My favourite Sunday afternoons are the ones where the whole family sprawls on various couches, cushions and armchairs to watch Hindi movies. As much as people like to make fun of these movies (make another running-around-the-coconut-tree joke and I will punch you) it is an undeniable fact that they are extremely popular all over the world, with their special brand of emotional storytelling, beautiful people, happy endings, and complete detachment from reality. For me the main draw is the dancing. I love the way the characters keep breaking into dance. I will admit it: it makes me want to dance too. I am so envious of people who live in cultures where it is a habit to just start moving whenever there is music playing. For people outside of the Indian culture, all Indians might look the same. But we are very, very different. And our conception of dance is one of the ways in which we differ.
In the South (where my roots lie), dance is something only certain people do, and even then in a highly stylised, regimented way. Classical dance forms like Bharatha Natyam are highly evolved, and embedded in them are rules of mathematics and logic that have been passed down over generations. Bharatha Natyam is a spiritual art form that embodies ideas about the cosmic order and our place in it. Even those of us who learn this dance form understand only a fraction of the complex coding that has gone into it. Other forms that have evolved from Bharatha Natyam, like Kuchipudi, are less formal, but no less carefully choreographed. You train for a lifetime and still cannot say that you have mastered these dance forms. And there is no way that you spontaneously break out into them when you are looking for a way to physically express deep emotion.
But in the North, dance is more accessible. The body is free to move, and no training is required. Only the ability to feel the melody and the rhythm. Is this any less spiritual? I don’t think so. Being able to throw your arms in the air, to move your feet, to toss your head back – this unbridled show of joy is as spiritual, but in a much more individual and primeval way. It is not that there are no classical dance forms, but that dance does not only belong to the trained dancer, and is not confined to the stage.
This was brought home to me very clearly during my sister’s wedding. Unlike me, she married a North Indian guy, but they agreed that the wedding would be held in the South Indian style. His relatives came for the wedding, and politely sat through most of the very solemn rites and rituals that go on for hours (sometimes even days) in a South Indian Brahmin wedding. They started out eager to learn about this new culture that they were being exposed to, but soon began to wilt. At one point they all disappeared, and the rest of us went looking for them. They were outside, dancing! Having had enough of the seriousness, they had decided to celebrate in their own way. They felt the need to dance, so dance they did.
I love to dance. A good beat can always get me going. But I move in the wrong circles. The kind where they look at you funny when you get up and move in public. Dancing spontaneously is something you do as a child. Why are you drawing attention to yourself? In the privacy of my home, I carried my babies and danced until they begged me to put them down. Even when I am angry or tense, dance is my outlet.
Bharatha Natyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi – I have done all three. The movements are choreographed, ritualised, stylised. But ultimately customizable once you have had enough training. I bring my joy to the stage and I make the dance my own. I am alive when I dance in a way that I never am at any other time. There was a long gap when I was raising my kids but I am back now. I will never be a great dancer. But I am a passionate one. And that is enough for me.