One is ephemeral and disappears in the time that it takes to blink your eye. The other stares back at me from a page – written hundreds of years ago still speaking to me and of me. Identifying with dance and the words on a page offer me moments of transcendence and yet they are so different and I’ve always wondered about my fascination with both.
My heart always beats faster when a show is about to begin – the driving on the highway, the yelling of instructions to my boys as I head out the door – all of that seems inconsequential in that moment when the curtain rises. And, what I wait for is that moment of transcendence which cannot truly be captured in words.
I have movie spools in my head of performances held long past that helped me reach that moment of incandescence within me. I remember watching artist Sadanam Balakrishnan sitting on a chair with another chair facing him with only his eyes peering over the top of the chair, emoting using the power of his eyes. I understood that day that eyes had the power to speak. I remember Kelucharan Mohapatra onstage seated – now as Radha and now as Krishna – the body movement subtle but powerful. How can a seated dancer convey depth of emotion without large arcing movements across the stage – you might ask. And, yet he did. I watched my gurus Kalanidhi Narayanan and Swamimalai Rajarathnam in close quarters in class create pure magic. Guru Rajarathnam would effortlessly transform into a young gopi with just the way in which he tilted his face. Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan a woman with grey hair and a slightly stooped back would transform into a giggly teenager with one look of pure innocence that showed her as one who was about to face life – not as one who had seen the ups and downs of life. For each of these movie spools in my head, if you had tapped me on the shoulder to break my reverie, I would have been at a loss for words to explain why that was a moment of transcendence. Was it the eyes and the curve of the neck and her shoulders? Or was it just the eyebrows that worked? Can one truly say? The movements of the body disappear in a whoosh all at once – like magical dust – leaving me merely with a glow in the eyes and the heart.
Aah – words on the other hand – arranged and rearranged falling across the page in a neat line – there’s something orderly about them always. A thought that I had as a young girl has stayed with me to this day – when there is turmoil in the story, should the words not be printed in a veritable jumble, big fonts for anger, with small fonts being used for words of affection that might follow? Oh no – notice how books are printed – words of comedy and hilarity look similar to words of sadness and longing. Everything in its place. We might as well be engraving these words on stone and metal as they did before the invention of the printing press. There is something unshakeable about words – and, there’s a reason for that.
The human experience is etched and made firm through words in a way that movement cannot. The famed heroine Sivakami in the Tamil masterpiece – Sivakamiyin Sabatham – waits for her lover Narasimha Pallavan with the same anxiety that a modern day woman waits looking at her phone for that one text from her lover. And, the words speak – the anxiety, the self-doubt, the anticipation – every emotional shade of that lover’s feelings – it’s already there in a book of historical fiction written decades ago. There is no need to rearrange those beautiful words or sentences – the writer captures the inner state and we look at those words hundreds of years later or decades later and they seem to speak to us as individuals.
Arranging limbs in lines that cannot be moved – that is an impossible task for a dancer. Dance is at once dynamic and organic – a blur of dizzying movement now and a stillness when it whirs to a stop – eyes that seem to speak and at other times those very eyes take on a solemnity that pushes the viewer out – thighs that pulsate with energy – ankles that whirl and turn – toes that tremble with rhythm – how can all of that be recreated in the same exact way even once more? When I watch spools of digital dance of dancers from years past, I don’t cry, I don’t laugh. Oh no – those moments of transcendence are reserved for those moments of physical togetherness in the same space as dancer and viewer – a magical space where brilliance radiates in the time that you blink an eye.
Creating meaning with movement and writing – this, I pursue – wondering every now and then about the ever-changing and never-changing nature of one and the other.
The title for this essay is inspired by the This, I believe – series created by National Public Radio.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine. In her other avatar, she is a Bharatanatyam artist and teacher. @dancenwords