The times I remember most clearly were those soggy monsoon afternoons when we'd pour in with with our drippy plastic raincoats and our slushy squishy 'rainy shoes' trailing in the dirt of the world. The rain often whipped down in lashes, reaching through even the most well thought through raincoat. I remember shivering half soaked under the whirring ceiling fans while we got into position, bells strapped on our feet, ready in the half-sitting Aramandi position. The first round of Adavu steps, which were sure to warm us all up, were always the hardest. I adored our dance teacher though, I'd go through a lot of pain to impress her! She was like this Deity. Her alabaster skin, her silken hair, her long elegant fingers striking the Tabla, her incredibly sleight and graceful movements when she danced...she was just divine! I was always in such awe. Being a Parsi, she's quite an exception among dance teachers of the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. Originally Parsis were Iranians of the Zorastrian faith which is one of the world's oldest religions. They fled to India sometime between the 8th to 10th century to avoid persecution by muslim invaders. Bharatanatyam, described in the Natya Shastra treatise that date as far back as 200 BCE, originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu. I guess one could say it's the Indian 'ballet' without sounding too silly. It also encompasses theatre, dance and music in its own graceful fluidity. So, there we were, this meeting of Bharatanatyam, Parsis, and a bunch of little girl students, amongst which were - Hindus, Christians (like me) and basically anyone else who wanted to learn. But that was the India of then. An India long gone.
I was a terribly eager, terribly bad student. Seriously, Bharatanatyam is a horribly painful, bloody hard art form to master, and I just loved it. Talent is often overrated, at least that's what I believed because it worked well for me. Our teacher saw things in me I didn't, like invisible things. She'd say something encouraging and set me up to practice twice as long as every other kid. So whilst clearly there were better dancers in our group of giggly girls, including her own daughters, I often got special attention. Much like one tends to be overprotective of the weakest in the pack. She was firm and kind and always pushing me beyond my limits. I don't know if it was because I worshipped her or because she believed in me, but I always let her push. With one sure flick of her trowel, she fixed a shaky brick. It's people like these that mould us.
It was no big surprise that no great dancer was born out of me. I suspect she knew that all along. But I had a lot of fun dancing while I did, and then when I was about 13, I dropped out. In all the hustle-bustle of growing up, university and generally sorting out life and what I want to do with mine, I might have forgotten about dance altogether.
The next time I thought about Bharatanatyam, I was at the tail end of my 30's, had two kids, was living and working in central Europe and yearning for it to be part of my life again. To be clear, I did try other forms of dance more native to Europe, which were fun enough for a while. But it just wasn't the same. Having made some failed attempts at digging up a good teacher, I was starting to think maybe it's a sign to let it go. A 25 year break would have surely done nothing good to my 'skills'. Why I still continued searching, I can't explain. At almost 40 I was able to continue where I left off at 13. That shaky brick she fixed is kind of jammed!
It's often rainy outside and cold. There is no drama scene here, like in the monsoon rains of Mumbai though. Somethings have changed, some others remain the same. Drama in India has taken on a whole new face. I'm heart broken about the direction my beloved India is headed in. Whilst India was never the epitome of tolerance and harmony, now extremism is brazenly legitimised, even legalised by powerful sections of society. I'm ashamed to call myself Indian. Although I won't be as quick to turn in my nationality for another, I still don't want to be a part of a mindset that would lynch someone over his diet. My happily mixed dance class as I knew it, is a thing of India's past.
The first round of Adavu's are still the hardest. Again, I adore my dance teacher, who this time is a good 10 years younger than I. And my body is 27 years older than when I last struggled with Bharatanatyam! Our giggly group is a bunch of women from varied backgrounds, shaving off time from domestic and professional obligations to spend it on dance. Some are even quite new to the country, still struggling with home sickness and learning the ropes of a foreign culture and language. We dare to leave all our 'baggage' with our shoes at the door so that on Saturday morning at class, we're all the same. It is still with childlike joy that we all learn from our dearest teacher and each other. Little girls again. The moulding continues, even for 40 year old bricks. She's created an addictive atmosphere that encouragingly includes varying levels of talent and expertise. Underlining strengths, supporting weaknesses. There are no egos here, no pride and no politics. Instead there are tears of frustration and moments of delight as we nervously prepare for our first stage performance in, what for many of us, will be decades. She places her trust and professional reputation in our hands, in return we have to believe in ourselves. You can't help but be inspired by the energy and focus. Again, it's just all about dance, about the painful torture of body control and limit-pushing. And so, it turns out, in this often cruel hateful world, my happy dance class does continue. For that, I have you all to thank.