The Bharatanatyam dancer

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The Bharatanatyam dancer (My childhood nostalgia series – Chapter 12)

Updated on November 5, 2014

Last week, I was reading Adyathma Ramayanam. In the fag end of the story, after Rama annihilates Ravana at the culmination of the Lanka war, Rama asks Hanuman to bring Seetha to him from Ashokavanam. Seetha comes in a Palanquin and all the Vanaras (the monkey army of Sugriva) vie with each other out of uncontrollable curiosity to see how Seetha looks like; Senior vanaras take charge of ‘croud control’ and they start vehemently pushing the surging crowd which Rama does not approve of. Rama, out of compassion, directs Seetha to come out of palanquin and walk so that all Vanaras could see her.

Is Seetha more beautiful than us?!

When I read this, I remembered one Ramayana anecdote that some Pundits reel out when they narrate Ramayana in public discourse, (which of course does not appear in the original story), in order to make the narration lively. In their ‘version’, Rama and Seetha along with Sugriva, Angatha, Jambhavan and others return by Pushpaka Vimanam to Ayodhya and on their way, they stop at Kishkintha. Naturally, Sugriva’s wife, Tara and other ladies of Sugriva’s Palace who extend a grand welcome to the victorious warriors were too curious to see how Seetha looks like — If Rama had to take so much of trouble to get back Seetha, she must then be extraordinarily beautiful.

Rama with his beloved Seetha.
Rama with his beloved Seetha.

Is Seetha more beautiful than us?!

But when they saw Seetha, these Vanara (monkey) ladies were quite disappointed! “Oh! What is this? Just for this bland looking woman, Rama took so much of trouble? she has no tail at all, she does not have a nice, protruding mouth like us, …” So, in their “standards” of beauty, Seetha failed miserably! “Oh! We are far better beauties!”

When I was reminiscing about this, my mind linked my thoughts to something that happened during my childhood some 46 years ago. I was studying at 4th standard at our village elementary school. Our school was rather more famous for its cultural activities than its academic merits. Rangu Sir, Krishnamoorhty Sir, Krishnan Sir – all of them had love for music and dance. They would grab any opportunity (Gokulashtami, Independence day, Teachers day, School Annual day—whatever) to train up students in some music or dance performance and conduct a small function to stage them. Rangu Sir knew music reasonably well and he would also indulge himself in teaching kids a little bit of dancing though he was not adept at it.

In those days, we didn’t have any woman teacher at our school. Very occasionally, if any of our regular teachers went on a long leave, we used to get a stop- gap- teacher (a female teacher in her late thirties) from the municipal school. As part of cultural activity, she would teach some Bharatanatyam-like dance movements to our girls and go back once the regular teacher returns; then it was up to Rangu Sir to tinker and tamper with whatever dancing the children had learned. Those dance movements got run down so much over a period of time that there was little semblance to any Bharatanatyam there!

What our school girls did were mostly some stereotypic dance movements coupled to some songs of Carnatic base (quite old films songs and some weather-beaten Bharatanatyam songs ). But the girls of our school had no qualms about it. They were quite happy and proud to perform those dances and gladly accept the clapping of parents and relatives who come to school at the time of the celebrations. Our girls would have never seen a real Bharatanatyam performance. You see, those were not the days of TV.

During a Navarathri festival, as usual, our girls were rehearsing a dance at the school for presentation on the Vijayadasami day. It was actually a holiday period that follows quarterly examinations. The school was at a stone throw distance from our Agraharam and hence there were no qualms about going to the school for dance practice.

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It so happened that one new City girl, aged about 12 came from Madras (Chennai) to spend the holiday with her grandparents who were living in our street. From her slightly plump body, yellowish white skin, shining face and silk garments, it was obvious that her parents were well to do. She exuded an air of self confidence typical of city girls and in a couple of days, she became friendly with some of our street girls.

When our girls went for the rehearsal, one day, they took this city girl too with them and introduced her to Rangu Sir. I somehow happened to be there at the school on that day.

Our girls started practicing. The song, as I remember was something like “Sangam VaLartha thiru Madurai Nagar vaLarum, sangitham ponga varum Madurai Meenakshi Sangam”. I don’t know whether it was an old film song or any famous Bharatha Natyam song of that period. While some girls sung the song like parrots with little pep and vigor, the other girls started dancing. Rangu Sir was acting as the expert to correct the singing and dance movements.

After watching the goings on for a while, the city girl went near Rangu Sir and said “Sir, I have learnt both this song and dance from my dance master at Madras. If you kindly permit, shall I sing and dance?”

Rangu Sir nodded.

The girl took the stage, did a Vandhanam (Salutation) dance movement first and then started singing as well as dancing together. It was a majestic singing, with the right Raga nuances, brigas, and gamakams. Her dance movements were of proper Bharathanatyam style– she traversed here and there with her rhythmic steps, did lots of graceful swinging of hands, shaking of neck to left and right (a typical Bharatanatyam element). As she went on, Rangu Sir sat there speechless with his mouth wide open.

I turned to look at our girls. There was a moment of shock and confusion in their faces. They looked at each other and then as if they communicated through telepathy, all of them started giggling and laughing with palms kept in front of their mouths, with an obvious, but unuttered expression ‘Oh! You call THIS a dance?!’

Seeing the girls laughing at her, The city girl stopped abruptly, wondering with a confused look as to what went wrong in her performance!

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