Bangalore in the 70s, India, Musings

Dancing like Sapna

“Talangu Tadigina thom tha thae thae thath… Kitta thaga tham dit thaam- Dit thaam kitta thaga thayi thath thae…

The opening sequence of Allarippu  – a Bharthanatyam dance remains embedded in my memory. It is a beautiful dance symbolizing the offering of respect to both God and the audience.

Being, the tallest in a dance group of 10 -12 girls, I would be shunted to the last row, where my hands and feet wrestled within the confines of the walls. It was small room, barely 8 X 10 feet, with so many of us jostling for space it was an art to be able to avoid hitting each other or the walls. I was apparently in-adept at that.

However, I had my Sapna – dream of becoming an exceptional dancer someday just like the best dancer named – Sapna. She was the privileged one, who performed solos in the 8 X 10 foot room, while the dance master burst into a song. Usually it was a song for the baby lord Krishna. He would sing as Yashoda – Krishna’s mom.  “Krishna nee begaane baaro” – “ Krishna come to me… hastily” I would watch transfixed as Sapna danced with grace, poise and complete perfection with expressions her face changing from a mother’s pleading to love to mock anger to sulking and back to pleading again in matter of seconds.

I dreamt of dancing like her someday, as I waited for my turn to dance with the other beginners – “low-brows.” Sometimes Aruna – my playmate and neighbor would talk about how her mother had beaten her that day, for getting only a 98% in her Math test. Another favorite topic of hers was “The Sharmas”, a couple that frequented her house. “ “You know, they were holding hands… and looking into each other’s eyes” She would whisper softly, and we would look at each other in disbelief. We hadn’t seen our parents or any other Uncle and Aunty, for that matter do anything like that.  Why my parents addressed each other as “Gal suno!” – listen, while her parents said “emmandee” – (What is it) . Couples held hands only in the movies.  These Sharmas were truly Besharmas “Shameless”!

After about a year Aruna was gone, I would while away my time –watching the agarbatti – incense stick (stuck in front of a poster of goddess Saraswati, as a sign of respect) droop to nothingness and wander into my little Sapnaland. One day, Bhavna was writhing on the floor like a snake, with her arms and legs twirling synchronously with her body, as the dance master very enthusiastically sang “ Aadoo pambe” – playful snake. He abruptly stopped singing and hit her left arm with the baton, that he used for counting the dance steps. She was upset and tearful for a few minutes, then continued dancing. It was implicitly understood that the respect for the dance master, meant any form of punishment was acceptable. One wrong step or expression entitled him to give anyone a sound slap, scolding or a pretend slap. No questions asked.

Three years into dance lessons, I was only performing simple dances like Pooja dance and folk dance on stage, while  still learning Allaripu. Almost every other girl had started performing solos, except for me. Whenever the teacher got mad at me he would yell “ Ishaandaar” and threaten to beat me with his baton, while the other girls giggled. I was a misfit –  in the class a Punjabi Sikh in Jayanagar, Bangalore – the hub of classical south Indian culture. My name, did not even have the customary vowel “a” in it… (even though my dance teacher chose to add it), and my limited understanding of kannada – the language everyone spoke, and a limited understanding of the rituals and nuances that were behind certain dance movements and poses  – did not help my situation. At least it seemed like, every other dancer understood everything, while I pretended to understand by imitating the other dancers in front of me. Now when I think back, I was fooling no one, but who wanted to risk humiliation or ridicule by asking a question?So, I hopelessly clung on to a dream of dazzingly everybody by dancing like Sapna someday, because that would make everything OK. Nobody would laugh at me and then the teacher would also pronounce my name properly.

I started biking to the dance lessons, on the way I had to bike through this chaotic area on the street that practically was a settlement of sorts, people playing carrom board on the pavement, children running around, women squatting on the street and selling vegetables. It was very difficult to bike through, because anything could come at you anytime. One day I was biking back from the dance lesson and a small kid came in my way and wouldn’t move, before I could apply the brakes, the tire had struck his foot and he had fallen down. I got down from my bike to make sure he was ok, by then a whole crowd of assorted people had surrounded me and they were yelling at me. One lady, a tomato seller came forward and slapped me, my cheek felt her rough skin. I had no idea what to do, then  the little boy ran way. The crowd was distracted and taking advantage of that moment, I quietly slipped through the crowds without being noticed. For months, I took a different route to the dance class. But, then…my dance lessons ended abruptly so did my Sapna.

Two years ago at the Butte Folk festival, my sons had the opportunity of watching the Krishna dance. I was thrilled to introduce it, nuances and all to my boys, who were intrigued and fascinated, by a dance that they were watching for the first time! In fact, being a Tabla ( Indian drums) player himself, my older son could relate to the Tabla beat and the varying notes associated with the movements – Kitta thaga Thaam. He has continued his journey of Tabla learning here in Maine, from a local teacher who has lived and learned Tabla in Bangalore. It makes him happy to have that connection – to a place where he started his own Tabla lessons as well at the age of ten – about the same age that I was dreaming of dancing like Sapna….


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