The words are like a magic incantation: Dhalankuthakadhiku thaka thadhinginathom. Chanted to a rhythmic marching beat of one-two-three-four. The years fall away, and I am back in dance - Bharata Natyam - class. There is a pervasive memory of heat and humidity. In my reminiscence, it is always May, when schools and colleges are closed for the summer holidays.
Every morning, I made the trek: through traffic-choked Perambur Barracks Road, a couple of side roads, the relatively expansive Poonamallee High Road, across Chetpet Bridge over a murky, stagnant body of water chock-full of dhobis all lined up neatly in a row, a mind-numbingly slow crawl through Nungambakkam High Road, and Gemini, with its mile-high cinema hoardings. Then the mad scrabble under the Anna Flyover, buses, trucks, cars, scooters, bicycles, rickshaws, swaying, darting, coming within millimeters of our car, frayed tempers, constant honking, heat, dust, every nerve on edge, waiting for the collision which mercifully never happened. A relatively peaceful run through Cathedral Road, where I remember sticking my tongue out at Stella Maris College, rival college to mine, down Mowbrays Road, past Greenways Road, into newer parts of Madras, then still green, still undefiled by construction and traffic, with vast empty stretches of virgin land, the last frontier. Going over the new Thiru.Vi.Ka Bridge over the then beautiful Adyar River estuary, I imagined I was an adventurer plunging into unexplored terrain, and then finally, my destination, my dance guru’s home, in Adyar. The distance I traveled was oh, about 15 kms, but it took me the better part of an hour to reach. I was a simple North Madras girl living in a world of textile mills, barracks and railways, and I had to venture into South Madras for my culture fix.
Lakshman Sir, my dance guru, who adopted the name “Adyar” as part of his moniker (Adyar K. Lakshman), lived in various homes in Adyar through the many years I learned with him. Wherever he lived, he conducted his classes in a custom-built stone-floored hall with a thatched roof, where the temperature was always a few degrees cooler than what it was outside, which, once we started dancing, did not mean much. Lakshman Sir is brilliant. I could listen to his konnakol till kingdom come. I have heard dozens of nattuvanars and their nattuvangam, and to my mind, no one comes close to Lakshman Sir. To this day, I get thrills up and down my spine when I hear his nattuvangam.
He was one of the earliest students of dance at Kalakshetra, where he learned from Rukmini Devi Arundale herself, along with other luminaries, like Mysore Vasudevacharya, Tiger Varadacharya, Mylapore Gowri Ammal, and Dandayuthapani Pillai. Just imagine. He loved to tell us stories of his time there, and I still fondly remember his naughty smile and tremendous sense of humor and fun. He told us that for a while, his primary passion was cricket, and that it was his ambition in life to become a famous cricketer. Fortunately – for me, for the world of Bharata Natyam – Rukmini Devi cleverly persuaded him to choose dance over cricket, stressing its function as a terrific means to gain physical strength. He was all of 11 years old then.
My memories of the dance classes are of everything aching, of soreness and pain: screaming thigh muscles, arms that threatened to wither away and die if they had to stay up for another second longer, mutinying knees. Lakshman Sir’s classes were tough, but good fun, enlivened by his sense of humor and the sheer joy of dancing to his nattuvangam. He set sky-high standards, and made sure we attained them. We had to do our adavus (exercises) for what seemed like hours on end. I didn’t know which was worse – the torturously slow first speed where we were not allowed to sway or bounce or budge from the araimandi position or let our arms drop a millimeter below the proper position, postures designed beyond doubt by sadists who enjoyed inflicting pain by forcing the body to assume contortions that were surely not normal – or the lightning-fast third speed where our footwork had to remain crisp, no missing beats, laziness or slacking off allowed, the worst being the muzhumandi exercises (where we had to assume a knees fully-bent posture and leap up from that and whirl around – correctly - in the blink of an eye). To our groans, complaints and cries, Lakshman Sir had the same response. He told us of how when he was a student in Kalakshetra, the entire class had to spend a whole hour – every day, for as long as he could remember – just sitting, stock-still, in araimandi position. If a single person moved even the teeniest bit, the clock was reset for the entire class, and the hour would re-commence. They had to do this in total silence. No whines, no moans, no groans, no complaints. No fan, no water, no relief. At the end of the hour, they moved on to the adavus. He told us, straight-faced, that he was seriously considering introducing this method in his classes, to toughen up this bunch of softies that we were. He had a twinkle in his eye, but we dared not tempt fate. We shut up – temporarily.
We were an assortment of girls (with, thrill of thrills, the very odd and rare young man) learning dance and he whipped each and every one of us into shape. There was one girl, slender and pretty, from a neighboring country, vivacious and bubbling over with laughter and life. She was a born dancer, and the exuberance with which she danced was a sheer joy to behold. Her mother was a soft-spoken, gentle lady, who watched her daughter with quiet pride, and gave her every encouragement she could want or need. This girl performed before many dignitaries and well-known people from the dance and music worlds, and her newspaper reviews were glowing, rave write ups where the critics ran out of words to praise her with and had to resort to repeating themselves. Many years later, I was shocked to hear that this girl had had a bitter falling out with her parents, had plummeted, blind-folded, into an ill-advised marriage, had an abortion, got divorced, become fat and unhappy. It saddened me deeply that dance could not pull her out of the morass she had fallen into. I don’t know where she is now, what she is up to. Deep inside is a hope that her memories of those long-ago dance classes will stir something in her, reignite a spark of happiness.
Then there were two girls, sisters, rail-thin, whom my mother and I dubbed “The Sticks”. Every bone in their body protruded out, they must have weighed a hundred pounds between the two of them, yet they could dance for hours at a stretch without ever breaking a sweat or panting for breath. The third speed muzhumandi adavus were not fast enough for them, and they would beg Lakshman Sir to move on to fourth speed, which they brought off with effortless ease, limbs flailing, their bodies awhirl. The rest of us watched, gasping, clutching at our waists which had knotted into stitches, desperate for a sip of water, not caring that Sir would treat us to a heavy dose of therapeutic sarcasm once the Sticks had finished. Oh, how I envied those Sticks! It was a constant struggle for me – who loved good food, ghee and sweets – to keep my weight under control. It didn’t seem fair that I had to share the world with these Sticks who could eat anything they liked but cared nothing for food, only for moving on to the next speed in adavus.
Every summer, a girl came to Madras from Calcutta, accompanied by her father, to take intensive dance lessons from Lakshman Sir. It was rumored that the girl’s mother was a Bengali (the father was a Tamilian) and this fascinated me, for it was hard to imagine this man – grim, frowning, bespectacled, nobody’s idea of a romantic hero – ever falling in love and carrying on a courtship. The girl was a very good dancer, and the father had eyes only for her, ignoring everyone else in the class, talking to someone only if it in some way pertained to his daughter. He sat, ramrod-straight, next to Lakshman Sir, issuing his own stream of instructions, his face mirroring the expressions on his daughter’s. It was hard not to laugh watching him. Once, frustrated that his daughter was not following Lakshman Sir’s instructions correctly, he leapt up and performed the dance himself, trousers flapping, spectacles askew, oily hair flopping over his nose. Lakshman Sir did not miss a beat and continued as if nothing happened, while the rest of us had to resort to strange facial contortions in lieu of laughing out aloud. There was a hint of a twinkle in Sir’s eyes – the only giveaway to how he must have really felt.
I vividly remember the mothers in the class. They sat in a row, facing us, and they all wore identical expressions – a piercing glare, each like a sharp dagger straight from mother to daughter. In their eyes, we never had proper araimandi, we did not remember our steps correctly, we slouched, we did not express our emotions with adequate passion and feeling. We were all teenagers then, awkward and self-conscious, full of new feelings and sentiments budding within us, perturbing, fervent and exciting, strange and thrilling urges that left us breathless and burning, desires that we dared not name or think too deeply about. These were our deepest, darkest secrets, tinged with shame, these feelings, and we were supposed to act them out in front of our mothers? They were the last people we would admit to about harboring such thoughts, and so we played the role of the lovelorn maiden, the jilted lover, the jealous woman, the coquette, the quarrelsome shrew, the infinite variety of nayikas, with wooden expressions, flat smiles and hollow eyes. It drove the mothers crazy. The glares grew, pullulated, burst forth with heightened intensity, while we girls danced on with deadpan expressions. On the days that our mothers did not come to class, we cast aside all inhibitions and let all our tender young feelings gush out in a veritable torrent of overacting.
There was every conceivable type of mother there: ambitious, pushy, shy, uncertain, rude, overawed, clueless, calm, panicky, indifferent, talkative, reserved. And Lakshman Sir dealt with all of them, managed them, without ever appearing to deal with or manage them. With unflappable cool he handled their requests for special items, their arguments about fees for lessons and concerts, their tears and frustrations, their pride, their daughter’s progress or lack thereof, timings, concert and class schedules, a whole array of issues trivial and of consequence. That took a special type of genius, a world apart from theermanams and sollukattus.
When I was 13, it was decided that I was ready for my arangetram, or first formal presentation to an audience. The word arangetram is formed from the two Tamil words arangam (which means raised platform, or stage) and etram (which means to climb up to, or ascend). The decision that I was arangetram-ready was entirely Lakshman Sir’s: he allowed no short-cuts or negotiations here. An arangetram is regarded as not only a test of the student’s ability, but also of the guru’s talent in bringing out the best in the student.
Months of practice went into my arangetram. I think back now, in wonder and awe, at the countless things my mother must have had to do: costumes, jewelry, invitations, whom to call, the auditorium, the money and gifts for the gurus and orchestra, and on, and on, all in addition to ferrying me to practice every day on that ride I described at the beginning of this piece, sitting out hours of rehearsals – and doing all this with boundless enthusiasm and never a grumble about anything. I am sure that I did not make matters any easier for her, with my sulks and moods, and fights and arguments over everything. For what better punching bag is there in this world, than one’s mother? I know: I am that bruised and battered punching bag today!
Things progressed smoothly – until one day, just days before the big day - I simply could not put my foot on the ground. Forget the heavy thumping and stamping that Bharata Natyam required. Merely placing my foot, gingerly, delicately, on the floor, felt as if hot knives were stabbing the sole. Practice ground to a halt. I could not even walk – at best, I could hobble about with a horrible limp, lurching about on the tips of my toes. My mother, close to tears, considered calling off the whole thing, but Lakshman Sir, aware of all the effort and cost that had gone into it, told her that we would go ahead, and hope for the best.
I visited several doctors, all of whom were baffled. One, with a cheery confidence that makes me shudder now when I think about it, jabbed a long, thick needle into the sole of my foot, proclaiming that everything would be fine now. It took all my willpower not to howl out aloud in pain when that darned needle entered my already inflamed and tender heel; a day later, it had swollen still further, and the pain reached new heights.
The day of the arangetram dawned. In spite of the disastrous state of my foot, I was hugely excited. A round of spirited fighting with my mother invigorated me. I got dressed, and limping, got into the car that drove us to the auditorium.
Three people, close family friends, came to see me backstage. One opened a packet and pressed some white vibhuti powder on my forehead, saying it was from Sai Baba. Another gave me a ring, with a tiny image of lord Venkateswara of Tirupati on it. The third slipped a chain around my neck, adorned with a pendant with the goddess Lakshmi.
I am a rationalist. I do not believe in miracles. But that day, soon after the visit from the three friends, all my pain vanished. I was able to dance and thump away as if nothing had happened. The arangetram went off beautifully.
I went on to give many more performances after my arangetram. Never again did my foot trouble me.