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Dancers and Their Lives

Lakshmi Subramanian

By C.S. Lakshmi
Kali for Women, 2003, pp. 472, Rs. 400.00


This is an anthology of interviews conducted with eleven performing women artists and forms the second part of a series that C.S.Lakshmi has edited with an introduction. While the first dealt with women musicians and their engagement with the art form, the present monograph features dancers as the chief protagonists whose stories mirror the complex evolution of classical dance in modern India and its changing social context. What follows is a richly textured story of their art form, their individual location within the world of performance and of their complex negotiation with multiple social roles as mother, wife, teacher and artist. Not all of the respondents are uniformly articulate, not all of them are even in empathy with the questions put forward to them, not all of them have the expected responses to the queries that the compiler thought were especially significant in an understanding of the art from and its more recent transformation in the twentieth century—but this does not detract from the value of the narratives. These offer rare insights into the minds and lives of women performers and their relationship with the art form in all its complexity. In fact to my mind, it is the questionnaire that is the problem, for it seems to have been a little too informed by the compiler’s own predilections and interpretation of the social dynamics of classical dance in modern India. The result is that it puts an unnecessary burden on the respondents.   In all eleven dancers have been interviewed. Three categories of artists emerge – the aristocratic, conservative Muslim who was able to break off from purdah and direct a prodigious amount of innate talent towards artistic pursuits and carve a special niche in the world of performance, straddling the domains of the classical with the popular, the middle class dancer and finally the traditional performer. Zohra Sehgal falls under the first category, even as a member of a conservative Muslim household, she sang and danced and then took to acting in theatre and cinema—all very reminiscent of the life and pursuit of a singer like Malka Pukhraj.   The bulk of the respondents belong predictably to the middle class whose engagement with dance was a direct by-product of the nationalist cultural project that aimed at relocating the art from the salon to the middle class domain. The project was informed by an intricate set of ...

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