The term ‘sringara’ in dance has had many meanings, definitions and connotations over the years. It has sometimes meant ‘love’, and at other times, it has meant ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’ and even ‘erotica’. It is a term in dance that has been historically redefined and often pitted against ‘bhakti’ or devotion. I argue that ‘sringara’ is not one or the other of the above terms, but all of them.
Before the onset of colonialism, which brought with it, an extremely Victorian idea of femininity and female sexuality – ‘sringara’ could freely define itself as all of the above. Whether it was the temples of Khajuraho, the Kamasutra or the devadasis that performed dance in temples – they all embodied this expansive fluid definition of ‘sringara’. According to scholar Susan L. Schwartz, before colonialism, India was home to ‘some of the most erotic art the world had ever seen’. But this erotic art was equally about devotion, sensuality and love. After all, the Kamasutra is above all, a book about making love. Similarly, the Khajuraho temples, erotic sculptures aside, are built for in devotion to deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Vahana, Surya and so on. Finally, the devadasis too, it appears, did not make a distinction between love, sensuality, sexuality and devotion.
Due to several factors, this definition of sringara slowly became narrower, more codified and more rigid. It is incorrect to blame the entire change of mindset on the colonizers, but it is nevertheless important to recognize the monumental role they played in creating these divisions between love, sex and devotion.
The ‘sexual implications of the dancing body’ did not exist in India until western influence and sensibility pervaded the Indian mind, says Schwartz. The Victorian ideas of sexuality and womanhood changed the perceptions of sensuality and erotica and thus created the divisions within Indian dance between sexuality, love and devotion. According to Susan Reed, another dance scholar, local dances were viewed by the colonizers as ‘excessively erotic’ – the ‘love’ aspect of local dances, as well their inherently devotional nature were ignored. The seeds were sown for the redefining of the term ‘sringara’, which until now encompassed love, devotion and sexuality quite comfortably.
Post-colonial nationalists in India were provoked into responding to this portrayal of the native as sexually unrestrained and barbaric. But instead of fighting this view, they changed their own perceptions of Indian dance by appropriating the colonist conception. Therefore, they spoke about the need to ‘reform’ and ‘rescue’ Indian dance. The Devadasis, who became tainted with the labels ‘sexual’ and ‘erotic’, were slowly extradited from their own traditions, and a kind of ‘bhakti’ that distinguished itself from the Devadasi’s ‘sringara’ came into focus.
Some revivalists found the sringara of the devadasis to be very low sringara, unworthy of being performed by a respectable woman. They saw their goal as replacing sringara with bhakti. Those that were descendents of the traditional practitioners, however, felt that sringara was the supreme emotion. According to Balasaraswati, “no other emotion is capable of better reflecting the mystical union of the human with the divine”. For her, sringara was union, sensuality, love and devotion – all at once. Indeed, it was a union of sensuality, love and devotion.
To conclude, it appears that until quite recently, sringara encompassed love, sexuality and devotion. Sringara encapsulated bhakti, which was not separate from it. And while some of the reasons for making this distinction were possibly a way to let the dance form thrive in a world where it was condemned to possible extinction, it is nevertheless important to recognize that there was a time when sringara meant love, erotica and devotion simultaneously.