A story in verse about the beauty of dance

Book review: A Time to Dance

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In http://librisnotes , a reviewer shares her opinion about a story, or perhaps a lengthy poem, about a dancer who suffers a horrible tragedy. Have you read A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman? Does this review give you the strength to do it? 

Veda Venkat lives in an apartment in Chennai with her Pa and Ma and her grandmother, Paati. Veda is a Bharatanatyam dancer. She lives and breathes dancing. She hears music everywhere in the world around her.

But Veda’s Ma encourages her to study because she wants Veda to become what she wanted to be, an engineer. Ma believes dancing is not a respectable career for a middle class girl.

Veda is very close to Paati who has had a hard life. Her husband died when she was young and Veda’s father just a baby. As a widow, Paati did not give up. Instead, she returned to college and became a teacher. She never remarried.

Veda, who trains with dance instructor, Uday Anna, wants more than anything to win the upcoming Bharatanatyam dance competition. When she makes it to the finals, Veda is ecstatic and certain she will win.

Veda competes in the Bharatanatyam dance competition and beats her nearest rival, Kamini. She is ecstatic and celebrates her victory with her best friend, Chandra, but her Ma is not so pleased. Paati tells her not to be discouraged about how things are going with her mother.

Tragedy strikes when the van taking the dancers, musicians and teachers home from the competition crashes. Veda’s right leg is badly mangled and despite the attempts by Dr. Murali to save her leg, she has her right foot amputated. In a split second, Veda’s life is changed- her dreams of dancing seemingly destroyed forever.

It feels like Shiva destroyed my universes of possibility,
like He’s dancing
on the ashes
of my snatched-away dreams.

While she is in hospital recovering from her injuries, Veda meets Mr. James, a prosethesist from America. James, or Jim as he asks Veda to call him, helps Veda with her rehabilitation, teaching her to use crutches and prepare for her new prosthetic. Veda finds herself feeling drawn to the kindly American man, even though he is much older than her.

Veda returns home and eventually to school where she is taunted about being lame. However her friend Chandra encourages her to be the fighter she’s always recognized her to be. While she has never considered herself beautiful, Veda felt that dancing and the control she had over her body, made up for her lack of beauty. Now she feels ugly and clumsy. But Chandra tells her it is her spirit that makes her so attractive.

Jim studies Bharatanatyam dance so he can understand Veda’s art and learn what she will need her prosthetic leg to be able to do. In his office he has several posters of dancers who suffered seriously leg injuries, yet still found the courage and ability to continue to dance. He tells Veda he will make her a leg she can dance on and Veda becomes determined that she will dance again. When she goes to see Uday Anna, who never even visited her while she was in the hospital, he tells her she cannot dance, that it is time for a new dream. Disillusioned and very upset, Veda returns home. When Veda tells Paati what happened, Paati tells her to seek out Dr. Dhanam, a Bharatanatyam teacher who teaches her dancers to express their emotions.

Dr. Dhanam accepts her but tells Veda she will need to begin again with the younger students. She will study with Govinda, a student of Dr. Dhanam’s who teaches young children. Veda finds Govinda, patient, kind and handsome. In turn, Govinda admires Veda’s demon-like desire to pursue what she wants in life, an ability he feels he does not have. Govinda wants to be a dancer but his parents want him to be an engineer.

As Govinda and Veda spend time together training, a deep friendship begins to blossom between the two. Gradually Govinda teaches Veda to accept herself as she is and to have patience to relearn dance.

After asking Akka if she might be in the play, Dhanam Akka gives Veda not one but two parts; a sick, old woman Buddha sees and the part of Gautami, a woman who came to Buddha with her dead son in her arms, asking him to bring her son back to life. Veda’s thrill is soon replaced by trepidation and discouragement when she finds the latter part difficult to portray as Akka wishes. Akka takes Veda aside and tells her she must learn to dance the way she wants her students to, with compassion. To do this, Akka tells Veda she must first acknowledge her own pain that she has experienced from the loss of her foot.

Although Govinda understands dance and is more mature in his approach to his art than Veda, he lacks the courage to pursue his dream of being a professional dancer and teacher. With his parents forcing him to curtail his dancing, Govinda must decide for himself what his future will be.

A Time to Dance is another brilliant novel by Padma Venkatraman. In this novel, Venkatraman explores a number of themes, those of loss, identity, the resilience of people to overcome tragedy and the power of art -(in this case, Bharatanatyam dance) to transform lives.

Venkatraman tells Veda’s story in free verse that captures the physical and emotional pain Veda experiences from her accident as well as the joy of dancing and the uncertainty and exhilaration of a blossoming first love. Each poem has a title that captures the essence of the verse.

It is especially the last two themes that Venkatraman explores in-depth. The purpose of art whether it be music or dance to reach out to others and to allow the performer to express his or her own feelings is important and can sometimes be forgotten due to competitions and the desire to win.  Veda wants to work to regain as much of her dancing skills as possible – to be able to do the exotic poses and to awe her audience. However, now she knows she has certain limitations because of her artificial leg. At first she angrily rebels against her body’s new limitations. But Govinda admonishes her for viewing dancing in this manner. He points out that Dhanam Akka’s body has limitations due to her advanced age, but this does not mean she is not a good dancer.

“You think because she’s older and less flexible
she’s not as good a dancer anymore?
Being a good dancer is more
than mastering
every pose there is.”

Govinda tells Veda to care about “entering people’s hearts and elevating their souls” and to stop obsessing over her body’s new physical limitations. Veda’s gradual transformation into accepting her body as beautiful despite its limitations is a result of gradually gaining back some of her ability to dance, being able to express more fully her feelings through dance.

She achieves the latter partly by coming to some acceptance of what has happened to her. Since her accident Veda has questioned why certain things happen to people; why God leaves a beggar with nothing and why he allows suffering. Chandra has no real answers to these questions except to say that eventually good is rewarded. Govinda tells her that for him, finding the answers is not important – he realizes through the wonder and awe of things that are good, that God is present. Veda realizes that she needs to feel the wonder of dance again, like she did as a child.

“Maybe all I need is to feel what I felt as a child. Through dance.
By dancing a different way,
dancing so it strengthens not just my body,
but also helps me find, then soothe, and strengthen, my soul.”

The relationship between Govinda and Veda is quite lovely; both have a mutual respect for one another and each admires in the other, a quality they feel they are lacking.  Venkatraman’s free verse beautifully captures this aspect of their relationship.

Overall another great novel from Padma Venkatraman which captures some of the flavour of eastern mysticism.

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