Book Review: The Undoing Dance by Srividya Natarajan

About the book:

Source: The Hindu Business Line

Kalyani comes from a lineage of famous devadasis, though there is no place for her talent in the Madras of newly independent India. 

The devadasis, once celebrated as artists, are shunned as 'prostitutes' in a modern country. In exchange for a comfortable life as the wife of a wealthy arts promoter, Kalyani has to keep her origins hidden and abandon her mother, Rajayi. 

When a Bharatanatyam dancer from the city sets out to record Rajayi's dance repertoire on film, the carefully wrapped-up past threatens to unravel.

The Undoing Dance is a book about women and written by a woman with an unmatched poignancy. The story revolves around devadasis and their struggle for normal existence after being outlawed in India.

'In parts of southern and eastern India, a devadasi or jogini was a young woman who dedicated her life to the worship and service of a Hindu deity or a temple.[when?]Devadasis could be as young as 7 years old when they were initiated into this way of life. The initiation or 'Pottukattu' ceremony was similar to Hindu marriage in some aspects and the devadasi was expected to take up the traditional duties performed by a Hindu wife belonging to that time period. In addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women also learned and practiced classical Indian artistic traditions like Bharatanatyam and Odissi dances. They had a high social status, as dance and music were an essential part of temple worship.' (Source: Wikipedia)

Set in Tamil Nadu, the book takes us through the journey of a family of devdasis since last 13 generations. Neatly traced by a family chart to help a reader, the book sets a tone from the first chapter itself. The narrative is multi dimensional with the story being told from close to six perspectives. However, each one of them is equally mesmerizing and captivating. 

The primary characters of Rajayi (an ageing devadasi), Kalyani (her daughter), Balan(Kalyani's husband), Hema (their daughter), Vijaya (Balan's mother) and Padmasini are so distinct from each other and yet the common thread of life and its sufferings binds them all to create a spell binding tale. The characters are largely connectable for their apathy and though they have their own shades of grey, you simply cannot hate them for being like that. Throughout the book, the characters tend to grow on you, slowly and steadily. They make you cry, laugh and most importantly believe in your self. Layered and relatable, the characters have the capacity to create a special place for themselves in the reader's mind.

Bringing together her own experiences of being a classical dancer and a teacher, author Srividya Natarajan brings alive the nuances of dancing exceptionally well through her writing. Backed with strong research and immense understanding of both, the devadasi culture and dance as an art form, this book is a treat for history lovers. The language is profoundly poetic with a lot of lines which force you to pause the reading and ponder, on life and it's real meaning.
"I dreamt that an art restorer worked on me, dissolved the shallow false city away from my skin, let the old town appear. I dreamt of unpinning the present and finding the past intact. I dreamt of making everything continuous, of making myself clear." (Pg.132)


"It would be ideal for someone who could see this devadasi from a feminist point of view - you know, poetic visuals, but a story line: the modern dancer connects with the liberated women of the past, sisterhood, that kind of thing." (Pg. 157)

Interestingly, this book is not limited to talking about feminism or the plight of devadasis post being outlawed. It also talks about caste, as we witness the changes India went through post independence through the characters in the story. It is heart-wrenching to read how someone who was once worshiped and considered pious was overnight reduced to being an impure woman.

The raw ordeal of their challenges is one that leaves you with goosebumps, their pain, humiliation and trauma so palpable in those words.Through Kalyani's story you experience the social changes that impact one's personal life to an extent that the past looks like a dream. Long after I had finished reading this book it left me thinking of the age old cultural practices and their impact on current generation.

Recommended for all history lovers and people who enjoy stories inspired from real life! It is also a brilliant book to understand the various changes the Indian society has undergone since 1947 and how those continue to impact our lives till date.

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