Translated from Tamil by MS Chandramouli.
(Acknowledgements to Ananda Ganesh, for supporting the translation).
Tamil original is here.
"Hey, Selvi, are you still not ready ?"
The voice came from somewhere. The room was littered with clothes, make-up articles and suitcases. I looked at myself once more in the mirror...
I remembered that day well. It was the time of the morning when birdsong was rife.. I had just finished my bath and had come to the entrance of the hostel. The area was suffused with the balmy sunlight of March. Pollen-shedding yellow hibiscus flowers had spread their petals like the open fingers of a henna-laden hand demonstrating the alapadma mudra. Yellow amaltas flowers fallen from the tree speckled the earth in a row like the spots of zari on a silk sari. Red oleanders were scattering light in half-bloom like the rising tide of pink on the face of a bashful maiden.
My mind was also blooming in that early morning. Like the gentle waves that lapped silently around one's feet at the beach at Besant Nagar without din or noise I was lost in comforting waves of thought. Even as I had got my college degree I had decided that my higher education will be in dance. That too in Kalakendra. There where art was inseparable from life, I longed to sit and learn at the feet of illustrious savants taking them to be my guru. I had resolved in my mind that this was my desire and goal in life. In this objective God had not forsaken me, neither had my parents. I enrolled here exactly as I had wished. The days had passed in dance and all its forms - jatiswaram, javali, konnakol and kuravanji. It is now one year since I arrived here. My life in art had commenced.
In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert
And cannot dance till Shiva wills it
He rises from His rapture
And dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound,
And lo! matter also dances
Appearing as a glory round about Him.
Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena
This is poetry; but none the less, science...
That was Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy in the Dance of Shiva. That week the class was only pre-occupied with this. Moreover Subramanian Sir had explained it beautifully:
"...only when we realize that this dance takes place inside each one of us, in our hearts would we arrive at the real significance of Shiva's tandavam. That is the moment when Art unfolds. That is the moment when the artiste transcends all. At that moment he is answerable to no person, no construct or no regulations. The artiste, in his heart, need remain true only to his Art and to no external power...."
Those words, even now early in the morning, were reverberating in my mind.
Walking over the moss-covered path I had arrived at the front mandapam of the hostel. And there I stood transfixed. The flowers in my hand dropped unwittingly. The Ganapathi had disappeared !
Had someone removed and taken the Ganapathi ? Who would come inside our premises and steal the Ganapathi ?
The Ganapathi used to sit in regal fashion inside the mandapam. I have heard it said that He had been positioned there ever since the inception of the art school. In the morning we, the female students, would pluck flowers and adorn Him. One of us would sing. Others would commence the abhinaya in dance rendering a Ganapathi kavutham. It was He who started our day. Now He himself was missing. What had happened ?
I walked and ran to the room of our guru Ragini Amma. A number of female students had already gathered there. They were complaining about something to Amma. They appeared to be flustered.
"Amma, the Ganapathi under the banyan tree is no longer there. Somebody has taken it away ".
"I got up in the morning and went for a walk. The large statue of Natraja at the Reception Block has disappeared".
"What about the Saraswati at the auditorium entrance ?"
"That is also gone"
"And the Ganapathi in the front mandapam of the hostel ?"
"He is also not to be seen"
Everybody was in confusion. Suddenly and inexplicably have all the deities in our premises chosen to disappear ? Is this a sign of ill omen for the institution ?
"Come let us go and meet Madam Director".
We followed Ragini Amma towards the Fine Arts block. The classrooms, the office and the room of Madam Director were all located there. All the faces bore a question mark.
Our Madam Director was Neela Johnson. an internationally renowned art personality. From a young age she had trained in Bharata Natyam at Kalakendra. She was fortunate enough to become the student of the founder of this Temple of Dance, the late Satyabhama Devi who still resides in all our hearts. Madam Director had later swirled and twirled across cities like Delhi and Mumbai to continents like America and Europe in the fashion of Brahmari dance. It was just last year that she returned to her "maternal home" as Director of Kalakendra. A magazine described her as an artistic genius who acted as the bridge between tradition and modernity. The same art magazine some months later described her as someone who did not know the difference between transcending tradition and transgressing tradition. It seemed to me that the artistic vision of Neela Johnson was perhaps best represented by the mudra formed with hooked and twisted fingers signifying the single-bodied but two-headed Berunda bird facing opposite directions.
Subramaniam Sir was in the room of Madam Director. All the teachers were in discussion. Only Ragini Amma went inside. We returned to the hostel.
That afternoon there was an announcement on the notice board. The images in the college campus had been removed at the instructions of the Director. The students were requested to maintain peace.
It was said that Madam considered idolatory as equivalent to superstition. As such on no account would idolatory be permitted in Kalakendra. Students would not have permission to take part in any dance recitals that are part of a temple function or a religious festival. Madam had created these new regulations. She was determined on their implementation. Even when many teachers pointed out that Satybhama Devi, who had those deities installed, had anointed them lovingly there was no relenting on the part of Madam. Subramanaian Sir started explaining how roopam or form was the very basis of Bharata Natyam and how the concept of angikam or whole-body expression was central to this dance. Madam simply cut him short without letting the dialogue continue. As a result of the entreaties of the senior teachers only the the Ganapathi under the banyan tree was permitted to be reinstalled.
All these matters I could learn only from an indisposed Ragini Amma. I simply could not understand why Madam Director was doing all this.
It appears Padma Amma had interjected : "Bharata Natyam, Odissi and Mohini Attam were all nourished and sustained in the temples. The proof has been in the front of our eyes".
"Ms Padma, I am writing an alternative narrative; I intend to free Bharata Natyam from the clutches of religion. You will soon understand this", said Madam casting a deep glance at all around her; they were all stunned into silence. All this was told to me by Padma Amma herself.
After this the mood in Kalakendra changed completely. There was an atmosphere of misgiving all around. When speaking to Madam Director there was palpable tension all around.. Without a glimpse of Ganapathi my mornings turned empty. I had the feeling of having lost a dear friend.
Subramaniam Sir was trying to infuse the customary enthusiasm in his class.
"Sir, you say that the art of Bharata Natyam is rooted in sacredness. You have talked about its inherent philosophy and its spiritual core but....". Selva was my batchmate. He used to ask a lot of questions in class. That day too he started a discussion. "Has this art not come from the devadasis more or less ? Who are they ? Are they not religiously anointed prostitutes ? It would appear that this art is the vestige of a decadent social practice. This art was created for the entertainment of the landed rich, an art for sexual revelry. You are trying to infuse sacred connotation into it. We, the students, have debated this already amongst ourselves".
"No it is not that way, Selva. As a student of Bharata Natyam how did such a notion enter your mind ?"
Sir cleared his throat. " Even at the end of the 19th century in cities like Tanjavur, Madurai, Srirangam and Kanchipuram devadasis lived with high social standing. They lived with respect and with influence. But at that time, on account of widespead social and economic disruption they were left without either wealthy patrons or art rasikas to support them or nurture the art. It was in those circumstances that a few amongst them were forced to resort to prostitution. We need to understand this in perspective".
"But no British chronicler has written such an account, sir. 'Ritual prostitution' is what they have termed it".
"Yes. That is natural. There is a reason why they had such an idea. Even before the British arrived here the Christian missionaries had come here, is it not ? Their objective and intention was conversion. They had already made up their mind that the people here, their art and their religion were of a low order, uncivilised and without culture...".
There was a change of facial expression amongst some of the students in the class. It appeared that they did not appreciate this input.
"....hence they rated Bharata Natyam also by the same yardstick. At the temple, during a festival procession it was the devadasis who danced at its head. Just like processional music, songs and nadaswaram an integral part of the event used to be Bharata Natyam".
"Sir, I think the name Bharata Natyam came up later. At that time it was called Sadir. There was no sacredness associated with it. That is why the devadasi institution was banned": Selva would not relent.
"No. We read in Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra a form known as Chaturam and it is this that had been called Sadir in Tamil. It is one among twenty-five dance forms of Shiva. But Christian missionaries were not aware of any of these nuances. They saw only the machinations of Satan. This is 'evil' and this practice must be obliterated was their outlook. It was on this basis that Western chroniclers in their publications have written coarsely and negatively about our dance and about devadasis. When the British tried to enact a law it was the devadasis who objected to it and put forth a petition. Their handwritten petition is available even now as a document, did you know ?"
Sir walked up to a corner of the classroom where a cupboard was located and returned with a voluminous book.
"Look...in this petition, devadasis have stated with pride how high a regard there is in society for their art. They have quoted the shlokas from the Sivakamam - "At the end of my puja shall be performed the shuddha nirutham ; with members of the Kanikaiyar progeny in dance, five instruments shall be played by masters competent in each" - this has been decreed by no less than Shiva himself.
Sir turned the pages and read on:
"They pleaded that such a sacred art should not be destroyed. Please provide us with education and give us the facilities to teach this art. As in earlier days we shall transmit to the people notions of jnana and bhakti through the medium of dance. That of itself will be our redemption, they implored. But at that time nobody understood their demands. People in society from the higher and educated classes, although probably aware of the greatness of this art, did not consider it appropriate for the female members of the family to take up dancing and singing. They remained rasikas and patrons of the art. Even Indian social reformers considered that there was no place for devadasis in the modern context. They did not appear to be bothered by the fact that this would lead to the complete eclipse of a great art form. As a result the devadasi tradition was brought to an end by legislation..."
His glance became fixed on the black-and-white photograph hanging in the classroom.
"....and at that time she was the only one who came forward. Satyabhama Devi...emerged to save this art. Under the tutelage of such outstanding devadasis such as Mayavaram Gowri Amma and Thiruvarur Kamala Amma she learnt the fine points of this sacred art form. She rescued Bharata Natyam. She established the elite art centre of Kalakendra..."
Sir closed the book. There were tears in his eyes. He appeared to be overcome with emotion.
"In this fashion this art form has suffered, expired and been resucitated. What else is there to say ? All of us who are now engaged in this art have done many punyams in our last life. Do you know what Abhinava Gupta says ?
"A modicum of delicate dance, of Lasyam, is enough. Devi is ever and always satisfied"
"With a little tandavam, Shiva with his ganas or attendants stands fulfilled"
A little dance is all that is required to make Him happy. How simple - just a little dance !
Sir had again peaked in his emotion.
"Dear students, meet George Master. Biju Eranius George. Father Francis Margosa's student. He has had formal training in Bharata Natyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi. He is involved in the Kalaippannai institution in Trichy. He takes classes for art students at the international level at many art schools. He is my friend of long standing".
After the introduction by Madam Director, with a smile playing all over her face, George Master stood up and greeted us with a bow. He looked slim and energetic in a yellow kurta. Generally the faces of male dancers in the Indian tradition combined masculine robustness with feminine charm. This was a distinct attraction. But George Master's moustache-less face was a study in vapidity.
"Then this here is Mrs David. Mrs Rajakumari David running a well-known dance school in New York.
She learnt Bharata Natyam under Senior Guru Shanmughasundaram Pillai. After he passed away she is the inheritor, so to speak, of his style of dance".
Mrs David smiled in a friendly fashion. She was probably around the same age as the elder ladies in our institution. However with her orange churidar and her coquettish talk one was tempted to call her Akka. Her hair, cut short and combed down, pressed dutifully against her shoulder like an obedient friend. Generous make-up was apparent in her made-up eyebrows, cheek and lips.
Madam Director continued, "Quite a lot remains to be said about these two people. But they are, after all, going to be with you people for a few more weeks. So you will yourself learn this".
We were going to perform and demonstrate in a few weeks a novel work of art that was the handwork of these two persons. This grand performance organised by Kalakendra was going to be a novel work of choreography based on a hitherto unknown tradition. Not all students could gain this opportunity. I and Malathi got this opportunity. Our happiness knew no bounds.
The evening rays were shining through the tree branches. Intermittent birdsong usual for that time of the evening could be heard in the backdrop of the sound of the dancers' anklet bells. Female students with the rustle of their dupattas drawn up tautly were walking by. The wind was endearingly playing about with their hair locks.
Pathos-filled violin strains floated up in the air. Even as the rehearsal got underway we became aware that this was a "theme" about which we had never heard before. The lyrics and songs seemed strange.
"Please demonstrate a devahastham dear".
On the request of Mrs David, Malathi stood in lissome fashion and gracefully showed the abhaya hastha mudra.
No, this was not OK.
Mrs David was not satisfied. She did not like the kati hastham or the varada hastham either.
"George, do you observe that there are shortcomings in all these hastha mudras ? Where is the emotion and the feeling we ask for ?"
George Master nodded his head. "Our precursors in art have already applied their mind to this. Particularly my guru Father Margosa. Look here...".
George Master pulled out a heavy tome from his bag and started turning the pages. It was a book on Bharata Natyam. But it carried pictures of new mudras that we had never seen.
Master pointed out a picture showing the small finger of each hand held horizontally and vertically against each other.
This was the Holy Cross mudra.
"Wonderful", exclaimed Mrs David. We looked back at our teachers. The faces were deadpan.
In the ensuing days we learnt brand new mudras such as the Son of God mudra, the Holy Spirit mudra and so on. Father Margosa's book was a treasure trove. It should be included in the curriculum in the next year was the recommendation given by Mrs David to Madame Director when the latter came for a rehearsal one day.
"I could not tolerate seeing all this. It was as though some rakshas was torturing the devatas and apsaras of abhinaya. Looking at them it appeared as though the devatas of svara were breaking out into sobbing. What was the necessity of all this ?" - I accidentally overheard Ragini Amma lamenting to Sir one day.
Generally speaking our teachers were on the side of positive initiative in matters relating to innovation in art. But for some reason George Master's technical points did not appear to go down well with them. We were proceeding to learn many more deva hastha mudras.
Some of the enactments were outwardly gauche. A crown of thorns is placed on the head. Blood oozes out. That was one scene, for example. The man is whipped and tortured. This was another scene. It was not appropriate to project raw emotion and feeling. Anger, disgust, eroticism and other rasas should find expression in artistically aesthetic ways and not be demeaned. This was what we had learnt and absorbed as the basic theory of Bharata Natyam. But George Master decreed that in this performance they will be displayed in their explicit form.
George Master and Mrs David spoke frequently about the "piece" that will form the high point and acme of the performance.
"That issue needs to be stated emphatically by us. For this purpose it more appropriate to have a solo performance rather than a group dance".
George Master accepted the suggestion of Mrs David. They decided to go for the beautiful svarajati "Nadanam Aadinar Eesan" . It was an amazing composition with nuanced bhavas and creative potential. Its movements were laden with power and virility..
"But...", Mrs David dragged...
"There are in it artistic expressions describing the raising of the left leg, matted hair laced with the river Ganga and so on. How can we reflect such ideas ?”
She made a wry face as though she had stepped on a slimy worm. George Master rubbed his chin and appeared to be lost in thought.
"Hmm....let us retain the same svaras but dispense with the lyrics which can be replaced and substituted by instrumental music. What do you say ?"
"Great idea !"
Mrs David nodded her head enthusiastically.
My friends came and hugged me: "Congrats ! You deserved it". Understanding dawned on me. I had been chosen for the solo performance !
But, I was instructed, there shall be none of the customary movements or abhinaya related to that swarajati that we usually performed. Father Margosa had created new abhinayas similar to the deva hasthams. With eyes held fixed the arms should be raised upwards while in standing position - the Crucifixion abhinaya ! This abhinaya was the supreme internal expression of Bharata Natyam was what Father Margosa had written in his book.
The Madonna mudra.....the Risen Christ abhinaya.....the Church mudra...
The rehearsal went on.
That morning it was overcast. There were still two more days for the event. As I had not been able to apply myself to my studies for some days now, let me do it today I thought. I entered the library. I picked up my favourite book which contained the complete set of articles written by Satyabhama Devi and moved towards the reading table. There I saw by chance an old copy of an art magazine that somebody had perused and left behind. It pertained to the year 1996. The cover carried a photograph of Director Madam. The cover story was about her. I started reading it with eagerness. An interview of senior artiste Sarada Amma was also carried in the issue.
"Neela Johnson was then a small girl. She had come to learn dance in Kalakendra. Her family was Christian. Hence she was not familiar with Hindu culture and tradition. Satyabhama Devi was very hesitant to enroll Neela Johnson because of her Christian background. Ultimately looking at her intentness and eagerness Satyabhama Devi consented to teach her. I also suggested that she be given an opportunity. Although Satyabhama Devi was rather strict during the selection process she would usually become one with the admitted students. Amma fully trusted her students to safeguard the sacred and inner-directed spirit of Bharata Natyam."
I read the issue through carefully.
The strains of a Bharatiyar song floated through from the neighbouring classroom. His songs had been selected for dance practice by the junior students for some other performance. Mesmerised by the music I was involuntarily shaking my head in appreciation even as I turned the pages to continue reading the articles.
"Why do I like Kumarasambhavam ? The reason was the deep symbolism embedded it it. Through her austerities what Parvati finally wins is not passion but devotion and self-sublimation. Uma, through her penance, won over Shiva and became one with Him....Shiva infused life. All shortcomings He burnt and turned into ashes. So must a dancer "burn to ashes" all that is dross and blemished. Only then will the rising internal spirit sparkle and shine."
Satyabhama Devi's words always brought calm and solace to my seething mind.
I could see a rising dust storm through the windows of the library. The trees swayed and brushed against each other on account of the swift wind. The cloud-laden overcast skies were turning dark and threatening. Goodness ! It appeared that there was going to be rain in this May midsummer.
I rose and came outside. I looked up.
The first drops of rain splashed off my eyelashes, crawled down to touch my lips. dripped and splattered on my breasts, rolled down to the folds of my stomach and were gathered together in my navel.
My body came alive. The spirit bathed in the contact with numerous raindrops was suffused in coolness. The pulse and the nerves tingled.
Uma does penance standing on one leg. Months, years and seasons pass by. The first drops of rain fall on her teasingly, states Kalidasa in the ineffable poetry of Kumarasambhavam.
At that moment, amidst those raindrops I became aware; I was indeed Uma.
"Hey, Selvi, are you still not ready ?".
A flustered Malathi entered the rehearsal room in the rear of the auditorium. She was breathless.
The adornments were all in place. Only kajal remained to be applied to the eyes. That was also done. And I was ready.
"All the invited guests have come for the performance. It was not certain if the Minister for Culture would turn up. But arrive he did. The Archbishop has also come. He is seated in the front row beside Mrs David. This event is not just going to be a success but a super-success !"
Malathi chattered on excitedly.
I had come to the edge of the stage from the dressing room. The swirling arc lights in green, blue and red dimmed gradually till the stage was bathed in soft blue. With the first mournful strains of the violin preparation was ready for the swarajati. I came and stood at the centre of the stage.
The mridangam started lightly sounding the tala...tha tham jari..thai.
The audience was slowly receding into the darkness of the dimming lights. In the front row Mrs David, Director Madam and the distinguished guests receded into small dots and then gradually disappeared. The stage disappeared. The statues next to the screen disappeared. The arc lights dimmed into extinction..
Tha ka dhimi tha...tha ri kita theem....
Shiva's damaru echoed through the universe. Primal sound was everywhere.
Shiva's matted hair flew in directions eight.
The Crescent Moon turned effulgent. The Ganga brimmed over. Laburnum flowers scattered down.
Music shook His shoulders eight. His Garland of Snakes hissed in dance.
The upright Agni in His hand shot upwards.
The Demon-Dwarf lay crushed beneath His feet.
Devas and munis stood in awe with folded hands.
Uma, as consort, stood transfixed in His dance
And the dances varied,
With it the foot-work
And the jingle of the anklets
And the songs sung
And the Forms He assumed.....[*]
...and lo! the left leg is up in the air !
Tandavam, the Dance of Shiva !
...Am I the Dancer or am I the Dance ?
[*] Translator's note: The extract from Verse 2760 of Thirumoolar's Tirumanthiram - Tantra 9 is translated using the rendition of the late Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami of Kauai.