In and Out of India

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

"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 Darand 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.

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