‘This (pseudo) spirituality made dance boring’: Srividya Natarajan

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Vidya, an obvious question first. Why this book?

The Undoing Dance is my homage, my attempt to articulate the awe and admiration I felt when I saw my Isai Vellalar teachers present their art, and my bafflement at the disappearance of these riches from our collective artistic memory. The story of this disappearance has been mired in disputes about whether or not devadasi women had agency historically, and whether or not ‘reforming’ them was a good thing. The fictional rendering of this story doesn’t have to take sides: it can show all the different sides, and indeed sympathetically present more than one position on the dispute. The desire to present the issues in a rounded way influenced my choice of narrative mode: the use of multiple narrating voices that can turn different facets of this history to the light.

Real people like Brinda, Mukta and Rukmini Devi wander into the pages of your book, but I seem to recognise some of the fictional characters too! Are they amalgamations of real people?

All the fictional characters are indeed fictional, any resemblance is purely coincidental. I feel authors can get away with making characters who carry the satirical weight of social critique less three-dimensional than other characters. The characters whom the reader may ‘recognise’ are, in fact, almost allegorical — I have compressed a number of generic qualities I dislike in dance celebrities into their fictional skins.

Your book is scathingly critical of the ‘industry’ that passes for classical performance art in Chennai today. What led to this fall?

Performers have always had to struggle to survive in a largely inhospitable or indifferent world. The ugly reality of aristocratic patronage, for instance, was that the wealthy patron was likely to favour the performer who was attractive, compliant and sexually available over the less attractive but more gifted performer. In The Undoing Dance, I do depict the instability of performers’ lives in earlier ages. What we have today, though, is a distinct phenomenon. Wealthy people are investing vast amounts of money to put themselves or their children on the stage, whether or not they have a shred of talent. So many dancers now pay to perform that organisers see the proposition as a money-making enterprise. Quality inevitably suffers, since good dancers cannot find gigs simply by being good.

The dance is also mired in a (platitude-ridden) rhetoric of spirituality and a culture of coy femininity that have come in the way of growth. I see these features as the legacy of the moment when the Isai Vellalar/ devadasi practitioners were edged out, and bharatanatyam was reinvented as an upper-caste form, embodying a post-colonial brahminical discomfort with secular themes and sexual self-expression. Audiences too have been shrinking, since the offerings are so predictable and mediocre. There is also almost no critical lens through which to view the art. Barring the odd, lonely critic (like Sadanand Menon) who has tried to articulate an aesthetically complex, historically knowledgeable, and politically adventurous approach to dance criticism, most reviewers today recycle absolute banalities… (a quick mention of the raga and tala, some technical terminology like anga-suddham or some such, and anecdotery of the “Once, when Yamini was doing the Alarippu…” kind). The ‘fall,’ to use your word, is thus a complex thing.

Saving’ the devadasis was very much a charge of the feminist brigade. Yet, as is obvious from your book, the indignation came not so much from positions of empowerment as of morality. Could you talk about this a bit?

You make an interesting point. Whatever their intentions, women as powerful and progressive in their own ways as Rukmini Arundale and Muthulakshmi Reddy ended up disempowering Isai Vellalar women because they were responding to an ethos in which women’s legitimate public presence depended on the erasure of their sexuality. Arundale genuinely believed that if she did not ‘clean’ off the traces of its devadasi roots, bharatanatyam would be lost to her project of cultural nationalism. Reddy genuinely believed that she needed to equate devadasis with ‘prostitutes’ to make sure there was medical intervention into their ‘immorality,’ which would save them and their children from sexually transmitted diseases. Her solution for performing women was marriage, which is a dubious form of empowerment for any woman, but particularly destructive for courtesans who used their bodies to create art. The Self-Respect Movement’s perspective was the only one that seems actually concerned with empowerment, but for consciousness-raising, it had to depict the devadasi either as immoral and conniving figure, or as an innocent about to be morally corrupted. Incidentally, such approaches to ‘protecting’ women while disempowering them seem alive and well in today’s India.

What might be a way to save, honour, take forward this incredible treasure trove of art?

There are various possible answers to this question. The most important thing may be to make the voices of Isai Vellalar women heard, without mediation; too many people have spoken for them and over them in the past, and their self-representation has often been drowned out. For instance, there is a scene in my novel about the women taking a petition to the Raja against ‘anti-nautch’ legislation: that scene was based on my reading of very powerfully written real-life petitions authored and signed by these Isai Vellalar women in the 1920s and 30s. I wish those voices in those petitions could be heard again. There are still some practicing Isai Vellalar performers whose work could be studied by contemporary dancers; research and documentation of their heritage and styles could be done (there is urgency to doing this); historical accounts, such as those by Dr. B.M. Sundaram, could be made more widely available.

As classical dance began to increasingly favour the spiritual over the sensual, what do you think was lost?

Several things: for the dance form, historical continuity was lost — the richness that results when past practices flow into the present. An idiotic origin story of a 3,000-year-old tradition (completely made-up) and an attribution of everything to Bharata (the author of Natyasastra) came to stand in for acknowledgement of flesh-and-blood historical foremothers. There is fundamental dishonesty in that kind of reinvention, which affects what performers feel they can do with the form or where they turn for inspiration. Put very simply, this (pseudo) spiritual turn made the form boring. For its practitioners, the process of sanitising and sanskritising disenfranchised them as teachers and guardians of the dance, and affected their ability to make a living and to live with dignity.

It’s through Hema’s painfully honest eyes that we see the travesty of assembly-line Bharatanatyam. Is Hema a suggestion of redemption? If so, how and where do you think it can come from?

Hema herself may not be a vehicle of redemption except in that someone has to articulate the truth, and Hema does that. She is the kid in the fairy tale who says the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Stating the truth opens the path to change, but I’m too old and too cynical by now, sadly, to believe that there can or will be any real redemption. If there is, it will come from Indian artists and performers critically understanding what linkages can be built between an old dance form and our contemporary world. If The Undoing Dance makes a few readers begin to radically question the ways in which casteism is written into our performance heritage, or to ask themselves if yet another December Season in Chennai is really the cultural bridge between tradition and modernity, I will have done the job I set out to do.

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