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Srividya Natarajan’s book The Undoing Dance takes the reader into the world of devadasis, once celebrated as artistes, but now just considered prostitutes. An excerpt.
Blurb: Kalyani comes from a lineage of famous devadasis, though there is no place for her talent in the Madras of newly independent India. The devadasis, once celebrated as artists, are shunned as prostitutes in a modern country. In exchange for a comfortable life as the wife of a wealthy arts promoter, Kalyani has to keep her origins hidden and abandon her mother, Rajayi. When a Bharatanatyam dancer from the city sets out to record Rajayi s dance repertoire on film, the carefully wrapped-up past threatens to unravel.
‘Let’s go to the Rasika Ranjani today,’ she said, about three months into our visit. ‘Brinda and Mukta are singing.’
The singers were from a dasi family, like Rajayi, like me. Their music was slow and accretive, secret and passionate. It was like a woman tidying her cupboard, finding there old love notes, and empty perfume bottles kept for the beauty of their glass; finding beads that had never been made up into a necklace, and the toys and tokens of beloved children. The padhams pierced the barriers of anger and indifference and grief that I had raised over months. I felt myself alone, as if the roof had blown quietly away and I was adrift in some emptiness between bright planets, my whole being contracted into quivering, humbled response. I felt the universe humming around me, and suffered guilt, because in the midst of strife and poverty I had let myself be exalted by music. The singers’ voices reminded me of my mother’s voice years earlier, strong but subtle, exquisitely sensuous. I looked at my hands because I did not want to look at the ordinary sweating faces around me; in my fists I tried to hold their music as if it was beads, or stars.
When we joined the file of people leaving, a man was standing across the room, and his eyes were fixed on me. Lila nodded towards him and whispered, ‘That one. He can’t stop looking at you.’ She had her betel leaf box open; she was rubbing lime paste on the back of a leaf.
She folded the leaf and said softly, ‘Balasankar, his name is. Not a musician, but a government man. A fixer. Plenty of money. I knew his father.’
I looked at him. Not with Lila’s candid gaze, but obliquely. He was good-looking in a brahmin way, fair- skinned, and refined in his features. He was talking to a woman. Lila told me her name: Padmasini Mahadevan. I had seen her pictures in a magazine years earlier; they had called her a rising dancer in the article, and presumably by now she was risen and shining.
The man was holding a sleeping child over his shoulder, her arms curled loosely around his neck, her long silk skirt rucked into folds under his arm. The child shifted and turned, smacking her lips sleepily, and the light caught a delicate thread of spit at the corner of her mouth. The sight woke some memory in me, of being carried in a man’s arms. I could not recollect having been carried like this; there had been no man in my mother’s circle, as far as I could remember, who might have carried me with such absent-minded protectiveness. I felt powerfully that I had mislaid something, and it bothered me that I could not remember what it was. The music had left me thin-skinned and vulnerable.
‘His wife died two-and-a-half, maybe three years ago,’ Lila was saying. ‘In childbirth. The little girl never knew her mother, poor mite.’
The man glanced sideways at me again. I turned away and then turned back, drawn by that tableau across the room. The man leaned forward and asked his companion a question. Her eyes flicked over me carelessly. She answered him, shrugged, led him away. He looked back once before he passed through the door, and the image was haunting in the afterglow of the music: a man and his sleeping child, his face refined, her hair tumbling over his shoulder.
‘It’s a good time to leave,’ Lila said, taking me under my bony elbow. ‘We’ve piqued his curiosity.’
I did not answer when she asked me what I thought of him. I was unhappy that my mother and Lila between them had decided that my future lay in marriage.
Vijaya said later that I had seduced Balan in a spirit of calculation. It was not true. If I had a besetting vice, it was passivity. All my life I have been confused, and have longed for clarity. Each of the women who had brought me up, my mother and Aunt Rachel, had appeared for a while to believe strongly in some truth, and each one had failed to act on her belief. I had wavered between their worlds and their truths, and had found that just as I declared my loyalty, the truth had shifted, and the world had changed. I have always been uncomfortable in my own skin, as if I was wearing a hair shirt made to somebody else’s measurements. I stopped at every moral crossroads, paralysed, unable to choose. How would I seduce a man like Balan?
But always, after succumbing passively to someone else’s plans, I blamed them when things went wrong for me, and allowed myself the luxury of bitterness. Not the hard clear-edged bitterness that in other people leads to action; a soft bitterness, a cursed wallow. I blamed everyone: Rajayi, Lila, Aunt Rachel, and Velu, my dance master. I wanted to get away from them all. I did not know how to do this except by putting another human being in their place.
Balan; I toyed with the idea: Balasankar.
‘This isn’t one of your pond-tiddlers,’ Lila said to Rajayi, a dozen concerts later.
Lila’s feet peered out of her sari, tiny, softly fleshed. Silver anklets bit into their skin, leaving a series of shallow dinges. My mother sat beside her, Lila’s veenai over her lap. The day we arrived at Lila’s house, she had fallen on the instrument the way a hungry child falls upon a favourite dish. She had dipped her fingers, spatulate from years of playing, in the salve. Her hands had rested on the ivory frets as if she did not know where to begin. She had stroked the strings, testing them, testing her fingers, her eyes closed, and then had played as if she had never stopped practising.
‘Who isn’t a what?’ Rajayi said, looking up from the veenai.
‘This Balasankar. He is the big catch,’ Lila said. At each concert we attended, somehow, the ‘fixer’ had been present. We had talked, a few times, about the high points of the music that evening, about composers we both liked. At the most recent concerts, he had looked for me and come straight over to sit by me.
‘After everything we’ve been through, you and I, Lila,’ Rajayi said, ‘surely you’re not saying she should become his keep?’ The fingers of her right hand plucked the strings at the gourd end; the fingers of the left hand rocked and caressed them where they passed over the frets, nudging the notes of the Mukhari padham a haunting quarter- tone away from true.
‘Not his keep, Rajayi, his wife. You wait and see. This fish will want marriage.’
‘Why would he? Men like that don’t marry women like us. You’re not planning to hide her caste, are you?’
‘Our Kalyani’s so fair she could be passed off as a brahmin girl. But those brahmin customs, heavens – she’ll give herself away. No, Rajayi, that will never work.’
‘So then?’ ‘You should see his face when he looks at her. If she says she will be at a concert, he shows up. He makes excuses to spend time with her. He asks me if I want coffee and takes her with him to buy it. He’s smitten all right. We’ll hold out for marriage or nothing.’
‘We’ll get nothing,’ Rajayi said, her eyes half-closed. Her voice was dry, her face expressionless. But the strings were twanging and moaning softly in the background all the time. ‘Who’ll want to marry a woman from our caste? And a brahmin, of all people!’
‘Didn’t a brahmin man marry M.S. Subbulakshmi?’ ‘Oh, that MS is a beauty, and talented enough for ten women.’
‘Was I not nearly married myself once?’ ‘But you weren’t in the end, were you?’ ‘I only missed marriage by a whisker, I tell you. And our Kalyani is every bit as beautiful as MS.’
‘Lila, what if he beats her? You know how it comes over the men, that they’ve married a woman with our way of life–’
‘Look at me. Not married, but I got beaten anyway. Rajayi, you know as well as I do that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Think about it! At least this way she’ll live in comfort.’
Lila’s life was a shambles, everything she built fell apart again. Somehow she kept up her spirits and her dignity; somehow she felt contentment. She asked for very little. She was cheerful about her second-rate career as a comedian’s sidekick and screen wife, she was cheerful about having been mistreated by the director to whom she had almost, if not quite, been married.
‘And Kalyani’s dancing–’ ‘Oh, she’ll have to give up dancing,’ Lila said. Amma looked at me with troubled eyes. ‘Kalyani, child. What do you think?’
I was unhappy, befuddled. I treasured my stigmata, examined them. I was insufferable, I realized later. I wished the wind would trepan me, blow away a segment of my skull, release the past like a flood, so that I could start afresh, with only a present and a future. I wanted to sink into something that would stay steady under the weight of my trust. I felt a dull desire for respectability, comfort, cessation of conflict.
Very well; I would give up dance. Dance had given me up, after all. In return for this gesture I would have, perhaps, the steady affection of a man.
I sat in the room with them, refusing the part I was being offered in the drama of planning. They remembered me, my predicament; they forgot me and spoke of the past. They had been parched for each other’s company. During the day, their voices rang sharp with irony, scorn, mockery. So-and-so’s singing, a travesty; parading up and down the octave with his chest thrust out like a pigeon, Lila said. Another one’s veenai-playing, Rajayi said, all scholarship and no feeling. A third one’s padhams, they said, unbearable; driving the notes with a bull-whip.
In the evenings, their voices – Lila’s moistened by gin – waxed rich with remembered fragments of music and family history, waxed tender with love. The veenai went on in my dreams, throbbing and fading, accompanying the hum of their voices, now bubbling with hilarity, now sad.
This is an extract from The Undoing Dance by Srividya Natarajan, available now through Juggernaut Books. Published with permission.
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Book cover via Amazon
Header image: Dancing girls and musicians from Madras, a drawing by Christopher Green, c.1800 (Representation of the Dancing Girls on the Coast of Coromandel, Christopher Green (c. 1745–1805) Copyright The British Library Board WD 4510)
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