Thirteen generations before the protagonists of The Undoing Dance are born, a king in Tamil Nadu is raising a great tower over his Siva temple. He is thwarted when his engineers fail to raise a great dome over the tower. The god appears in a dream to explain the failure: a dancer dismissed from the king’s service happens to be the god’s favourite, and only with her aid will the monument be completed. That was the dancer Annakili Naachiyar, and her legend has passed down through her descendants to the the very end of the devadasi tradition of Kalyanikkarai, Tamil Nadu.

In another of Srividya Natarajan’s registers this might have been conveyed as Shakespearean double entendre. Natarajan is a vividly irreverent comedian, and no mean Shakespearean, as the title of her previous novel, No Onions Nor Garlic, indicated. But No Onions – a book that many an Indian reviewer believes they alone have read – and The Undoing Dance are also zealously, and perhaps overzealously, careful about choosing their targets. No Onions was a campus satire about the Tamil Brahmin hold over academic life in Chennai, which swiped broadly and prankishly at every target in a poonal (a janeudhari, to employ the North Indianism du jour).

Her second novel is about the Tamil Brahmin hold over artistic life in Chennai, but it is serious, meditative and, in parts, wistful. In narrating a long but intimate drama about families breaking up and mending, it also becomes a story about the brahminical hold over private life. If puritanism is the enemy of art, it suggests, how can a caste system obsessed with purity be anything but art’s executioner? Its plot, nimbly woven back and forth through time, is a frame both for Natarajan’s argument for revisiting the history of dance, and for her attempts at finding fresh and appealing ways to describe the art itself.

The threads

Annakili Naachiyar’s twentieth-century descendant Rajayi is a dancer like her mother and grandmother before her. She was brought up to immerse herself in her art. However, the culture of patronage that once sustained dancers like her forebears has given way under the economic and moral blows of British imperialism. Her young daughter Kalyani must be sent away with a do-gooding white woman, eager to save the child from what evangelical Christian missionaries perceive as a life of immorality and exploitation.

Indian independence replaces the British with an upper-caste ruling class. Their own economic and moral interests lie in erasing both the labour and the style of the temple artists, now conveniently derided as deviants, opportunists or simpletons as Brahmins take over their music and dance. Into this busy new Madras, Kalyani emerges, and marries a successful arts promoter. How they navigate their marriage, and how much of her past Kalyani is able to reveal to her husband Balan, forms one tightly-wound thread of the story.

The other unspools as we learn what has happened to Rajayi, who is left behind in rural Kalyanikkarai to eke out a living near the temple where her forebears danced, until a film crew arrives one day to put her in a documentary. A catastrophe sends Kalyani in search of her mother again, and the novel ends with the women reckoning with the aftermath. The novel unfolds almost wholly in the voices of women, from the reserved and courageous Kalyani to her unhappy mother-in-law Vijaya, and Hema, Kalyani and Balan’s young daughter.

On the nose

Natarajan, perhaps a little too aware of the readers most likely to be provoked to distaste by her story, may come on too strongly for the liking of readers who know and sympathise with her argument. The criticism of Bharatanatyam will sound familiar to those with even a passing knowledge of Chennai’s performing arts scene. (TM Krishna’s regular readers, for example, will know and embrace it.)

The voices of her characters tend to be overriden by their author’s penchant for telling rather than showing, and showing rather than concealing. At the very end of the novel, a character likens Rajayi’s dancing to the voice of Billie Holliday – a beautiful and charming analogy, but one followed up by the character wondering what connects them: “the old connection between art and fertility and death?” A double-meaning joke would have been less sophomorish.

The dance historian Jennifer Homans observed that ballet is “an art of memory, not history”. With no texts, its tradition is passed down physically. Teachers encode its stories, and their own style, in the bodies of their students. Natarajan’s dancers also live and learn in this way. But when a society decides to interrupt this reality, hoping to capture its historical grandeur and social importance while substituting its memory for an artificially sanitised one, the form is violated to its core.

“How did my mother dance so differently from me?” Kalyani, who’s spent her formative years as “Callie”, studying the Bible and learning the austerities of Protestant evangelism in English, wonders. “Her dance was part enactment (so remote, so ritualised, her neck flicking lightly from side to side, keeping the beat, no vulgar grasping at the real), and part conversation (so easy, so natural, like talking to one’s cook or one’s husband). I had to act. All the dancers in the class now were acting their emotions; they had been watching the way actors emoted in the movies; they didn’t know how to enact anything.”

Enacting, not acting

The Undoing Dance seems to want not merely to re-evaluate this past, but also to do right by it. It becomes deeply didactic, as discussions about the “industrialisation” of classical arts habitually do. This doesn’t take away the pleasure of letting us be led by the story, rather than its motivating factors. But it does tend to echo the arguments of real life a little too resonantly. I was left to wonder if it’s possible to do justice to the past in fiction without trying to rescue it. (I suppose the answer is no.)

Everything exciting and irritating about Natarajan’s style here is also true of No Onions, as well as of her text for the graphic novel Gardener In The Wasteland, a tribute to Jotiba Phule’s Ghulamgiri. She is a versatile artist and a staunch moralist, but not understated in either respect. Her books induce laughter and tears the more easily for it. We are fortunate to have them. But in The Undoing Dance, a study of how artistry is boxed up to be consumed as middlebrow culture, I missed, more than in any other instance, the author trying to enact rather than act, herself.

The Undoing Dance, Srividya Natarajan, Juggernaut.