I am in Toronto staying with my friend Gitanjali Kolanad, an Indo-Canadian writer who teaches the South Indian martial art form kalaripayattu. I’m reading her latest book Sleeping with Movie Stars, a sensual and intelligent collection of short stories about the world of Indian classical dance and music. It’s a world she has been immersed in since she was sent to Chennai as a teenager in the 1970s to become a bharatanyam dancer, her parents afraid she was being ‘corrupted by the West’.
photograph of Gitanjali Kolanad by Ashok Charles.
The work was longlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and one of the stories, The American Girl, took second place in the prestigious CBC Literary Awards, the highest honour for unpublished works in Canada.
I’m delighting in the work, tracing the life of a dancer from teens until mature womanhood through a series of linked stories. They are thoughtful and thought-provoking, quoting at one point the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his assertion that ‘the body is our general medium for having a world.’ And this is apt, for the stories are both corporeal and intellectual, involving the reader’s united body/mind in the specifics of bharatanyam form, or the soaring, ‘almost architectural precision’ of Carnatic music, coiling around an inner rhythm, where ‘..it was hard to believe that this medium was air, just air.’
There is what I would describe as ’emotional space’ in the work which I find effective and immensely fresh – there is no heightened emotive manipulation, which as a reader I often find suffocating or formulaic. This poised, observing stance reminds me of Plath’s cool, recording eye – the ability to note an event even whilst living it. This unusual quality is also commented on in a review by the Hindustan Times:
“[Gitanjali’s] writing is urbane, unexpectedly clean of all clutter for a first-person narrative. Both native and foreigner, she maintains a cautious distance from experience. It is a curiously clever device. It allows one to appreciate the ebb and flow of her experiences without being unduly caught up in the drama of them.”
It was this ‘distancing’ effect we began to discuss when thinking of the differences between short prose and drama. I felt at times the response to the protagonist’s experiences were left open – they weren’t interpreted for the reader – we weren’t told what to think or how to react. The situation is revealed and we respond to it as we wish, coming to our own conclusions – something good drama is expected to do. The stories weren’t ‘closed down’ or finished off too tidily, as seems to be the current fashion with some of the new writing generated by postgraduate courses in the UK. The protagonist is almost ambiguous in her response – and this is where we began probing, for in performance a performer can’t act ambiguity – she needs to have clarity and an action (and thought can be an action).
Reading is one of the most intimate of activities – often private and solitary -but the intimacy is deeper than just something done solo. The writer is putting their words inside the reader’s head, which will be ‘spoken’ by the individual’s inner voice. There is a communing, cosy, one sided conversation going on, a private narration where the reader will create greater sets than the best scenographer ever could.
Prose writers and radio dramatists write for an audience of one. Dramatists write for an audience of many. Theatre is a communal, social activity and so the form and rules of engagement differ accordingly. A play is a blueprint for collaboration; in performance, the text has already been interpreted for the audience through the imagination and skills of the director and cast. In our discussion, Gita and I questioned whether prose writing (or poetry) was therefore the more direct form. As a former dancer of thirty years experience, Gitanjali Kolanad is in a good position to know, challenge and experiment.
Sleeping with Movie Stars is published by Penguin India. The title short story is available to read at: