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Friday, July 20, 2018

Step in Time

Bharatanatyam’s first couple come alive in this performative novel by their disciple

Written by Uttara Asha Coorlawala | Published: June 29, 2013 3:42:38 am

Book: Master of Arts: a life in dance

Author: Tulsi Badrinath

Publisher: Hachette

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 312

Like many dances,this novel has a double narrative streaming through it. Both stories are of journeys into dance,but generations apart. One is the writer’s personal journey into dance and the other is the story of the lives of her teachers,the well-known and remarkable dancing duo Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta. This device of two simultaneous parallel stories,makes for an interesting juxtaposition of perception through different generations. The life experiences of the Dhananjayans are presented as if being recounted to students who include the author.

Through this device,we learn of the couple’s necessarily clandestine and subtle courtship in contrast to present perspectives on life,dance,and the changing norms of acceptable behaviours. Apparently,although Shanta was attracted to a young Dhananjayan,she never revealed it,until she was about to be married to someone else. Her courage was to be rewarded. Fast forward to many years later when Dhananjayan is recounting to his students,now all dancers themselves,his early experiences in America. When he and Shanta would arrive the hosts would be surprised to find that the partners on stage were married. They would ask Dhananjayan how long he had been married. He would respond 20 years. “To the same wife?”,people would incredulously ask. This,of course,has Tulsi and her colleagues convulsed in giggles. But the book is more than a gush fest. The reflexivity of the writer makes it readable,as she interweaves her memories with those of her protagonists.

While gender is invoked,the book presents an uncomplicated and rather one-sided view of dancing males,despite including interactions between Dhanajayan and his male students,such as the talented Narendra Kumar,B.K. Shafeequddin and Aspi Mullah. But these shortcomings are to be expected from an authorised biography. However,these interactions with dancers bears witness to the changes in the dance scene.

The reader is witness to the progression of dancers who started out with a commitment to a single “guru”,but then broke away to mature into independent artists working in groups and solos as enabled by chance,choices and circumstances.

This device of the writer as student-witness enables her to describe what it feels like to dance on stage,to delve deeper into her art form,all from an insider’s perspective even as she maintains the outsider perspective of a young disciple looking into the world of her teachers. It is interesting that the author’s peak experience as a young dancer,corresponds with an important time in the careers of the Dhananjayans. So,this is essentially performative writing,with the writer being self-aware and transiting in and out of the sutradhar role. As in dance,there are many access points into the stories from different spaces,times and roles in life. Many readers like myself would inevitably enter the narrative in the role of a third sutradhar,tallying what is recounted about the Dhanjayans’ times against our own memories.

The book is easy to read and made more pleasurable by the performative writing that relives moments,inner thoughts,and outer identifications of time,place and actions. But this is also an authorised biography. Do not expect confessions or controversies. Despite the presentation of information,for dancers and dance followers,the book glosses over much that we partly know and perhaps will never fully know.

Uttara Coorlawala is a professor of dance at Columbia University,and at the Alvin Ailey American School of Dance,New York

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