I have a strange habit. I remember people who have passed by the shape of their fingers, the texture of their hands, the lines in their palms and the curve of their wrists. Oh yes,  I do remember their faces – their eyes, smiles, voices, but never in as much detail as I do their hands.

Many years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office leafing through a magazine. I came upon a page of photographs of the winning entries in a worldwide photography contest – the top prize went to a black and white photograph of a woman’s wrinkled hands kneading dough. No jewelry was visible – wizened fingers clenched into fists, the tips of the fingers were hidden in the soft folds of the dough – the caption read – “Grandma.” I was so moved by this picture that spoke volumes about a grandchild’s affection, the memories of meals cooked and partaken, of conversations, bonds and family. The play of light and darkness along the ridges of the fingers and the slightly open palms captured in that picture has stayed with me – every other winning entry was punctuated with color. Yet this picture devoid of color had won top honors. There is something that I find deeply evocative in observing fingers, wrists, and palms. The jury in that photography contest and I were truly on the same page!

As a young girl, I spent a lot of time in dance class. Many hours during the week were spent with my Vadhyar – Swamimalai SK Rajarathnam. I remember his fingers clearly – dark and stubby – from the base to the tips they were of similar width – his skin made several folds around his knuckles. He taught me Bharatanatyam while sitting in his chair. How, you may ask? How does one teach dance without actually dancing? He literally taught dance with his fingers. Let me tell you how – if I had to extend my hands into a straight diagonal in the air, he never stretched his hands out into diagonals. Instead, he sat in his chair and only opened his fingers into the requisite mudrasalapadma, tripathakam maybe – the fingers were stretched – he held his hands in front of his chest and said mildly – keep them straight out – no bending elbows – the only part of the diagonal that I saw were the ways in which he held his fingers in front of his chest – and I stood in front of him and pushed the length of my entire hands out into diagonals, endeavoring to get my hands to the level of tautness that he brought to his two sets of fingers. When he taught abhinaya, and demonstrated the movements of a woman, the fingers were held taut but suddenly there was a liquid suppleness that suffused his fingers with femininity and I endeavored to create grace in the way I stood, walked and talked using my entire body. Here too, my whole body was reacting viscerally to the way in which his fingers spoke of feminine grace. My classes were filled with this kind of teaching and learning – looking at his fingers and extrapolating to much more in movement. His fingers spoke of the kind of deliberation and exactitude that classical dance demanded. 

And, the way in which he beat the thattu kazhi – the log of wood that rested on a small wicker stool – that thattu kazhi beat went on incessantly in his house as students filed in and out – the lessons that his fingers spoke as they beat out rhythms were really a lesson for life. It is in the doing that there is true pleasure, he seemed to say with his rhythmic beat – “I don’t talk about dance, no theory to distract me from watching and visualizing dance – it’s all in the doing.” The song is sung and the dance is danced repeatedly till you and I get it just so – there’s no other magic to dwell upon – your fingers and mine have to work constantly for that singular magic to happen, he seemed to say – that is the lesson I learnt by observing his fingers.

As a teenager, I sought specialized abhinaya instruction under Kalanidhi mami – the queen of abhinaya was how she was referred to at the time. She sat on the floor and taught – her fingers were smooth, the skin stretched neatly across the knuckles – no folds to speak of – and her inner palms were soft to the touch – when I did namaskaram in front of her before every class, her cool palms touched the top of my head with gentleness every single time. After that, her fingers soon flipped open one of the many notebooks that were in front of her moving quickly to the song that we had started and her eyes quickly scanned the page ready to start class. She had a way of correcting students that displayed her talent for mime. She would stop and lift her fingers in the air, turning her chin down or up ever so slightly demonstrating the way she wanted me to perform and then showed in quick succession what I had just done – the difference between the two ways was always ever so slight, barely discernible to the untrained eye – the difference would have been rooted in a slight movement of the eyebrow or the depth of the question in the eyes – the fingers always hovered around the face, the neckline, the brow – creating flashes of emotive brilliance that made me bow down at the end of class in true supplication to a born artist, hoping to imbibe some part of the whole that was in front of me.

Apart from using her fingers in class, I observed her fingers as I chatted with her as she ironed her clothes – she would take down the saree and blouse that had been put out to dry in the morning by the early afternoon and then iron the blouse while neatly arranging the folds of the inskirt as she pressed down, and put her clothes away before starting my class. It didn’t matter to her that no one would ever see the neatly ironed folds of her inskirt – her discipline stretched from the mundane to the weighty. It was this same discipline that led her to use dark brown paper to cover each one of the many books that lined her bookshelves in class – the books had different colors, spines and letters that clashed, she felt. Brown paper wrapped tightly, the books lay labeled in her handwriting on the shelves so one could easily locate the book by the number scrawled on top along with the author’s and book’s names which were spelt out as well. Once I asked her for a reference to a Puranic character and she said – “In the second bookshelf, you will find it in the second volume of Book no. 73!” And, surely I did – her mind was as orderly as her fingers were.

As I pen this intimate remembrance of my gurus, I marvel anew about that sacred bond between guru and sishya, teacher and student. It would be inadequate to just use the word – “fortunate” to describe the long association I enjoyed with my gurus. What they taught me through countless hours of class can never be quantified. In essence, they held my hand and guided me to enter an ocean of discovery and learning which continues to energize me every day. Life is indeed worth living if only to savor that journey that I started as a young girl.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a multifaceted artist - a dancer, writer, storyteller, and educator. She founded the Sankalpa School of dance, where she trains the next generation of committed dancers to pursue...