In this poetic new novel, an ancient form of dance frees a modern storyteller
To witness a performance of Kathak, the ancient classical dance native to North India, is to enter a realm not only of movement, music, rhythm and grace, but also of worshipful storytelling, where dance becomes a device for recounting epic tales from Hindu scripture. And so it is when entering the mesmerizingly poetic world Shruti Swamy creates in her new novel, “The Archer,” which follows a young girl as she discovers the enchantment of Kathak dance and her own capacity for love and creative resilience.
Swamy has won two O. Henry awards for her short fiction; “The Archer” is her first novel and its world is grounded in the transfixing artistry of Kathak dance — the teaching of it, concert performance and the insular student's world of dance class. Kathak dancers are storytellers themselves, acting and dancing their tales through hand movements and precise footwork, body movements and flexibility, and with evocative facial expressions.
“The Archer” is a coming-of-age novel set in Bombay in the 1960s and '70s. The story follows a child named Vidya, who is left to care for her father and younger brother after her mother dies of suicide. The drudgery of her servant's existence is interrupted when she encounters a class where the students are learning Kathak, a demanding form that requires a devotion to discipline, and a passionate curiosity for the intangible essence of its storytelling artistry. To escape the servitude her mother's death has imposed on her, Vidya immerses herself in learning and dancing; the enchantment of Kathak ensures her escape from the trauma of losing her mother, and guides her when she enters college, falls in love with another woman and shoulders the resulting burdens formed by the expectations of tradition, culture, and family.
The novel's affinity and connection to this art forms its core and a unique expressive voice. The Archer's beauty resides in Swamy's sequential narrative form, which reads like music — at times almost exactly like reading a musical score — but with something more; her words carry the visceral power of a dancer's intersection with air. It's a very tough technique to pull off. But Swamy's ability to carve meaning from a lyrical use of narrative brings the reader along with Vidya on her sublime, boundary-pushing exploration of sexuality, creativity, and love. Vidya's disruptive journey is Swamy's disruption of common expressions for literary narrative. The novel is a sensual, artful dance, powerfully told:
I had promised my teacher I would dance in my mind if I couldn't with my body, but I had not understood my promise. I thought it meant remembering the movements, to rehearse mentally the sequence of steps and poses so that I would not have to reach for them when I danced, something I used to do often, filling idle moments on the bus or in bed with these thoughts. And I had thought that it was the poor substitute, the lesser thing. But I now understood I had been wrong. By watching, by listening, your body could pay attention. Then the movements, gleaming in their shapes, the kicking of a child's leg, the running of dogs in the waves, were like holes punched in the wall sealing us from that unbroken field of light, the places from which that light entered us. As the eyes and ears became more subtle, the more radiance they observed, admitted, until, in1nite, the wall was smashed, broken, gone: you stood bare in front of it. To move one's body with purpose was to communicate some knowledge of this shining field, but one could not ever truly express it with mortal muscle, skin. The greatest of us could just become a dim mirror, a reminder to look. Eklavya arrowed with his body. I would dance with my life.
“The Archer” tells a modern story of an ancient artistic form setting free its captive storyteller. Towards the end, Swamy's poignant final reference to Eklavya — the archer prince in the “Mahabarata,” that epic Sanskrit tale of self-invention and transcending fate - offers due homage to a glorious tradition of storytelling, but also to her own agency as a storyteller. Her new tale of Vidya's emergence unto herself is a beautiful inheritor of that timeless virtuosity.
Marcela Davison Avilés is a writer and independent producer living in Northern California.
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