Dancing into New Tomorrows

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Photo: S. Shrikhande

Recently, I attended the dance performance of a young niece, the kind of debut performance termed an arangetram. It was a delicately crafted performance, flawless and beautiful. Mostly devotional in content, as most such performances are, but brought to life by the sparkle of youthful dancers who take their craft seriously, and by parents and a wider community who take pride in their achievements.

The dance style was Bharatanatyam, the dance form that Padma Venkatraman placed at the heart of her beautiful YA novel about ability, yearning and hope, A Time to Dance.

Bharatanatyam itself is a kind of phoenix art form revived from its temple dancer origins and made respectable by the formidable and vastly talented Rukmini Devi Arundale. As to why the art form previously known as “sadir” was dying out, that’s a more complicated story, related in part to colonialism and the imposition of Victorian morals on a society the colonizers failed to understand; in part to the collapse of a sacred tradition and to twentieth-century embarrassment about its devolution.

Viveka Chauhan‘s eloquent film explores this history but it also shows how an ancient form not only can be owned and shaped and changed by successive generations but must be. Art must always remain a commentary on life and its changing times, raising questions about who we are and why we behave as we do.

Witness this bending of Bharatanatyam to a more recent history–in part a history of Rukmini Devi’s own time:

This past November, Bay Area artists Rupy Tut and Nadhi Thekkek produced a mixed media bharatanatyam performance entitled Broken Seeds (Still Grow). Presented at The Flight Deck in Oakland, CA, Broken Seeds featured live spoken word and music, along with projections of Tut’s calligraphy and miniature paintings as a backdrop to Thekkek’s choreography. The dynamic performance captured the violent and complex history of Partition—the splitting of India into the independent nations of India and Pakistan at the close of the British Empire—and connected the questions around displacement and discrimination that characterized that event with the South Asian immigrant experience in America. (Excerpt courtesy of SAADA).

There you go. Another dance through time and history. Another way to think about it all.

To the amazing young dancers who gave us so much joy that evening, I hope you continue to dance. But I also hope you raise questions through your dance that are important to your generation and to the country in which you live. I hope you change the form to suit the new decades through which your life will take you, decades beyond my reach but not beyond my imagining.

Did I Get it Right?

asianFrom time to time, I get asked to read work in progress set in India or within an Indian expat community, to see if the writer “got it right.” I used to consult on quite a few of these at one time. I’d get requests from writers and from publishers. There haven’t been as many lately. That could be because they were taking over my desk, and I began pleading lack of time.

I’ve begun to realize lately that there’s a whole new bunch of writers and illustrators of South Asian origin. Well, new for an old bird like me! At one time you could count us on your fingers, all five of us in the US and Canada. Maybe 7 if you counted the UK!

So I’m betting I’m not the only one fielding these requests now. Which is great, because honestly, it was never my favorite kind of teaching activity!

But here are some questions I’ve found helpful when reading what I will call an outsider manuscript:

  • What cultural borders does the work cross? Are those natural to the story or do they feel forced or imposed?
  • Does the source culture feel real? Not in an abstract way, not like a tourist video, but real from the viewpoint of the story? This means the details and their physicality–what things are called, how they are used. Clothes, shoes, utensils, the materials of which each of these is made. That’s the heart of getting it right and it’s tricky because you can’t get all of it from Google. You need to dig deeper, if it’s not something you know.
  • Is the author’s awareness of the target audience too overwhelming? What’s the writer’s stance? Does the story keep stopping with a lurch so the writer can step out of it to explain some cultural quirk or idiom or gesture or situation? What is that saying about the writer’s comfort? What is it saying about assumptions of readership? How would a kid from the culture concerned feel?
  • Do the large story decisions carry resonance for me? Or do they feel as if they too are imposed by an overly mainstream sensibility, or by false assumptions about the people the writer is trying to create?
  • How is language used in narrative? What are the rhetorical choices? Is the idiomatic mix enough to convey flavor, but not so much as to caricature? (E.g., Is the river called by its local name, Ganga, or has the author turned it into “Mother Ganges”in a clumsy attempt at translation?)
  • Are the cultural depictions specific to the particular region of the subcontinent? Would someone with ties to the region recognize them? Does the writer avoid using pan-Indian conflations? Or does s/he treat all of the region as much the same, and all its people? Are the religions conflated? Do the names reflect intentional cultural fusion or is that juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim first and last names purely a mistake?
  • Is there a story beyond the greatness or the despair or the problems of the culture and place and people in question? Or is the story just a vehicle for what I call the 3 Fs (Food, Flowers, Festivals)?

Keep in mind that “getting it right” is a subjective judgment. But if you’ve been asked to deliver your assessment, take a stand that is fair and thoughtful. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. When I read someone else’s work in progress it behooves me to remember that every book may contain flaws, and that includes my own.

Process Talk: Padma Venkatraman on A Time to Dance

Padma Venkatraman is the aa time to dance cover - large fileuthor of YA novels Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End. Of her latest novel, released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ, the Kirkus reviewer writes:

Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one.

I traded e-mails with Padma about her writing and in particular this book.  

[Uma] Talk about what made you a writer, and how you ended up writing for young readers.

[Padma] I got a doctorate in oceanography (nothing to do with reading or writing) because I like numbers, and I wanted to choose a profession that would give me financial independence. But I’ve always loved writing, and as life progressed, that love only deepened. So finally, I became brave enough to give up oceanography and try my hand at writing a novel.

 Thus far, my three novels are for the young adult audience – partly because I feel that books are more likely deepen a young person’s empathy and compassion; older readers are more set in their ways – they’re less likely to change (as people) because of something they’ve read.  It’s also in part because the movies in my mind have thus far featured teen protagonists as stars. Then again, right now, I’m working on a novel for adults, so I do sometimes hear older voices in my head.

 [Uma] Your books all draw upon the Indian subcontinent—its history, its lesser known stories, its social dynamics, and iconic character types that reflect everyday life in the region. Will you tell me what the importance is of setting to you? How much of it is craft and how much a personal exploration through fiction?

PadmaVenkatraman3 [Padma] I’m American and I love my American home and my family. But India is where my journey as a human being (and thus as a writer) began, because it’s where I lived when I was young. My childhood was rather horrid in many ways – but then again, there were moments of beauty and love even during tough times, and the Indian culture left an indelible impact on my mind.

I also read many Indian writers (poets and novelists) as a young person and I’m still fascinated with my origins, I suppose, which is probably rather self-centered! So yes, it is a personal exploration. But I’m also starting – after decades of living in America – to “own” the American culture – and am, in my current work in progress, exploring it.

[Uma] What are the origins of Veda’s story for you? 

[Padma] When I was 19 years old, I was bitten by a Russell’s Viper – one of the four most poisonous Indian snakes – on a trip back to India. I almost died, and it’s a miracle that I survived without having to have my leg amputated (it had turned all the colors of the rainbow and looked rather like something Renoir might have painted for a while). That experience – of nearly losing my leg, not to mention my life, and of being so close to death – solidified within me a sense of spirituality (without necessarily any religiosity per say). I didn’t realize this until recently, but Veda’s story was born of that experience.

[Uma] Why is this a verse novel? How does form affect content in this story?

[Padma] The easy answer: because when Veda’s character possessed me, I heard verse. Of course, nothing’s as simple as that, is it?

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Young Bharatanatyam dancer. Photo source: Padma Venkatraman’s personal collection. All rights reserved.

I fought against writing A Time to Dance in verse  because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Other wonderful poets: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me, as did my marvelous agent, Rob Weisbach and my star editor, Nancy Paulsen. Along the way, another editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, provided insights that were vital. His confidence in me felt like permission to try lean, spare prose.

Finally, on my 101st draft or so, I had an epiphany. Stories that feature a character’s spiritual growth are rare. It was the core of Veda’s story. As was her love of dance. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A Time to Dance – go beautifully with verse.

In this story, rather than form affecting content, it was the other way around: Veda’s voice (content) dictated form. And I’m glad she spoke in verse, and I’m grateful to all those who trusted that I could listen to her properly, including my wonderful husband, Rainer Lohmann. It was really a tremendous relief that it’s been so well reviewed. I’m glad not just for my own sake but for the sake of the many differently abled (disabled) people I interviewed during the process of writing the novel. It’s their story, not mine.

[Uma] Thank you, Padma! Much luck with this and future projects.