Dancing through their lives
An engaging and irreverent account of three remarkable,unconventional women, writes ARUNDHATI SUBRAMANIAM of Sukanya Rahman's book.
Indrani Rahman...living for dance.
I EMBARKED on Sukanya Rahman's Dancing in the Family with trepidation. What I dreaded was hagiography. For the propensity to flatten individuals into icons is a trait with which Indian classical dancers seem particularly well endowed. It felt good, however, to be proved wrong, and to discover a candid, well-written chronicle instead. Not a shrill press brochure rhapsody. Not a dreary catalogue of facts. But a funny engaging memoir of three generations of unconventional women Ragini Devi, Indrani Rahman and Sukanya told by a genuine storyteller, warm without being sentimental, irreverent without being ungenerous.
With her prefatory declaration that her narrative took shape through "the little unsolicited nuggets" garnered from her mother, you sense already that you're in good hands a raconteur who knows that it's the cunning sliver of trivia that makes for evocative biography. The most compelling portrait in the book is that of Sukanya's grandmother, Ragini Devi (1893-1981), dancer, scholar, and incorrigible rebel. With goggle-eyed disbelief, we follow the exploits of this audacious free-spirit, gifted with the ability of unflagging self-invention. Born Esther Luella Sherman in Minneapolis, an early passion for dance and "an eccentric fascination for the exotic" catapults her into marriage with Ramlal Bajpai, an Indian revolutionary. The Orientalist fashion of the times enables her to rub dark make-upon her skin, and reincarnate as Ragini Devi in New York, where she breezily informs gullible reporters that she is a high-caste Kashmiri brahmin, capable of performing "the invisible dances of Tibet" "dancing that cannot be seen by the naked eye"!
There's more to come. A whirlwind affair with visiting Marxist poet, Harindranath Chattopadhyay. A blithe desertion of her husband (she sold all the furniture in their apartment when he was out). The delivery of a baby girl on board a ship to Pondicherry. A fateful encounter with the great rajadasi, Jetti Tayamma. Performance tours all over India for which she assumed the multiple avatars of dancer, impresario, stage manager, lighting and costume designer. Her many romances. Her lifelong passion for Kathakali and her formative years with Vallathol in Kerala Kalamandalam. Her incredible escape from a hotel window in wartime Paris (when she couldn't settle the bill). Her ingenious scheme of packing her nine-year-old daughter in a laundry bag when crossing the Canadian border to the United States. Her stubborn preference for an impoverished existence over a secure "apple pies and dumplings" lifestyle in Minneapolis. Her dramatic refusal to allow her daughter to marry (until her canny son-in-law-to-be offers to pay the passage for her return to India).
The saga unfolds relentlessly, and we remain hooked to its nail-biting finish. Against this context of chronic flamboyance, we begin to understand daughter, Indrani's need to escape and carve out an identity of her own. Marriage at 15, to Habib Rahman, a Muslim architect 16 years her senior, becomes her escape route. The author sensitively evokes her mother's determination to become a dancer, as well as her father's gradual acceptance that "dance would always come before all else" for his wife.
Interestingly, we are not offered a naively romantic picture of her mother's success. On the one hand, we see Indrani's undeniable commitment: her arduous training under Chokkalingam Pillai, her readiness to sell her gold bangles to finance a trip to Chennai to further her dance studies, her enthusiastic espousal of Odissi. On the other hand, the machinations of the dance circuit are evoked as well: we see her feverishly typing letters to "various contacts", as well as her ritual morning calls to Delhi's cultural honchos (beginning with "Oh! I hope I didn't wake you", followed by the mandatory "apologetic giggle").
There is, moreover, a bracing honesty in Sukanya Rahman's admission that she was secretly relieved to be the mother of two sons. No more daughters meant a reprieve from the "agonising" challenge of "having to uphold the high standards set by my mother and grandmother". She confesses to temperamental differences and moments of tension when she began touring with her mother, but also recalls the sheer exhilaration of "flying across the stage together" in the tillana.
What finally makes the narrative so captivating are also the delicious aforementioned "nuggets" strewn along the way: a little girl's memory of the orbits of spittle that issued from Guru Sukhdev Maharaj's mouth as he recited the bols during Indrani's Kathak class; or art critic and Indologist, Charles Fabri's refusal of onion pakoras when visiting, on the grounds that they would induce him to pass Vayu!
Dancing in the Family deserves to be read, not merely because it is about extraordinary women set against the changing historical backdrop of Indian classical dance, but primarily because it is a story well told.
The combination of affection, humour and critical comment makes you trust this author and the genuineness of her familial bond far more than a worshipful panegyric ever would.
Dancing in the Family, Sukanya Rahman, HarperCollins, Rs. 500.
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