I learned about this book from a Book Riot podcast that offered suggestions for reading more diversely, particularly among South Asian authors. I wrote down a slew of authors' names and book titles as I watched. I immediately focused on this book because of its setting: among a family of temple dancers, living in India in the mid-1500s. It sounded so intriguing, unlike anything I'd read before.
The story opens in 1611 and then quickly jumps back to 1554, the day that a daughter, Adhira, is born to Girija and her husband Gandar. She is their fourth and last child. Her father is the dance master of the temple of Krishna that lies just outside Jaisalmer, a walled citadel in Rajasthan in northern India. Gandar teaches the devadasis, the women dedicated to Krishna as temple dancers. They dance daily in honor and worship within the temple, as well as at at major holidays and important events like a raja's coronation. Through their dancing they are vessels for the god's blessings to flow to his servants. They are spiritually married to Krishna and are treated as holy themselves. No one may touch them, but after they dance, people rush to collect the dust their feet touched. There is however one major and unpleasant exception to the no-touching rule: once a devadasi reaches womanhood, she is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who becomes her patron. He is expected to support her and her family with generous gifts. In a particularly frustrating bit of double-standard, a devadasi must sleep with her patron whenever he summons her, but that makes her "impure," so she isn't allowed to dance for a few days. Any female child she bears him is destined to become a devadasi in turn, though girls born to outsiders can be accepted into the temple. In fact, like medieval convents, the temple can be a good place to deposit an extra unwanted daughter.
I found the whole temple fascinating, particularly the descriptions of the dances, which tell stories of Hinduism's gods and heroes. Often one dancer presents the whole story, shifting from character to character, embodying men and women, gods and goddesses, even animals and natural forces. According to the author's note, Anjali Mitter Duva is the co-founder of "an organization that teaches and presents India's classical kathak dance," as Gandar is teaching it to his students. She makes the dances come alive, even for someone like me with only an outsider's knowledge of Hinduism and ritual dance.
Equally interesting to me was the story of Adhira and her family. She narrates the story, looking back over her life. In a neat bit of story-telling, she explains that late in life she has been given a gift by the gods:
I am not sure why they acted as they did, or how they chose what knowledge to grant me and what to keep concealed, but I was given insight into the thoughts and feelings of others. Was it a moment of selfishness on the part of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva? Was it for our dance? I cannot presume it was just for me. Whatever the reason, I came, in hindsight, to know the minds and hearts of some of those closest to me when I was a child, a knowledge that allows me to tell this story.This allows Adhira to tell us of conversations and events that took place when she wasn't present.
It is not my story alone, therefore, but it is mine alone to tell.
Almost from the moment of her birth, her father assumes that she will become a devadasi, though she is not born to it, since her mother Girija is not one herself. It is clear from infancy however that Adhira will dance - that she is compelled to dance. Equally she is drawn to Krishna himself, with a strong faith and a desire to serve him through the dance. But her mother does not want her to follow that life, nor does her older brother Mahendra. Though trained by his father and an excellent dancer himself, he is determined instead to fight against the Muslims pushing south into India. A second brother, Hari Dev, was born with twisted legs, but the dance runs through him too, as patterns in his mind that he tries to share with his ultra-traditional father.
I enjoyed this book so much. I was particularly drawn to Girija, trying both to protect her children and to give them the freedom their father would deny them. Though she is outside the life of dance in the temple, she draws strength from her friendship with Manavi, the senior devadasi. Manavi's own daughter and granddaughter serve with her among the dancers, and she understands that Girija wants a different path for hers.
I see from the author's note that Anjali Mitter Duva is working on a second book, set in Lucknow in the 19th century. I'm guessing that the Mutiny will play a part in that story. I'm already looking forward to reading it.