Indian religion

Book review: Dance as a metaphor for transcending faith and religion

I recently read a quote, “…the world can be turned into paradise by accepting that everyone is right from their own angle”. It was a Jain text, I think.

R Seshasayee’s debut novel, The Dance of Faith, is a prayer for the world to be turned to heaven. It is the story of a young Muslim boy who falls in love with dance and longs to become one with it. But his journey is not easy. Our world is complicated by labels and stereotypes that divide us.

Anandhi loves Ahmed. His vermilion world and Ahmed’s green have coexisted and yet are two worlds that do not know each other. She transforms between Anandhi and Ayesha, because Islam means surrender, and that is only saranagathi. Zaheer wants to go to Srirangam; he wants to dance. But it seems he can’t do either because he’s a Muslim.

The Diva says the art is a form of worship, but states that non-believers cannot connect to the soul of the art. For Kumar, the rich and powerful are ‘them’, and to align themselves with ‘them’ is betrayal. He uses Mysore Sandal soap to erase the memory of generations of sewage cleaning.

When Zaheer makes tomato chutney in his guru’s kitchen, Sharma, who is the musician in the guru’s band, skips lunch. Zaheer stops eating meat and asks for meatless paya curry. Moeen bhai at Farhan is not happy. The guru’s husband says that if one eats curd (pronounced in one word!) twice a day for a week without complaining, it proves that one is a Brahmin. Zaheer, of course, couldn’t. He is fully aware that he is somewhere between poricha rasam and paya curry.

Zaheer is told that if you are Hindu you can learn to dance, if you are a girl you can learn to dance. He asks, why can’t the two coexist? Why can’t I be both? Her family says no, the Diva says no, and her classmates say no too and ask her to drop her shorts.

There’s Anbarasan, the young rationalist teacher, who tries to instill reason by asking questions and using irony. But who can hear his voice, when the drummers reach a crescendo, drrrrrdik? Aatha has possessed “Goddess Man”, who flays and is in a frenzy. He…not Aatha…reveals uncomfortable truths about the village chiefs. And so a goat is killed to appease the goddess and stop further revelations. Years later, Anbarasan is still struggling to find an answer to his question: “Do I need a religion to identify myself with?” We have encountered them all in this book.

Seshasayee cleverly weaves in the story of Zaheer, the story of the one who conquered and broke the chains, Andaal. “I don’t feel like a Brahmin girl…Mentally, I identify with the Yadava clan…Yadava girls were not restricted by Brahmin orthodoxy. She refuses to subscribe to human conventions and defines her own faith, her own religion and her own personal relationship with the Divine.

So why can’t Zaheer too become one with his divine dance, Nrithya? Why should he subscribe to human conventions and traditions and be subjected to the Procrustean treatment? The book asks these questions. But we lock everyone in well-labeled compartments and not everyone can break free.

The language is exquisite. The village fete, the orchard where Zaheer and Kalaivani ostensibly learn to dance, “Later at night, when illicit activities took place beneath the dark caverns of its thick foliage, the orchard became an avid voyeur”; the scenes of Madras, Marina, “this socialist construction of Nature”; the “bylanes of Sowcarpet” where the city timidly covered its heads”, the Sabhas, “the wrestling rings where the feast of the slug of power is played out in the world of the performing arts”; all come to life.

Cinema cannot be far behind in the story of a Tamil boy dreaming of Bharatanatyam. It was when Zaheer saw the famous Padmini-Vyjayanthimala dance in valiban Vanjikkottai, that he came to his world. Anandhi/Ayesha Perimma, slips an MGR photo into her blouse and hums her songs endlessly. Zaheer reaches the temple of cinema, Kodambakkam, but he recognizes that group dancing is not his divinity.

Dancer Narthaki Nataraj has often mentioned that her experience is like that of Siva’s girl in love in Appar’s “Munnam avanudaya naamam kettaal” (she first asked what his name was). Zaheer loses himself too, his sense of gender, his parents and everything in Nrithya. He is also like Andaal, who lost herself in Krishna. He defines and decides his God. He bows to Nataraja with admiration. He sees the Lord lying on the serpent. He bows in pure devotion to the One and Only Supreme Allahu Akbar. No labels.

The language sometimes sounds like Seshasayee wrote it in Tamil and then translated it into English. I don’t know if it’s planned or if it’s something special for bilingual writers. There is a scene where I felt Seshasayee was speaking directly to the reader. But I can understand why. It is his urgency. “Every faith is incandescent”, quotes Seshasayee Amir Khusro. If you think art heals divisions, read this book; if you don’t know it yet, read it.

Check out the book on Amazon.

The Dance of Faith by R Seshasayee.

Publisher: HarperCollins.

Price: ₹499.

Pages: 320.

(The examiner, Judge Prabha Sridevan (retired), is a former judge of the Madras High Court)

Published on

September 07, 2022