The age-old tradition of devadasis (temple dancers) has declined, and often, vilified in modern India. Chennai-born, Canada-based author and Bharatanatyam dancer Srividya Natarajan explores the tradition in her latest novel, The Undoing Dance (Juggernaut Books). Natarajan, trained in Bharatanatyam under celebrated artistes Kittappa Pillai and T Brinda, descendants of devadasi families. This is Natarajan’s second novel after No Onions Nor Garlic (2006, Penguin). Currently a faculty at King’s University College, Canada, Natarajan unravels the deep-rooted patriarchy and artifice in dance through The Undoing Dance. Excerpts from an email interview:
How did a novel about the devadasi tradition come about?
My PhD research (at University of Hyderabad) was on the history of Bharatanatyam. Later, when I was teaching dance in Chennai, I worked on two documentary films on isai vellala traditions (‘isai vellalar’ literally means ‘cultivators of music’, and was the name non-Brahmin music and dance communities, including communities from which devadasis came, gave themselves in the early 20th century). I interviewed and learned from teachers and artistes of devadasi heritage, and was enchanted by the richness of their interpretive art. As the devadasis told their stories or taught their repertoire, it was clear to me that their cultural and artistic work was crucial to their identity and to their sense of agency. But in most narratives about them, even well-intentioned ones, their artistic contributions have been minimised, and they have been presented, somewhat one-dimensionally, as victims. I’m hoping that The Undoing Dance will play a small part in recognising them as art makers, without denying that they were, indeed, embedded in a patriarchal social structure.
For such a subject, why did you not consider a non-fiction format?
In 22 years of dance education under Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai, and while I was researching on dance, I saw a number of encounters between upper-caste people and isai vellala artistes. The more tolerant among the former bemoaned the oppression of devadasis, but dismissed isai vellala art as largely irrelevant in modern India. Others, especially certain celebrity performers, exuded contempt so thick I could have cut it with a knife. Between my textual encounters with the mistreatment of devadasis in the past, and my revulsion towards the mean-spirited, calculating casteism directed towards isai vellala artistes in the present, I felt the kind of bubbling anger that makes me want to write something. I also wanted my counter-narrative to the widely circulated version of Bharatanatyam history, and my critique of its present situation, to reach a wide audience. Since not too many people read scholarly books, I reshaped my (unpublished) PhD thesis into fiction.
As the novel explores a lineage 13 generations old, did you want to show how the perception towards the form’s practice has changed over the years?
I wanted to give a sense of historical depth, and capture the changing fortunes of this community. I have the satirist’s urge to exaggerate and caricature, but walking in the shoes of my less sympathetic characters forced me to present the stories of devadasi artistes not only at different historical moments, but also from different angles. I enjoyed writing the chapter titled “Vijaya”, capturing the bitter response of a prudish and self-sacrificing Brahmin wife whose husband was having an affair with a devadasi performer.
By the 1920s, there was a decline in the status of devadasis. By attaching ‘shame and disgrace’ to this profession, did we lose out on a tribe of artistes who could have been the face of ‘independent’ women?
Any answer to this question would be pure speculation. I was certainly awestruck by the strength and endurance of individual teachers I met, and they have been role models for me, but I don’t want to romanticise the cultural milieu of the devadasis either, or see them as proto-feminists. Records show that some devadasis were assertive and independent; they travelled abroad, they filed lawsuits, they had a measure of control over their lands and finances, they joined political movements, they acted in films and they had flourishing musical careers. Some of them were publicly reviled, and when women are reviled, you can be sure they are exercising power. This does not mean that the devadasi system as a whole was straightforwardly empowering; the successful women could have been exceptions.
What kind of loss do you think the art world has suffered with the decline of this tradition?
It is sad both for devadasi teachers and for the art that we could not make it possible for them to make a living by teaching their art to the next generation dancers. I had the good luck to see Maddula Venkataratnam’s sandhi vicchedana (interpretation) for a single line of a varnam, in footage made by the acclaimed scholar Davesh Soneji. The dignity and power of female eroticism expressed without shame, and without patriarchy-affirming coquetry, came home to me like an epiphany. I had never before seen abhinaya that was so exquisitely subtle, so raw and human at the same time. The rati mudras Venkataratnam performed were as different from the kind of self-conscious sexiness I see on the stage today as a Pallava sculpture on a Mamallapuram temple wall is from a plastic Pillayar in a Pondy Bazaar stall.
In spite of being based in Canada, most of your literary works are set in India. Why?
Having lived in India for 35 years, I still feel deeply connected to the Indian culture. I am not confident that I can capture the authentic speech and culture of the part of Canada I live in, let alone of Canada as a whole. I have also spent most of my years in Canada working in very busy jobs, leaving me without the time to amble through the landscape, notebook in hand.
Being a trained dancer and teacher, how much time do you manage to devote to dance?
I have the phenomenal good fortune of being an Artistic Associate at inDance, a dance company in Toronto run by my friend Hari Krishnan. About once a year, we create works and perform together, which feeds my soul, because he was a fellow student of Kittappa’s, has studied with a number or teachers of devadasi heritage, and loves the isai vellala repertoire. We both understand that we want to maintain this artistic inheritance. But we are both aware that we are in the modern world; we don’t want to claim complete authenticity or stand in for devadasis.