An old portrait of a woman hangs on a wall in my grandmother’s room. There is nothing particularly special about the portrait. It can be a picture of any old woman who lived in an era before cameras became a household phenomenon. The picture must have been taken in a photo studio – another relic of a bygone era – on a day she forgot to put on a bindi. It has a stick-on one pasted on her forehead, over the picture by my grandmother.
Women can’t be themselves even in death!
Her head is covered with a pink dupatta, and she has a faint smile on her face. This woman is my great-grandmother (dadi ki maa) who died shortly after I was born; I obviously have no living memory of her. But she, along with my other great-grandmother (nani ki maa) taught me the biggest lesson of my life: ‘If you have to choose between life and dance, choose to dance’.
Satyavati Devi was born in Kalka, New Delhi, which is notorious for its gender discrimination even in 2019. It was obviously much worse in the 1930s, when she was born. To put things in perspective, when a woman from her village gave birth to five daughters, the fifth one was called ‘Ram Batheri’, which translates to ‘God Enough’.
Satyavati joked about it later, with her kids, saying that it worked because the next child that was born was a boy. If the next child had been a girl, who knew if she would have been named at all, or worse, would have even lived long enough to get a name.
Satyavati belonged to a landless upper caste family with a lot of pride, and the sole responsibility of taking care of the village temple. Her father was a priest who lived off the offerings that came to the temple. She had two brothers and one sister. The brothers studied on to become high ranking officers in the government, while Satyavati and her sister waited patiently to get married.
Satyavati looked forward to getting married, not because she was eager to start a family, but simply because she loved dancing at weddings. When she was a child, everybody encouraged her to dance. Nobody finds a little girl threatening. But soon, she was no longer a little girl. She was growing up to be a woman.
The people who cajoled her to dance, just a year ago, now asked her to sit still and cover her bosom with a dupatta. Her parents feared for her future as the news of the ‘dancing girl’ spread like wildfire. Satyavati was never exposed to a stage. She didn’t need to. Every courtyard of the village was her stage.
Caste hierarchies were very strict in those days. They still are, but some of us have the privilege to be blind to them.
However, Satyavati continued to defy all those norms. She kicked up a storm in her family after she was caught dancing at another villager’s wedding who were then considered to be ‘untouchables’. One can only imagine what happened next. She was almost about to be beaten before someone said, “Who will marry a girl with a disfigured face?”
A hundred kilometres away from Satyavati’s village in Haryana lived Anaaro Devi. I recently found out that until two generations ago, women weren’t given surnames in our family. They would make the journey from ‘Kumari’ to ‘Devi’ without much ado.
Only a few sketchy details of Anaaro’s life remain in the family.
First, because she was quite an ‘ordinary’ woman in Haryana, who was widowed young in her 30s. Secondly, her children – the bearers of her memory – grew up detesting her. This was because, as my nani puts it, “she was more concerned about her dance than us.”
Her mother’s love for dance caused my nani insurmountable pain in her childhood, so much so that she grew up detesting all forms of performing arts and strictly discouraged her three daughters from indulging in them too.
She constantly recalls incidents when her mother would cover her face with a ghoonghat and slip into the wedding processions outside her house – faceless, nameless and shameless. Her feet didn’t discriminate and would tap and move all the same, whether the courtyard was her own or of the so-called ‘untouchables’.
Anaaro’s dancing feet disturbed the delicate balance of her family. Abuses were hurled at her and, while my nani doesn’t mention it, verbal abuse would not have been the only form of abuse she faced. But nothing stopped her. Not even widowhood, which is nothing short of a living death sentence.
Satyavati had her own challenges to face in order to keep her feet moving. She was married to a rather simple, ‘boring’ man, she would say, who was the headmaster of a primary school. His reputation suffered greatly from his wife’s dancing excursions. “What headmaster cannot discipline his own wife?”
But, Satyavati continued. She was not allowed to dance in her own house, because you know, acche ghar ki bahu nahi nachti hai. So she found her freedom dancing behind the confines of her ghoonghat, which gave her the anonymity she required to pursue dance.
My dadi remembers one particular incident which is etched in the family memory. At her third son’s wedding, she slipped out of the wedding, leaving her daughter in-charge of the situation. She left to dance at the wedding of a potter’s son, only because they won’t let her dance at her own son’s wedding.
When I think of Satyavati and Anaaro, I feel immensely proud of my foremother’s struggles to dance. Our textbooks are filled with heroic tales of women who fought wars, went to space, headed companies and pushed the human race forward. However, I often wonder if the struggle to find your own happiness is any less heroic?
My great-grandmothers tell me that it’s not.
Dear great-grandmothers, I’m sure you are whistling at me from the heavens. Every time I dance, I can hear you both. I am proud of your dissent, your courage and your legacy.
I will conquer the moon and all, but first, let me dance!
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and researcher based in Mumbai.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty