Community and dance

Print edition : April 12, 2019
This book uses fiction as a means to tell the history of Bharatanatyam and the devadasi community that once served as its torchbearer.

THE Undoing Dance talks about the traditional Bharatanatyam dancers who were called devadasis (thevar adiyars in Tamil) and their gurus, or nattuvanars as they were known in Tamil, and what happened to them and the art after the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act was enacted in 1947.

Srividya Natarajan has written this book as a fiction, touching upon the most important area of the art form and its history. The book starts with the story of Hema and is set in 1990. It keeps going back and forth in time. It talks about one particular family whose members had been the dancers of the king’s court and the temple of Kalyanikarai, a small village near Thanjavur (then Tanjore). The book gloriously describes the dancing techniques, the grace of the dancers and the rich culture and heritage of Bharatanatyam, especially in the scene where one such dancer dances in the king’s court. The description is reminiscent of the dance sequence from the epic film Mughal-e-Azam.

Srividya Natarajan does not fail to convey that the devadasi system was once celebrated by the women of all communities, as they believed devadasis to be the wives of God. Also, these women did not have a problem with the men of their own family keeping them as mistresses.

A girl child born in a devadasi family was dedicated to this lifestyle and was not allowed to pursue any other career or marry a person of her choice and lead a normal life. The protest against this system was initially carried out by several Christian organisations, which took the girls away from their families, educated them and helped them lead a different life. The book touches on the role of such organisations and the role of the freedom fighter Annie Besant.

It goes on to talk about the case fought by several devadasi women in support of the tradition. The story in this regard is conveyed from the points of view of Kalyani and her mother, Rajayi. The book boldly discusses what happened to the art form once the devadasi system was abolished and the women of that community were shunned by society.

The Brahmin community, which initially did not learn the art form, entered the scene and has since then dominated the field. The characters of Padmasini and Balasankar travel through this area, and through them the author talks about the politics in the field and the way the art form is taught.

The author has not shied away from dealing with the caste aspect either, be it the domination of one particular community in the art form or the traditions and customs followed in households or the effect of inter-caste marriages. She also mentions the role of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in the abolition of the devadasi system.

However, there are two shortcomings to the book. One, it glorifies the devadasi system, making it look like the women involved were happy with the lifestyle. The author does not talk about the miseries those women underwent as they were forced into this lifestyle. Even when Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy is mentioned, it is in an accusatory tone. The book fails to convey the fact that the protests against the system actually came from several women who had escaped it. Two, it fails to mention the struggles and protests led by Moovaloor Ramamrudham Ammaiyar, who played a huge role in the abolition of the system after having been a victim of it.

The author certainly succeeds in making the reader realise that when the system was abolished, society should not have stigmatised the entire community but should have taken the steps to give the members a better life and helped them protect the rich art form. The book is a must-read and will help readers understand the history of the art form and its present state.

Kuyil Mozhi is a lawyer, and a classical dancer.