In conversation with V R Devika, cultural activist, storyteller, writer and author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, talks about the journey in documenting the story of this amazing woman and her learnings from it
You have been fascinated with Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy for a while now; what was the starting point?
After attending the conference titled Text and Context in the York University, Toronto, where Kapila Vastayan had advised me to resign from my school teaching job and make my Bharatanatyam in education programme widely available to other teachers in 1985, I came back and gave a proposal to INTACH, that had just started in Madras with the Madras Craft Foundation as the host.
Dr Deborah Thiagarajan liked my proposal and immediately made me the cultural coordinator for the two organizations. Geetha Dharmarajan, (before starting Katha) was a resource person and we jointly began an art in education project at Avvai Home. My interactions there told me a completely different story from the one the academic scholars (mostly from outside) decrying her and Rukminidevi Arundale had been spreading. I dug deeper.
Avvai Home requested me for help for a production on Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed her son Dr S Krishnamurthy, her disciple Dr V Shanta, her associate Dr Sarojini Varadappan, for the production which was directed by Pralayan of Chennai Kalai Kuzhu. I decided I needed to tell her side of the story and began writing small articles and giving speeches.
When did you know that you wanted to chronicle her life in the form of a book?
When I began to study the life of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, writing a book on her was never on my mind. I kept looking for more details to look at her life that the academicians of North America had seen with just one angle. ie, taking away the dance from the Devadasi. They cherry picked according to their convenience to support their hypothesis and I had also believed them in the 1980s but working as a volunteer in Avvai Home, talking to several women who wanted their Devadasi lineage hidden and who considered her a Goddess, made me want to look at this a little more.
I am telling her story, from her side of the fence. Her story is fascinating. It was when a senior art critic had announced grandly at a talk, he was giving for a dance organization, that “Muthulakshmi, herself a Devadasi, became ashamed of the system when she went abroad and with a stroke of pen made all these women illegal.” He also went on to say that it was on the bodies of these women that freedom was obtained. I was shocked, and decided to share her story wherever I could.
It was her disciple Dr V Shanta who urged me to write a new book on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy.
How did you set about doing this? What was the process like?
In April 2020, Ramanan Lakshminarayanan, a friend for decades, called and asked me if I was writing a book on Muthulakshmi Reddy. I said I want to, but who will publish it? He said Keshav Desiraju wants to write on her. My ears perked up.
Keshave Desiraju, grandson of scholar Dr S Radhakrishnan, former president of India who had just published a fantastic book on MS Subbulaksmi called Of Gifted Voice wants to write on Muthulakshmi Reddy. I knew, I stood no chance against such eminence. I sent an email to Keshav Desiraju. He replied that he wanted to write about Dr Reddy, but he was occupied with research on Tyagaraja at the moment.
Then began the hunt for a publisher. After six failed attempts, Mini Krishnan of OUP put me in touch with Nirmalkanti Bhattacharjee of Niyogi and they immediately agreed to publish. They have been the most marvelous to deal with and I am very proud. It is Niyogi that has published the book.
Pandemic helped. I sat from April 2020 and wrote furiously. All that I had gathered since 1985 flowed and I knew I had to place her story in context. I learnt more and more as I began to dig and was able to get access to information about her mother. I deliberately decided to quote from Tamil works available on her rather than the academic tenure driven studies on the theme. I needed to tell her story from her side of the fence and I have. I have cut it from a 7,0000 word manuscript idea to 40,000 words to fit into the Pioneers of Modern India monograph series format that Niyogi books decided to publish it under. I am very happy as I want young non- book reading girls in government high schools and colleges to read it. It is accessible to them with its simple narration, I believe.
As a writer, and a storyteller and an activist, you are used to documenting people’s lives, already. Was this any different? What were some of your learnings and discoveries along the way?
This was fascinating as I learnt about Pudukkottai, its history and geography, the medical college and the history of women in medicine etc as I went along. It was really exciting.
This was different as it is a long story as against the brief articles I have been publishing on artists and others. I sent it to five people as I wrote and kept getting valuable feedback.
I had hesitatingly asked Keshav Desiraju to look at the manuscript after the fifth draft. He gladly agreed and looked at it meticulously. He sent me the last chapter at 12.30 am on 5th September 2021 (his grandfather’s birth anniversary) He died at 7.30 am. I feel really blessed, though very sad he passed away. I have dedicated the book to him and Dr V Shanta.
Why is Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story relevant also in the context of the performing arts?
The performing arts are riven with politicking on the act of abolition of dedication of young girls as Devadasis and banning of dance by those who were dedicated. When Amrit Srinivasan shouted in an online event I was speaking, that she killed dance when she killed dedication, I could only laugh.
My answer to her would be the same that Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy is said to have given to Satyamurthy in the legislature ” If you are so hurt by it, why don’t you dedicate your daughters”.
As Gopalkrishna Gandhi says in his quote ” Muthulakshmi Reddy was a reformer from the inside, as it were, like Dr Ambedkar was, which is different from being like a corrector from the outside. That was her strength. But I do wish she had a vein of art in her as well, that could have enabled her to see and say, that the tradition she wanted to abolish had a precious possession within it that needed salvaging, protecting and nurturing. We cannot ,of course, have everything that we want our way.
Muthulakshmi plus art, Balasaraswati minus seclusion, Rukmini Devi plus sringara, Subbulakshmi minus Sanskritisation. These are our wish-lists, based on our predispositions and prejudices. Each of these icons had guiding passions and pursued them, fulfilling their individual destinies. We cannot shape them to suit our ideals. We are not their bhagya vidhata-s. Leela Samson’s wonderful biography of Rukmini Devi, Douglas Knight’s of Balasaraswati, Keshav Desiraju’s masterly study of MS are all hugely useful in understanding their accomplishments, their regrets.”
One must always have judgements based on the context. One cannot revile others sitting in 21st century comfort, aided by access to education, technology etc. What Muthulakshmi did was what she felt was right.
All their activism has given us access to this fantastic form which no one can say has remained static over the centuries it has evolved. There were always some exceptional dancers who danced differently from others from the same family. A daughter may have surpassed her mother in her execution or may have been so reluctant that she remained unnoticed.
Everyone did what they wanted to do in their circumstances and some brilliantly. Read her story and decide for yourself.