The darkness comes alive by a slow, progressive drumming of mardala, the stage begins to show light in growing intensity with the drumming; the flautist, sitar and vocalist join the chorus in celebration of the space and in time the dancer joins the celebration and embodies the music to tell a story.
Pallavi is a choreographic masterpiece in Odissi that depicts blossoming: Of unfurling of the many complex layers – both rhythmic and melodic, throughout the piece. This part of Odissi is my favourite because I feel like I can freely traverse space and time while experiencing an internal unravelling of many emotions: pleasure, joy, melancholy and longing, coursing through my body fluidly. At the end of the Pallavi, there is complete stillness and surrender. We live many lives in a lifetime; unravelling, becoming, surrendering and constantly making space for the new. And such has been my life in dance.
I was 8 years old when I became aware of the special connection I had with my body. To me, the body was the vessel that held and nourished my dancer’s soul and connected me to the divine. My earliest memories of this connection are from the 5 am yoga practice sessions in the dusty auditoriums of the temple basement in my neighbourhood, taught by a strict 60-year-old teacher. While the young girl in me was not a fan of this classical approach to training, these sessions gave me the essential, crucial understanding of the place of practice in the arts, and that it was the path to transformation of both body and mind. Practice also shaped my perception towards living: my love for movement not only manifested in the obvious ways of learning the movement arts but as a way of life. It was the single sensorial experience that kept my body alive and vibrant. Feeling the ground beneath and the many surfaces of nature with my bare feet and the connectedness it evoked with all the sentient beings around me, or simply being in a stretch and feeling that sweet pain of engaging a muscle were all most rewarding. While my innate desire to move comes from nature, Odissi brought depth and meaning to my dance journey.
Like a young creeper seeking support to climb, Odissi gave me the support to grow, learn and move in ways that allowed me to feel empowered in my own skin. Before I knew it, I had irrevocably fallen in love with this exquisite, ancient dance form and it became an intrinsic part and core creative expression of my 18 year old self. As I was sinking my roots deeper into the dance, there was also a growing curiosity to invoke the warrior spirit which manifested through Kalaripayattu. The pronounced silences and the particular quality of the void of thoughts that follow a Kalari practice are deeply grounding. The strength and resilience that this practice has built in me over the last 10 years, has been life-affirming.
Over the 12 years of embodying and practising these movement forms wearing the hats of: student, performer, teacher, observer and facilitator; my artistic, cultural and spiritual identities evolved and continue to grow. The person I am today, is steeped in the body wisdom of these practices and also the insights from the wisdom-givers (Gurus, mentors, teachers).
After a point, I felt the need for deep change, to explore new frontiers. After a pandemic of reflection over my artistic purpose and choices, I realized that to stay meaningfully relevant and engaged with my art, an expansion of sorts was necessary: My practice alone could not sustain me in the most realistic sense and I desired more learning and upskilling to supplement and enhance my artistic vision. At the core of my newfound purpose was a need to strengthen and refine my storytelling through interdisciplinary, cross-cultural collaborations and the time was ripe. As if this desire were a prophecy, a generous scholarship for a Masters in Arts management from the College of Performing Arts, The New School in New York City made its way into my email inbox – an affirmation of what I was starting to dream up for my future. The time spent in NYC made space for my dancer-soul to exist in a whole new realm of exciting possibilities. Through the wisdom in daily routine, my practice helped me wade through the hard times of being an international student and a working artist in the busiest of cities of a post-pandemic world, I also found myself thriving in spaces that challenged status quo and in artistic dialogues with people who inspired me to expand my practice.
Photo by Purna Venu
November 11th 2023: It was show day and I was set to perform with a reputed dance company based out of Queens, NY. We had been tirelessly preparing for this show for the past 3 months. The night before, we had tech rehearsals till 9 am and I had to take two trains back home plus the unexpected train delays by MTA in New York City meant I would reach home only by 11 am. As I prepared my tired body for a morning stretch on a chilly autumn morning, I was also mentally warming up to get ready for the show in the evening along with an amazing group of dancers. What I absolutely did not anticipate was that in one night, in one performance, one wrong move could turn my life topsy-turvy.
Roughly around 8 :30 PM, I felt my knee give way as I entered the stage at a studio in Queens. With lights on and the eyes of the audience transfixed upon us, all I knew is that I would continue to dance. In the course of the next 5 minutes, I felt my knee slip twice again and in that moment, I knew well that a new chapter in my life had just begun. After 8 tortuous hours of waiting in the Emergency Room, navigating through the complex medical system in a foreign country, the wisest choice was to return to my country to pursue the right course of treatment. Between wheelchairs, crutches, surgeons, physiotherapists and unflinching support from loved ones, over the next 2.5 months I learned the hard lesson of trusting the process and taking life one step at a time – quite literally.
The injury caused by the fall was a common sports injury called ACL tear (Anterior Cruciate Ligament helps in stabilising knee joint). While I also had a 2nd degree Meniscus tear (a cartilage in knee joint that acts as shock absorbers) and a concussion on my patella (knee cap), I was largely limited in mobility for the first few weeks until I started to find the courage to yield into the treatment that could heal me wholly, and that included getting an ACL reconstruction surgery much to my dismay.
This body that was used to rigour and constant curiosity of “how can I create new shapes and stories through my body”, is now back to a similar kind of wonder but from a place of vulnerability. It’s strange to be home to this body and reconnect in ways that I have never done before. Being vulnerable has opened doors to kindness and acceptance with myself and those around me.
Four months of physiotherapy and a surgery later, the conflict I feel between my mind and body is real. My mind is ready for a Meipayattu( movement sequence in Kalari) or is yearning to move to a Pallavi while my body is telling me to take long deep breaths and simply respond to where it’s at. From being movement-driven to a person on medical, emotional and crutch support has had a profound impact. The many things I took for granted in my everyday able-bodied life: from running up the stairs to standing for long hours has brought a deep sense of humility to where I am right now. This pause was needed to reflect on life so far and find new strands of hope that will lead me to a more joyous space with my practice. A space of deep renewal where I will listen to my body breathe and give it the right nourishment and care. A space to connect with the joy that my practice brings and not just the practice itself. While this is the hope for the future of my practice, I am learning to embrace this change of being and becoming a version of my dancing self that I am yet to discover.
Something tells me that this “unbecoming” of a part of me – which still feels like an uncomfortable churning, is the doorway to the renewal I now seek to fill this vessel I call my body.