For whom the temple bells toll

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on March 01, 2019

Srividya Natarajan’s novel focuses on the lives of devadasis, but is equally about caste

If I didn’t know who had written The Undoing Dance while I was reading it, I would still have guessed that the author was someone who’d be creating dances even as she dreamed. Srividya Natarajan is, of course, a celebrated dancer who has taught and performed classical dance for over two decades in India and abroad. The past and the present collide constantly, often effortlessly, in her book, with every page steeped in history and mysticism.

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The novel is about a family of a long line of devadasis — going back 13 generations, in fact — with the youngest, Hema, born in 1972. Each of these characters has a significant role to play in the course of events, however big or small. It helps that the book begins with a family tree, as I needed to return to it several times during my reading.

Set in Madras and Kalyanikkarai in Tamil Nadu, the story primarily revolves around Rajayi, an ageing devadasi struggling to make ends meet, her daughter Kalyani, sent away as a young girl with an altruistic white woman, and Kalyani’s husband Balan, who is part of a cultural organisation and in charge of selecting artistes who get to perform in festivals in India and abroad.

The story, however, is told from as many as six perspectives. The other three are Hema, Kalyani and Balan’s daughter; Kalyani’s permanently disgruntled mother-in-law Vijaya, not very unlike the saas we see in regional tele-serials; and, finally, there’s Padmasini, a middle-aged Bharatanatyam dancer who decides to produce a film on the devadasi culture, hoping to make everyone sit up and take note of her once again as younger artistes threaten to upstage her in the dance world.

Padmasini is a particularly intriguing character because, on the one hand, she’s fighting to retain her place under the sun, and on the other she’s willing to ruthlessly thwart anyone who stands in her way. Her voice is the one I enjoyed the most in the book, even though I wish she was more layered, directed by more than just her temporary motivations.

We empathise easily with Kalyani, almost as easily as we despise Vijaya but never really hate her because it isn’t difficult to relate to the years of patriarchal conditioning her character is a victim of; we all know or know of someone like her. We smile and cry with Rajayi, who is the ocean where all the other rivers of this mammoth journey meet and merge, while Padmasini inspires both pity and anger.

The Undoing Dance is a book about women, told largely by women, and in Natarajan’s writing it finds authenticity. But it’s equally about caste, as it holds a mirror to the transition India went through post 1947, as power shifted from the British colonisers to the clutches of upper-caste Indians, paradoxically making life more difficult for all devadasis.

The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947 barred the dedication of girls to Hindu temples and gave devadasis the right to marry. But, ironically, for the making of the law — about and for devadasis, who till then had lived respectful lives under the patronage of kings — the consent of devadasis was not sought.

Soon after the passing of the Act, not only were their identities taken from them but, despite dedicating their entire lives to the worship and service of a temple or a deity, their work also came to be equated with prostitution, as we see in the book too.

My main complaint with the novel, however, is that it could easily have been told in the third person. And if the author felt that using multiple voices would make it a more enriching experience for the reader, I feel that two, or perhaps three voices would have been enough to convey all that the author wished to say. Six points of view diluted the narrative.

While the use of multiple voices to narrate a story is a great literary device, it’s also tricky because, if these voices are not distinctly different, there’s a chance they’ll fall flat.

But despite these minor glitches, The Undoing Dance is a masterfully crafted novel on dance — and the importance of preserving disappearing art forms.

Sayantan Ghosh is a Delhi-based writer


Published on March 01, 2019

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