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The dancing nun of Pondicherry

You have to really love Bharata Natyam to learn, especially knowing you’re in holy orders and may never perform. It’s physically a very punishing dance form; you have to submit wholly to it or it makes a fool of you, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2009 22:48 IST
Renuka Narayanan

We know what terrorists are really attacking in India, don’t we? Our mysterious ‘secular fabric’; our ‘composite culture’. No one with a tight sectarian mind can understand Indian affinities. They think they will somehow force us to submit to their ridiculous worldview. Instead of living together in one big, splendid ocean, they want us to live in narrow, separate wells.

Ah, but our India won’t let us, despite the sad anniversary of the Staines murder and the decades of violence between us. She keeps showing us ways of being that light up our landscape.

Last week, during a short stay in Madras, my friends took me daytripping to Pondicherry. The drive along the East Coast Road was beautiful, the weather perfect and the French quarter in Pondicherry most interesting. I refused to go ashramming. All I wanted was to stroll around the French quarter and put myself around some calamaris in garlic butter, chicken aux fines herbes roasted the European way, a glass of good wine and a silky mousse au chocolat.

After that orgy, we absolutely had to walk and set off down a cobbled street called Rue Souffren lined with trees, pretty houses and funky boutiques. Bang in the middle, there were high convent walls on both sides and from behind one wall I heard the sound of a piano lesson. And then, from the other side of the road, I heard the unmistakable clackety-clack of a Bharata Natyam lesson being conducted with the wooden block and stick.

Slipping in through the door of that compound, I saw there was indeed a dance lesson going on. The nun in charge came up at once and I apologized for intruding, explaining that the sound of Bharata Natyam had pulled me inside. “You’re welcome to watch,” she said and gestured me in. Now picture this: Sister Cecilia, for that was her name, sat coiffed and clad in her white habit with a pair of cymbals and calmly began to put six bright-eyed, sweet-faced little girls through their adavus (steps)!

“How…?” I asked, quite breathless at the sight. “I learnt in Kalakshetra first and then did my post-graduate in dance at Madurai, it’s an M.Sc.,” said Sister, twinkling. “We teach anyone who wants to learn and if they can, they pay. We dance about Radha and Krishna and also about Jesus. See, this is the mudra I use for Jesus,” and she showed me gracefully.

You have to really love Bharata Natyam to learn, especially knowing you’re in holy orders and may never perform. It’s physically a very punishing dance form; you have to submit wholly to it or it makes a fool of you. You may think you know the moves but you could come across as just a wind-up doll, while the spirits of great dancers past snicker.

The dance may torment you for years before granting you even a peep at its inner life, for it contains great power. It was made to formally, beautifully address Divinity with, to take humans from the mundane to the supernatural. Both Sister Cecilia and her convent, which permitted her to teach, had clearly made the connection with honour and belonging. I thought it was very gracious of Pondicherry to share such a moving glimpse of herself.