Book Review: A.K. Gandhi’s “Dance to Freedom” Doesn’t Fail its Readers or its Tawaif Characters

With Bhansali’s Netflix release, Heeramandi, throwing us in the heart of tawaif culture, seducing us with spellbinding aesthetic and the opulence that is really only characteristic of SLB’s magnificent imagination, it is no surprise that our binged-out selves craved a little more as the last episode played itself to the end. Luckily for us, A.K. Gandhi’s engaging non-fic, Dance to Freedom, made a casual appearance at our store and gave us exactly what we needed!

Since its brilliant beginnings, India has been a simmering hub of tradition and culture. We can date this back to our great sages, who crafted forms of dance, song and poetry as mediums of instruction and entertainment, using women professionals to perform this art for a larger audience. Gandhi’s book in its very early pages tells us about the meaning of tawaifs, of women who were noble, exalted, elite and dignified professionals. Noble men felt proud of being seen in their company, going as far as sending their children to them for etiquette training. With colonisation and the British invasion, the definition of a ‘tawaif’ changed. These women suffered the misfortune of going from recognised practitioners of fine arts to the ‘nautch-girl’ variety of prostitutes, pushed off from dignity into ignominy and disrespect, suffering the backlash of being against favour. 

Dance to Freedom paints a vivid picture of their world, from the opulent courts where they performed to the unsung sacrifices they made for the freedom struggle, sacrifices that have been kept out of historical acknowledgement and common knowledge. Gandhi unveils the rigid societal norms that sought to confine these women, and commemorates their audacious defiance in the face of it. These women were financially independent, intellectually sharp, and composed the very songs that ignited the flames of rebellion. These are all points that necessitate remembrance. Their defiance wasn’t just political; it was an unabashed rejection of preordained destinies, a confident pirouette away from societal constraints.

The tawaifs weren’t just defying the British; they were defying society itself. 

Back then, women weren’t supposed to be strong or outspoken. But the tawaifs were both. They were financially independent and wrote their own music, something most women couldn’t even dream of. They were like warriors in dazzling costumes, fighting for a better future.

The story follows various begums as they navigate the challenges of pursuing their passion for dance while being caught up in the whirlwind of political turmoil. The author, A.K. Gandhi, weaves together a compelling narrative that seamlessly blends historical events with the begums’ personal struggles. Through their eyes, readers are transported to the vibrant streets of pre-independence India, where the air is thick with anticipation and the desire for freedom permeates every aspect of society.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is its vivid descriptions of dance performances. Gandhi’s prose comes alive as he intricately details each movement, allowing readers to feel as though they are watching the tawaifs’ graceful movements unfold before their eyes. Whether they are performing traditional Indian dances or experimenting with new forms, the passion for art shines through on every page. However, amidst the beauty of dance, there is also rebellion with a subtle melody of national pride and the fight to freedom in hushed tones exchanged during clandestine meetings and messages hidden in melodies. The book balances these two elements, uniquely exploring the broader political landscape of colonial India. Skillfully incorporating historical events with these crucial women figures, Gandhi offers a deeper contextual understanding to its engaged and undeniably gripped readers. By intertwining the historical with the intimacy of the personal, Gandhi creates a rich tapestry that is both informative and engaging, showcasing the book’s well-researched nature. 

Gandhi’s women characters are realised in their hopes, fears, and flaws, making them relatable, raw  and authentic. Their rebellion isn’t coded in the traditional register of violence and ammunition, but is communicated in the simple brilliance of their art, their protest shimmering like the anklets adorning their delicate ankles and fierce feet. The opulent courts morph into secret meeting grounds, the lilting melodies become coded messages, and the rhythmic thrumming of the dhol transforms into a battle cry.

More than just a story about one girl’s journey—it is a celebration of the power of art to inspire change. Through their performances, these tawaifs become a symbol of hope and resilience for those around them. Their dance transcends language and culture, uniting people from all walks of life in a shared vision of freedom and equality.

Lastly and perhaps most poignantly, Dance to Freedom explores how the tawaifs challenged traditional gender roles.  As financially independent and well-educated women, authors and performers of their own songs and poems, these were talented, professional and aware women-of-the-world who made for powerful assets in the freedom movement.

The book thankfully defies the dull and uninspiring format of traditional history books, choosing to highlight the contributions of ordinary people, specifically women, instead of preachily wafting on about the turmoils experienced by a decolonising India. It reminds us that freedom is not always just about grand military speeches and militant might, but also about everyday acts of resistance and defiance. 

Finally, the book is a resounding symphony for history buffs and the dreamers alike and yet is a rhythm of rebellion. It is a poignant reminder that the pursuit of freedom can take any form, each as vital as the last. It is a melody that lingers long after the final notes fade, urging us to remember the heroes who danced their way to freedom.  

Pick up A.K. Gandhi’s “Dance To Freedom” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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