Archives for category: Journal

This afternoon, all my senses were absorbed in a conversation with a dear friend over the telephone, when my left foot felt the gentle tickle of something beneath it. My eyes spontaneously closed shut, as I felt the spirit of my blind grandmother awaken inside of me. In the silent darkness before me, my foot momentarily suspended in the air like a crane in slumber, I tried to imagine what caresses at my feet? The delicate wisps of carbon from a burnt paper scroll or a wooden log? A fragile wing of a large, dead moth ? Or was it a leaf, half dead and half alive.

Soon after, my eyes lit open to see extraordinary pieces of ART everywhere. They lay silently strewn upon the expanse of an ordinary, one foot by one foot square, earthen hued, tiled floor held together in a dull grey cement grid. The artists: Lichen, Moss, Black ants with pale lime-green, rounded bottoms, tiny grains of Sand, a sprinting ashladen Spider! All of these artists seem terribly busy inside an unpredictable, silent, inward randomness that leaves me awed !

Dancer Indu G, during her 'Nangiar Koothu' recital. Photo courtesy ~ Vinay Kumar

Dancer Indu G, during her ‘Nangiar Koothu’ recital. Photo courtesy ~ Vinay Kumar

I HAVE A DEEPLY HIDDEN AND INARTICULATE DESIRE FOR SOMETHING BEYOND THE DAILY LIFE – Virginia Woolf

On the night of 7th January, 2015, I saw an intense and moving, ‘Nangiar Koothu’ performance by Dr. Indu G. Seated close to the oil lamp that framed her face, I entered the grief of separation and longing, through this abstract narrative enacted by one woman, supported by four percussionists. She transformed to become a mystical channel for both the masculine and feminine energy.

This classical recital was an experience of sensuality and passion through theatre, music and dance, that made me go pale, as well as blush with delight. I saw her, the beautiful Indu G, transform herself into a celestial being, and create before these plain eyes, from a portal of gaping, dark void ~ an elephant couple flaming their love with delicious bites of choicest tender leaves, with a range of provocative, body nudges; The lustful love turned tender and compassionate, when a fragile and hungry fawn, nestled at the breast of a fierce She-Leopard; Butterflies magnetised towards the light of a flaming fire only to meet their death, but later miraculously reborn; I rejoiced at the sight of a dancing, cautious yet magnificent peacock, lured by scattering grains, at the hands of a playful, dancing maiden; Then alarmingly, the moments of heightening sensuality, were jarred open with a crescendo of maddening drums. The dancer’s body took form of Musth elephant, gone mad with the heat of sexual desire. The earth flung open as he ripped everything apart on his path with his sharp tuskers! Destroying and uprooting trees with his heavy, steaming, and muscular body. Two sparring elephants raged into battle to win their lady love.

Washing over this entire narrative was the love and longing between Rama and Sita, both separated from each other’s physical presence, now torn with grief as they witnessed in wilderness of nature and in the animal kingdom, an ebb and flow of cyclical sensuality, compassion, heat and desire. This unbearable solitude created mirages of hope, making the other’s physical presence so real throughout the performance. At the end, the spirit of love wins despite the absence of the physical presence of the one you love. Three hours had passed when I awakened from this celestial dream. The dancer left the proscenium, her yellow-hued face hidden behind a blazing gold hand fan, and the music returned into expanse of a silent, dark, black void.

This Nangiar Koothu recital, was curated by dramaturge and writer, Rustom Barucha, in collaboration with the American author, Professor Paula Richman. This performance was a beautiful ode to the passing of Theatre veteran, Veenapani Chawla, founder of Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research, and her eternal presence in the world of theatre.

20th December 2014,

There are moments, when one gets entangled in thoughts that pull one’s morale down. Reaching out to kindred sister souls, a playfulness returns. One turns to the journal, allowing oneself to hear one’s own thoughts, with soft eyes. Then, these fingers pick up a paint brush, and from a pool of darkness, there appears the swirling image of a fiery Kathak dancer, Aditi Mangaldas, under the blanket of dense and dark air, singing poetry with her breath and limbs…

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke.

Aditi Mangaldas, a delicate maiden draped in translucence. Her bronzish~orange organza lingers upon a quiet dawn. A poetry, a page, unwritten for the Sun God. Luminous speckles, swirling like mad mystics, dance upon a single shaft of sunlight. Her darts hit the core. A painting comes alive. Rain drops from a painted curtain, gently part with her dainty fingers, peeping out through an ornate scroll of a Persian Manuscript. Afloat upon a haunting melody of the sarangi, she carries me into the thicket of a dark and dense valley. All around, a forgotten ancient civilisation. She lays me gently in the soft light of dawn. Hidden behind the dark veil of swelling monsoon clouds, she appears, and then disappears. I am alive in the total surrender of her hallowed embrace. Every cell in this body, wet and glistening inside her sudden rain. A bud within, feels the warmth of his nearing lips, a million miles away. Your Pakhavaj speaks to me. It pleads not, but commands me to enter. Open the door. Your command rips open this heart, and there I see a resplendent warm face, bloom from deep inside of me. I receive your light, your sound, your breath.

O Who are You, Who Spins & Unspins?
O Madness!
O Thundering Drums!
O Sweet Melody!
O Mother!
O Grave from Yonder!
Who are you resurrecting from this brokenness?
Who is beating at my heart?

You tease me.
You beckon me to taste you.

O love sweet love!
How you play at my heart?
Plucking the tiniest string of my being.

I am tuning in to your music, to your chiselling.
Your beak pecks at this dead wood.
You peck open a cave, place an egg in its hollow, and say,
“”NOW. Yes, it is now. You are ready, my love! NOW. NOW. NOW.”

Now it is.

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5th September, 2014

Well, this drawing is raw, the flaws camouflaged behind the shading! Every art needs practice and sadhana. Talent is endowed, and yet what remains in our hands is to see them blossom and bloom, like the constant tilling of the soil.

The look: it’s like looking frontally into your mirror, boldly, confidently. It is not a side glance, timid, hesitant, or a sheepish look into a passing reflective surface. It is the same look of a village woman, who if drawn to observe you, stops boldly in her tracks, and stares directly into your eyes.

Before Shyamala Akka pointed these corrections to me, I often felt like I was extremely graceful in my tilts, looks, and jumps for this particular movement. But it was the play of the ego. Many a times, I’ve observed that if one thinks one is a master at something, quite often the beauty and grace of that movement escapes oneself, and one’s flighty joy bellows out a discordant note! It is of such importance to walk upon this path, with care, attentiveness, and an inward vigilance. It reminds me of the village women of rural India, who carry brass water vessels on their heads, water full to its brim. They walk with such exquisite poise, balance and grace, their upright posture is in perfect alignment with their fluid breathing, and not a drop of water spills out of their brimming vessels!

Lord Natraja

Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram, 4′ by 4′, oil painting by Ashwini Pawar Kaarthikeyan

The Ritualistic Initiation:

In the quiet hours of dawn, on the morning of 6th March, 2013, five classical dancers entered the Chidambaram temple, one of the five holiest Shiva temples representing the classical element of Akasha ~ ether. We silently walked toward the main Sanctum Sanctorium. There, a silken curtain veiled the sacred idol of Lord Nataraja. Behind this veil, the priests were readying the God, for the early morning Abhishekam ~ the most elaborate puja of the morning. Praying inwardly with excitement and nervousness, I stood at the edge of the still, shimmering curtain. At the auspicious hour, the veil dropped, and lo and behold, these eyes fell upon the resplendent image of Lord Shiva, in the pose as Nataraja, performing the Ananda Tandava, “Dance of Delight”! The brass temple bells chimed all over Chidambaram in synchronicity, as the gathered bhaktas ~ devotees, joyfully participated in the magnificent pooja. We were asked to place our brass anklets upon a large brass plate by the temple head priest. This plate was then kept at the feet of Lord Nataraja. Our names and our Nakshatram ~ birth star, were spoken aloud in prayer by the priest, a unique tradition in Southern India, when receiving the blessing from the Lord. At the end of the pooja, our brass anklets were returned to us. We were felicitated by the head priest of this ancient temple with a silken shawl, also garlanded with a densely woven, yet light weight, fragrant grass called Vettiver ~ Khus, dear to Lord Shiva. After a pradakshina ~ circuambulating the temple, we sat down for Homan ritual, making offerings into a consecrated fire with the temple priest. He chanted mantras for the well-being of the dancers, and once again each of our name, and nakshatram was pronounced into the fire, for blessings. The morning ritual was complete just before the first Maha-arati, a prayer for the Lord. We were led to the platform opposite the main sanctum of Lord Nataraja. The senior-most amongst us, Dancer Malavika Sarukkai, was invited first to offer her dance to the Lord, followed by the four of us.

The Offering to Lord Nataraja:

Four dancers, before me, sanctified the temple space through their dances with an accompanying live orchestra. I was the final one to offer my dance. An archival recording of musical compositions sung by Shri M. S. Ramdas & Shri Ramiah Pillai, from the T. Balasaraswati tradition, was handed to me by my teacher, Smt Shyamala, who had initiated me into their tradition, only two months earlier, at the Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram. Shyamala Akka had also surprised me by arriving all the way from Chennai, moments before my dance offering to the Lord. It was my first public performance in this tradition. I felt blessed with the unexpected presence of my teacher, whose wise words of blessing still remain etched in my being. She reminded me that my offering of dance to Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram was a kind of a spiritual test of presence and single-minded devotion. The ego will be challenged. I may experience trepidition and an inward struggle. Yet, it will also be a direct experience of feeling the powerful and compassionate presence of the Lord of dance. And this is precisely what unfolded. I began my dance with the Alarippu, with the awareness that through this opening dance, I journey inward. As I struggled to unlearn my habit body to charm the gathered audience, my being suddenly dropped into an inward prayer. The space within softened. The breathing calmed. This body trembled with life and vitality. The lilting alaapana of Khamas ragam, prepared me for the chosen Padam, ‘Theruvil Varano’, which is a devotional song about a Nayika, who stands at her gate, watching the festive temple procession of Lord Shiva, going past her home. The refrain in this song to Lord Shiva is, “ Will you not turn back and give me a fleeting glance, O beloved Chidambaram Natham~Lord?”. I stood still with a beating heart, eyes closed. Moved by the raga, these eyelids looked up slowly, and saw Lord Natraja standing right ahead of me. Enveloped in his resplendent presence, this throat choked up with emotion, tears welled up inside bhakti, the crowds disappeared, the gait calmed down, the sound of my anklets merged with the voices of my accompanying musicians, transporting us all into eternity. In William Blake’s words, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour’. I felt the Lords presence. I recognised my destiny. I was humbled. Drowning into a blissful state of gratitude, tears cleansing a hidden past, once hindered, blocked, repressed, but not anymore, I heard a voice say.

Today, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, these wings soar towards light of love, unhindered, unafraid and adorned in happiness!

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November, 9th, 2014

This evening, I saw for the first time, a dance recital by Janaki Rangarajan. It was as if an Apsara, a heavenly damsel had descended upon earth from Lord Indra’s court.

This is a dancer whose body proportions seem in alignment with the codes of Shilpa-Shastra. When she sits into her Aramandi, our eyes enter the perfect geometry of a circle within a square. A rooted dancer, with toned muscled limbs, vitality upon her skin, lucidity in her eyes, sensuousness brimming yet contained inside subtlety and exuberance.

There was a handful of audience in the recital hall, and yet her entire being spoke with a fire that illumined the large vacuum with scintillating luminosity. Her resonance had a sparkle of an otherworldly sort. A heavenly danseuse, once chiseled onto an ancient temple frieze, she momentarily steps out to share her vitality, her breath, her bosom, her vulva and her angular sensuality with us mortals. She is a fireball rolling inside a geometric form of a square, a circle, and a symmetry that enters the Bindu, the central singular point, with an inwardness that pleases all present in Lord Indra’s court alone!

In stillness and silence, her feet lock together, big toe upon big toe, held inside a kaya-madhya-sutra, the central, invisible, ethereal, silvery thread. Her skin, luminous like milk, and fragrant like Lavender. She is poetry incarnate.

Her physical body is a puppet of her inner mindscape. It moves, breathes, hisses, and pulsates in a state of trance, of wild abandon and oblivion. She invites you to enter woman to woman, man to woman, into an erotic world of fever and desire, and yet simultaneously mirrors to us, the potential of our human birth!

Not a hair out of place, her eyes bold and stressing a portal into the other world. Her beckoning lips, lined with the scarlet red blood of life. Her earrings, bejeweled chandeliers embedded with sparkling stones, birthing rainbows in every twirl and swirl.

Her eyes lined with the black soot of a bat cave. Her long hair, well groomed like the silken tail of a black stallion, with three diamond flower motifs speckled, equidistantly like the constellation of the Orion’s belt, upon a dark night sky.

Her body wrapped in fine ebony black and crimson silk. The central fan adorning her vulva is a palette of earthy browns, reds and ochers. The red alta accentuates her sinuous feet and fingers. Her long nails painted electric reddish-pink like the metallic shell of a beetle from the Amazonian rain forest.

A carved emblem of a temple altar with a bejeweled Goddess at its center, hung loosely just beneath her round bosom. It was held back by just a little stitch upon her silken blouse. A delicate necklace like the even grains of a golden hued corncob, frames her long neck. Diamonds glitter upon both her nostrils, and one hung from the center of her nose divide, drawing us in towards her red lips. Sensuous and enticing, she stood upon a dimly lit stage. The music unspun its magic, while we waited with bated breath. And then she danced …

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For the past four days, I had the privilege to attend the Masterclass conducted by internationally renowned, revivalist fashion designer, Sonam Dubal, entitled, ‘Clothes Tell Stories’ at Adishakti Laboratory for Theater Arts & Research, in Puducherry. My preoccupation with redesigning the Bharatanatyam costume began a couple of years ago, when I began sharing my art as a soloist through the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. Through this workshop, I felt a kinship with Sonam’s rich cultural heritage and childhood. Watching me work with the saree to help redesign my dance costume, during this workshop, he astutely observed and remarked to me, “As a first step, begin to write in as much detail, all that restricts your dance in the present costume. Take a clear look at how things have slowly been evolving in your life? Where do your roots lie? The whole dance-scape is the world you are coming from, not having to do much with what you are technically learning in your dance. What is it that attracts you? What do you feel repulsed by? How are you being true to yourself, your individuality? Each accessory and detail on your fabric is reflecting you. Visualise where you can be more comfortable. Observe in as much detail where the restrictions in your costume are stemming from. Where does the problem lie? To break the conditioning, don’t follow the tenets of the original design. Also steer away from the Kanjeevaram silks that are traditionally used in your costume. I observe how comfortable and at ease, you are in the everyday saree. I see how free you are with it, so why don’t you begin with tying two or three sarees together and see where it takes you? Continue to reflect on the heritage that makes you, who you are today. Let go of fear or any need for approval. Liberate yourself from the costume!” So as a first step, this morning, I found myself questioning: What is my heritage? Where does the uniqueness of my cultural root lie?

Since childhood, I remember feeling being deeply drawn to the sensuous, fluid, six yards and nine yards fabric of the saree. I would observe with care, how beautifully some of the elder women in my family draped these, almost liquid, fabrics of varying textures, weights and hues. Ironically, I recall that the most striking and poetic saree-drape was in the way that my blind, maternal grandmother, Smt Veermati Patil, whom I lovingly address, Maa, माँ, wore her saree. Though born with perfect sight and health, her sight faded into complete blindness, when I was about five years old. Gifted with a deep sense of aesthetics and an eye for beauty, her nimble fingers transformed anything ugly, unkempt, or distasteful into a work of art and beauty. While her sight faded into darkness, as the eldest granddaughter, I was her ever-eager apprentice in all manner of things. She patiently tutored me into the art of grooming oneself, caring for the home and the hearth, which nourishes our body, mind and soul. Nestling in her warm arms and chest at night, she carefully whispered into my eager ears, colourful and detailed stories about our ancestors, our Maratha heritage and the artistic skills that lay dormant within each member of our lineage. Every morning after her bath and just before twilight, she opened her ornate wooden box that stored her ivory comb, a bottle of coconut hair oil, Afghan Snow face-powder along with its soft powder puff , three small silver, डब्बी / boxes. The first stored beeswax, upon which she smeared a careful round circle of vermillion कुंकु – kumkum that came all the way from Baroda. And the third silver box, held the sparkling Gold dust called मुकिस – mukis, that she patiently outlined the red circle of कुंकु – kumkum with. Though having grown blind, she needed help only in a few things like: if the hem of her saree, evenly laced the stone floor, or if the powder on her face was evenly caressing her soft face, or if any unwanted red कुंकु – kumkum dust had fallen on the smooth slope of her regal nose, or if the golden penumbra from the मुकिस – mukis kissed her red कुंकु – kumkum at its lyrical rim! By divine grace, I was the privileged, eldest granddaughter, whom she gave the choicest place of exclusive apprenticeship, throughout my summer holidays, when all her four children and nine grandchildren journeyed to stay with her at our simple coastal home in Mumbai. Through those precious childhood years, she sowed within me a sacred seed about my heritage and our ancestral Maratha roots that stemmed from the historical town of Kolhapur in Maharashtra. She groomed me with stories about what it was to be a Maratha woman from a cultured and respectable family. Her sensitive eye for traditional jewelry too had stories to tell. She awakened me to the intensity and luminosity of 24 carat gold, vis a vis, a lesser metal. She gifted me, my great grandmother’s ornate gold earrings that encased a pair of tiger’s nail. My ancestors, she said strongly believed that wearing these keeps one fearless through life’s many challenges. She made me aware that everything we do, speak, wear, or drape has a story to tell…

Living inside this consciously for the past four decades, a few years ago, after I began my journey as a soloist in the classical form of Bharatanatyam, I recognised that despite being at ease in the traditional saree and jewelry in daily life, I’m restricted by my dance costume and it’s layers of jewelry. I’m happy to have been initiated to the world of fashion design through Sonam Dubal’s intuitive flair for design and fashion.

Sharing with you, two photographs of my courageous baby-step at redesigning the Bharatanatyam costume using the knitwear fabric that was provided to us, during the resident Masterclass on Fashion Design at Adishakti, Puducherry.

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A Living Stream of Tradition

On Sunday afternoon, October the 20th, the rains washed the festive streets of Chennai. Sitting cozily, inside the cool, mini-hall of Narada Gana Sabha, I witnessed the true meaning of संप्रदाय : Sampradaya. Four exhuberant classical dancers, the senior alumni of Kalakshetra, shared their insights about devoted teachers, and visionaries like Smt. Rukmini Devi, Sarada Mami, and others. They spoke about संप्रदाय, a living stream of tradition that has flown through the veins of each classical dancer, who graduates from this renowned institution. In their golden seventies, Smt. Ambika Buch, Smt. Kala Ramesh Rao, Smt. Shanta Dhananjayan, and Smt. Savitri Jagannath Rao, recollected their student life in Kalakshetra. Dancing, and demonstrating the nuances of this unique, living tradition, they glowed with radiance and joy. Bedecked in beautiful orange, magenta, green, ochre, and gold Kanjeevaram silk sarees, I admired their deep sense of fraternity.

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As a young child, I had the great honour to study Hindustani Classical music, with legendary vocalist, Smt. Saraswatibai Rane, from the Kirana Gharana. I can still recall the beautiful, ornate, wooden tanpuras (तंबोरा) with delicate, ivory, inlay work, standing tall in her music room. She would patiently tune, both our tanpuras, to the perfect pitch. Then she would hand over my instrument to me, as if, it were a frail newborn baby, that needed to be loved and cared for. Sitting tall, we would lean it, against our ears, and strum it gently for sometime. Then she would lead, and I would follow. Sometimes, she would gently ask me, “Which Raaga would you like to sing today?”, and my whole being would light up in delight!

Today, I return to my studies of the Indian Classical music with Shri V.S. Balamurali, a gifted Carnatic vocalist, and music teacher. My lessons with him have renewed my love for music, multiple fold! I’m unable to dance the Padams, the Jatiswarams, the Varnams, until I can sing them well. At times, it is frightening to be so out of control. But, today, there is more madness, and gaiety, in drowning in the Sruti! There is a need within to internalise the lyrical quality of music, before dancing to it. The journey appears to be long, but I recognise a slow inner blossoming, around my throat, and voice. And sometimes, most unexpectedly, when one petal opens inside, my entire being reverberates in ecstasy!

Wrongly parked, just outside the restaurant, with an eye to the convenience of a quick getaway, once I’d had my chicken soup, a quick cure, for a running cold, I cross the busy street with alacrity, hop into the car, start the engine, shift into gear, only to feel something blocking me – a mechanical device immobilising my wheel, put there by the traffic cops, to punish me, for my parking misdemeanour.

Waiting to be freed is frustrating. It’s a busy street and there’s much happening. I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, with a light on inside the cabin. I turn on the music system and listen to the one CD that’s been there, forever. It’s the sound track of a popular movie I wouldn’t wish to name, only because it’s so popular! A man comes towards me, hurriedly crossing the street, pointing frantically to my wheel. I thank him and let him know that I’m aware of it. A young man hops onto his motorcycle parked on the other side of the car and reverses straight into it. I chide him. He scolds me for parking that way, glances at the locked wheel, apologises, and speeds away. Another motorcyclist pulls up alongside and gives me a wondering look. He asks me, if I have done something about my situation, or, if I’m just sitting there! He nods his head towards the Traffic Police Post and tells me it would cost me, all the money in my wallet, to get out of there. I watch him ride away. Some time later, I’m noticed by a charming pair of Twins, my children’s friends. I get out of the car, to greet them. They tell me that I must be missing my children a lot. It is indeed true, of that moment. It is the sight of them that does that. My children no longer live with me, and it is not by my choice. The irony of it all! Here I am, immobilised, not by my choice either. I’d rather be driving home, to my wife. I’d rather our children were not so far away.

I’ve the choice to accept, or, to live in a state of constant protest. It’s probably not the last time I’ll be stuck, in a situation like this. I remember a conversation with a friend, yesterday, at lunch. I was telling him how meetings were destined, even if they appear to happen, by pure chance. By that argument, this too, was meant to be, allowing me the possibility of watching the world go by, from a rather unusual vantage point, on a street, now growing calmer, with less traffic, and shops shutting down, for the night.

I’ve been in that car now, for something close to ninety minutes. It was my destiny to meet the Twins, amongst others. But I wonder, if the only meeting that really counts, is with the one who’ll set me free!