Dancing in India

A journey to India is potentially life-changing. While any new place offers new ideas, India has a unique ability to rewire your inner operating system regardless of who authorized the installation. India rattles your mind, turns your concepts about life on their heads, and spits you out anew. When Mother India, as she is affectionately known, wrapped her loving arms around me, I could not deny that she felt like a mother indeed. With my best friend and fellow global traveler, Annie Lalla, by my side, the goal for my third India adventure was to again surrender completely to India’s charms. I offered up my body and mind as canvases to be beautified by and emblazoned with her magic. Shortly after our arrival, we fled the big city of Mumbai. Our real adventure began on New Year’s Eve in the world-renowned party Mecca of Goa, where we were graciously hosted by Annie’s friend, Hillary, in a (pardon the true oxymoron) luxury, beachside, bamboo hut. Our day began with three hours of tea drinking from seemingly-bottomless pots, as we debated the nature of matter down to the finest, most granular level of distinction. Coconut palms and banana fronds provided sanctuary from the hot sun above. With each sip and breath my mind began to slow down and expand in directions my usual goal-oriented existence does not promote. India’s spell had begun to take effect. By evening we had rented a scooter—a de rigueur accessory in Goa. Annie elected me pilot and I appointed her pilot warmer. Our New Year’s plan had been narrowed to one of two parties: a big techno party or a smaller, live music performance. While normally partial to the lure of a live scene, we followed Hillary’s lead to the larger event on this special night.

We set out on scooters and arrived at the party as fireworks decorated the sky to announce 2007. Upon dismounting, however, I felt intimidated since 90% of the people walking in the door were men. My gut told me “don’t go there,” and when Annie agreed, we hatched plan B: head back in the opposite direction to the live music. Fortunately, Hillary came along to guide us through the barely signposted villages. I drove slowly, out of caution, and we repeatedly fell behind, alone in the foreign nightscape, until he pulled over and let us catch up. Our second destination also initially seemed disappointing: the live music was finished and the DJ was playing hushed music as if to intentionally not attract a crowd. When we heard that the live music had been our favorite genre, world fusion, we had no choice but to laugh at ourselves, having come all the way to Goa for New Year’s and then missing the party! These are the lessons India delivers so effectively: live in the here and now without regret; the present moment cannot be escaped, so savor it with delight.

And revel in the moment we did: dancing to the quiet music and reactivating the empty dance floor, walking barefoot on the moonlit beach, and turning strangers into friends.

Heading home we had a miscommunication. Hillary stopped to drop off his co-pilot, Katie. Instead of waiting for him to lead us as he had been all night, we continued on, assuming he would quickly catch up. But when, fifteen minutes later, he had not “caught up,” we realized that we had somehow lost him. We forged on and retraced our path, trusting that we were astute enough to make it home.

It was 4 a.m. and the rice paddies, villages, temples and brush were still and silent. “Don’t slow down,” Annie chimed in my ear, “this is exactly what my parents always told me not to do, ride in the dark in a strange place.” India does that to you. It lodges new ways of being into your psyche and you find yourself doing things you’d never imagined. When India whispers in your ear, you can’t help but reexamine your life.

We rode for half an hour without seeing a soul, doing our best not to let fear crawl under our skin. Pre-dawn early-risers began to appear—women balancing baskets on their heads and cyclists porting cargo larger than the bikes themselves. We asked for directions but no one knew our guest-house. We persevered. We had to find the way.

And finally, after only one wrong turn, we did. The lights were out and Hillary was fast asleep. The next day we shared our saga and he laughed and broke the news: “We were only five minutes away from home when you drove off ahead last night!”

In response to our puzzled looks, he explained: “There was a turn-off that you didn’t know about that goes straight here. The way you went was like going from Washington to New York via Buenos Aires.” We had to giggle; it had been an adventure, at least.

The next day we flew to lush Kerala. Our first priority was tracking down classical Indian dance performances and short-term dance lessons for ourselves. The tourist advisory service told us Cochin was the place to go, and we followed our trusty guidebook there. As we stepped off the bus, we breathed deeply and sensed calmness. The bus stop was adjacent to the ocean, so every passenger was welcomed by a first-class view of the shore and the spectacular, gravity-powered, bamboo fishing net systems that plunged up and down in the fast-moving tide. Worlds collided on the shore: fishermen, food vendors, bus drivers, tourists and locals intermingling, relaxing, and watching the spectacle. Annie and I joined in and drank juice.

Once checked into a clean, cheap room, we set out to experience the village. Cochin’s shops seemed like ethnic art galleries. The exotic beauty and scale of the works—in bronze, wood, stone, and textiles—impressed us. We swooned in admiration of the mythic, imaginative, many-handed gods and goddesses of the Indian pantheon that we would later see depicted on stage.

Cochin’s splendor further romanced us as we toured three of its notable monuments: India’s oldest church, a soaring whitewashed building adapted to suit the tropical climate; a rare Jewish synagogue in India; and a 500-year-old palace built by Europeans and later decorated by the Indian Rajas. The palace interior was dominated by full-wall mosaics depicting the ancient epics. These mythological murals filled room after room and my eyes had begun to gloss over details when Annie called me back to look again. I zoomed in more attentively and there was Krishna, reclined, availing himself of his many hands and feet to attract and delight a cluster of willing milkmaids who encircled him. We smiled at Hinduism’s unashamed inclusion of the erotic in the sacred.

Over the next two nights we fulfilled our search and saw two styles of classical Indian dance: kathikali, which translates as “story-play” performed by men, and bharat natyam, performed by women. Indian classical dance is the modern legacy of temple dancing, the ancient sacred art where priestesses and priests were dancer-storytellers of their spiritual tradition. Throughout Indian history, temple dancers were trained to embody and transmit the myths, legends, and stories of their heritage. Their movements, gestures, and emotional expressions not only told a sacred story, but also, combined with the music, were designed to coax both the dancer and audience into a trance-like state.

Dedicated temple dancers enjoyed the same benefits as dedicated yogis, due to the equivalent focus on sensitivity to breath and subtle energy in the body. Their dance was considered an invocation and an embodiment of the divine. It was both the offering of a devotee and a declaration that we are, at our essence, the divinity that we externally seek.

Annie and I sat riveted throughout the performances, by the movement, costumes and live music. In solo pieces the dancer performed every role herself. Her gestures and expressions altered to embody countless manifestations: goddess one moment, demon in the next, then from warrior to sensuous consort to nurturing mother of all. The intention was not to dance like the goddess but in fact to merge with the deity and become the goddess herself. In turn, the audience was equally to merge and experience the divine current within. Just as music is common in churches in our culture, temple dance was a medium to uplift the whole congregation.

Having no formal experience we were eager to try a beginner lesson and arranged private sessions with the local teacher. We loved it and, after the second class, she invited us to join her class for girls ages 5 through 12. We willingly went in an auto-rickshaw and stood in the back row doing our best to keep up with the kids. At first we managed, but our dance skills were soon surpassed by the eight-year-olds, who awed us with their seasoned dance skills and mastery of hand gestures.

Dance class that day was followed by a delicious South Indian meal, and that by an Ayurvedic massage, and the subsequent days unraveled with similarly playful and intriguing pace. India seeped into us as the tropical heat opened our willing pores. Life was undeniably spicier and more colorful than at home. Our usual frame of reference was askew and, rather than resist what was different, we instead tried to acclimatize to the tilt and view the world at a new angle for a while.

Our next destination was to be one of my most exotic experiences ever, a luxurious houseboat on the Keralan backwaters.

Continued in part 2…

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