Feeling

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

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Lost in Lucknow

Years and years after my visit to the Bhul-bhulaiya in the Bada Imambara in Lucknow I still have nightmares of getting lost alone – literally and otherwise.

Our tour of the Bhul-bhulaiya began by our guide leading my family and me into the labyrinth and its passageways connected to each other through 489 identical doorways. I have never had a great sense of direction anyway, so I gave up trying to keep track 5 or 6 turns into our tour. I focused instead on the tidbits of information our guide was giving us. I found my mind wandering. I imagined people walking the very corridors I was walking through. I asked myself who they might have been, what they thought and dreamt about. I wondered how it was possible to hear whispers across the walls and imagined the messages people passed to each other through them…

My thoughts were interrupted by our guide telling us that it was our turn to navigate. There was no way I was going to manage; that was no surprise. But soon enough, both my dad and brother were giving up too, as our guide watched, mildly amused. It was impossible. We were lost, and we were left stunned by the genius of the architects who created this structure 250 odd years before.

I often think that life can be disturbingly like the Bhul-bhulaiya; a series of choices leading further and further into a maze. Too many wrong turns, and sometimes it feels like there’s no way out.

But soon enough, our calm, experienced and all-knowing guide swiftly led us out of the constructed trap. And wasn’t that poetic?

There’s always a way out. Maybe the next time you feel alone, trapped and unable to find your way… give in, reach out, and ask for a little help. 🙂

Picture Credit: Tushar Das
Lucknow, India, May 2011

Costume Haven

The first time I met Ghulam Bhai, I wasn’t sure if I was excited or scared or worried about giving my precious silk saris to a total stranger to cut into little pieces.

I found his shop down a dingy corridor in Tardeo’s AC Market, in Mumbai and ended up spending 4 hours with the authority of dance costume design in India. We heard stories about Hema Malini’s tantrums, his first press interviews, and a sharara of Mumtaz’s that had to be stretched out inch by inch (by hand!) the night before a film shoot, using water and a steam iron.

He was silently decisive about what to do with the saris I had brought him. I tried to tell him how I wanted what, terrified that my beautiful saris would be done wrong. After listening to me patiently for a few minutes he held up a hand and said “Beta, mujhe mera kaam karne do.
Let me do what I do best, my child.

That was over 5 years ago. Today, I have been back to this little shop multiple times and only own stunning costumes made by his experienced, perfectionist hands – that you can barely see moving when he stitches up a newly pleated sari. Thank you Ghulam Bhai! You’re a star.

Tardeo, Mumbai, March 2011.