From New paths forged from old
Invitation to dance
One sunny Sunday, the door-bell rings and I rush down stairs, open the door, and there is a woman with a bright lipstick smile holding a cake. You must be Sooda, she beams. I’m still getting used to the odd pronunciation of my name. I invite her to use the living room in the apartment downstairs, which is still vacant, and we often watch TV down there as well. I’m Shona, and you’re the dancer, she says. She says she learnt about me from a newspaper article about us the Rao family in the Otago Daily Times. I nod and ask her to sit down on one of the sofas while I take the cake upstairs to my mother, who follows me down. My mother introduces herself. Shona begins an enthusiastic conversation about how wonderful it is to have a Bharata Natyam dancer in Dunedin. I am excited to learn that someone in this part of the world has even heard about this South Indian Classical dance form. She tells us that she teaches modern dance – the Bodenwieser dance style. It is obvious from the way Shona speaks that she is in love with dance.
I was fortunate to have been introduced to many forms of dance in India – classical, folk, eastern and western, but not ‘modern’. Shona has come to ask if I could teach her students Bharata Natyam! Those words send me into a spin – teach Bharata Natyam? My dance teacher had a dance lineage going back hundreds of years. His family were dancers and dance teachers. The art was handed down from father to son over many generations and until the 1950s it was performed only by men, who took on both male and female parts.
I was lucky to be born after taboos about girls and women learning and performing dance were lifted, primarily due to two pioneering women in the South Indian dance world – Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati. Both of these enlightened women were taught by teachers like mine. But teaching dance is something else in India – the role of a teacher or guru, particularly in the arts, is a special one. A dance teacher’s respect is earned not only for mastery in the art form but for the deep knowledge of Indian philosophy, classical and secular arts that a guru holds and shares with his or her pupils or shishya. My dance teacher – whom I had left less than a month ago in Pondicherry – brought me into a world of music, movement, story-telling, an understanding of the natural world and how to use these images to make dance. His voice, language and directions transformed the dance class into another world. He taught movement sitting on a mat with his thattu khazhi, a special wooden stick used for keeping time with a sound resembling that of a mridangam (a two-sided drum). It is a guru’s musical instrument, a rhythm maker. Bharata-Natyam is a way of being, thinking, about seeking one’s own ecstasy – it’s not just about moving limbs and body to rhythm and music. How on earth am I going to instil all this in a land where my world is so alien? I am sure my mother will not agree to my teaching.
While I’ve been thrown into these thoughts, my mother gently thanks Shona and explains how I might not be ready for this responsibility. Shona’s enthusiasm is difficult to ignore and we agree that I could try it with no obligation to continue. I am spinning. But I am excited about being in a dance class again. I hadn’t dared dream that there was even the slightest possibility of engaging in dance in this land. But how on earth am I going to take on the role of a teacher – the word guru is not one I dare apply to myself. I have two weeks to formulate a plan.
First dance class
Two weeks rush by and it is time for my first dance class. I have planned the half-hour class together with my parents. My session will be for the last half hour of their normal Saturday session. I get dropped off at the Moray Place studio. It’s cold, and I’m in my usual dance dress. Made of cotton, my salwar kameez is comfortable but not warm. By now though my mother has knitted numerous woollen jerseys and cardigans for the family. So I am also wearing a cream Aran cardigan, made of wool from those sheep I saw (or so I surmise), but bought from Rob’s Wool Shop on George Street. I climb two sets of stairs and hear piano tinkling and a woman’s voice keeping time and shouting orders. It sounds nothing like my dance class where one heard the unique sound made with thattu khazhi while my teacher softly vocalised the dance sequence, musically. I don’t have a thattu khazhi but I will use my hands to clap the rhythmic sequence, like flamenco-style clapping, I think.
I knock shyly then repeat, more loudly each time, until someone hears and opens the door. Oh! Sooda, it’s you, beams Shona. There are twelve or so dancers in a very large room with a beautiful wooden floor. They are female, ranging from ages similar to mine to women probably in their twenties. The dancers are not dressed like me – their clothing fits their bodies tightly and looks immodest. I learn later these dance clothes comprise two main parts – a leotard worn over tights. Most of them are in black leotards and black tights. Others have coloured tights. As I walk across I feel how this floor is different to the floor of my dance class at home, which was made of a soil/cement mixture, polished and red in colour. It is very cold but the dancers are looking flushed. Shona invites me to sit while their dance sequence is completed. I choose a spot that I think will be a good place from which I can take class. The dance movements include a lot of touching, entwining of bodies and jumping and landing – some of them land light as a feather like the ballet dancers I’ve seen. They travel across space with their legs wide apart, arms floating as if trying to hold on to the air above their heads. I watch with awe and embarrassment, hoping that they will have a long kurta to cover their thighs when they learn my dance form. The basic Bharata Natyam stance requires knees bent and opened out so they form a diamond shape – the aramandi. This open look uncovered is unthinkable. Note to myself, if I am to take another class, I will request that they wear something that covers their lower limbs.
Time has come to teach. After what has felt to me like commotion, I ask the dancers to arrange themselves in a V formation facing me. They have been throwing their bodies in abandonment. What I’m about to teach couldn’t be more opposite. I explain that the basic steps are purely rhythm-bound and involve their lower limbs only while the upper body needs to be still, controlling breath. But before we start class proper, there are a set of mudras or gestures we have to perform. These serve to pay our respects to mother earth, symbolising a higher spirit, and to the teacher. This set of mudras is called namaskara. They are willing and even eager. I will have to demonstrate, as they do not know any of the Bharata Natyam dance terms or any Indian words to describe what’s required. My teacher will be bemused. Oh! If only he were here. I do the namaskara with them and imagine my teacher while I’m doing it, and paying my respects to him, asking him to bless me in my endeavours. It gives me momentary pleasure as I close my eyes and transport myself to stand before him. I feel stronger. I have half an hour in total, and half of this time has already been taken by learning the namaskara. In explaining the meaning of this action, its particular set of gestures, the aesthetics of the movement, timing and tempo, I have talked eagerly and easily about my dance. I take them through the first two or three steps in the first group of steps. I have gone beyond my allotted time, no matter. For the first time since I came to this land, an hour has felt like few minutes! At the end of my first class I’m asked if I could ‘take class’ again. I go home elated and exhausted. I have no words for my parents but I am sure my smile says it all.
That day I learnt joy that comes from unexpected circumstances. I learnt how gurus exist everywhere and I have carried mine with me to this land.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sudha Rao is currently finishing her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.