My Odissi recital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was in one of the most beautiful auditoria I have ever performed in – the Chaktamuk theatre, along the banks of the Tonlé Sap river, built in the shape of a stunning, unfurling, hand-held fan. It was Independence Day, 2014 and the evening began with my standing in the wings, listening to the National Anthem play to inaugurate the performance – one of the most memorable I’ve had till date. It was full of experiences and funny incidents leading up to the show (translating Sanskrit into English into Khmer for the benefit of a mixed audience was a unique experience to say the least), culminating in a performance that got me some of the most precious reactions of my life.
The last piece I performed was Yahi Madhava – a story depicting Radha’s betrayal and heartbreak at having discovered her lover’s infidelity. This piece is particularly close to my heart for several reasons, but I was worried that day that a lack of understanding of Indian mythology might cause it to be lost on the audience.
After the show, I was standing on the stage as people came up to me to talk to me, compliment me warmly and take a few pictures. I noticed, from the corner of my eye, a lady in a hijab, holding the hands of her two young daughters, waiting patiently as the crowd thinned out. Finally, the little girls ran up to me to say hello, more fascinated by my clothes and jewellery than by the person wearing them. They quickly took their pictures and ran along as their mother quietly walked up to me and took my hand.
In broken English, she said to me – I do not know you, I am not Hindu, and I do not know your Radha… but watching you, I felt her pain.
With a squeeze of my hand, and tears in her eyes, she smiled and walked away, calling for her daughters to follow, and I stood there, a bundle of emotions, wondering how I had managed to communicate with this total stranger, so different from me.
I learnt, that day, that some emotions are universal. That without understanding the layers of literature, religion and philosophy, a person can still feel; in a very organic, instinctive way, while being told a story.
People say that young dancers today don’t care about working hard, and are only interested in travelling overseas, making money and being “cool” as they hop from country to country… But there’s much more to it than that for me. To be able to take a tiny piece of my country’s history to a new place and to be able to touch another person in even the smallest way; that means something to me.
On those days filled with frustration and roadblocks, when I wonder why I chose this life, I remember this interaction with a total stranger in a faraway land.
Stories have a way of connecting people somehow. Maybe that’s why I want to keep telling them – my own, or others, through dance, or text. Will you tell me yours?
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 2014