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A singing, dancing people

How much we’ve chilled out and moved on in terms of identity, as Indians. This came home to me last evening when I met the teenaged niece of a dear friend, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: May 22, 2009 23:15 IST
Renuka Narayanan

How much we’ve chilled out and moved on in terms of identity, as Indians. This came home to me last evening when I met the teenaged niece of a dear friend. This little miss has been learning ballet – Western classical ballet – for some years at the Russian Centre on Delhi’s Ferozeshah Road from the strict but perfection-driven Mme. Galina. She’s the one the Delhi kids get their solid ballet foundation from but then, it’s noted, jump ship at a certain point to the other ballet teacher in town, Fernando Aguilera of Argentina, who teaches at the British and American schools and has better showcasing avenues. But that’s just Delhi ballet politics. Fernando’s presenting a production of Sleeping Beauty on Sunday and I’m sure it will be pleasant.

What really got me though was the change in the Indian mindset. When I was a little girl in Bombay, I was desperate to learn ballet and piano. But my mother, part of the Indian avant-garde in learning Bharata Natyam, wouldn’t hear of it.

Some of my arguments as an eight-year-old to convince her are now part of family folklore: “But ballet comes from classical Greek dancing (it didn’t), why can’t I learn it?” Or, “Piano is just as good as Carnatic music, why can’t I learn it?”

Instead I had to learn what I didn’t want to learn (now, of course, I’m glad I did, these worlds are hard to enter otherwise and I would have missed out on so much beauty). But my version of civil disobedience was to refuse to ever dance in public.

“You can force me to learn this because you have power over me. And I will try my best to learn well and please you because I love you and want you to think well of me. But my heart’s not in it, so I shan’t perform,” was my simple logic.

What I couldn’t articulate properly and “they” didn’t understand was that despite doing okay in elocution and debate, I was truly too shy to leap about as a Bharata Natyam soloist and would have far preferred being a humble swanlet in the corps de ballet, just one of a long line of little girls doing knee-flexions, happily dancing but inconspicuous.

Now this little miss was telling me how she kept her balance doing pirouettes and how she’d twice worn a tutu (the fluffy ballet skirt) and why, during the summer hols, it was okay not to practice every day at the barre because she’d be swimming regularly, so her muscles wouldn’t get lazy.

I felt ashamed suddenly of how much I’d protested about learning Bharata Natyam back then. There must be hundreds of children in our country dying to dance and sing who can’t afford the lessons. There must be perfectionist teachers dying to find that one excellent pupil through whom they will become immortal but the kids are in a big hurry to ‘arrive’.

But then I thought, well, everyone can’t be a dancer or singer. You also need a knowledgeable audience in society to serve the arts by watching. Their reward is delight and well-being, for “Dharmo rakshati rakshitaha”: Dharma protects those who protect it. To support the classical arts of India is obvious dharma, it means we thank God for the sublime gift of the classical ragas to our land and people, a gift that has steadily nourished our hearts through film music, even if we never learnt music formally.

As Pandit Bhatkhande, who propagated Hindustani classical music in Indian society in the 20th century said, “Even if I can’t produce one Tansen, I will produce thousands of ‘Kaan-sens’ (clued-in listeners).”Thank God, despite everything else, we remain a singing, dancing nation.