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Negotiating dance with power: a short history of my body in movement and love
By Maitrika Kumari Rathore
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I have yet to come to terms with my dance practice or identify myself as a dancer. I cannot. It was easier in school, as a child, I had more confidence. I started learning bharatanatyam at the age of 4 or 5 two blocks away from my house in Jodhpur. I didn’t choose it; I went since my mother took me. Growing up, I also played squash, went swimming, and was comfortable using my body in different ways, curious about asanas; trying to stand and walk in padmasana; pliable and formative; and oh! the joy of running, running across our little garden with my sister to press palm down into a handstand, still using that velocity to walk on our little hands for two, three, sometimes four beats and toppling onto our backs and laughing. This was a ritual, sacred as they come. My brother and I also played golf intermittently with our small clubs and daata with his big ones. It didn’t suit me. I loved swimming. Bubbling. Moving. Smooth and shiny like a mermaid. Going from one end of the pool to the other, over and over, without exhaustion, pure joy, like fish, like dolphin, like whale, like shark. On land, dance is the closest thing to the full-bodied experience of water, next is running. I loved the mathematics of it, one lap, two, three, four, still fluid. To be a shape and yet, to spill, to groove, to be and become, that is the magic of water. I loved mathematics. Addition, subtraction, assumptions like movement, assume ‘x’, imagine a moon, move towards it. Make attempts, false attempts, bad attempts until ah, there you are. Draw a triangle in the air, make an arc with your body, again and again and again, swimming, reaching, lapping, gasping, now and forever in love, contained within a rectangular pool, a rectangular notebook of signs and lines, and bodies, reaching, trying, crossing, making, falling, believing. It was in school that words got me, by the neck. We didn’t have a pool there. At 9, I joined a small, beautiful, ‘traditional’ (the website says) boarding school in dehradun, W.G.S.. I was confident, I had my body, I was happy. I didn’t miss home. I was home in me. We didn’t have a pool in school. But we had to choose a sport, and I chose basketball, a cult at Welham. Over the years our coach guided us and scolded us. We meditated over the ball with our eyes closed, bouncing it on the floor with one finger, index, middle, ring, little, thumb then the other hand. He told us to be true to ourselves and ‘don’t sham’. I wished for more sports, variety, I got that in bharatanatyam. My teacher was a kalakshetra-trained bharatanatyam dancer from Kerala, her mother too had gone to Kalakshetra. It was a different kind of hereditary dance for her, not that of the devadasi but one still related to blood and being—a lived history. She loved us, loved me, we loved her. She was strict and giving. Every year we formed a team in our houses to compete in annual music and dance competition. I did not know anything about the dance’s history then. Those house teams are part of my best memories of school, camaraderie and teamwork. I was in love with gestures, postures, movement of treating my body as a psycho-somatic, spiritual and aesthetic entity all at once. The goal was to be and it seemed more rewarding than putting a ball in a hoop. But still, I was as taken with other activities and dance had not taken precedence yet. I loved coding and art. In class 9, we had to choose and I chose dance. It was probably because of my teacher and the house dance teams. Back home, my experience in rajput society was completely different, an alter world. In weddings the women sat together, danced drank laughed. I’ve seen nothing like it– jewellery ghoomar embroidered poshaks (the traditional ceremonial dress). The men sat separately; I don’t think they had as much fun. With family, I attended hindustani classical concerts. I remember watching Zakir Hussain in a courtyard of Mehrangarh fort, and Shiv Kumar Sharma in Udaipur. I heard the sitar, shehnai, sangeet, over time I was exposed to qawwali, ghazal and kabir. In school, we sang shabads, shloks, and myriad songs of land and rain, and hymns, and carols. We had a ‘secular’ education and we celebrated all festivals. In our dormitories, we heard rap, pop, bollywood and punjabi music and everything in between. Growing up in an all-girls school and learning from and with these beautiful strong brave and naughty women was a blessing, I did not know I had. I thought the world would be supportive like them. Growing up as a girl in Rajasthan, was full of etiquette, niceness and restriction. Luckily I did not have any intellectual restrictions but every woman knows that unknowingly or knowingly we are taken in by the culture and start performing our bodies as we are taught to or as we think we are supposed to. We started worrying about our shapes more than our feelings. Growing up in post-colonial India that had become even more british, we ate on tables and chairs with forks and knives and followed ‘proper table manners’. We spoke english well. Meanwhile, I attended dance class and started getting introduced to the history of dance in India. I learnt about the devadasi ban and lamented like one is supposed to. There was a line in the essay we read which said something like, ‘It has become fashionable for dancers these days to say they would’ve liked to be a devadasi.’ I did not know what it was, but this made me extremely uncomfortable. My exposure to carnatic music was limited to my teacher singing in bharatanatyam class or the recordings that we sometimes used and the taalams and raagams we were taught about in class. But every year during the competition, we had a live music crew who travelled from the south. The sound of the mridangam was intoxicating. But I was still not head over heels in love. I fell gradually, year by year, until after tenth, I dropped basketball, to the horror of my coach to focus more on dance. The last two years of school were intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging. In the summer of 12 grade a few of my batchmates and I stayed back to prepare for a performance in lucknow. With deeper immersion and 2-3 hours of daily dance practice I became more enamoured and enticed. I thought, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be a dancer. After dance practice I would study Math and economics, prepare for the board exams that were to come. On weekends there were parties with friends. Many 12th graders from boarding schools would stay back in Dehradun to prepare for the upcoming exams.

I looked forward to dance practice the most. After a month and a half of rehearsals, six of us finally presented our repertoire in Lucknow, with live music. The makeup and costume were garish. I had more fun practicing in simple suits and sarees than performing. After the holidays, my teacher began holding rehearsals for my aarangetram. Meanwhile, we also prepared for the IPSC Solo Classical Dance competition. I was also part of the contemporary crew. Early mornings were for Bharatanatyam, class time for academic engagement (Political Science, Economics, Math, English, and History were my chosen subjects). Afternoons were for reading in the library or on tree-shaded benches. Evenings for contemporary dance practice and yoga. Mealtimes, always with friends, we gossiped and joked about everything. A lot of us had stopped eating well through high school, influenced by model culture. It was in this milieu that I was trying to come to terms with who I was, writing poetry, spending a lot more time to myself, reading, and wondering. I won the dance competition but it didn’t give me the high that such a prize announces. Over the winter break I got more confused and I started my meditation practice while studying all day for the upcoming exams. Over the last term of school, I mostly studied. My friends and I were wearied by the school, the constant policing, telling us how to behave, to not talk to boys and be homophobic, to follow rules, to eat all meals. Looking back it seems that maybe having someone to go through misery with is all we need. Despite everything, we were not breaking apart. We were happy, sometimes sad, waiting to get out of school, for real life, for real freedoms. Out of school, I stayed back in Dehradun with ma to prepare for my aarangetram. I practiced hard. Once all the pieces were learnt, alarippu to thillana and even the longest piece varnam (‘meaning colour’ some expert said), I rehearsed them over and over again with my teacher who was never satisfied and expected better. My dance saree would be soaked wet by the end of 3 hours of the morning practice. After rest, lunch and bath I would be back at my teacher’s helping her teach basic adavus for the local dance class and performing a piece or two for the younger children, and their mothers. Mrs. Rajalakshmi would keep me well fed. Sometimes she made neer dosa, my favourite, and other times biryani. Often she asked me to come earlier to eat breakfast or to stay back for lunch. My love for south Indian dishes grew and I knew what my friends from the south meant when they said, ‘this is not a real dosa.’ When ma’am was away for work she told me to come on my own and practice at her place. One such day, I was practicing a piece on draupadi Cheer Haran, it was emotional and intense. And tears would come when they were supposed to, to the required degree, at least once in two days. But that day, as I lay begging on the feet of Arjuna, my beloved, the husband I loved the most while Dushhasana (also played by me) dragged me by the hair in front of a hall full of men. As I lay on the floor begging him to help me, to do something and not allow this torture, I looked into his eyes, my own filled with helpless grief. I broke down. It wasn’t my own doing. I was helpless, in performance. That was the apogee of my aarangetram journey, alone at my teacher’s house, I reached my peak, full of abject, all snot and tears, hair disarrayed, not caring about posture or hand gestures. This was my most vivid experience of Sattvika bhava. I hoped I would experience that again but I had to keep up with the beat and it didn’t happen. Not like that. Not ever. It wasn’t chance, it was sweat and tears and fortitude. But that moment was full of fortune, a flower and fruiting, full of juice, sweaty seduction, a performer’s appetite, just full. Just so, just right. And such an experience is still out of mind, somehow everywhere (as NJ put it). Out of body, being everywhere and not elsewhere. IN and Out of body. God how I loved it. At the moment, I did not know whether that was good or bad. It felt right. Just. I was redeemed in that moment, not because of the suffering of draupadi like jesus on a cross but because my draupadi was suffering and suffering openly. She was transparent, she was there and I was there and we were together everywhere. After that, every day the dance was over-rehearsed. The final performance, in Udaipur, with jewellery make-up and audience did not mean as much to me. It was perfect with a few missed beats that the audience did not notice. A month before that I had performed in school, just a few of the pieces from the repertoire. It was an hour long performance. I had recently graduated so my batchmates were not present. We had a sound system and the auditorium that I had loved, danced in, played in, prayed in, studied in… The wood of the stage was ‘pyaara’ to me, there is not other way to put it. Sacred cannot touch the beloved. That performance according to the rule book was a disaster. During the pulling and thrashing and screaming of the dances one by one my jewels started to fall off. My earring fell. My mala came apart, the kajal or eye liner was not waterproof so my face was streaked with black lines from sweat and tears. I was dancing for an audience that had seen me before. They knew my body, they had seen it grow; we were all bound by some invisible thread, thinner than philosophy, stronger than nationality. We were bound and they felt my steps and missteps. It was my best performance on stage, for the affection that abounded, that I felt and gave, that we were all part of. After it was over, I spoke for a few minutes, panting and dripping about what I love about dance and literature.


 

 

 

Maitrika Kumari Rathore is a student of performance based out of Jodhpur. She likes to read, write, and observe melancholy. This piece was inspired by the Indian Poetics course, the ongoing 8 weeks online course at Studio Abhyas, and her training in Somatics under Navtej Johar.

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