I always held the view that Dasis were sinned against by our own double standards and the Victorian Conservatives joined hands with the local puritans who wanted to hijack Dasis' unprotected artform for their own end by smearing all kinds of ugliness,heresys and prejudices on them and brought dance to mediocrity and nauseating ordinariness!...and messed up the pristine dance with politics....
The Undoing Dance by Srivisya Natarajan tells us the story of not only Kalyani, but also the story of the Devadasi system that prevailed in our society.
Set in southern parts of India, post-independence, the book starts off with Kalyani’s story. Born into a family of devadasis, she is forced to cover up her lineage and marry into an influential family. Her day to day struggles caused by the conflict that she feels within herself. But how long can she keep her roots a secret? Will her inner turmoil be replicated in her real life as her secrets are threatened?
Traditionally, the devadasi system was revered. Girls were married to a deity and would then dedicate their lives to the temple and learn the religious rituals and rites attached to it. They would also learn and perform various cultural dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Oddissi as a part of their devotion. Yes, they would bear children of influential people and priests – but there was no stigma attached to their lifestyle. The sex was just an accepted part of their lifestyle and they were well respected and even revered for their status and talent. The problem arose when people stopped differentiating between devadasis and common prostitutes. People started exploiting the system to push girls into prostitution and once the Madras Devdasi Act was put in place, it was difficult for the system to survive as they lost the patronage of the wealthy and were financially crippled.
The book covers the predicament of the devadasi system. Some of the women in the system who were pushed into it were not happy living that lifestyle and that is a fact. But the fact is also that there were women who embraced this lifestyle and even thrived in it. They were free to explore their art and had a level of freedom and respect that the average women of that era usually did not command. They were welcomed at societal functions and their presence was considered as a good omen.
The author has done a good job of portraying different characters and their plights and intentions distinctly. For instance I could understand the conflicts that Kalyani felt and at the same time I could also understand the conflict that Kalyani’s mother-in-law felt. Yet there was a feeling of wrongness at places. Covering a system that has been highly debated about and an art form that can always be interpreted in different ways can be a daunting task. And the only negative aspect of the book is that at most places the author has ended up ‘telling’ us her point of view instead of ‘showing’ us the bigger picture.
The book had me feeling really involved at places and unsettled at others. I take the fact that the author managed to invoke such reactions through this book, for whatever reasons, as a good thing. I’d recommend this book to people who like to read fiction that closely reflect our reality and to those who have an interest in knowing more about the devadasis with a note to read it with an open mind.