Kamala Kumari is more than a Gemini Studio starlet: she’s a classical dancer trained in the age-old line of Devadasis, a caste set in place a thousand years ago when girls were first dedicated in south Indian temples to serve the gods and men. Beautiful, brilliant and proud, Kamala struggles to escape the old ways. With its turbulent passions amid social upheavals, The Last Devadasi by Barbara L. Baer takes readers on a sensual feast in the 1970s palm-shaded trading city of Madras. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel:
Kamala Kumari took quick little steps along a parapet that wobbled above a blue tarp printed with white wavelets. Bright camera lights outlined her aquiline nose, full pensive lips, swooping dark brows. A rhinestone-studded blue chiffon scarf loosely covered her hair. The close-up centered on her powdered cleavage, modest enough for the censors, provocative enough to make men in the balcony seats lean forward.
The overhead mikes picked up loud clanking in the background. Distracting noises, traffic and horns from outside the Gemini Studio gate, increased the din. Kamala turned for a full face close-up only to break out laughing.
“Murthy, are there a thousand men in chains below or is monsoon coming early?”
“Sound is too loud, Murthy!” shouted M.K. Prabhan, the director. “But you are not to break from action, Kamala Kumari. You are searching, searching for your sailing ship.”
Wavelets appeared to surge each time two peons pulled the painted sea-tarp on either side. Pirates of the Coromandel was being filmed on limited budget even for a Gemini Studio picture. Though there was little scope for the actress’s character development, her brigand-hero, the pirate captain whose ship approached, was played by Ravichander. Audiences had chosen Ravichander as the rising male star and his films always made money; appearing opposite the beloved action hero could be Kamala’s break out from starlet to star.
When Prabhan gave the word, Kamala clasped her ringed fingers above her breasts and opened her glistening lips to sing. She had perfect pitch from classical Karnatic training, but no one would hear her contralto. A playback artist with a higher register would dub in the songs in a recording studio.
“Stop and print!’ shouted Prabhan. “Very pleasant, my dear,” he said to Kamala.
“Pleasant? Shouldn’t there be more emotions? Is there not dread and passion combined here? If only I had lines to speak.”
“An image is worth a thousand words.” Prabhan walked toward Murthy. “No time to waste. We’ve got Gopu waiting with his serpent. God willing, there will be light for the scales to show up. Snake scales are key.”
Director Prabhan was a smallish man with a neat round tummy he was fond of patting. Murthy the young cameraman had not yet been able to grow more than stubble to cover acne scars on greasy skin. His clothes smelled of curry sauces. “His mother’s preparations. He is still being coddled like a child,” Kamala whispered to Celeste.
“Scales are key!” Kamala mimicked. “What about acting and story?”
“Kamala, be quick and change for the serpent scene, that’s a good girl. We’re talking Veiled for Love now. Think Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Tell your dresser girl to hurry with the hair-piece.”
“Her name is Celeste and she speaks the French language,” said Kamala.
“Very nice Frenchie girl.” Murthy wiggled his fingers from behind the camera.
Kamala knew that argument with the director for more screen time was useless. She was grateful to Prabhan for the two roles, at the same time she mocked the way he shot two or more films in alternating scenes that gave his actors little chance to go deeply into their parts. Prabhan prided himself on efficiency and had promised the studio to bring out both films within the year. She would give up all thought of Pirates of the Coramandel and prepare herself for Veiled for Love.
Veiled for Love, set in an eighteenth-century Nabob’s court, starred Shanti as a Mohammedan princess who, years earlier, gave birth to an illegitimate female child she has kept hidden in the harem among dancing girls. Kamala’s character, the daughter Narduz, chafes at her seclusion and sneaks out to the river to pursue a love affair with a bargeman. Shanti, an established Tamil cine star, a household name, would have first billing, but Kamala was determined to stretch the range of her character, to give Narduz individuality in this final scene: planning to run away with her lover the bargeman, Narduz learns he has been caught and killed. Thus the tragic ending, pressing a cobra to her breast, Juliet forsaking life for her Romeo.
As she walked toward her trailer to change costumes, Kamala pulled off her wig and shook out her hair. At her dressing table, she powdered her face with one hand and sipped on a small cup of gin with the other. Celeste, her assistant recently hired away from the Connemara Beauty Salon to do her hair on the set, pinned jasmine and paste jewels into her wig. Her young helper spoke the beautiful French language as well as English. Merely hearing the French words gave Kamala a feeling of seeing Paris, her dream city.
“More jewels hanging from your bodice? Shall we place them here?” the girl asked.
Kamala laughed. “I’ll make do with arm bracelets and diamonds on my wrists. What about the jeweled belt over the sari?”
Celeste held up a studded belt. “I don’t think this will suit, Kamala. It will accentuate your small waist but do nothing for your stature.”
“You’re right, of course. Why am I not taller! What sin did I commit in a previous life that I cannot grow to Shanti’s height?” Kamala hated having Shanti look down on her.
“I believe that in France, the most popular singer is Mademoiselle Edith Piaf, a petite woman, less than five feet in height. I have read also that the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who traveled the world performing, was only five feet and quite stout, but she is known to history as a beauty.”
“Celeste, you have wisdom beyond your years and know how to lift me from my doubts.”
“Be ready, Ladies!” The director’s voice came from the other side of the dressing stall. Kamala squeezed drops of belladonna into her eyes to make the pupils more luminous, drew a line under her eyes with fresh kohl, and repainted her lips the brightest shade of carmine.
“Will the kohl not run?” Celeste followed Kamala from the trailer.
“No, it’s good after it dries a few minutes. One must not blink until then, that is all. Celeste, you have studied and learned much. Tell me, is it Romeo or Juliet who is taking their own life?”
“They are both committing the mortal sin,” Celeste answered.
“Why would they be doing that?”
Before Celeste could explain the plot, Prabhan called again.