when they take and eat it themselves, with great rejoicing. These ladies, who are very numerous, continue the same mode of life till after their marriage.

In other translations [2, 3, 4] some words are used such as abbey for monastery, Baron for lord, etc. Henry Yule’s translation is mostly followed by others, where it says:

They have certain abbeys in which are gods and goddesses to whom many young girls are consecrated; their fathers and mothers presenting then to that idol for which they entertain the greatest devotion. And when the [monks] of a convent desire to make a feast to their god, they send for all those consecrates damsels and make them sing and dance before the idol with great festivity. They also bring meats to feed their idol withal, that is to sat the damsels prepare dishes of meat and other good things and put the food before the idol, and leave it there a good while, and then the damsels all go to their dancing and singing and festivity for about as long as a great Baron might require to eat his dinner. By that time they say the spirit of the idols has consumed the susbtance of the food, so they remove the viands to be eaten by themselves with great jollity. This is performed by these damsels several times every year until they are married.

For me, surprisingly the word “meat” appears in the translated passage. To trace this, we should remember that the book “Livres des merveilles du monde” aka Description of the world was not written by Marco Polo himself but his cellmate, while in prison. It is widely accepted that no authoritative version of his book exists. And it is written in Old French. For the word “viande”, in the current french usage, it means “meat“. However, in Old French, it means “any food that sustains life” [5]. As a loan word, in English it means “an item of food; especially : a choice or tasty dish” [6]. Taking all this into consideration, I am pretty sure there has been something “lost in translation” for mentioning the offering (Naivedyam) as containing meat.

An important reason as to why Marco Polo is mentioned is that he was a pioneer. A pioneer is mentioning about “dancing girls”, which became a convention for other travelers who came after him (See Jeop Bor’s chapter in “Bharatanatyam: A reader“). In other words, he was the Lonely Planet guide to India of the 12th century! 🙂

2. 15th century – The Persian traveler, Abdur Razzaq (aka Abd-er-Razzak @ Abdal Razzaq), witnesses the devadasi dance in Vijayanagar in 1442 [7].

In the book by R. H. Major, the English translation published in 1857 [7] describes the festival Mahanadi (Mahanavami in the Navaratri) as a celebration with extreme devotion amongst the “infidels”.

Between the palace and the pavilions, in an extremely beautiful situation, were musicians and storytellers, who sang and invented tales. The part of musicians is generally filled by women. Some young girls, with cheeks as full as the moon, and with faces more lovely than the spring, clothed in magnificent dresses and showing features which, like the freshest rose, charmed every heart, were placed behind a pretty curtain opposite the king. On a sudden the curtain was raised and again fell, and the damsels arranged themselves for the the dance, with a grace calculated to seduce every sense and captivate every mind.

Did he just describe the dancers as a “chubby rose“? Very clear description of how the dancers looked and danced! Although he comes from western border of India and not the real west, the views of a Muslim chronicler about dance is interesting.

3. 16th century – The Portuguese traveler, Domingo Paes, witnesses dance in Vijayanagar in 1520, during the reign of Krishna Deva Raya

As given in the book by Robert Sewell, Domingo Paes says [8]

They feed the idol [Ganesha] every day, for they say that he eats; and when he eats women dance before him who belong to that pagoda, and they give him food and all that is necessary, and all girls born of these women belong to the temple. These women are of loose character, and live in the best streets that are in the city; it is the same in all their cities, their streets have the best row of houses. They are very much esteemed, and are classed amongst those honoured ones who are the mistresses of the captains; any respectable man may go to their houses without any blame attaching thereto. These women (are allowed) even to enter the presence of the wives of the king, and they stay with them and eat betel with them, a thing which no other person may do, no matter what his rank may be…they always eat this leaf, and carry it in their mouths with another fruit called areca…Some of them eat flesh; they eat all kinds except beef and pork, and yet, nevertheless, they cease not to eat this betel all day.

Whenever the festival of any of the temples occurs they drag along certain triumphal cars which run on wheels, and with it go dancing-girls and other women with music to the temple, (conducting) the idol along the said street with much pomp. I do not relate the manner in which these cars are taken, because in all the time I was in this city none were taken round

Describing the events during the Navaratri or Mahanavami festival (starts on 12th of September, 1520) he describes the feasts

Outside the house are some of his [King’s] favorites, and on the square are many dancing-girls dancing….And the king withdraws to the interior of his palace by that gate which I have already mentioned – that which stands between the two buildings that are in the arena; the courtesans and bayaderes remain dancing in front of the temple and idol for a long time.

As soon as these soldiers have all taken their places the women begin to dance, while some of them place themselves in the circular galleries that I have said were (erected) at their gate of entrance. Who can fitly describe to you the great riches these women carry on their persons? – collars of gold with so many diamonds and rubies and pearls, bracelets also on their arms and on their upper arms [vanki?], girdles below, and of necessity anklets on the feet. The marvel should be otherwise, namely that women of such a profession should obtain such wealth; but there are women among them who have lands that have been given to them, and litters, and so many maid-servants that cannot number all their things. There is a woman in this city who is said to have a hundred thousand pardaos [gold coin of value not known] and I believe this from what I have seen of them.

Domingo Paes and calls them baylhadeiras or bailadeiras meaning female dancers. The actual words used are “Moheres solteiras e baylhadeiras“. Click here for more on Bayadere in a previous post

Hampi Sculpture Image reproduced under Creative Common Licence Image Courtesy: Grey Cells

Hampi Sculpture depicting women mridanga player and nattuvanar
Image reproduced under Creative Common Licence
Image Courtesy: Grey Cells

He also describes the “gymnasium” where dancers trained.

This hall is where the king sends his women to be taught to dance. It is a long hall and not very wide, all of stone sculptures on pillars, which are at a distance of quite an arm’s length and a half, perhaps a little more…from pillar to pillar is a cross bar (the architrave) which is like a panel, and from pillar to pillar are many such panels…The designs of these panels show the positions at the ends of dances in the proper position at the end of the dance; this is to teach the women, so that if they forget the position in which they have to remain when the dance is done, they may look at one of the panels where is the end of that dance. By that they keep in mind what they have to do.

At the end of this house on the left hand is a painted recess where the women cling on their hands in order [sic] better to stretch and loosen their bodies and legs; there they teach them to make the whole body supple, in order to make their dancing more graceful. At the other end, on the right, in the place where the king places himself to watch them dancing, all the floors and walls where he sits are covered with gold, and in the middle of the wall is a golden image of a woman of the size of a girl of twelve years, with her arms in the position which she occupies in the end of a dance.

So, take note dancers. Warming up before dancing was essential back then, too. 🙂

Also, note that panels describing the dance is most probably the textbook they followed, which could most probably be showing the basic adavus taught at that time, . Whatever happened to the argument of dancers don’t have to take down notes as long as they remembered it correctly? I guess visual learning is quite effective!

4. 19th century – Monier Williams

Sir Monier Williams
Image Courtesy:

Coming to more recent encounters, in his book “Religious thoughts and life in India” Sir Monier Williams describes a wedding Nautch party held in 1875 [9]

A splendid drawing room blazing with light was thronged with native gentlemen and Rajas, most of whom sat round in a double row, intently gazing at the movements and listening to the songs of two jewel-bedecked Nach girls. These girls wore bright coloured silk trousers and were decorously enveloped in voluminous folds of drapery. They did not really dance, but sang in a monotonous minor key with continous trills and turns of the voice, while they waved their arms gracefully to and fro, occasionally lifting one hand to the ear, and frequently advancing a few steps up the room and then retiring again, closely followed from behind by two or three musicians who played accompaniments on instruments called Sarangi and Tabla (tom-toms). The loves, quarrels, and reconciliations of Krishna and his wives, especially Radha, formed the subject of their songs, which were kept up incessantly for hours, no native spectators appearing to find them tedious. I was told that a fee of 1000 Rupees is sometime paid to a first-rate Nach girl for one night’s performance.

Wow! Sir Monier Williams must have been bored to the bone, listening to Hindustani music and not able to understand the language and appreciate the music. This event shows (before mike became popular) how the accompanists kept up with a performer by closely moving with them. While this is not Bharatanatyam he witnessed, the reason I quoted this passage will become clear to you if you read his other encounters below.

Describing Srirangam’s annual Swargavaasal (Heaven’s gate) @ Vaikunta Ekadashi festival

I happened to visit Srirangam at the time of the annual festival celebrated on the 27th of December…First the idol-bedecked and bejewelled to the full-was borne through the narrow portal, followed by eighteen images of Vaishnava saints and devotees; then came innumerable priests chanting Vedic hymns and repeating thousand names of VIshnu; then dancing girls and band of musicians-the invariable attendants upon idol-shrines in the South of India

Similarly, talking about the temple dancers in Tanjore Brihadeeswara Temple [9]

The Tanjore temple possesses fifteen [dancing girls], ten of whom danced before me in the court of the temple with far livelier movements than are customary among the Nach girls of Western and Northern India…In the present day they are still called by the same name [devadasi], but are rather slaves to the licentious passions of the profligate Brahmans of the temples to which they belong.

What surprised me most was the number and weight of their ornaments, especially in the case of those attached to the temples in Southern India. Some wore nose-rings and finger rings glittering with rubies and pearls. Their ears were pierced all round and filled with costly ear-rings. Their limbs were encumbered with bangles, anklets, armlets, toe-rings, necklaces, chain-ornaments, head-ornaments, and the life. One of the Tanjore girls informed me that she had been recently robbed of jewels to the value of Rs. 25,000. All this proves that they drive a profitable trade under the sanction of religion

I like the comparison he does between two dance forms. Also, I can imagine vividly the description of ornamentation he talks about. For some of the vintage ornamentation, click here for a previous post

5. 20th century – Rev. Edward St. Clair Weeden

This book was bough to my notice by Minai of Cinema Nritya Gharana. Thanks!

If one has to read a most recent encounter of the western traveler witnessing Bharatanatyam, it could be the Reverand Edward St. Clair Weeden, who spent an year at Vadodara/Baroda as a guest of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad [10]. The book was published in 1911, where he describes the Tanjore dancing girls, who were most definitely Baroda Gauri and Baroda Kantimati. They were part of the dowry of Princess Chimnabai from Tanjore when she married Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad in 1883 (1880?).

Reverand with Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad

Reverand Edward St. Clair Weeden with Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad

Every night while we are at dinner, a company of players arrives to give a performance under the portico outside the Durbar hall, which is very popular with the servants…There is no lack of variety of entertainment-short plays presented by Hindu or Moahmmedan actors, who change their clothes with wonderful rapidity behind two small screens; the best troop of acrobats I have seen in my life; dancing by Guzerati or Tanjore nautch girls…

In an another place he describes

Afterwards we went down to the Durbar hall, where musicians and nautch-girls were waiting, and watched the best nautch-dance that I have yet seen. It was called the Cobra dance, quite unlike the ordinary nautch and very graceful. Two pretty Tanjore girls would up a handkerchief to represent a hooded cobra and then danced round it with soothing, mesmerizing gestures to charm it. One of them pretended to be bitten and fell to the ground, but the other restored her to life, and finally they both danced in triumph round the snake.

Snake dance in BN. Now, according to Dr. B. M. Sundaram’s biography in “Marabu Thantha Manikkangal” (2003) of Baroda Gauri and Kantimati, one of the new choreographies performed by them was called the “Scorpion dance” [11]. It is described as follows

When plucking flowers, one of them gets stung by a scorpion and she faints. The other one cries and laments and as if she remembered something, would get some herbs and save her friend’s life. “Kaajupakari” set to Anandha Bhairavi is the song

Both the descriptions match, which makes me conclude that the dance Reverend Weeden saw was the dance of Baroda Gauri and Baroda Kantimati. However, one of them gets bitten by either a snake or a scorpion. But, here is most interesting part where the western gaze comes more openly and prominent. Reverand Weeden writes

The dancing consists not so much in what we understand by the word, as in the movements of the body and gestures of the hands; the part played by the feet is comparatively unimportant. To European eyes it is curiously unattractive and monotonous, but there can be no doubt that it appeals very strongly to the native mind. The men playing the instruments get tremendously excited, and the faces of the spectators show absorbing interest; at first they remain quite motionless and silent, but as they come more and more under the influence of the rhythmic measure, their hands and then their feet being to move unconsciously, as though they were themselves taking part in the performance…The dancing girls themselves have a proud look and haughty bearing, as though full conscious of the extraordinary power which they exercise over others, and the fatter they are the more they fancy themselves.

By far, I think this description is most detailed view of BN from the western gaze.

Thinking loudly

  • While, it cannot be denied that for a westerner (even today!) the first thing that attracts them seeing a Bharatanatyam dancer is the costume, jewellery and the makeup. It is understandable since in ballet such elaborate Aharya is not given importance.
  • They do judge the dancers as someone with “loose character”, “women of such a profession”, “slaves to the licentious passions”, etc. So, the social satus of temple dancers and their other professions was already prevalent, but in way accepted?
  • The second motif that comes now and then is the somewhat condescending/patronizing tone in their writing. Maybe they did not like what they saw or maybe they did. We have to probably remember that their main purpose was to explore newer territories of the world and report back to their country of origin. So, it is quite understandable that they describe Indians as “natives” “Infidels” “Idolators”, etc.
  • I would think that most of the travelers had heard a lot of mysticism about India and most of them have very little understanding of the different practices in India. Also, in terms of awareness of Indian aesthetics, understanding the mythology, language, etc. Hence, there is a total disconnect between them and the dances they saw.

For a more detailed reading of the travel literature of India and its culture, you might want to read Joan-Pau Rubies’s amazing book “Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250-1625“, published in 2000.


  1. Pg 300 of “Travels of Marco Polo” by Hugh Murray 1845
  2. Pg 281 of “The Book of Ser Marco Polo” by Colonel Henry Yule, 1871.
  3. Pg 465 in “Travels of Marco Polo” by Thomas Wallace Knox – 1885
  4. Pg 115 in “Ser Marco Polo” notes and addenda to Sir Henry Yule’s edition published in 1903, by Henri Cordier 1920
  6. Merriam Webster for viand
  7. Pg 36 in India in the fifteenth century being a collection of narratives of voyages to India, in the century preceeding the Portugese discovery of the Cape of Good Hope translated into English edited with an introduction, by R.H. Major 1857.
  8. Pg 241, 262, 267, 270, 288 A forgotten empire (Vijayanagar) a contribution to the history of India, Sewell, Robert 1900
  9. Pg 381, 450 Religious thoughts and life in India. Monier-Williams, Monier, Sir 1883
  10. Pg 119 A year with the Gaekwar of Baroda, by the Rev. Edward St. Clair Weeden, 1911
  11. Marabu Thantha Manikkangal, B M Sundaram, 2003

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