Thousands of feet tapping to guided movement, discipline chants in teacher voices, involuntary chuckles and unstoppable laughter breaking through hushed jokes, random tunes playing on little tape recorders and trendy walk-men (yes that’s what they were called! Who knew we were soon to have walk phones transforming our world?) and the continuous chatter, all of it made for a rather mysterious cacophony in the sunny school corridors.
Yet, we were expected to magically listen to detailed nuances of music notations and synchronise taught steps to those. Yes we did. Perhaps all generations of children often manage the unthinkable during school days. The scorching hot wind gushing through our veins in the july summer afternoon only made for a comforting breeze cooling off the sweat. There were no fans in the corridors.
There was a lot more to be heard amidst the cacophony though. The tones of excitement and many muted disappointments. The latter were mostly ignored. Who had time to deal with the sulking souls amidst preparations for the annual concert? They were left to sort themselves out… Some could and learnt useful life lessons in the process. Some could not.
Well, the schools hardly ever seemed to have time for these. The schedule always seemed too tight and a bit too matter-of-fact to accommodate the emotional vagaries of the human mind. Each time my father got a new posting, I found myself amidst strangers in an unknown territory. I found myself in an unfamiliar city, in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar neighbourhood, an unfamiliar school trying to find my way in the hearts of strange unwelcoming classmates and unreachable teachers. Education somewhere meant trying to eek out the unknown from the unknown and making sense out of it. Now that’s quite a definition. Isn’t it? It was my constant rigorous training into the art of fitting in, the art of finding my tribe, perhaps finally belonging.
Amidst concert rehearsals in this school corridor cacophony, I heard an unfamiliar teacher voice say, “Hey there, Vaishali, that girl is out of sync. I don’t think she can dance. Tell her to leave the show.” They were both staring at me. So they were talking about me. Oh no!
Two things were clarified in that moment. First, Vaishali was the invincible favourite student and the de facto director of the show. Second, I was being thrown out on the first day of rehearsals. They all thought I was incapable. Was I? But, I loved dancing. Didn’t I? They had always appreciated my performances at the previous school! Didn’t they? I needed to begin again. I had to find my place here.
This was my epiphany. Dance was my calling. I pestered my mother to make me join classical training in Bharatnatyam outside School. I envied Vaishali’s special place with the teachers. I had to be better than her. There is a raw hunger in comparison with others. I think I was guilty of it in those initial months at the dance school. My feet tapped on and my body swirled effortlessly filled with an unquenchable passion to be called better than Vaishali. My riaz went on for hours on end fed by that raw passion.
The passion bore fruit just two months later when the same teacher told Vaishali to let me take the centre stage instead of her. “There is such grace in your movements. Are you learning classical dance?” This time Vaishali heard the teacher say it to me! I had managed to find my place. Perhaps my gain was Vaishali’s loss. It hits me with guilt today, but back then I was too immersed in the new-found glory to comprehend it. For 10 year old girls, this was much more complicated. I needed friends. She had snubbed me earlier. She was the leader of the tribe and clearly it had a guarded territory. Once again, I extended my friendship and this time she finally accepted it. I suddenly had an upper hand! We went in to do various stage performances together thereafter and her friendship was a blessing.
Comparison with others may make for a beginning. It’s a fleeting passion at best. Continuous unbridled meditative effort, the real riaz, as we call it in our classical art forms, makes for excellence. What followed was incessant comparison with myself and sheer love for the art form. Bharatnatyam is an inseparable instinct of my being. It flows through the rhythms of living and growing. It manifests itself in my body’s expressions, my mind’s discipline, my powerful emotions, my resilience…
Teachers’ statements and decisions rule our lives in multilateral ways. Perhaps Mrs. Rosalind, our dance teacher in school, who always had a beautiful red rose bud sticking out of the tight bun on her nape, never realised her contribution to my classical training or my sense of belongingness in the school.