Academic and dancer Srividya Natarajan has trained under celebrated artistes like Kitappa Pillai and T Brinda who were descendants of illustrious devadasi families. Author of No Onions No Garlic and co-author of two graphic novels – Bhimayana and A Gardener in the Wasteland, Natarajan is carrying forward the legacy of classical dance in Canada, where she currently resides. In her new book The Undoing Dance, she revisits the secret world of Devadasis and brings to life their dance, their music, and their traditions.

SheThePeople.TV spoke with Srividya Natarajan about The Undoing Dance, the world of Devadasis, the classical dance scene in India, and more. Some edited snippets from the interview.

What led you to chronicle such an interesting subject into a book? Who do you hope reads this book?

Forty years ago, when my mother wanted to take me to Tanjavur Kittappa Pillai to study dance, several people, including my then teacher, declared that it was a terrible idea. Thankfully, my mother ignored all the arguments against the move. By my mid-teens, I was puzzling over the contrast between the way public opinion painted this extraordinary man’s character (‘bad’) and abilities (‘declining’), and my own experience of his teaching (wonderful, life-changing). It took a while to dawn on me that the ‘public’ whose opinion had been so freely offered, had been, through no fault of my mother’s, largely Brahmin. That unappealing portrait of Kittappa was framed by the Brahmin narrative about sinister or uncooperative non-Brahmin teachers, honed over many decades of cultural contestation.  

The contrast between the Kittappa of the Brahmin stories and the Kittappa I actually knew got me thinking about the way caste limits and inflects knowledge in the Indian context.

Shopper Stop for Women in IndiaTo this day, most performers and students are taught to see Bharatanatyam through an upper-caste lens. They miss out on its fascinating and layered history: a history of Devadasi and Isai Vellala creativity, of influences derived from Maratha cultural policy and colonial annexation of princely states, of shifting boundaries between folk forms and courtly art, of dance orchestra instruments coming into vogue (like the violin) and going out of it (like the tutti). The Undoing Dance began with my own curiosity about who shaped and owned this form, and who appropriated it, and is an attempt to change the lens through which people view Bharatanatyam history.

I want young people to read this book, and open their minds to the possibility of more critical approaches to this dance’s history and current predicament.

Did you leave the world of dance to pursue a PhD at the University of Hyderabad? Please tell us more about this transition.

I didn’t actually leave the world of dance during the years (1992 to 1997) that I was working on my PhD. I was still studying with Kittappa whenever I could, and performing whenever an interesting opportunity came my way.  

The book brings together your talents as a writer and dancer. What influenced you to enter the world of storytelling?

I loved reading, especially British novels of the 19th century, and my degrees before my PhD were in English Literature. For my PhD, I looked at the way devadasis were represented in texts, including novels, produced roughly between the 1880s and the 1960s. My thesis was submitted to an English Department. My desire to write fiction, I think, quite naturally followed from my years of brooding over other people’s writing.

Srividya Natarajan Undoing Dance
The Undoing Dance

You’ve trained under celebrated artists who were descendants of illustrious Devadasi families. What attracted you most towards the dance, music and traditions of this world?

I’m moved by the authenticity of the dance that emerged from that world. When artists of Devadasi heritage enacted the connections between dance and agamic ritual, what I saw was their saturation in a local or family tradition, and the simple, practical intent of pleasing the gods by completing certain bodily movements and showing certain mudrais. They did not strain to be ‘expressive’.

In the typical young dancing person of sixteen or eighteen summers, that emotion comes across as so painfully insincere that any self-respecting gods should be asking for their money back. I also love the space Devadasi performers created for exploring secular, everyday themes that an agnostic like me can identify with. When it is done by a dancer who is not being vapidly coquettish, when it is stripped of gestural cliché, when musicality and richness of life experience are brought to bear on it, the interpretation of erotic poetry—the much maligned sringara—can be an amazingly powerful, hugely life-affirming, superbly dignified form of artistic expression.

I don’t understand why so many dancers today feel that nothing will satisfy the gods except theatrical displays of high-voltage bhakti and mystical ecstasy on the stage.

Srividya Natarajan Undoing Dance
Srividya Natarajan; Photo Credit: Richard Joseph

Acclaimed Sufi kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi started ‘The Courtesan Project’ to erase stigma surrounding courtesans. She said it’s shocking how in an unfair record of history these brilliant artists were referred to as “fallen women”. In your story, Kalyani has to keep her origins hidden because of the stigma attached to her lineage. When it comes to Devadasis, you go beyond just storytelling and bring the bitter truth and reality to the surface. What do you think got lost in the understanding and perception of Devadasis?

The history of Devadasis became inextricably braided into the ‘other woman’ questions that were debated in the struggle between British colonial powers (who said Indians were unfit to rule themselves when they had regressive cultural practices like sati and child marriage) and Indian nationalists (who committed to reforming Hindu culture). Unlike the powerless child bride or the coerced sati, the adult devadasi women of the 1920s and 1930s actively resisted being seen as victims. Their very resistance confirmed their status as “bad women” and foreclosed on potentially empowering ways in which they could have entered the ethos of modern India.

For instance, many devadasi communities accepted that ‘reform’ should forbid the dedication of minor girls to temples, but wanted to continue in their performing roles and in their position as teachers and guardians of the arts. Not one person outside their communities took up this very sensible suggestion of a way forward.

In The Undoing Dance, I try to depict the gradual massing of forces against them: identification with prostitutes, cultural shame, legal reform, colonial understandings of household structure and of property, loss of patronage, loss of inherited temple rights, upper-caste and nationalist demonisation of their practices, seizure of their property by their own menfolk, the drying up of performance opportunities…those must have been sad and desperate times for many of these women.

How challenging was it to pen the descriptions of devadasi art? What, according to you, is one way to honour this beautiful tradition?

The difficulty in depiction lay partly in the tired language that has encrusted descriptions of Bharatanatyam. I wanted to try and capture the raw beauty of the Devadasi dance as a kind of homage. But honouring the form is a somewhat empty gesture if it is purely nostalgic; there are living descendants of Isai Vellala families whose dance heritage could be part of the education of young dancers, and who could use the security of an income. The curiosity and collaborativeness of dancers who seek to learn from Isai Vellala teachers need to be genuine; they shouldn’t end up being another round of upper-caste appropriation, with Isai Vellala repertoire becoming the latest marker of being culturally on-trend.

What do you have to say about the classical dance scenario in the country today? How has the shift been over the years?

When people start paying to perform and to be seen, dance becomes a hobby rather than a passion and a lifelong journey. In the Canadian city where I live, I can’t get dance students to show up to class even one day a week—they’re too busy with other things, and when they come to class they want to make videos of everything, not actually learn the repertoire with their bodies and their minds. Not surprising, since in the diaspora, “I’ve done my arangetram” marks the limits of ambition for many girls and women. The recycling of exhausted repertoire and the return to drearily familiar tropes turns me off the December season in Chennai. Perhaps the scene in Delhi or Mumbai is better, but I don’t know it.

I find the dance scene pretty shallow and depressing, overall, though there are always exceptions.

What is your writing process?

Having a writing process would be a luxury! I have worked very long hours in my day-jobs, and writing has had to happen in fits and starts. I tend to faff around for hours when I have to write, letting the ideas build up in my head, before I can set them down on paper. When I start writing I produce text very quickly, though it can be quite dreadful at first. Then I revise and revise till I’m ready to drop. While I revise, I look up facts and dates and words, to get things exact.  

Who are the women that have inspired you?

My grandmother, who was married at nine, who turns a hundred years old this month, and who has retained her love of music and her equanimity. My mother, who is a workaholic. Any number of women writers and political activists: Aphra Behn, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Savitribai Phule, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy. My most recent teacher R. Muttukannammal. Blues or jazz vocalists: Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald. Thumri singers like Gauhar Jaan. My music teacher T. Brinda and the great dancers in her family, T. Balasaraswati and Lakshmi Knight. I could go on and on!    

My life has been full of inspiring women who have sprung out of the pages of biographies or have strummed tanpuras and made me discipline my unruly voice.

Photo credit: Richard Joseph

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