Monday, April 30, 2012

Will night never come?

"They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

- Pozzo to Didi & Gogo on the lot of humankind, in 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of Love and other Demons

Well, I must say the best thing to have happened to me all this month was to have Chaitanya decide to take a long vacation and return to Bombay for a month to absorb some 'culture' as he puts it. My friends have all been rather busy with visa interviews and moving to another city while my decision to do the same has been happily delayed. However, that left me with a bit of a void in a social calendar, that finally had more free week nights than I could count. So Chaitanya and I embarked on a mission to seek out 'culture' in the city.

This was just about as much fun as it sounded. Well, okay, it was a lot of fun admittedly. Trekking to Shivaji Park every evening in peak hour traffic has been well worth the plays we caught at the Motley Theater Festival but when C. booked tickets for an evening of Kathakali at the NCPA, I was more than a little worried. The only Kathakali performance I had previously witnessed was a rather abridged-for-tourists version at what looked like a warehouse-turned-auditorium in Kottayam in our trip to Kerala last year.

And while we were suitably impressed with the exposition on make-up and costume and the intricate and intensely meaningful hand-gestures, I never expected it to be anything more than visually enticing.

That we watched the incredibly talented Kalakshetra Foundation dancers perform an episode from the Mahabharata called Keechaka Vadham (The Killing of Keechaka) and felt deeply moved was something I really had not expected.

To have managed to take the dance from being a mere visual spectacle to being a truly nuanced piece of story-telling was to the credit of the NCPA Mudra Dance Festival organisers. Behind the dancers and the musicians and the singers were two large projection screens that translated verbatim into English every line of song that made up the story, and the translations were so perfect that we could even guess at the hand-gestures that the dancers deployed from what must have been a fabulously rich vocabulary of sign language.

Although the sentences seemed clunky at first glance, containing words like "Her hair was long and shimmered in the wind like a swarm of bees." or "Her full heavy breasts ignited his lust.", we were mesmerised when what appeared like purple prose in English turned into such graceful movements and such expressive glances.

The story itself is rather straightforward. It is set in the time of the Pandava exile, when they were in hiding at the palace of King Virata. Bhima had disguised himself as a cook in the palace kitchens while Draupadi served as handmaid to the Queen. Keechaka was the Queen's young brother who fell in love with Draupadi and tried to seduce the handmaid not knowing her real identity. When Bhima finds out about Keechaka's increasingly violent advances, he vows to protect Draupadi. He then proceeds to deceive Keechaka and then in a very inventive scene, slays him.

I realise when I type it out, that in this form, it sounds rather brief and even banal. But to watch it played out with such delicate artistry by practitioners of one of India's oldest classical dance forms is a viscerally beautiful experience.

I can't help but recount the many moments that simply took my breath away. The erotic charge in the scene when Keechaka kneels before Draupadi and offers to 'massage her lotus-like feet', the playfulness with which he mimes her gracefully swaying walk, described as 'a cross between the majestic walk of an elephant and the artfulness of a beautiful swan', the frustrated rage with which he searches for her before realising she's slipped away from him yet again. I realised I was watching something really unique when we agreed we were enjoying the villain's antics too much to want the hero of the story to show up. But when he does, Bhima thoroughly acquits himself, what with the comfort he offers his distraught wife and the single-mindedness with which he chokes the life out of Keechaka's body.

We were amazed by the sheer beauty to be found by floating lazily around a story that in these days of instant gratification would have been glossed over in instants. That sometimes love, or even lust, requires a leisurely touch. Even a villain can be charming when you watch him dance mischievously around the object of his desire. His death can also mean something when the dying blow takes a twenty-minute long and visually stunning scene to be delivered.

An old-timer watching the show with us reminisced about his childhood in Kerala when Kathakali performances lasted for days and nights together. But who had the patience for that now? Three hours must feel like a lot to some busy folks, he muttered. I looked at Chaitanya's beaming face and realised what it must feel like for him to be back after so long in a country where these epics are so deeply etched in our minds that we don't even need to be told the story to know what's happening, who wins and who dies, who gets the girl in the end. Perhaps that is why he needs to fill his days here with 'culture' because he really does miss it. He misses the Mahabharata serial from DD where people shot card-board arrows at each other, where people wore faux-gold jewelry and spouted unintentionally hilarious Hindi dialogue sprinkled with a smattering of Sanskrit words.

After the performance, we heard the acclaimed dancer Dr. Sadanam Balakrishnan whose masterful performance of the titular Keechaka has me raving right now, talk about how the Mahabharata was about real people. How the Ramayana was an idealised story about ideal men and ideal kings and ideal brothers and ideal wives but the Mahabharata was about passion-plays and emotions. He also told us about how his need to bring more of these emotions and dramatic stories to Kathakali had led him to adapt Shakespearean tragedies like Othello and Macbeth, and the Greek tragedies of Euripides to dances choreographed entirely by him.

I couldn't help but grab involuntarily at dada's arm at that. He smiled back at me. The idea of watching Othello performed by Kathakali dancers made complete sense somehow. 

Driving back home, along Marine Drive at midnight, I couldn't help but comment on Draupadi's lot in life, to be lusted after by so many men must have been tough. Dada chuckled, he reminded me of Irawati Karve's Yuganta, a fascinating collection of essays about the Mahabharata written in a shockingly detached, even clinical manner. I recalled the penultimate essay about Draupadi. How Karve believed that her great tragedy was not being staked in a game of dice, or being forced into a life of penury. It was falling in love with the wrong husband. While she loved Arjuna deeply, he never loved her back. It was always Bhima - strong, stubborn, selfless Bhima who loved her with all his heart. And she never realised the value of this love until it was too late.

I smiled at the passing lights of the Queen's Necklace at night, resolving to write this all out on my blog as soon as I got home, and wondering what a Kathakali adaptation of that particular tragedy would look like.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

La Vie en rose

Do you think it is possible to love someone utterly and completely for their mind alone? For the thoughts that course through it, for the beauty that it can create, for the ideas that bubble up to its surface, for the marvellous words it makes into sentences spoken in a voice you haven't heard yet?

I was watching 'A Little Romance' in the afternoon, and I couldn't help but be taken aback when the film's thirteen-year-old protagonist wonders about soulmates and says he worried that perhaps he'd never meet his soulmate because she may have been someone who lived in a different time - in Egypt when they built the pyramids or on a colony in Mars in the 24th century. And if he was lucky enough to have a lifetime that overlapped with hers, perhaps she lived in Tunisia or Japan or a place he'd never travel to.

It just felt sad - the idea of having a soulmate you could never meet. The movie probably intended it as a minor cute moment in the larger discussion that led to a rosily pictured 'first-kiss'. But the idea had taken hold of me and I could not relinquish it.

If all I could have of my soulmate was just their thoughts, then would that be enough? For one day, for a year, for a lifetime?

Or as Mitzi says, I am too old to watch movies like this one or to set much store by the beleaguered concept of soulmates.

I agree with her, it is better to know you don't have one than knowing you do and realizing that the laws of probability tell you that odds such as those are pretty insurmountable.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Summertime Blues

Come April (okay, March, who're we kidding?) and everyone around here begins to crib about the heat and the humidity and the electricity bills. Pretty much everyone mutters about 'global warming' in rather ominous tones and declares that this has got to be Bombay's hottest summer so far. Then, there are the discussions about how to 'beat the heat'. There's the air-conditioner of course, but what about the rest of us, who actually have to venture out on the streets and travel in trains and buses and work in places which do not have central air-conditioning? I suppose, we make do with several glasses of lemonade with ice-cubes that an enterprising mavshi provides for a small(ish) fee, the cheerily spiced cucumber slices bought from the railway stall on Parel station, the blueberry muffins eaten in the cool Tata cafe with its transplanted tropical palm trees on the first floor lounge, the watermelon and orange fruit dish outside Sarvodaya and then there are the lunch-time trips to the Amul ice-cream parlour, there's the sugarcane juicewallah down the road and I know that times are desperate when even my most misophobic friend demands a tall glass of juice with crushed ice, all notions of questionable hygiene aside.

But seriously, was it really always this hot in Bombay? My parents swear not. Dad has memories of walking from Sion hospital to Cafe Britannia and ordering endless bottles of sweet sticky strawberry soda with ice and sheltering in the comforting shade of the then numerous Irani cafes and small restaurants.

I suppose it has something to do with the increasing concretisation of the city coupled with the exponentially increasing motor vehicles, if not the gruesome reality of the aforementioned 'global warming' that contributes to the near-unbearable heat, not to mention the humidity that comes with living in a tropical city on the sea-coast.

It's just that I don't remember people becoming so harassed by the heat before. A school friend is taking up a job in Shimla for the summer so she can escape the everyday heatwaves and I suppose if this worked for the British, it ought to work for her.

Then, there's an NRI cousin who is bragging about returning to the 'clement climes of California' next week. Also, there are folks who take summer vacations to hill-stations by the thousands.

I just don't get why the summer is being considered harsh enough to warrant an exodus from the city. For me, the summers have an immediate association with school-vacations and wandering aimlessly around the city. Taking long walks at Marine Drive till 6:30 because the sun sets so late. Lounging around on the terrace in the late afternoon heat and doing nothing but vegetating; making intermittent trips to the kitchen to grab a pitcher of Rasna or Glucon-D in the days before Tang arrived on Indian shores.

Pestering Mummy to let us buy Coca-Cola from the neighbourhood grocer's shop and driving down at night to Chowpatty and buying ice-golas and kulfi faloodas from the innumerable stalls on the beach. Waiting for the crates of alphonso mangoes to arrive from Goa and then whooping with joy when we could smell them and press their fresh warm pulp in their beautiful yellow-orange skins to our sweaty cheeks. Aah, the summer and the mangoes! I could write an ode to them right now. The summer-time vacations in Goa with family, eating jackfruit from the orchard with its intensely sweet smell sticking to our fingers for hours. Running about on the beach and splashing about in the sea. And if not Goa, then the frequent trips to the Odeon swimming pool, filled to bursting point with other swimmers looking to soak in the lukewarm chlorinated waters of the big pool.

Then there came the growing up and going to junior college, when there were the afternoons spent walking around Flora Fountain, sifting through the pages of old, beautiful-smelling books. Oh man, the books! I have so many memories of wandering up to Kitaab Khana and just inhaling the summer afternoon air scented with old paper smells and if not buying, then just sitting down and reading books right there with a glass of thandai from the sweetmeat vendor right opposite.

That's how I first read The Great Gatsby and Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island.

Not for us, the stale air-conditioned air and sterile shelves of Crossword. We yearned for the unbridled joy of chancing upon a masterpiece in the stacks and stacks of books piled upon the pavements in the days before the cops came around and started up their infernal book-burning. The shock of watching books burn in a place so far apart from Hitler's Germany was coupled with Dada leaving for New York and then, college took over. The days of cruising for books on summer afternoons and skipping to Nehru Science Centre to catch up on the new Hall of Aerospace exhibits ended.

The air-conditioner arrived at home and malls sprouted up like mushrooms in every corner of the city. Salvation from the summer sweats was here.

Now all we do is sit at home in front of a machine while it sends out CFCs to soak through the ozone, inadvertently making the summer sunshine more dangerous for everyone on earth, while we make plans to visit this mall or that multiplex as we order mango ice-cream on the phone.

After all, now that the heat has become a diabolical thing to 'beat' and flee from, the summer has become a season to dread. Well, that's only until the monsoons arrive. Then we can all go back to collectively worrying about the floods and praying for an early winter.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In the words of the great philosopher Jagger

No, you can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need.