Artistically designed a piece of a temple paraphernalia or from an elite house, the tray that the dancer is balancing on her head without any support has been cast of fine brass with gold-like lustre. It has been conceived with a bowl like walled middle for holding ritual lamps in it and to restraint oil from spreading out during performance. Such lamps with multiple wicks and lot of oil – the witness of a long past, are still in prevalence used during rituals at public temples as also at domestic shrines. The high-rising flames indicate that the lamps are well fed and are part of ritual equipments of some well-provided shrine.
As indicates her iconography and the style of costume, especially the pattern of borders of lehenga – flared skirt, and odhini – long sash: a broad zari-band with no corresponding butis or flowers but a plain field, still the most popular textile style in Andhra, Karnataka and Tamilnadu, the dancer reveals strong South Indian identity, and in every likeliness is a Devadasi, a traditional dancer who dedicated herself to the deity’s service, a long and well sustained tradition in South Indian temple cult. Initially a sacred mode of worship attributing to a young woman dedicating herself to the worship of the deity the status of a yogini – a female saint, and hence highly revered Devadasis were subsequently the worst exploited lot many parents forcing their young daughters to take to it for evading their responsibilities towards them. Now no more in prevalence, Devadasis have been theme of a number of paintings of Raja Ravi Varma and many of his contemporary painters as also of many literary texts.
A Devadasi or not, the young dancer has been portrayed as performing ‘arti’, the most celebrated ritual offered to any deity performed periodically, morning and evening being the most usual. The utmost sacred moment often widely attended the deity chamber is thronged by massive crowds during ‘arti’, hymns are chanted, drums, beaten, cymbals played upon, bells rung, and the tray of lamps moved in circle symbolic of the act of circumambulating the deity. It is all different in the painting. As one to one, the lone dancer is presenting herself, her dance and entire being, to her loved lord, all alone, allowing none to share it, not even the drums, cymbals or hymns being its component, by holding the tray of lamps not in her hands but on her head, as if held not by physique but by all faculties of mind, moving in dance as in a ring and thus circumambulating the deity symbolically: a unique way of performing the ‘arti’. The deity chamber appears to be a large hall floored with pistachio green tiles : square and hexagonal, arranged in floral design. The sanctum, a stepped platform with a roof carried over a set of two pillars on each corner, enshrines the deity. Close to the sanctum lay ritual vessels, lamp-stand, bell and a tray of lotuses. A large lotus lies a little away on the floor.
The blue-bodied Krishna enshrining the sanctum has been represented as playing on flute and, even if inspired by its melody, his figure has inclined to dance. Different from his three-curved posture, which is his usual image form when playing on his flute, and more popular than any other form especially in Rajasthan where almost every state worshipped Krishna’s one form or other, he has been represented in the painting with a straight posture, a mild form of dance reflecting just in the movement of his feet. A multi-skirted gown with full sleeved breast-part is extremely fascinating. He is wearing a crown consisting of two full and one half circles, the full, consisting of lotus-design, and half, of peacock feather-form. The halo around his face also consists of floral design. The dancer’s absolute absorption, her complete submission to the deity, reflects in her three-fourth shut eyes. Her entire figure seems to wreathe around her vision of Krishna who abandoning the sanctum has enshrined her being and is dancing with her.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.