BY Vani IN Book Reviews

An Ode to Bharatanatyam: ‘Rasia’ is a Heady Mix of Love & Jealousy

Vani via Quint

Born and brought up in the United States, ballet dancer, Vatsala Pandit is young, talented and free-spirited. She is also volatile in her temperament and fiercely wilful – a proverbial brat, so to say – and a complete antithesis of shy and introverted Bharatanatyam dancer, Manasi Bhattacharya. Between these two women is the drop-dead handsome hero of our story, dance virtuoso, Raj Shekhar Subramanian. Where Manasi is married to him. Vatsala covets him. Using dance as a theme to bind all her characters together, Koral Dasgupta creates a riveting tale of love, passion and obsession in her latest novel, Rasia (published by Rupa).

For someone who is a keen lover of all forms of art, it is not a surprise that she chose an idea like this to write her third novel, even so – “it required years of in-depth research, and no less, especially the bits about Bharatanatyam,” she tells me over an email. “I consulted with Thankamani Kutty’s dance team in Kolkata and Chitra Shankar from Singapore. An interview with choreographer Bosco Martis also helped me to get the attitude (of the dancers) right,” she says. However, since Bharatanatyam, as a dance form, has traditionally been used to interpret mythical legends from sacred Hindu texts, the novel is also replete with references to mythology. To her credit, instead of dumping all her research on the readers like a rookie writer, Dasgupta deftly melds it with the story. Here’s an excerpt from the novel where Manasi (Shekhar’s wife) ruminates on her fascination with Goddess Kali and how it led her to marry her engineer-turned-dancer husband:

“My fondness for Kali had started when I read the works of Ramkrishna Paramhansa and later, the complete works of Swami Vivekananda in my teens…In the meaning and representation of Kali, I find the most feminine purpose of a woman. ‘Destroy everything that adds to your pride; in fact, destroy your pride. Rebuild and rediscover, as if you are no one and you never had anything. Cleanse your system. Let not the evil tempt you towards a mundane existence. Exist fearlessly, as if there is no tomorrow; because actually, there isn’t one,’ I remember the preacher at Vivekananda Mandir saying thus. It is perhaps this fearlessness that lead me to instinctively marry a man who was going to pursue an uncertain career.” 

Explaining her many interests, Dasgupta tells me how she was brought up on a rich diet of literature, art and Indian mythology. “That list did not include Bharatanatyam, though,” she says. Despite that, the author has done an impressive job of explaining the nuances and techniques of this dance form to the readers. Most of this has been achieved through the main characters of her story, Manasi and Shekhar, both of whom run a dance academy in Mumbai called, Kala Mandir. Following is another excerpt from the book where Shekhar is explaining the origin of Bharatanatyam to one of his students:

Bharatanatyam was created not just for pleasure of the divine, but to embody cosmic relationships and expressions for all worlds. Hence, it draws inspiration from all activities, be it work or leisure, calm or laughter, war or peace. When Bharata along with the apsaras and Gandharvs performed Bharatanatyam for Shiva, he asked Maharishi Tandu to develop it further into a Tandava, which later came to mean ‘masculine’ style of dance, and got recognized as the Cosmic Dance of Shiva.”

In that way, the author has not only written a mature romance, but also one that leaves the readers (more so the NRI community) with a deep sense of appreciation for Indian art and culture. This is again one of the recurring themes in the novel, where Shekhar, the protagonist of the novel, is emphatic about not mixing and fusing Bharatanatyam with any other dance form like ballet, for instance. “Just like a mother doesn’t need to accentuate her beauty to come to her child, I feel Bharatanatyam is an extremely self-sufficient dance form, the beauty of which only increases the more you explore it within its boundaries,” he reiterates time and again in the novel.

Another theme that the author also captures in the novel, albeit a bit more subtly is of ‘unity’ – how an art form (any art form, for that matter) has the capacity to bind people. Raj Shekhar Subramanian, for instance, is an orphan. He is married to a Bengali, and training students who belong to different religions and come from all sorts of backgrounds. Together they compose and perform one of the most fascinating dance performances of their lives, aptly titled, Rasia – a conjugal dance between Lord Shiva and his two divine consorts, Gauri and Kali. These and other such themes explored in Rasiamake it quite unlike other romance novels flooding the market, and a most enjoyable read, that too.

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