Book extract: ‘The Undoing Dance’

Nattuvanar Kittappa Pillai taking a class in a typical ‘silambu koodam’ in Thanjavur in the 80s. Photo: Women of Pride  

Book extract: ‘The Undoing Dance’


‘You must —’ Amma said, on the day of my first dance lesson, folding my wrist as far back as it would go, not stopping until I winced, and placing it on my hip over the red band, ‘— keep a straight back in Samu Vathyar’s class.’

She braided a heavy kunjalam into the end of my plait. She took my face in her palms and looked at it critically. ‘Hmm, you’ll do.’ She kissed me. ‘Put on your slippers,’ she said. ‘It’s hot outside.’

On the street, with my slippered feet, I rubbed out the hopscotch squares that the neighbours’ girls had made by dragging their heels in the fine dust. They played in a group, and I could hear them every day, arguing: you stepped on the line, I saw you, you dropped your tile... Once, I said, ‘Yes, she stepped on the line, I saw her.’ They rounded on me: ‘Who asked you, you stupid thing?’ I never questioned much the fact that they would not let me play with them. For as long as I could remember it had been like this....

Three houses away, Samu Vathyar sat on a wooden chair in a pillared hall larger than my mother’s, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, his hand holding his foot, his body charged with nervous energy.

‘I’ve told you all a hundred times, there will be no more dance teaching in this family.’

‘Let the child learn,’ Vadivel said. He was Samu Vathyar’s third son and the only one of his sons who still lived in Kalyanikkarai. ‘She is our Rajayi’s daughter, she’s bound to be good.’


My black-and-gold kunjalam swinging at the end of my plait, my red sash tight around my waist, I was a supplicant in the temple of dance.

‘They’re calling the tevadiyas whores,’ Samu Vathyar said. My mother’s lips tightened. ‘What does that make us, then, Velu? Do you want to be famous as a pimp? The other castes are mocking us. I cannot hold my head up without shame. When something has come to the end of its time, and is ready to die, it must be allowed to die. This dance is finished. Better to sweep the floor in some rich man’s house than keep it alive.’

‘The child is eager to learn,’ my mother said. It was a lie; I didn’t care. ‘So many high-caste girls, brahmin girls, are learning to dance, and you are teaching them. Why would you turn Kalyani away?’

A group of devadasis dressed in white pose in front of a marquee before a performance in Madras in the early 20th century. Photo: Vintage Vignettes

A group of devadasis dressed in white pose in front of a marquee before a performance in Madras in the early 20th century. Photo: Vintage Vignettes  

Samu Vathyar was quiet for a long time. Then he sighed. ‘All right, Rajayi. For your sake. But this dance business is a vampire. It climbs on people’s backs. It will have your blood and the child’s blood and Velu’s blood.’

They spread a cloth on the floor and poured rice grains on it for the ritual of beginning to be a dancer. My mother took me by the hand and planted my feet on the rice. ‘Turn your feet out,’ Samu Vathyar said. ‘More. More. More. Don’t tip forward like that.’ He took up his stick and began calling the first step, in the slowest speed: thayya thai. By the time I finished, my thighs were on fire.

‘Down!’ he shouted. ‘Bend your knees! Open them wider! Go further down! What are you sticking your behind out for? Tuck it in!’ And by the time I finished learning the next step, the thayyum thatha, my arms were on fire too. ‘Hold your elbows higher,’ Samu Vathyar growled. ‘Even if a pack of monkeys jumps on your arm, it must not drop below the level of your shoulder!’ I imagined balancing monkeys on arms I held stretched like a bow. He was free with his tapping stick. He threw it at my feet when they were not turned out enough and he threw it at my wrists when they drooped. Luckily for me, he was in his sixties and his aim wasn’t very good.


Early devadasis lived lives of luxury and prestige. Photo: Devadasi System in Medieval Tamil Nadu

Early devadasis lived lives of luxury and prestige. Photo: Devadasi System in Medieval Tamil Nadu  


The Madras dance world is a Malebolge of backbiting and malice, of rehearsals broken up by tantrums, of poaching of musicians, of choreographers spitting at each other like alley cats after stealing each other’s ideas. By the end of the last December season, I decided that I was going to stop dancing. Amma and Appa dragged me to too many performances. All this culture was choking me.

‘I don’t want to go to dance class any more,’ I said to Appa one Saturday morning.

Appa was working at his rosewood desk. Files marked ‘NATAC 1990’ in bold letters lay open before him. He looked at me over his glasses. ‘Do you have an exam or something?’

‘No, I mean I want to stop for good,’ I said.

‘Has something happened?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I hate it, that’s all.’

‘Hate it? After all these years? Why?’

‘Because of all that stupid artificial sexiness camouflaged by talk about the human soul and the divine soul,’ I said.

He blinked. ‘What?’

‘Padmasini’s dance dramas make me gag. I hate the pining, languishing nayikas. I hate the phoney spirituality.’

Padmasini’s dance dramas upheld the virtues of traditional Hindu womanhood in every cranny of the world. Eyelashes fluttering, rubbery lips wobbling, she played all the young heroines herself. Radha, Sita, Draupadi. Always the same harrowing cliché of comehitherish but coy maidenhood. God knows why, but her audiences still bought tickets. In some mofussil backwater, I could understand; but in Madras, where all the old fogies prided themselves on their taste? There was no accounting for it.

Since Padmasini was too busy jet-setting to teach in her own school, her senior students did the job. She had turned them into astonishingly exact replicas of herself, and now they groomed the next generation of copycat dancers under the fake ethnic thatch... Then they got their chance to set up copycat dance factories. In Maine or Maryland or some place.

Appa put down his pen slowly and stared at me.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 6:53:09 AM |

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