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Book extract: The Undoing Dance
- Srividya Natarajan

December 12, 2018

(Excerpted with permission from The Undoing Dance, Srividya Natarajan, Juggernaut Books.)

We waited for the performance to begin. It was gaspingly hot. The fans were too high up to be much help. The nasal sisters had stopped singing. A microphone was being temperamental. A baby began crying and was taken out, its receding wail broken into hiccups by rough joggling. Behind the backdrop the dancer walked up and down busily, her ankle bells proclaiming her location. On a rug at stage right, the musicians tuned their instruments. The mridangam player tested the pitch of his drum - dhim - dhim - dhim - raising the note infinitesimally with a tap! of his wedge and stone, over the thongs that bound the stretched skin to the wooden barrel. Dhim - dhim - tap - tap. It was a pleasant sound. The Biscuit King splayed his fingers comfortably on his thighs and leaned forward.

The microphone was dragged downstage and the girl of the brochures and the earrings shuffled a sheaf of papers. We had to endure English translations before each piece on the programme. I couldn't bear their agonizing godwottery, the unintended comedy of their 'Sakhi, bring my Lord without delays' and their 'O Preserver of the Universe, we offer Thee obeisance'. Who the hell says 'obeisance', anyway?

Beside me, a gold watch flashed on a wrist raised to point. 'Look, there's Padmasini. You'd think she'd get someone decent to do her hair. Isn't it ghastly?'

'She charges her students seventy-five for a debut performance.'

'Seventy-five thousand?' 'That's what they say. And a silk sari and a gold necklace on top of that.'

'Hmm. I wouldn't be at all surprised. My daughter's teacher charges almost as much and she's not even famous.'

'Why don't you switch to . . .' -mumble mumble, while I slapped ineffectually at the mosquitoes that were devouring my legs - '. . . the latest craze. My niece has lost ten kilos since she started - just last year. Aerobics and dance together, you know, a solid workout.'

Downstage left, a brass image of Nataraja, god of the dance, was set in a crush of flowers. A semicircle of incense sticks fanned out before the image, like the spokes of a broken wheel, tips turning into wavering smoke. Standing just behind the image now, positioned so that her eyes could sweep over the front row, Padmasini tinkled a bell briskly. Her devotion was strictly mechanical. Her mind was elsewhere. Padmasini, dinner companion of Chief Ministers, winner of awards, frequent flyer, had raked the wingchairs with her eyes and had spotted Appa's elegant sherwani and silver hair.

The girl on the stage read something from her script about Bharatanatyam's glorious unbroken three- thousand-year-old tradition. The dance captured the relationship between the Earthly Soul and the Divine Soul, she informed us.

'Padmasini's done something new to her blouse,' said the woman beside me. 'It disguises that big tire at the back. Who's her tailor?'

'Nonsense, it can't be the blouse. I keep telling you, it's liposuction.'

Now Padmasini's tailor bulked out her hips to compensate for newly acquired adipose around the chest; now he padded the bodice to offset the sudden burgeoning of the hips. These advances in costume design were closely watched each year by admirers and detractors alike. Between breast and hip, Padmasini's exposed abdominal flesh danced its own jelly-jig. Middle-aged patrons of the arts appeared to find this fascinating.

The dancer from New Jersey bounced energetically on to the stage, a plastic smile pinned to her face. Padmasini's fear of becoming passť in an age of innovations was reflected in her choreography. The music was speeded up. The mridangam player's face and shoulder muscles were pinched into obscene bulges with the strain. I winced as he assaulted his drum. The girl made frantic efforts to keep up with the music. She didn't complete any of her movements. She cantered all over the stage, two beats shy of synchronization.

I would have liked to write the review: 'Let us subtract from the overall impression the gold lace on her costume, of which she wore twice the normal allowance. What mark shall we assign what was left? Two on ten for incompetent footwork, with a penalty for screamingly coquettish eye-rolling and bad emoting, this reviewer regrets to say, even though the danseuse's daddy is the owner of the biggest software consultancy in Newark, New Jersey.'

What was truly, fantastically, grotesque was the - what can I call it? - the sexiness. It was a grovelling, bootlicking, desperate sexiness. The dancer clearly found it difficult to believe in it herself. There was absolutely no dignity in it. It was a special kind of stagey sexiness pioneered by Padmasini, a sexiness that had become the norm with bharatanatyam dancers. But what made me squirm with revulsion seemed to make the rest of Padmasini's audience perfectly happy. At any rate, no one complained. Press reviews of Padmasini's performances or her students' were, at worst, a kind of orphanage gruel - bland, indifferent, leaving one wanting more of something, anything, as long as it wasn't one more glib remark about the 'spirituality' of it all. Spirituality, that bogus trick. I hate the word spirituality, hate it, it makes me want to throw up, it fills my guts with acid. I hate the blindness and smugness and laziness and snobbery and self-conceit of the people who trot it out.

At best, Padmasini's reviewers were abjectly admiring. The Emperor may be mother-naked, his foul prick covered with warts. But the exigencies of advertising didn't allow the Press to actually call his sartorial bluff. Everybody knows, nobody cares. As Appa once put it, the dancer's father may turn out to be Croesus, and then where would the Press be?

Srividya Natarajan was the student of dance Guru Kittappa Pillai and of the singer T. Brinda. She has taught and performed classical dance for over thirty years all over the world. Her first novel was a funny satire on caste titled No Onions Nor Garlic. 'The Undoing Dance' is her new novel that brings to life the lost world of the devadasis while sharply critiquing the artifice of today's dance.
Hardcover: 400 pages / Publisher: Juggernaut Books (30 Nov 2018)
ISBN-10: 9386228890 / ISBN-13: 978-9386228895







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