Saturday, 20 March 2010

Dancing the Enchantress through the Keralan Odyssey

Here is what I wrote just over a month ago (I know this as another period has just come and gone with all the weird kalari implications this involves). I don’t know if it’s the heat or if I’ve just gone into hibernation mode, but I’ve found it almost impossible to write anything lately…

This week has been a bit peculiar as I’ve not been allowed in the kalari. Considering entering the kalari is a bit like entering a womb (albeit one with a lot of straight lines in it) and that it’s choc-full of manifestations of the goddess, I find it a bit bemusing that menstruating women aren’t permitted entrance (I can’t believe there’s no blood on Bhadrakali). However, I don’t feel particularly equipped to take on that particular taboo, and seeing as I’ve met with such unstinting generosity from everyone connected to the CVN Kalari here in Trivandrum, I don’t feel much like complaining - quite apart from the fact that two of the four days I’ve had off I felt rotten and had no desire to cover myself in oil, sweat buckets and kick my legs about my head. If it hadn’t been for my Mohinyattam classes though, it would have been a very lonely week.

When I moved into his house, Rajan, who co-ordinates a programme here connected to the University of Wisconsin (his day-job is at an earth-sciences research institute, so my scientist friends can rest assured that the physics connection continues unabated), suggested that, as I’m a dancer, I might like to learn some classical Indian dance while I’m here. The words “classical” and “dance” anywhere near each other in a sentence have struck horror into my heart ever since years of ritual humiliation in ballet classes through my adolescence (a twelve-year old Betty Boo just doesn’t work in a leotard and pointe shoes). Nonetheless, I decided it would be silly to pass up the opportunity and so one morning after Kalari, Rajan popped me on the back of his scooter and took me down the road to Shoba’s house.

Shoba is my Mohinyattam teacher. She is a very pretty lady who makes me look rather tall (I’m five foot two and a bit, about 1.57m, for anyone who hasn’t stood next to me recently). This is where my classes happen, four or five mornings a week after Kalari (and after the breakfast in the house-come-café Rajan drops me off at).

Once we had made the arrangements, Rajan explained to me that he would bring the beetle leaf and nut for me to give to Shoba the next morning, that I should add a coin and touch Shoba’s feet to ask for her blessing as my teacher. I was very touched that he went to the trouble of organising all this for me, and also felt rather bad that I’d never touched his feet when he’d taken me as a student, as no one had told me this was part of the procedure.

To those not specialist in classical Indian dance forms, Mohinyattam uses very similar movement vocabulary to the more widely-known (Tamil) Bharatanatyam. Mohinyattam is from Kerala, is less percussive and exact in its lines than Bharatanatyam. Anyone familiar with my idiosyncratic relationship with rhythm (don’t ever make me play a drum) will realise it’s just as well I’m not attempting Bharatanatyam. The sense I get is that Mohinyattam is more concerned with the pathways to the form whereas Bharatanatyam is concerned with the perfection of the form and its lines.

People refer to it as soft and graceful and fluid. Essentially, the subtext is that Mohinyattam should be VERY sexy.

If I remember correctly, this is how the story goes:

The gods needed to churn up the ocean of milk to get the nectar of immortality from it, but the only way they could do this was to enlist the help of the demons. The demons (reasonably enough, as I think the churning went on for some millennia) would only help if they got to share the nectar of immortality (amrita, I think it’s called). Once the amrita had emerged from the ocean of milk, the gods decided they didn’t want to share it after all (or maybe they’d decided this all along) and so Vishnu took on the female form of Mohini, the enchantress.

Mohini was so fantastically alluring that the demons forgot all about the nectar they’d been churning the ocean for over millennia, and the gods got it all. A side story is that Shiva was also rather taken with Mohini, and the result of this union was another god, who I think might be the hunter god in the kalari (but I could be wrong here – any clarifications welcome). So basically Mohinyattam is the dance of the enchantress.

Now I feel many things when I dance, but enchanting isn’t generally one of them. I have a great kick-back reaction to any suggestion that I have to be pretty or alluring or feminine. So I thought I would find Mohinyattam a bit of a trial. Actually, the first class I did feel a bit stiff and all through the first week, I was under no illusion that Mohini was in any remote danger of competition from me. But after a few days, I was finding it really rather fun. Now I seem to have improved a bit and Shoba even gives me the occasional compliment.

Of course, there are plenty of things that aren’t so good. “You don’t do eye exercises?” Shoba asked in some shock, as I attempted to explain that they’re not a usual part of the training of western contemporary dancers. So my eye-control is poor. And I’m not convinced that my arms and upper body are quite there, but the whole thing is feeling a lot more fluid than when I started.

So there’s a revelation for me: it’s actually possible for me to enjoy a classical dance form! And whilst I won’t be distracting any demons away from nectars of immortality any time soon, they may condescend to look my way and laugh a bit while they glug their amrita down.

And, as I said, this week, with no Kalari, it’s been my only activity – and has probably benefitted from the fact I’ve not been doing it with Kalari-exhausted legs. It’s also been my main social interaction. Shoba and her husband Manuj also teach Ravi Shankara’s Art of Living and classes are peppered with snippets of conversation. The other day I was trying to explain what an olive tree looks like to Manuj, as he was bemoaning the lack of prana in imported foods.

Shoba is organising a performance on Saturday of Keralan performing art-forms for some government types, and I’ve been invited along. She had suggested dressing me in one of her saris if I got myself a blouse made up. Quite apart from my fears of tripping over six metres of cloth in public (or worse, it all falling down), I’ve decided that Shoba has quite enough to organise for this show without dressing a clueless European, so fun as it would be, I think I’ll stick to trousers and tunic.

And here’s backstage at Shoba’s medley of traditional Keralan performance:

I loved Trivandrum and the kalari and Rajan’s care and attention (no more “slowly” by the end of it, just “up!” as my thigh banged gently against my belly on the good leg-kick days). I loved his big airy house that I rented and the quiet walk to it from the bus stop, past the fresh juice shop, through the coconut trees. I loved being able to jump on the bus to Kovalam beach and swim in the Arabian Sea (which occasionally reminded me with a particularly rough wave that she was to be respected). I made some friends at the kalari whom I spent time with, namely a couple of Bharatanatyam dancers from Edinburgh and a French photographer/video artist. Despite this, I had swathes of time to myself, which I sometimes found too much but also valued phone contact with friends in Bangalore.

Having congratulated myself on avoiding the Kumbh Mela when I passed through Haridwar in the north (on my way to Calcutta from Rishikesh) – a gathering of literally millions of sadhus on the banks of the river Ganga (as someone pointed out to me recently, only foreigners call it the “Ganges”. Why do we? No one in India does) – I found myself in Trivandrum in the biggest gathering of women in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records). Three million women lined the streets of Trivandrum on February 28th to cook in the midday sun for Attakal Pongala. And here are some stoves, lined up in preparation:

It was actually a very low-key affair, cooking pots lining the streets everywhere you looked. Rajan invited me to his house for the day, where many of his family had gathered from far and wide in Kerala. It was lovely to be part of it with them all, to be fed some very lovely food off a banana leaf and then to meander through the streets (the three million women pack up their cooking and head home at 3:30 sharp, after the priests have been round to bless their culinary efforts) through the older part of East Fort to Shoba’s house to chat with her and her family and be eaten by mosquitoes as dusk fell. Then, as I finally managed the walk back home, some neighbours I had not yet met invited me into their home for yet more paesum, the sweet rice dish that had been cooked as part of the offering. So food all round, and all of it blessed.

When I’d visited the local devi temple the week previously, where they were enacting a smaller scale version of what was to be Attakal Pongala the following week, I’d been adopted by its chairman (I’m not quite sure how) and would stop by his house occasionally to chat with the Prem family. His wife made me a very memorable fish curry lunch one day. Here I am, eating it:

And they also took me to the Attakal temple in the week of the build-up to the festival. Once we’d been through the crush to the goddess, it was a bit like a funfair: lights and balloons everywhere, lots of food stands and big Bollypop (or should that be Mollypop, as it’s Malayalam?) stage. I didn’t think “Jai Ho” had religious connotations, but maybe there’s more than I realised to the theme tune of Slumdog Millionaire. Here are some members of the Prem family, my extremely hospitable escorts of the night:

One thing that’s happened since I’ve been in Kerala is that I’ve got much better at eating with my fingers. I can even do the tearing of most breads one-handed now (touching food with your left hand is a big no-no here), which completely eluded me before. In general, I could cope with finger eating for bready foods but wasn’t too keen on it when rice was involved. I knew a corner had been turned when I was sitting in a Trivandrum “hotel” (which is not a hotel at all but a restaurant in India) finishing my porotta and tomato fry. Well, the porotta (bready round thing, very nice) was all gone and without thinking I finished eating the tomato-onion-chilly fry with my fingers, despite the fact a spoon was just in front of me (my fingers were already covered in food, so there didn’t seem much point in picking up the spoon). Usually I don’t have the choice. There just isn’t any cutlery and asking for it when most people barely speak any English and don’t understand mine, and I don’t speak any Malayalam, just feels more trouble than it’s worth. I occasionally wonder, as people stare at me while I eat (I’m now in a much smaller Keralan town and a solo woman is a complete novelty), whether they have any notion how completely alien it is to me to be eating with my fingers. But I suspect they put down any clumsiness to the fact I’ve not been taught proper table manners. After all, what can you expect of an unmarried woman travelling on her own?

Yes, I’m getting very tired of that question. “Are you married?” usually preceded or followed by “How old are you?” And then when I tell them I’m not married, an astonished “Why?!” It seems that a woman my age has no function other than as a wife (and mother, by implication).

Ummmm… because no one ever wanted to? Because I never wanted to? Because marriage in Kerala seems to be endless work (I’d call it drudgery, but maybe they enjoy it) for the women? Time and again I see beautiful sylph-like creatures on buses or the street who look about fifteen. I then discover they’re teaching electronics, which should make them at least twenty-two. But since leaving Bangalore, I haven’t seen many of the vibrant late twenty or thirty somethings. Here in Kerala, the transition from young girl to tired matron is swift. Perhaps they like it, but I don’t see that marriage is very kind to women here. Possibly most jarring to me was when I asked the young (female) championship-winning kalari star of this town if she planned to continue her kalari once she finished university. “That will be for to my husband to decide,” she said, no hint of regret or rebellion. Well, my life may be tricky and unpredictable and occasionally very lonely (and definitely unmarried!) but oh, thank you God that I have choice in it, that my mess-ups as well as my modest successes are my own, that I am responsible for my own destiny! Kerala is beautiful and lovely but I am grateful, grateful, grateful not to be one of her traditional women!

I left Trivandrum in early March, hoping to return soon. A short train journey took me to Varkala, hippy beach resort, where I spent two very pleasant days courtesy of a friend’s birthday. Varkala made me think that I was ready for Thailand and that I could quite happily while the time away there (something I had been slightly worried over after all the activity and focus of India). Here’s a self-portrait on the beach:

I then continued north to Fort Cochin, where I spent a lot of time avoiding the cruise-ship parties and tourist-touts. It’s very graceful and southern European in feel (I kept expecting to see pot-bellied men playing Pétanque, fag-end hanging out of their mouths, in the leafy squares), and surprisingly clean for India, but very expensive when you’re used to the rest of country. I was glad to see it but equally glad not to spend more than a day there. And from there I headed on to a small place near the temple town of Guruvayur. I arrived on the final day of yet another huge festival, in time to see the elephants parading around the temple. I don’t think I’ve ever been so near a creature so huge.

Here I have been experiencing a village kalari, where they train in a different style outside among the coconut trees. It’s been very interesting to see something of this different style and nice to be outside (though I’m constantly kicking sand into my face) but challenging too to be in a place so small that everyone stares at me like the woman with three heads (though I am becoming used even to that). There is a beautiful beach here, but no chance of swimming. I went for a walk on the beach fully-clothed one day, ankles covered, shoulders covered, no hint of décolleté, and even then every fisherman there wanted his picture taken with me (no, it’s not particularly flattering, more of a freak-show).

I’ve been very quiet here: training, endlessly washing sandy, sweaty, oily clothes, sleeping, somehow incubating this time before my next transition, taking stock of these last six months in India and the many unexpected gifts they have brought me. It’s been very hot. We had some rain the other night and the temperature in my room dropped from 38 to 33. I actually got chilly in the night and woke to turn the fan down and cover myself. I’ve had a lesson in the relativity of all things: the joy of rain (not something particularly joyful in London) and the greatest pleasure of my days being my cold showers (I've not particularly missed hot water in Kerala).

Monday I leave Kerala and take the train to Chennai (formerly known as Madras) to stay with my friend Irene, perhaps to do some teaching, definitely to sort out my Thai visa and then, on the night of the 30th, to say my farewell to India and leave for Thailand. I’m looking forward to more variety in my diet, to not having to cover up quite so ruthlessly, to the ease I remember of Thailand after the energy demanded of me by India. But I will be sorry to leave India.

Somehow I feel I have put down a few roots here, which for someone as rootless as me is a strange thing and I don’t know what it means. I feel that I have been woven into the fabric of this land – a rather strange thread that everyone turns and stares at, but an accepted thread nonetheless. I hope I will be back in not too long…

From Lucy, with love xx


  1. Actually Lucy, dancing Indian classical dance, I promise you, can be an ecstatic experience, let alone enjoyable! By experience of having danced a mere 8 years of Bharatnatyam, I can say without doubt, I've had some of my best moments of dancing while doing the "abhinaya" and some more when I watched some exceptional dancers do it. (I'm assuming you are aware of the terminologies by now :-))

    I do agree that after a point I feel restricted by the rigidity of classical dancing but I've a bias for it, thanks to some of its qualities that are so liberating! (Now, am I getting too carried away??! :))

  2. By the way, what fun article! loved it! :)