Category Archives: Bharata Natyam

Not All Smiles – The Gravity of Rukmini Devi

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I recently met Caroline Kay, a Bharata Natyam dancer from the Bala Saraswathi lineage but who also met Rukmini Devi, the founder of Kalakshetra and a dance-pioneer. We had a lovely exchange about Bharata Natyam and its spiritual depth. As part of our exchange she lent me a book about Rukmini Devi. In looking through the book and its photos, I was struck by Rukmini Devi’s serenity and gravity. In most photos she is serious, her smiles are rare and withheld. This was a nice discovery for me, who has often heard the admonishment to “smile!”

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(all photos by
Conrad Woldring
C. Nachiappan)

Day 29 – Who are my Creative Influences?

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When asked to list my creative influences recently, I was stumped. Partially because I haven’t quite claimed my creativity, but there is another reason. I’ve been living in a box, it seems like. Only recently have I started peeking out, all the while feeling like a “bad girl” for doing so. What a familiar experience. This is somewhat thematic of my life; my curiosity and questions strikes me as ungrateful, or the first step in a dangerous downward spiral. Thankfully, I’m growing out of that small-thinkingness. But because of my limited thinking, I didn’t really absorb many things I saw during my training into my own being. I somehow thought I couldn’t learn by watching. I had to sweat and strive to learn, that was the only way for me: Hard work = Dance. This must have been the operating principle during my years of training. In that sense, I can see that I was a donkey kind-off student! Hard-working, moving forward, but only going where I was guided, no where else. Maybe I’m being hard on myself in retrospect, but I do feel that I was quite self-limiting

I regret, for example, never meeting Chandralekha, whose ideas resonate with me and startle me with their directness and clarity. I regret that I was not aware enough to seek her out. In the last four years of her life, she was but walking distance from me at Kalakshetra. Only after her passing away in 2007 did I happen to visit Chandralekha’s place as it’s called. Even then, I only had a vague notion that Chandralekha was some type of rebel-dancer. Being a die-hard conformist at the time, I was mostly scared of her or anyone like her. I suspect that I will be in this question considering my creative influences for a while, but I am inspired by Chandralekha’s rebellion and her discoveries.

About her:

Interview:

One of her final choreographies, a daringly sensual yet sparse dance called “Sharira” – Body:

PS: oh yes, my Dance-Challenge report 😛 Though my right leg was strangely buzzing, I did a number of adavus and Hindolam thillana in my class with Gayatri.

Day 27 – Small Moments of Magic

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Lord what a day! It was just one of those days of synchronicity where I took a small step to go beyond my current limitations and the world around me just gave me thumbs up again and again.

All day I was aware of the Temple Dance workshop I was scheduled to facilitate at Akila Yoga. I dreaded and looked forward to this event, my first workshop on my own. I haven’t yet come to a place of comfort going around Panama by myself. I’m disoriented and self-conscious and vaguely reminded of my time in India with guys gawking at me in the street. So far, anyone I’ve talked to though, especially taxi drivers, are really helpful, even sweet, same goes for India (yes, I think most auto guys in India are very decent and friendly!). So I was eager to get to my destination asap and get inside the shelter of the yoga studio where the challenge of conducting a workshop waited for me.

Noticing my shaky nerves as I left Radhe’s safe house, I wondered to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why do I need to leave my safe place?’ but the answer was right there next to the question: to Grow, to Grow. Because I wanted to get to Akila yoga well ahead of the 6.30 starting time, I left Radhe’s at 5.10 sure that I would reach the studio around 5.30, since its less than 15 minutes away. But cab after cab zoomed by fully occupied, and I stood there in the street feeling very conspicuous in my body. Eventually there were three of us on the sidewalk waving at cabs, and I felt comforted that I wasn’t the only one. I was relieved to discover they both spoke English, which most people in Panama don’t. It turned out we were all going in the same direction too. Just as it started pouring, we finally got a cab and piled in together. In the taxi, the bubbly girl introduced herself and we started talking like we were old friends. It is not often in my travels that I make an instant friend like that!

But an hour later I was still in the taxi and only inching forward. It was Friday, payday, and rainy, Stephanie explained although it wasn’t usual for it to take this long to arrive. When I understood that I would be late for my own workshop, whatever nervousness I had just dissipated. It was very similar to my feeling last year at Panama’s televised Teleton when my ankle-bells burst and I had a long rope of bells dragging by my foot: my nervousness became supreme calm, a feeling of freedom to the tune of this: okay Lord, I did my best to make this a professional event, as I wish it to be. But now it’s out of my control because you have other plans, so I’m free!

So I sat in the back of the taxi with a smile, feeling the Lord’s hand in my life. Once I reached Akila, I felt so blessed to share my dance with a beautiful group of women, and I was touched by their eagerness to learn, their laughter, and warmheartedness. It was pure joy! And I know that I was able to feel so open-hearted myself because of my feeling that ‘this is in your hands now, Lord.’ The last thing I want is to be late for a workshop I’m conducting. How unprofessional! But my plans are so small, I’m simply waiting for God to step in and take over.

Day 26 – Grappling with Perfection

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Writing something everyday for this Challenge has begun to feel like a report: ‘Today I did such and such step.’ but who am I reporting to? That’s not the point surely. Many of my endeavors in life have subtly been motivated by a painful need to prove myself. But my motivation throughout this ‘challenge’ has been so much about making dance happen for me. I’ve been dancing with keen attention to my body and my feelings. I’m asking questions and listening for answers.

My personal practice is growing and thriving yet writing about it has grown stale; dancing and blogging are after all two separate pursuits. Perhaps I’m anticipating ‘my readers’ boredom or unsure of my purpose in reporting my daily pursuits here. Certainly I’ve felt a pressure to package my day and present it neatly. And I’m not a neat and perfect package, so why do I want to present that facade to the world? Why do I continue to expect ‘perfection’ from myself? I’m not a perfect dancer, writer, or person. I know this. But it seems that I have not yet fully forgiven myself for this.

Day 25 – The Nature of Pain

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My ‘knee-trouble’ that I shared about in yesterday’s post has me thinking about pain. I wrote that I’m grateful that I can dance without pain. Now, that’s not entirely true. Like any physically active person, I’ve gone through lots of pain: aching limbs, sore muscles, creaky joints. So what I meant more precisely is that I don’t have injuries, no chronic pains.

I’ve had to undergo a lot of dance-pain to develop my skills. So when is pain good and when is the body’s warning signal to stop, stop right now? This seems to me a crucial question! To gain strength or grow your musculature, you are actually tearing your existent muscles and asking the body to repair it. So there is some real pain going on in the body as you exercise or use it. And that’s part of its growth.

Another reason this topic fascinates me is because of its parallel to emotional pain. In many situations ‘pain is good’. It’s a sure indicator that you have reached your old limits. This is the limit right now, your pain tells you, and the only way through it is to face and bear that pain. The question is when is it too much? When is the agony, physical or emotional, a real plea for you to stop doing what you are doing?

With my body, I just know. I can tell if it’s a bearable good pain or if something is wrong. Sure I don’t listen right away and keep pushing my boundaries (hence some recurrent lower back issues etc), but I know when my body is screeching as opposed to wailing. A screech is bad; a wail is okay :p

Emotionally, what I’ve experienced is that emotions long to be heard and expressed, and the real pain comes from being denied. Then the pain of it clings onto us and becomes a part of us, like a tumor. Honestly, I don’t really understand the nature of emotional pain. What is its screech; what is its wail?

Day 24 – Another day for my Knee

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I tested my knee in my first class today but felt it wasn’t ready yet. So another day in honor of my knee, and now in the evening time I think I feel it healing itself.

Just thinking how grateful I am that I am able to dance. I’ve often sent this question upward, am I meant to dance? As if some divine judgement is going to give me a final and conclusive answer. A physical injury might, for me, indicate just such a final answer. But I remember several dancers around me in India dancing despite their various bodily ailments. For them, the body’s limitation wasn’t a conclusion. So throughout my day today I felt grateful that I can dance without pain.

Day 23 – How many languages can you say ‘knee pain’ in?

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I can say “my knees are in pain” in at least four languages: Tamil, Swedish, Spanish, English. Not because I’m a language whiz but because I’ve been around knees in pain in all those places :p Rarely were the knees in question my own. Yet I’ve had a fear of ruining my knees prematurely, as some dancers do. And because of that, I was religious about massaging my legs and feet thoroughly with oil every evening during my study days.

Since beginning this second challenge where I’m actually dancing til I sweat, I haven’t done much leg-care and my right knee is speaking up. Not quite a pain yet, just a loud ‘be careful’ when I stand straight on it. It started 2 days ago, but today I finally listened and in honor of my knee did not dance. I did have 7 hours of classes, but my students kindly allowed me to sit down most of the time 🙂

Message of the day: listen to your body before it’s at the screaming-stage. And treat yourself to a nice massage with your own knowing hands.

Day 22 – On the Go (in one place)

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Today I enjoyed teaching and felt that everyone was very receptive and eager. That makes it fun. Half of the time, teaching feels like a duty not a passion. But when the student is excited to learn and I know what I’m teaching, it feels like a blessing for both.

I danced in one of the classes with Gayatri and Markela:
Tat adavu 1
Nat adavu 7
Ta tey tey ta 3
Teya teyi 1
Tey hat tey hi 1, 3
Tat tey tam 1
Tat tey taha 1

I’m pretty exhausted now, after 6 hours of classes and the above dancing. Plus I had an emotionally demanding morning too, which I’m sitting here and thinking about, how emotions flare up seemingly out of nowhere.

Day 21 – Good Evening

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1 hour walk in a slight drizzle and light breeze, my first venture into the neighborhood since I got here to Panama. Feel a bit strange walking about by myself, mainly because my whiteness doesn’t blend in 😦 This Sunday evening though, the streets were almost empty.

I wasn’t planning on dancing this or anything, but when I came back from my walk I spontaneously did. I turned on Chalamela Varnam, the central piece in a Bharata Natyam repertoire, and started dancing, just for fun (BN and just for fun don’t usually go together in my mind!) This Varnam is fresh for me because I’m teaching it to Gayatri.

20 minutes later, pink-faced and sweaty, I felt in harmony with myself. Good Evening.

Day 20 – Om Purnam – Unpuzzling a Riddle

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Until recently, this Sanskrit verse always seemed like a mystical riddle to me, something not directly relevant in my life:

Om purnam adah purnam idam
Purnat purnam udacyate
Purnasya purnam adaya
Purnam eva vashishyate

One translation:
That is infinite, this is infinite.
From That infinite this infinite comes.
From That infinite, this infinite removed or added; Infinite remains infinite.

??? Right???

Prabhupada’s translation:
The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the Complete Whole is also complete in itself. Because He is the Complete Whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.

More literally:
This is the whole. That is the whole.
From wholeness springs wholeness.
Take all away from wholeness,
wholeness still remains.

Like I said, it’s been a big riddle to me, kind off like talking in circles. But when I heard the Kirtaniyas sing this at Shakti-fest this spring, something just clicked; I was singing with them at the top of my lungs. Having my husband’s loving arms wrapped around me added to my joyfulness. All I could hear was purnam, purnam, fullness, complete, whole. He is full and complete, I am full and complete. From his fullness, all fullness comes. No matter how much is taken from that source, it is always full. All separate parts are full and complete as well, ie, little me!

This speaks very deeply to me. This verse soothes me quite a lot these days. I’m in wonder of the idea that I can be all I want to be, without that negatively impacting someone else. My success is not another’s failure. There is room for us all. Each of us can be full and complete.

I’m just beginning my thinking about this dance, and Vis composed this tune for me: