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In and Out of India 

A meditation on memory and Indian culture, from Krishna dolls to bharathanatyam

Wednesday, Jan 29 2003
One of the many hangover curatives my housemates could never understand involved peeling open an inflamed eyeball at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning to watch Namaste America, a program on Channel 26 that caters to Indian-Americans with 20 minutes of Indian subcontinent news and 40 minutes of music videos culled from Bollywood soundtracks. For the uninitiated, it could be a difficult experience. Unfortunate houseguests would often stumble into the hall, railing against the high-pitched warbles and chirpy trills emanating from the living room; they'd squint at the lurid colors and lascivious dance routines; and, after two or three videos, they'd mock the redundancy of yet another pouty, defiant, soon-to-be-compliant young woman in a sheer sari drenching herself with water. But I've always found the productions comforting.

Not everyone knows it, but the Bay Area is home to the third largest Asian Indian population in the country. One short block away from my house, the Bombay Bazaar occupies two spacious storefronts, offering everything from saris, bangles, and bindis (for those unsure, bindis are the jeweled third eye) to bulk spices, kulfi (Indian ice cream), and strong black tea for which there is no substitute. There are at least three such markets in San Francisco, nine in Fremont, and no fewer than 14 in San Jose, with dozens more sprinkled throughout the cities in between. But my feeble beguilement with Indian culture does not stem from a passion for highly spiced food and brightly colored clothes; in fact, those passions stem from beguilement not my own.

Like so many Bay Area natives, I was born a hippie kid. This means I lived in a commune, had a guru, ate curry, and learned the "Ramayana" (an epic poem that chronicles the love and devotion of the lord Rama, his loving queen Sita, and his fearless monkey-god companion Hanuman) long before I had ever heard of Cinderella; instead of Barbies, I had Krishna dolls; instead of Batman and Wonder Woman comic books, I had Garuda and Sati cartoons. Mine was to be an expansive, multicultural upbringing.

When I was 6, my mother took us overseas. We landed in Indonesia, making a temporary home in Bali, where we lived in a small mountainside village. We assimilated slowly and were happy -- rising early to cook paper-thin pancakes made of egg, haggling at the market for cloth and produce, hiking through the jungle to bathe in the river and wash laundry with the women, playing children's games with 98 polished stones and a game board shaped like a shallow boat, and taking lessons in a temple dance that made our legs quake and our knees burn -- but, for my mother, the tempestuous siren of India was never far away. Eventually, thinking the fervor of India too overwhelming and the dearth of my father too lengthy, my mother shipped me home and wandered off into her event horizon. I wouldn't see her again for several years.

Sometimes I hop on BART and go to Fremont. The Naz 8 Cinema is just a short walk from the station. It boasts eight screens, 3,000 seats, 5,000 parking spaces, and Dolby sound, but it looks like a run-down porno theater -- musty carpets, sagging posters, flickering lights, oily-faced security guards -- nestled among the loading docks of more legitimate businesses (which face the front of the shopping center). The Naz 8 plays movies from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, but mostly it shows Indian movies -- not films, movies -- with and without subtitles; there's a constant trickle of people moving through the doors at three- or 3-1/2-hour intervals every night of the week.

The snack bar offers cold mango lassis in bottles and vegetarian samosas, which aren't very good as samosas go but are better than nachos or cheese dogs. On Friday and Saturday nights, the theater fills with young Indian-Americans eager for the latest, fastest heist flick -- such as Kaante, this year's most anticipated "Bollywood movie with a Hollywood feel" -- but Sunday seems to be family night.

Most of the screens are devoted to standard Indian romances, which follow a story line that hasn't changed since the "Ramayana" was recorded thousands of years ago: Beautiful, privileged boy falls in love with equally beautiful girl; girl acts flirtatious and coy; boy pursues; girl succumbs; girl is taken from boy; boy laments and searches; boy and girl are reunited (with song-and-dance routines to accent each section). There are a lot of movies to choose from, but I like Vivek Oberoi, a popular "road boy," with his lean, angular face, ever-present 6 o'clock shadow, and motorbike, so I settle into Saathiya, positioning myself between two large families, melting into the saffron and crimson hues.

Last year, my grandmother placed a stack of old letters next to my empty dinner plate and quietly left the room. I fingered the feathery envelopes for a very long time, admiring the exotic stamps that adorned the corners, letting the faint fragrance of champac permeate my skin. The postage dates had faded, but I arranged them as I thought they would have arrived. "Dear Mom," began the first missive, in a hand that was familiar, though rounder and more spacious than what it has become. The early letters were fast-paced, wide-eyed, and exuberant, filled with delight and sunshine, and written in a voice I do not know; they chronicled our Indonesian adventures, from Bali to Singapore to Java and back to Bali again, filling in gaps of memory and reminding me of things I had hoped never to forget. Then, my mother wrote of sending me home and going to India; and the frequency of correspondence dwindled to a trickle. One letter. A very long wait. Another letter. Then, nothing more. In those last pages, I recognized my mother's voice as I heard it upon her return, solemn and yearning.

"I am taking temple dance," she wrote. "I practice for several hours every day."

"A student must usually study between six and eight years before they are ready to perform," says Arul Francis. "But it is very difficult to find a student who is unswerving, as well as gifted."

Francis faces his sibling students, 16-year-old Natasha Dar and 14-year-old Zavain Dar, and recites the rhythmic intonation of steps while striking a small percussion instrument. The students execute a series of crisp, elegant gestures with their feet and hands while remaining in araimandi, the half-sitting posture that can cause the knees of temple dancers to tremble and burn many years into training. Francis stops, meticulously correcting the angle, extension, and attitude of each gesture, before putting the youths through the same step at triple time.

Bharathanatyam, which Arul Francis teaches, is the oldest among the contemporary classical dances of India and, arguably, the most sacred. Defined by vigorous footwork, puissant gestures, dramatic expressions, and statuesque poses, bharathanatyam is said to have been handed down directly by Brahma, the god of creation. The early dancers were deva dasis, descendants of an ancestral dance caste that was supported by a system of patronage from royal courts; as patronage dissolved, dancers emerged from other castes, usually women of much wealth and less talent. In the 1930s, in order to preserve the purity of the steps, the Thanjavur Quartet, composed of four brothers from an esteemed dance-teaching family, codified the bharathanatyam. Of that lineage, only one man remains: Pandanallur C. Subbaraya Pillai, the oldest living Natyacharya, or doyen, among the teaching families, and grandson of Thanjavur Quartet's Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. Thirty-seven-year-old Arul Francis is his disciple.

Francis charges $9 a class and invites anyone over the age of 10 to drop in, but, unlike other instructors, he will not allow any one class to exceed four people, and he will never lead a "company" for financial or creative satisfaction.

"Bharathanatyam is a solo dance form," says Francis. "Dance teachers here try to fill large schools as a kind of safety net, because they figure if a dancer drops out, they have others to put onstage. But there is no 'safe' way. If you try to train many dancers, you'll never create one really great dancer."

Surprisingly, Francis' star pupils are from Pakistan.

"They have outlasted all of my Indian students," explains Francis. "Finding gifted students is very difficult, almost impossible, but that is true in India also."

The Dars run through a combination of steps, their bare feet striking the floor like hollow thunder, their fingers finding configurations that seem improbable, their faces conjuring the requisite expression of awe.

Francis delicately, methodically, corrects them.

The Dars are both black belts in tae kwon do. Zavain studies flute and saxophone and plays sports. Natasha already skipped her sophomore year of high school and will be graduating in June to attend Stanford. Neither has ever studied bharathanatyam before; according to tradition, Francis could not have taken them as students if they had, and if they were ever to leave, he could not take them back.

"You just have to take the plunge and train one or two really talented students for a very, very long time and hope that they'll turn out to be good dancers," says Francis. "And if they drop out, you just have to start over again."

I ask the Dars if they plan to continue through adulthood. They nod.

"It's fun," says Zavain. Natasha agrees.

I smile at the simplicity of the statement and wonder if I should ask my mother.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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