With the passing of Sashimani Devi, 92, the last practising devadasi of the 12th century Jagannath Temple in Puri, on Thursday, a "more than 800 hundred-year-old tradition" of Brides of God came to an end in India. The report put me in mind of the intriguing history of Kuchipudi in Odisha's neighbouring region, Andhra Pradesh. I loved watching this vibrant, beautiful dance-drama form as a child and in my teens but I learnt about its history only when I got to research and write the legendary dancer Yamini Krishnamurti's life story (Viking 1995).
Originating in antiquity from Bharata Muni's Natyashastra, this art form was codified by the circa 14th century saint-poet Siddhendra Yogi. He was married to a girl from Kuchipudi village then known as Kuchelapuram, on the banks of the river Krishna. When the time came to fetch his bride, Siddhendra was unable to cross the Krishna, which was in furious spate. While brooding over his situation, his personal faith triggered the conviction that lord Krishna wanted him more intensely than any human being ever could - an epiphany similar to that of Tulsidas-Ratnavali in the 16th century.
His mystic self took over and he renounced worldly ties to write exquisite librettos like Bhama Kalapam in which he depicted himself as the warrior-princess Satyabhama intoxicated with love for lord Krishna. His first (all-male) performers were recruited from Kuchelapuram itself and eventually this operatic art form was identified with the village.
Kuchipudi is said to first find documentary mention in a chronicle called the Machupalli Kaifiat of 1502 that tells of how common folk of the region were sorely oppressed by a tyrant called Guruva Raja. When the opportunity arose, they put up a dance-drama to entertain their king, Immadi Narasa Nayaka, through which they indirectly drew attention to their plight. The king reportedly caught on and set matters right.
My favourite story goes that around 1675, Abul Hassan Tana Shah, ruler of Golconda, saw a performance of Kuchipudi and was enchanted (Abul Hasaan was later imprisoned and vilified in self-justificatory propaganda by Aurangzeb who tried hard to rewrite history). Abul Hassan promptly gifted the village and its surrounding lands to the players on the condition that they continued to sustain their art form. The gift was formalised with an official firman on copper plates and became an enduring symbol of Hindu-Muslim goodwill. And it was this very Abul Hassan who gifted the revenues of Melupaka Village in perpetuity towards the worship of lord Shiva as Chandramaulishwara, the moon-wearer, at Kanchipuram, a poetic gesture celebrating how the crescent is beloved and sacred to both the religions.
Indeed, when we see the crescent-and-star on Islamic flags may we not see the moon on Shiva's jata and the Dhruv tara steadfast for eternity in devotion to Mahavishnu? If we thought less of Aurangzeb's betrayal of his blood (a Hindu grandmother and great-grandmother whose shraadh he had to secretly perform) and valourised the Abul Hassans instead, we could let ourselves see what the Sultan of Golconda must have seen watching Kuchipudi and rewrite history positively.