By day - and often also by night - they are mathematicians, doctors, scientists, researchers, engineers, bankers, students of an exhilarating array of disciplines that probe the vast arc of human interests and scholarship, from Sanskrit to creative writing to spinal cord regeneration to economic policy. And in the precious nooks and crannies, the cracks and crevices of their spare time, a whole other side blossoms into being: that of singers, dancers, writers, poets, actors and artists. They yearn for their yin to harmonize with their yang, for their right brain to achieve balance and symmetry with their left. They seek to synchronize their creative impulse with their logical and rational selves and send shoots and leaves and tendrils towards the heavens to capture the ethereal and elusive pleasures of sunshine and light while putting down roots that snuggle securely into the comfortable security of soil and earth.
Sometimes, they are labeled - with a touch of derision, bemusement, perhaps - with a thicket of acronyms and monikers: ABCDs, IBCDs, DBCAs, FOBs, PIGS, Coconuts, in an effort to peg them into a category, to understand who and what they are.
I care nothing for labels and categories. I only feel privileged that I know, work with, am friends with, some of these young people with their amazing diversity of talents and abilities. One day, as my daughter and her friends - a mathematician, a “courtesan of sentences” and a “Sanskritist and wandering poet” - and I were sitting around and chatting, about this and that and music and literature and dance and poetry, and the people we knew who were passionate about and skilled in these areas, we came up with the idea of hosting a Salon. To bring 18th century Paris alive in 21st century Harlem, but with a modern and Indian twist and whatever synergies might be born and nurtured by bringing together a group of bright and accomplished young men and women. There would be no wealthy patroness with her lorgnettes or mind-bending absinthe, no chaise-lounges and petty intrigues, no highly-strung, ill-tempered fluffy dogs or haze of smoke. Instead, there would be the music, dance and literature of India and beyond, washed down with lots of wine and samosas, spicy chips, hummous, bhel puri, cheese and paneer. No salon is complete without a dog, and Roger would fulfil the role admirably. Or, as my young friend put it so eloquently in her invitation, the ...Salon is to celebrate the art and song of the written word. Over wine and cheese, join us for readings, songs, dance, poetry, prose and their happy collisions. If the evening (and the wine) move you, share something with us -- a reading, a song, a dance, your own work, your favorite passage -- whatever! The Salon is open to any form of expression.
We had no real plan or theme, we didn’t even know who would actually show up. We would just let the evening take us where it went, and if it went nowhere, then, at the very least, we wouldn’t be hungry and thirsty at the end of it!
The Salon took place last Friday, in our home in Harlem. As I sit and reflect upon it and write about it, the word that comes repeatedly to my mind is magical. A little corner of Harlem came alive to an enchanting and enchanted fusion of song, dance, poetry, prose, laughter, friendship, food and wine. The mathematicians, doctors, scientists, researchers, engineers, bankers, and students left those selves behind, for the most part, and for that evening, they were the dancers, singers, poets, writers and actors they often longed to be in their “real” lives. Conversation and laughter flowed freely as old friends caught up and new friendships were forged, and in true Indian style, connections and associations were discovered.
And then it was time for the Salon to begin. The excitement and anticipation were palpable as we now had an inkling of the impressive range and quality of artistry and virtuosity, the ideas and topics, the stories and memories, that were ready to be shared and savored by one and all.
Kalidasa started the evening off with Bhaja Govindam, the hymn composed by the 8th century philospher, Adi Shankara. To sum up the essence and spirit of Adi Shankara’s philosophy and the message of Bhaja Govindam, I can think of nothing better than C. Rajagopalachari’s words. I can hear his voice, measured, calm, rock-solid, in his little introduction before the only version of Bhaja Govindam that surely almost anybody calls to mind, the one sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom is integrated with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakthi. Knowledge, when it becomes fully mature is bhakthi. If it does not get transformed into bhakthi, such knowledge is useless tinsel.
We sat bathed in the cool light of I-Pads and I-Phones, fingers expanding and scrolling down the lyrics, as Kalidasa led us through a beautifully leisurely rendition of this lovely song. And from deep within the vaults of childhood memories, the ragams and melodies seeped back into our consciousness and the room throbbed with the music of male and female voices, rising and falling, now tentative, now clear and confident. We had grown up in places as far apart and wildly different as Madras, New Jersey, Dubai, Toronto, California, New York, Dhaka and Bombay and remarkably, this song was a common thread in the fabric of our upbringings and backgrounds.
Bhaja Govindam was followed by a hauntingly lovely song on the goddess Devi by Kalidasa, and then Tejomaya read out sections from the Natya Shastra, the exhaustively thorough encyclopedia of classical dance that also that covers every aspect of stagecraft, dance, music, costumes and poetry. The Natya Shastra claims - like the Mahabharata - “What is found here can be found elsewhere, but what is not here cannot be found anywhere”. It is described as the fifth Veda, one that is accessible to all castes. Tejomaya told us that this book is relevant and studied to this day, as problems and issues of contemporary dancers, actors and directors have been discussed and resolved in it. With her sparkling wit and delivery, she brought this ancient text to life and gave us a glimpse of how men and women might have behaved, or have been expected to comport themselves, in the remote past. Tejomaya picked a section that had us laughing out aloud and shaking our heads - one that described how emotions are conveyed by dancers, and what the natural graces and emotions of men and women are - all captured under the umbrella of Saamanya Abhinaya. Some of the “natural graces” of a woman include babbling hysterically (huh?), indifference, affected repulse, amorousness, leisurely lolling and confusion. Certainly not a very flattering list of attributes, traits and behaviors, and clearly the reaction of a bemused, bewildered, overwhelmed - or spurned - man to the whims and moods of the fairer sex. The men, on the other hand, apparently possess qualities like brilliance and bravery, grace, self possession, serenity, sportiness, nobility and pride (only the good type, of course). The Natya Shastra is clearly in need of an upgrade from the feminist brigade!
Now newly knowledgeable about emotions and dance, it seemed only natural to move onto an actual demonstration, to watch the theory bloom to life in practice. Vilasini, with a newly-minted PhD in neuroscience and a recently completed Rangapravesham (debut performance) in Kuchipudi, took us through a lovely explanation and presentation of part of a very popular item in the Kuchipudi repertoire, the Bhama Kalapam. In this item, Satyabhama, one of the wives of Krishna, who is beautiful, but also arrogant because of her awareness of her beauty, is forced to swallow her (considerable) pride and write a letter to Krishna, because, disenchanted by her swagger and vanity, he now favors his other wife, Rukmini. Tormented by the sharp pricks from the arrows of the love god, Madana, blinded by the burning brightness of the moon, plagued by the sounds of the relentlessly chirping birds, she has to act, do something, before she loses her mind completely. She persuades a friend to deliver the missive she is about to write, and then, sets about writing it.
Kuchipudi is the one classical dance form of India where the dancer speaks and sings as part of the performance. Vilasini then spoke the letter out aloud as she “wrote” it, and enacted her anguish, her love, her longing for Krishna. It was in beautiful Telugu that fell on our ears like dulcet notes of music. Nobody in the room spoke or understood any Telugu, but we all knew exactly what poured out of Satyabhama’s grief-stricken heart.
Back to music, and Kalaivani filled the room with her clear, melodious voice as she sang a not-often-enough heard song in Malayalam by Irayimman Thampi, a relative of the great Travancore composer-maharaja, Swati Tirunal. The song, Karuna Cheyvan Enthu Thamasam Krishna, in Sri Ragam, was a favorite of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar’s and the story goes that he once suffered major problems with his voice that no medical expert could remedy. In despair, he prayed to Guruvayurappan, the deity invoked in this song, after which he not only recovered his voice, but recovered it with a new clarity and brilliance. Kalaivani had us all in a spell with her limpid rendition that illuminated the tender emotions, soul and spirit of the song.
We had covered a lot of ground, had steeped ourselves in a potent, intense brew of ideas, emotions, facts and moods. We were hungry! Time for a break, for more food and drink, to think about what direction to go in next.
Energized by the food and what he had enjoyed so far, Nataraja electrified the audience with a firecracker execution of part of a thillana in Behag. The vitality, the crisp, clean gestures, the impeccable lines of the Kalakshetra style were a feast for the eyes, and it mattered not at all that he was dressed in jeans, that he was dancing on a carpet, that the “sound system” was an I-Phone, that he was severely cramped for space, his “stage” barely 7 square feet.
Niravadhika then said she would perform an on-the-spot improvisation of a padam in Begada, Yaarikagilum Bhayama. The heroine in this piece is not the trembly, weepy young girl that one sees all too often, but someone who is mature and confident, and determined to be with and enjoy her lover, local gossip and gossipers be damned. I am not afraid of anybody, she states, if I were to enter a temple, I would barge in boldly like an elephant, not scurry in timidly like a cowardly mouse. Niravadhika did a great job of imagining and probing a variety of ways to depict this padam. This was danced to lovely live singing from Kalaivani.
The elephant motif was picked up as Tejomaya regaled us with an account of her visit to the Madurai Meenakshi temple early one morning. In our mind’s eye, we watched the dawn break over the temple, we saw the worshippers begin to trickle in, we heard the sounds of prayers and bells. And then, through the majestic gates, flanked by the soaring gopurams, an elephant entered the temple compound, grand, stately, solemn, his magnificence swelling over into the monumental spaces around him, and then the towering proportions, the sheer, transcendent scale of the gates, the gopuram, the entire structure, made perfect sense.
One item continued to flow seamlessly into another as Aryabhattini read a poem by the great female Alwar poet-saint, Andal, titled, entirely coincidentally, A Thousand Elephants. Her soft voice mesmerized the audience as she read aloud the beautifully evocative poem that spoke of Andal’s dream and longing to celebrate her marriage to her lord, Narayanan Nampi. Surely any modern-day bride will relate to her reverie where Young girls bearing golden pots, Carrying lamps bright as the sun’s rays Welcomed him. And all the world trembled, to the sandal-clad footsteps of the great king of Mathura.
And then it was back to Kalidasa, who had also come prepared with a poem by another Alwar, Periaalwar. This one paid tribute to the lord of Thiruvaheendrapuram, a temple town near Cuddalore. I had never heard of this place before, but I saw it before me that evening, shining with fertile wetlands,...and lovely swaying jasmine creepers that hug the fragrant champak and madhavi, .....the cool, stately mountain slopes where the fertile river flowers into the paddy foaming with leaping fish, ...the place where gods and demons worship, ....the abode of the highest lord who became the many meanings of the four chanted Vedas.
All that talking had to be balanced with some action, and Vilasini gave us a succint demonstration of the differences between Kathak and Kuchipudi, the movements, gestures, postures and rhythms.
The evening wound to a close with Tejomaya reading a chapter from a novel she is working on. You will hear about here when it is published!
A few of my music students had come along and been a faithfully appreciative audience. We wanted them to participate as well, and the evening ended with the entire group singing the simple, melodious geetham in Malahari, Sri Gananatha.
And then it was over, our very first Salon. We hope to have many, many more of them, broaden their scope, bring in people, music, dance and words from around the world to create more magic and enchantment.
* All participant names have been altered.