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To be a devadasi in 1947: Read Srividya Natarajan's introduction to the world of a novice temple dancer

Just as India achieves independence and Indian society is on the brink of cataclysmic change, a little girl from a dasi family trains to be a dancer. She does not know her family’s way of life will soon disappear completely. For now, she is happy to go about her day.

Imagine a girl, a child of eight or nine, growing up on a street full of the sound of music. The neighbour to the right practices playing the tutti, and the neighbour to the left is a tavil player who takes his instrument to the temple at least three times a day. The girl’s older brother learns from him. The girl’s brother is in trouble—he was upset at being made to learn left-handed playing, so he tied his teacher’s topknot to the strings of the cot when he was sleeping. Now he has to carry the tavil to the temple for his teacher. The street is unpaved; in front of each house is a neat patch of hard-packed earth smoothed with cow dung water and decorated with white kolams. The girl’s brother staggers along the middle of the street, his feet kicking up dust, terrified of dropping the precious tavil, wishing it was the smaller tavandai that his teacher also plays on some special days, grateful that the temple is only a furlong away.

Despite the sprawling banyan trees, despite the paddy-fields just half a mile away, the street is hot, it is dusty. Once a month, a man in the town puts up a huge tent in an open field near the temple, and brings his projector. The girl’s family pays one anna to watch the moving picture, made in a land where it is always raining white – a white streaky rain. Sometimes the projector stops, but the man never gives anyone their money back.

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

In the big hall in the middle of her home, where the family sleeps on grass mats at night, the red oxide floor is polished from many generations of women practicing their adavus. Recently, there has been a lot more practice than usual: The girl’s aunt, who used to live in Madras, and her uncle, who lived in Baroda for a while, have returned to their hometown, and have brought back new steps, very elegant, more elegant than any steps they have tried out before. Or perhaps it is just their novelty that makes them seem so. Everyone wants to learn these adavus, this new repertoire. The girl is not as interested as her older sisters; what she wants is for someone to teach her the dance that Baby Kamala did on top of a huge drum in the cinema she saw just the week before.

In the mornings, the girl and her sisters go with her mother and her aunt down to the river, to the part where the womenfolk bathe. Knotting a length of fabric over her chest, she washes herself under it, washes her long oiled hair with ground hibiscus leaves. On the way back home, in a fresh red and green sari and a new silk blouse, carrying her wrung-out sari over her arm, she stops and collects coral jasmine flowers from the tree that grows near the path. While she sits on the front tinnai of her house and while her mother dries her hair with her fingers and oils it and braids it, she uses a needle and thread to make a long garland with the coral jasmine to take to the temple with her.

Later in the morning, when they come back from the temple, it is time for dance class. In her dance vathyar’s home too there is a silambakoodam – the same long, wide hall as in her home. Two sets of carved wooden pillars run down the middle of it, and they make it harder to do the steps that went sweeping right across the room. When she is stepping backwards, she has to remember that the pillars will be there. It makes dancing feel like a game, and it makes it easier to live with her teacher’s incessant grumbling and dissatisfaction. The only time he ever smiled at her, as far as she can remember, was the day she began to learn, when her mother spread the cloth on the floor, and the rice grains on the cloth, and her teacher made her do the first step, the thaiyya-thai, on the rice.

Srividya Natarajan. Photograph by Richard Joseph

Srividya Natarajan. Photograph by Richard Joseph

In the evening back at her home, the girl wants to rest her sore legs. But her mother and her aunt are planning a performance. They tell her she will perform a kautuvam with her older sister, and perhaps, if she does well, they will become a duo, and go travelling, and even dance in the films.

The girl’s mother and her aunt are just sitting there, each one leaning against a pillar, a little tired after the day’s work, and after planning how they will keep more of the payment after the next performance—that is always a problem, the way the musicians and the teacher try to grab the payment—they begin to sing. This is the singing they do when they are sad and anxious, the girl can tell; it makes the hair stand up on her forearms. It is the most beautiful padam, melancholy, sweet, haunting, fearful. It seems be a padam about love coming to an end between a man and a woman. When I was a child, I trusted you, and you betrayed me. You have left me behind. The girl moves restlessly, wondering.

It is 1947. Things are coming to an end for the girl, for her older sister, for her mother and her aunt.

Dancer and writer Srividya Natarajan’s novel The Undoing Dance tells the story of three generations of an illustrious devadasi family


Updated Date: Dec 11, 2018 15:15 PM

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