I was in class III, in a city in Gujarat, when I first entered a Bharatanatyam class. The classes were held in a room on the terrace of a building that was on a narrow lane. The thud of feet could be heard as you climbed. I stood awkwardly in a corner initially, but it was a place I thought I wanted to belong to.
Inside, the guru would speak to me in Tamil, and in gratitude, I would try to sit in aramandi (the half-sitting position) and not keep staring down intently at my feet while dancing. For the next three years, I went diligently, every weekend. In the land of didis, I would hear my guru, who must have been in her early 30s, and the akkas bond over conversations about shopping in T. Nagar and the temples of Triplicane.
I chose my garba garb enthusiastically each year, but the lure of the dance saree was greater. At home, I would practise the handful of adavus I had learnt every free minute. In class, I stood in the front so that I would be promoted to the next batch, and be considered for one of the sarees that my guru bought for her older students from her frequent visits to Madras.
By the time I would graduate to learn alarippu, I had moved to Madras. To my disappointment, even here, students were not required to wear a dance saree. I joined a class nearby but soon, I realised, it was not much of a novelty. When a teacher asked how many students learnt Bharatanatyam, several hands went up.
In the next four years, I gave my first stage performance, wore a salangai for the first time, fainted twice the day before the show, and almost never missed a class. On Sunday morning, girls wearing yellow and red uniforms would emerge out of every third street, a world away from the classes of my childhood for which people would travel miles. My 45-minute classes became two-hour sessions, my group became smaller, and the pieces longer. After every summer vacation, a familiar face would be gone — because they’d shifted houses, because they had to go to tuition and so on. After class IX, it was my turn to leave.
All those years, I danced, as I was asked to. Without faltering, without questioning. That is perhaps why I still feel like an outsider. Bharatanatyam still intimidates me as much as Carnatic music, which I have never learnt. I would be one of those who learnt, without really learning, who abandoned it midway.
Rightly, I never got to wear that dance saree. Someday, I hope to start again.
Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week
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