October 06, 2011

Discursive post

One job interview I went to, I was literally sent home after having my cheeks pulled (and my pocket replenished with toffee) because the octogenarians interviewing me thought I was too young. But then, the other day, I was in a train, and cast a random smile in the direction of some hyperactive toddler who was sitting across from me. (Random smile = yeah it's very nice you can jump on the seats and leave your footprints all over and generally be a nuisance and make a lot of noise but there's only so much I can take; so shut up now) The mother of said toddler got very excited by this first sign of someone wanting to engage with her child. So she tells her child, "Aunty ko hello bolo. Aunty ko poocho unka naam kya hain." And thus, uses aunty in place of other subtle pronouns again and again and again. Arre, not aunty, I am not so old, I want to say. But then I risk opening the floodgates of travel overfamiliarity and dealing with an avalanche of questions - how are you - how old are you - how old are your phupha-phuphi - oh why don't you have any phupha-phuphi - do you use B-Tex on the warts in your private parts, and so on, so I grin and bear the auntyfication.

I am the surly traveller who occupies the aisle seat and glares angrily at you if you smear your mango pickle oil on the seat. Or start playing bad music which is also loud. Or if you are the Rajdhani attendant who wakes me up at 7.30 am and says, "Madam, how much will you sleep? It's late now; eat your breakfast!" Even my mother  doesn't dare do that. For I am kambalapriya.

I am not an ogress. I love children. But I have noticed my stars are always cruelly aligned when it comes to travel. I always get to sit next to the crankiest, most fidgety kid on the train/ plane. When they are at that innocent age when they are just sticking their fists into everything breakable but are incapable of achieving wider circulation because they can't really walk, it's still okay. When they are old enough to walk, and concurrently to discover the joys of stamping on rexine seats and trying their hand at mountain-climbing on a train, it's a big problem.

When I came back from Cochin, there were three kids in damage-causing reach. And they served cake on the plane. Cake is crumbly. Now, having spent two days getting firsthand experience of a Kerala wedding, all I wanted to do was sleep. Alas...

I promised R I wouldn't poke fun at her wedding, but it's just sitting there like a bubble in a sea of popped bubble-wrap, waiting to be, well, burst. 

I still cannot get over the fact that the make-up took three hours and the wedding took five minutes. I'm sure the food at the wedding sadya empathises with me. It must have taken hours to cook but needs to be gobbled down in five minutes. They down the shutters after filling the lunch hall to capacity, so you're in an open enclosure, where you're being watched hungrily by this hungry crowd. It was probably the fastest meal I have ever eaten and if there were ranks, I come in third from bottom. And I pride myself on having adequate banana-leaf assembly-line eating experience. At some point, my sambar and my payasam decided to run into each other. Frankly, where they ran didn't bother me much as long as it was not in the direction of my sari. I was too busy trying to eat at a certain speed. 

But then, someone saw me in the act. In an hour, everyone knew I was the greenhorn who had mixed her sambar and payasam (and tried to eat it; oh, the irreverence, the cheek!). By now, I am sure mothers in Kerala are telling their children a story - once there was an ogress in a sari who mixed her sambar and payasam. And the child cowers in fear. In playgrounds, girls are staring wide-eyed at self-defence manuals titled 'How to face the sambar-payasam mixing pisachi'. And maybe there is also an MMS circulating where the sambar and payasam flirt with each, mix, and I am shown eating this unholy blend with obvious relish. So yes, I am famous. 

And I am an aunty. Maybe I should add that to my CV so that people know I'm old enough. 

Note on title:
At some point during my MA, I began to appreciate the immense potential of the word 'discursive'. When one spends the whole day in discursive activity, it is good to be very honest and write a term paper called 'Discursive reflections on _________ (insert choice of topic). 

Of course, professors are also discursive with grades. 

September 05, 2011


If you saw an evil-looking woman flailing her limbs about and yelling like she was possessed outside the Egmore museum, hey, we've met. After all, I was in Chennai, the city of the brotherhood of nasty auto mafiosi where they will charge you money even to run over you with their noisy instruments of torture. In a city where the auto fares are calculated in Adi tala, (read eight times the actual price of the ride), it is hard to stomach the temerity of an auto driver who takes you to the museum when you ask to be taken to Music Academy. That broke my heart. I almost offered to teach him to count the swaras even though he charged me money for taking me to the wrong destination. 

So the reality of Chennai autos didn't strike me all week, because a more patient colleague did the bargaining, gently reasoning with overambitious villains. Come Friday, she left, and I was thrown to the wolves. One day, and the delicate threads that tethered sanity to my being were blasted apart.

One thing I fail to understand is their complete disregard for all knowledge that is geographical. Or their failure to understand that localities are continuous, ongoing units, processes almost, and that you will not choose to alight at the first house in Thousand Lights when you are, in fact, looking for the thousandth light. 

And that irritating habit of saying thirty rupees/ fifty rupees/ _______ (replace with random atrocious figure) when your destination is a few yards away. That is just mean. You know, the next time you go to your friendly neighbourhood ______ stall, I hope he charges you thirty rupees extra for your _______. Will keep the wheels of economy well-oiled. So mean, that even those Kurla station auto drivers look like saints; I should compose something in their praise. Even Bombay has traffic, okay? 

Was Mahisasura an auto driver in Chennai in some birth?

July 10, 2011

That blotch on my face

It started in February, as a persistent patch of dry skin around my eyes, when I was in Bangalore. Either the people in Bangalore are polite, or it didn't look so gruesome then. Or I usually circulated in badly-lit spaces in Bangalore. 

The weather and an irresistible tendency to bother the affected area only made it worse. One day in mid-March, I couldn't dance because I awoke with one eye sealed shut under a swollen eyelid. I even went out with pustules on my face and concerned people offered advice on how I could soothe the affected area with banana peel and lemon rind and cat whiskers and lizard dung. The area around my eyes turned dark and scaly and I spent hours looking at my eyes in the mirror and coming to terms with my geriatric face.

My sister kept saying it looked like someone had given me a black eye. In desperation, I even dabbed concealer on the marks on a few occasions. Then I promptly felt miserable and washed it off.

I even resorted to blaming it on fate and destiny, reminding myself that I had to deal with SOMETHING since I've never ever dealt with a pimple outbreak, even when all my classmates were busy adding to the coffers of acne cream manufacturers. 

Before you tell me how dog hair works best in such cases, I did visit a doctor who prescribed a course of smelly ointments which I faithfully slathered on my face. After a while, the scarring was minimal and I could look at myself in the mirror without making it implode. But, public memory is never short. Especially in the cosmetic recollections department. My melanin had moved on, but people hadn't. There were one or two people who found themselves moved to tears whenever they cast their eyes on my pitiable visage. They considered it their solemn duty to stare at my face and say, "Oh, what happened to you? Those marks are still there. Are you doing anything about it? Do you want to go to the doctor who treats my cows?" No, I don't.

Then  there were the suspicious ones. Some thought it was malnutrition. Another woman looked at me with relish, expecting confidential revelations of domestic abuse. That day, I was already dazed, so before I knew it, my mouth was saying, "Yes, I got injured." I said that partly because I didn't want to launch into the history of my condition. She smiled knowingly. I wanted to give her a black eye. 

Blotch is better, but is still around. Love me, love my blotch. But don't give me advice. Otherwise I will put hydrocortisone in your coffee. 

June 19, 2011

End of story

It was a happy, bright day. I was on my way to work. I asked the autorickshaw driver to take a certain route. He started talking to me. I have become less diffident and I now reply to people who strike up conversations with me.

Transcribed and translated. With the right number of ellipses. All with three dots. No more, no less. Ration card.

Auto uncle: Where are you from?
R: Bombay only.
Auto uncle: Who all in your family...brrrr...tell history of chacha nana papa phuphi.
R: Sankshep shady history.
Auto uncle: Shaadi nahi hui?
R: Erm, now where to start?
Auto uncle: Tell no? You are working, but you are not married?
R: What's in a marriage?
Auto uncle: Arre, but it is your age for shaadi. You must be twenty-five or thirty at least?

Wrong foot.
R: Next left.

Stony silence.

End of story.

Ask a girl her age. Accuracy matters. 

June 04, 2011

Dancing to nowhere: Young, beautiful and broke

Only reposting this here because people empathise with the issue. It originally appeared in the Asian Age on June 2.

Dancing to nowhere: Young, beautiful and broke


Some young classical dancers might be forgiven for thinking that an arangetram or debut marks the end of their dance careers. An arangetram only heralds the start of a long, and sometimes, futile struggle to be known.

People often talk of dance as spiritual, and argue that dancers must treat their art as “sacred” and not trivialise it by bringing money into the equation. If, one sunny morning, they are told that they must work without expecting returns, for the spiritual good of society, can they be expected to respond with similar equanimity?

The informal yet omnipotent nature of most Indian dance training often means that budding dancers could be left in the lurch, sometimes without dance music. Recording your own music, once the norm, is now a luxury afforded only to the rich.

Dance writer Shyamhari Chakra, who has watched dancers struggle to survive, let alone make a name for themselves, insists that classical dance performances must have a price tag. He asserts, “You might charge a pittance, but it doesn’t matter because ticket sales will only amount to a small portion of the revenue. It is high time we inculcated the habit of paying to watch dance. Why should it be free?”

An upcoming classical dancer can apply to a list of unpaid festivals, where more generous organisers might sponsor sleeper-class train fare or local hospitality. Some of these festivals, like the Sur Singar Samsad’s enduring Kal-ke-Kalakar Festival in Mumbai, award titles to selected participants. Titles matter, but they don’t get you anywhere. Some dancers might apply for senior government scholarships. Often, even a chance at these opportunities requires a recommendation from a teacher. Some unpaid festivals have the gall to demand live performances by solo artists who can barely afford their own train fare. Thus it often transpires that the dancer might keep nothing for herself while she distributes the meagre amount earned between her musicians, sometimes dipping into her own pocket to cover the deficit.

Except for a lucky few, this scenario is almost always true, gritty and fatalistic. Why then do youngsters still gravitate to dance?

Ramya Nair, a Bangalore-based Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer based in Bangalore, recently formed a dance collective with a few young dancer friends. Dance is her only source of income and she is well-versed with the scarcity of paid opportunities for young, and worse still, unknown dancers. She says, “It is difficult for young dancers to move ahead without knowing people. Even if you apply to festivals, showing them what you have done without any support, people just don’t respond to you. Take me — I am a dancer from Kerala with no background. Why does it always have to be about money? Doing an arangetram is like announcing to the world that you are ready to perform, but you need to have money to do it. I dance because I love it, but it has also increasingly become a ‘job’. At the end of the day, I have to accept performances that I wouldn’t want to take up because dance has become my livelihood.”

Nair finds that this is indeed a very vicious circle. “I need to dance to run my house. I need to pay for dance classes and costumes. So I have to dance in order to be able to dance more. It is wearying, but there’s no other option,” she shrugs.
Nowadays, the parents of some young dancers are choosing a different approach to visibility and mass acclaim. A search for teenaged Bharatanatyam dancer Harinie Jeevitha’s videos on YouTube throws up results with hits in seven figures, a number worthy of any teen pop sensation gone viral. Her teacher in Chennai, Sheela Unnikrishnan, has a host of equally popular students who are the darlings of e-connoisseurs. They fuel what seems to be an avid trade in dance DVDs which can be purchased online. Barely into their teens, most of these dancers are agile and talented.

Yet, for every Harinie Jeevitha, there are fifty unsung dancers strutting their stuff in vain to unresponsive internet audiences. Sometimes, ‘likes’ or favourable comments come their way, but internet acclaim is far from translating into performance opportunities.

Ruchika Sharma, a Kathak dancer who teaches history at Delhi University, has often toyed with the idea of making dance her career. “As a young and unestablished dancer, getting the right kind of exposure is difficult enough. For me, dance has always taken a backseat because of the institutionalisation of the art form; it is hard to experiment and get recognition as an individual performer. The whole idea of dancing for the love of dance remains a dream when you hit the reality of being a ‘nouveau’ performer and satisfy yourself by sporadic performances that come your way. Often, very practical considerations like the lack of rehearsal space, no monetary assistance, problems of acceptance and no knowledge of the right ways to go about organising a performance are magnified when you even begin to think of taking to dance full-time. When I am on stage, I wonder why I don’t do this forever; it’s when I step off stage that the reasons become clearer,” she says.

Chakra is among a group of friends who organise the Naveen Kalakar Festival for young dancers in Bhubaneswar. Meritorious dancers leave with the title “Nritya Jyoti”. He says, “As members of more established dance troupes, dancers end up becoming numbers. They are not projected as solo artists, even though solo dancing is the soul of classical dance. The same set of senior dancers visits all the important festivals. No one is recommending younger dancers; even your own students don’t matter. What surprised me was that many established young dancers were applying to our competition. I tried to dissuade them but gradually realised that they wanted to participate because we were awarding a title. Honestly, such titles hold little meaning, but they matter to dancers.”

Making the shift to paid gigs, where the dancer can aspire to put something into the bank, even if it is only a pittance, takes long. Compounding this situation is the fact that dance performance and education often go hand-in-hand. Group performances are the bulwark of many upcoming dancers’ stage time. Continuing as troupe members requires active participation in company classes and workshops, which must often be paid for. They must pay for costumes that last a few performances and expensive jewellery. To foot the bills, they teach, take on undesirable shows — sometimes doing everything short of promenading in costume along the waterways of Venice.

March 06, 2011

S(t)inging stars

In my ancient past, I had once written a piece that classified concert hall audiences. Back then, I was yet to be introduced to the sixth category - the real star of the evening who never became Shivkumar Sharma or Girija Devi but makes sure his/ her voice reaches everyone who might want to listen to Shivkumar Sharma or Girija Devi. While the bathroom singers of the world unite and torment inanimate buckets and other echo-inducing objects that are unfortunate enough to be of use in bathrooms, they know the limits of their tyranny. The real things, however, aim for the big league. The concert hall is their bucket and the poor musician on stage is that fleeting choking sound which sends fallen hair and phlegm down the drain.

What induces this painfully sarcastic missive is my experience at the NCPA yesterday. As Shivkumar Sharma warmed up to his opening piece, I heard screechy noises emerging from somewhere very very close. I first suspected that the perfectly sane-looking woman seated beside me was prone to forms of alternative, erm, expulsion, given her prodigous appetite for roasted gram during the performance. Then I realised that the direction the sound came from was not so alternative. Then I realised; hey presto she was singing!  

She took it upon herself to hum in ways that would shame a bee and have it excommunicated too. While Shivkumar Sharma explored one raga on stage, she was on her own trip, humming out of tune and out of tala like a bad harmonium player till I wanted to do a Captain Planet and hurl her into the orchestra pit (alas! there was none). 

During the interval, there was more than one person cursing their spatial proximity to our audience-vote star. I didn't make rude faces at her because I thought she would desist from humouring me with her virtuosity during the ensuing Kathak performance. Well, she wasn't one to give up easily. She went on determinedly, like a Walkman on low battery which goes tannnnnnnnnnn-screech-taannnnnnn till some aggrieved soul next to her asked her to shut up because they were getting disturbed. In nicer terms.

At which point she looked at them, perfectly bewildered, and exclaimed, "But the music is so beautiful!"