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Three years ago this July, I performed my bharatanatyam arangetram, or solo debut, after almost 10 years of studying the southern Indian classical dance. In the midst of my practicing and preparation for the performance, I penned a piece for India Currents that began “Bharatanatyam is the bane of my existence.” Three years later, three years older, and after a yearlong sabbatical-of-sorts from dance (necessitated by the rigors of schoolwork, college applications, and a successful speech career during senior year), I can’t help but smile at the irony.
Bharatanatyam is still the bane of my existence, but no longer because, as I wrote then, “the time and commitment required to reach the necessary level of proficiency have scared me out of my wits.” Bharatanatyam is the bane of my existence because I am no longer a dancer, I am only superficially a part of the dance community, I don’t give time or commitment to the dance, and it makes me sad.
It makes me even sadder when I attend dance performances, listen to Karnatik music, hear songs to which I have danced, and recall eating apricot jam and chapatis with my guru during a break from rigorous practice. My failure to have continued practicing bharatanatyam saddens me more when I watch professional dancers, witness commitment, and wonder if I could have made the time.
Nrityagram, the seminal dance village in Bangalore, India, founded by Protima Bedi, is home of the dancers, abode of the committed, where time is spent on classical dance and dance alone. I visit, after having retired my bharatanatyam bells, and am moved to tears.
I can’t help but stare as Bijayini Satpathy walks barefoot between the abodes of the village. She is beautiful and sensual in her practice sari. Her thick black tresses, characteristic of classical Indian dancers, are plaited and center-parted; a large red bindi adorns the center of her forehead. The village, Nrityagram, is maroon and green and earthy. Wholesome. Raw and rich. There is sandalwood in the air. I stand, a tourist in a blue peasant skirt, and peer through the windows of each dancer’s room. I want to go inside.
I want to wake up in Nrityagram with the dancers, with Bijayini, at 6 a.m. and be limber. Drape and tighten a maroon sari over my breasts and deftly roll waist length hair into a bun. Have a face free of make-up but colored with energy and passion and livened by exertion. To harden the soles of my feet against the stone floor of the practice room. To embody the 10 essential qualities of a dancer: javaha (agility), sthiratvam (steadiness), rekha (graceful lines), bhramari (balance in pirouettes), drishtihi (glance), shramaha (hard work), medha (intelligence), shraddha (devotion), vachaha (good speech), and geetam (singing ability). “I will try,” I whisper to myself. To Bijayini, as she passes, “I will return a dancer once again.”
But there are wall-to-wall mirrors in my suburban, California home I have yet to use to practice bharatanatyam. I have three exquisite dance dresses, green and cream and maroon, two of which have not been worn since my arangetram. The temple jewelry in my closet is heavy and rusting for want of use. I cannot touch my toes, though I’ve been dancing for 11 years. Each day, when I walk downstairs, I pass poster size images of 15-year-old-Ragini-the-dancer, stroking a bird, holding a flute, gazing at a lotus (or is it the moon?). Rekha. The word falters on my lips.
In the last dance class I attended, some Wednesday evening, I was distracted; what was once a much-loved opportunity for me to hone my steps and improve facial expression had become routine. I had a calculus test to study for and a speech due in the morning. Medha, I assured myself. Vachaha. I glanced at my watch. We were to write down the words of the classical Karnatik music piece to which we danced and record the subsequent motions. To sing in unison. Geetam. I sat in the back of the studio while my teacher dictated, in her subtly accented voice, the words of the devotional song. I glanced at my watch, a guilty but controlled movement of the eyes and lashes. Drishtihi. Next week, I told myself, I’ll make up the missed lesson.
I didn’t go to class the next week, or the week after that, I remember. But even today I purposefully add an alapadma (my fingers splayed and palm curved to form a flower) to a triceps stretch during step aerobics. When I walk through the hallways of my school, I rise onto the toes of my tennis shoes and bend a knee. Javaha. I am poised, controlled; my steps are characteristic Set 14. Sthiratvam. Bhramari. I smile when someone comments on my graceful gait, the way I smile when my grandparents show off photographs from my arangetram. When aunties and uncles inquire as to how the dancing is going. I smile the way I smile when I’m referred to as a dancer.
My smile falters as Bijayini passes, as I finger my short hair guiltily, as I notice that there aren’t any clocks in Nrityagram. The residents dance so long as there is light by which they can correct each other; they dance into the night, into the morning, into the afternoon. I turn away, chastened by Bijayini and her sweat stained blouse. But I am not quick enough. She meets my eye and smiles in recognition. Shraddha, she mouths, shramaha.
“I will try,” I whisper. To Bijayini, as she passes, “I will return a dancer once again.”