Thursday, January 21, 2016

The ODISSI Universe
Odissi’s beautiful form echoes in her name. The roundedness of the O and its meditative sound remind me of the cosmic sound of OM. The rest of the word after O in Odissi is a tongue twister. In hindi and oriya the ‘d’ would be pronounced with its characteristic twisted sound. Culminating in the ‘issi’ the word Odissi seems to free itself of form, flowing like the sea, like forms of nature, forever feminine and curvilinear.

Indeed such a beautiful name for the most feminine, sculpturesque, earthy Indian dance that best represents the curves of nature. It is as if Odissi ‘knows’, just like ancient Indian sculptors did, that mother nature exists in curves. In trees and forests, in the waves of the sea and the waxing and waning of the moon. Even in the human body. In its shape of the eye, the grace of the neck, the bend at the waist down to the arch of the feet. Odissi celebrates these curves that exist in the human body, in the entire cosmos and places them in between the axis of the horizontal and vertical. Do our spaces exist only in the horizontal and vertical, or are there infinite divisions of spaces in between, that seem to defy these two dimensions? Odissi smiled at me and exploded with a vocabulary of infinite possibilities of space in Guru Surendra Nath Jena’s style. She flowered like mother nature and every time I danced I felt myself flower, marveling at the feeling of embodying these spaces.
What happens when one moves in Odissi? The body learns to flower and flow in new ways. It finds that movement is not just of the nature of standing, sitting and lying down, but that the human body can burst like a riot of colours onto the canvas of space. One’s body is the paint, the brushstrokes of the artist, and the forms one creates change. Change like the speed of one’s thoughts, like the waves of the sea, forever intangible and timeless. Odissi helped me also experience the nature of time. With her my mind travelled so many time zones in seconds, it was like magic, a wonderful way to be with Krishna or experience the magnificent yogic state of Lord Shiva.

And as I refer to Odissi as ‘she’, I know Odissi is all woman. She epitomizes the feminine principle. With all her beauty and shringar, she also has the immense power of the feminine creative source. She is akin to nature in all her curvilinear forms and never afraid to express all her emotions reveling in all the Navarasas. She is so pregnant with meaning and beauty, it is as if she holds within her the seed of all creation. She leads us with her gentle ways to the higher source, as if our meeting was only for a reason, to connect us with the divine.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

ART IN THEIR HEART
(published in the Speaking Tree, Times of India, Oct’2015)

A trip to a country rich in cultural experiences is postponed long by a family with small kids. So when my little ones became old enough to know the difference between Kathakali and Flamenco, and recognize a painting by Van Gogh or Picasso, I knew it was time to go to Italy. As a classical dancer from a land so rich in culture, I wanted to examine just why this powerful religious space was also reckoned as the cultural capital of the world.

Yet I knew that every country is so vast as a cultural experience, one cannot do justice to it in a few weeks. So we zoomed into the Amalfi coast. The exquisite coastal beauty of the Amalfi coast is much talked about in all travel magazines. As we drove into the coastal stretch on our taxi ride from Naples, I confess of being a bit wary. Was this to be like any sunny, beach experience in Europe? How was it any different from an Antalya or Malaga? The week that followed silenced my inner critic and replaced it with great admiration for a cultural community so proud of its heritage. The Amalfi coast had not just natural beauty but also people so warm and engaging, they knew the art of living, of how to take a pause. They lived a conscious life, responsible to their natural environment and joyously celebrating their artistic heritage in their daily lives.

The Amalfi coastline is full of green hills, dotted with small villages or towns that present their own vantage point of the landscape. So if Positano and Praiano are villages  which give you gorgeous, sunset sea views, Maori and Minori are villages right on the beach, close to the sea with lovely promenades and cobbled-street towns.

As a contrast, there are villages high on the hills, like Ravello and Tramonti, world famous for their own specialties. Ravello is called the city of music, where international music concerts happen in historic Roman villas. We had the fortune of attending a ‘String Quartet’, where on their violins, viola and cello the artistes treated us to pieces composed by the 19th c. classical musician Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Such is their fierce musical pride that the entire concert note only mentioned the details of Bartholdi’s life and compositions. The audience only knew the names of the magician-like musicians, who created waves upon waves of musical delight for our ears.

Ravello has such concerts in historic settings all through summer and even hosts a magical sunrise concert in an open-air stage that is the most breathtaking, ocean-overlooking, mountain- perched experience of music possible. Nature becomes the perfect setting for a spectacular moment created by artistes who have dedicated their whole life to an instrument.

Tramonti in the hills, is the name for a village famous for its wines. ‘Tramonti’ in Italian is the area between the mountains, and this village produces the most remarkable full-bodied wine in Italy. Apart from the numerous grape orchards seen all over Amalfi mountains, is the ubiquitous presence of the lemon tree. In every Amalfi town and village, and even inside hotels there are lemon groves in full blossom. Surrounded by so many lemons, hanging over our heads in a balcony overlooking the sea, I found myself humming ‘the Lemon Tree’ song by the group Crowded House! These big, luminous yellow lemons have pervaded the Amalfi landscape and culture such that there is beautiful representation of them everywhere : in endless ceramics, lemon ice-cream and the famous Amalfi limoncello!

But more than these tactile, visual moments was a hidden gem-like quality about the Amalfi coast : how everyone celebrated the arts and rejoiced in every form of it! While walking to the beach, we came upon an old tower by the sea, and went up to find the artist Paolo Sandulli working in it as his studio. From there he painted and sculpted the sea life and the beautiful coved beach of Marina di Praia. We walked back to the hotel with a painting of the beach, and my son was thrilled that the artiste wrote a special note for him in his catalogue. The artiste in the tower, will always be a special memory for us, a coming together of history and art!




In Italy as well as the Amalfi coast there are many such rich moments: where the taxi drivers describe their coastal villages like a history professor, rich with anecdotes and stories; where every town has a space where they organize musical concerts for all, to the extent that they even have a special city of music! Children are not charged in many historic sites like Pompeii, to encourage them to explore their history through architecture, and even the airport in Rome is named after their cultural icon Leonardo di Vinci and not any recent political figure.

 For what is art, but a sensitivity towards our environment, a higher level of consciousness, where nature appears more alive than ever, and pervades every cell of our being. In such moments iconic musicians like Richard Wagner created symphonies in Ravello and geniuses like Leonardo di Vinci found ideas about the universe appearing on to his sketchbook. Artistes create from their world of ideas in not just beautiful surroundings, but a rich social climate where the community takes pride in their ideas as their own. They know very well that artistes and scientists are forever engaging with the mysteries of the universe. Italy, especially the Amalfi coast, is a space which is inspired in this respect, forever celebrating their identity, as one with all the arts and artistes that reside in it. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Baul of Joy 

The last post of Sama and Sangeet, was a thought that beautifully flows into this post. A thread of continuity that reminds me of the universal need to find the spiritual self in all forms of art. We had the rasa-soaked oppurtunity to invite home Baul singers from Bengal to play their devotional songs from our earthy, folk roots. It feels to me like folk culture of our country is really connected with the deeper rhythms of the universe, sacred yet personal. 

So this evening came up, and the Baul singers in their simplicity and unaffected manner, sang their way into the heart of every individual gathered there. Dressed in Saffron like yogis, they sang mysterious melodies from deep layers of time. Their philosophical songs took us deep into a musical forest and showed us the glowing fireflies on every tree. Each light lit up the flame in our hearts brighter and deeper, till everything dissolved into nothing. 

The evening was a live understanding of Bauls as spiritual fakirs quite like the Sufi saints. The Bauls believe in a state of 'free mind', not 'no mind', as one has to live in the world with all its worldly duties. And this word Baul derives from the bengali words 'Vatul'(mad) or 'Vyakul'(restless). The Bauls sang with their quest and made it joyous, blissful and a very altered state of being. 

To the Bauls we are all gifts of divine power and the body is a temple. Music and dance are the path to connect to that power. Their philosophy is 'Deha Tattva' , i.e. spirituality of the body. It is indeed beautiful to have spiritual practices in our Indian tradition that completely bring together the physical and spiritual planes in a state of deep union. 

Their instruments are nature-rich : the percussion instrument being the khol, made entirely of mud. It had to be made wet with water for the earth in it to sing. The string instrument Dotara was a beautiful fret-less instrument that sang each note with the human voice. And the unique string instrument Ananda- lahiri, had strings that were pulled out of a small, open dhol and strummed with a large stone pick. Ananda lahiri means waves of bliss, that is a befitting name for Baul Sangeet as it really spreads bliss with its light of awareness. a glimpse of their waves of bliss:



Saturday, April 25, 2015

Of sangeet and sama 


In the process of teaching my son, I came up on the definition of 'sangeet' in Indian classical music. It said that sangeet consists of the coming together of gayan(vocal), vadan(instrumental music) and nritya(dance). It amazed me to find dance there in the middle of defining music. In common man terms, heavily influenced by the western notions, 'music' and 'dance' are two connected yet seperate defintions of art forms. Then 'sangeet' sounded like a novel concept, where all three arts came together!

And 'sangeet' as my dance Guru explained was something very dear to God, a means of aaradhna, reaching closer to God. In aaradhna, as a prayer, all these forms of expression came together to reach out to God. How easily this idea has been understood in not just Indian classical traditions, bhakti sangeet and also the Sufi tradition of sama, where divinity is powerfully experienced through these mediums. The practice and the understanding of this path, unlocks the self to an unlimited state of being, where divinity is one strong presence.

One such new space I discovered lately is the shrine of the reknowned Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki. In a walk into Mehrauli village, just behind my locality of Vasant Kunj, lies this powerful space of divinity. The shrine of one of the four of the most important Sufi saints in India. Bakhtiar Kaki was the saint for whom, a sulphur water baoli (step well) was created by the emperor Iltutmish , and the last mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar left a little patch of grass where he wanted to be buried, near his spiritual guru Bakhtiar Kaki's shrine. Unfortunately, the British exiled him to Burma and he was not meant to enjoy that privilege. Till date, a month before the Urs festival, sufis from all over India congregate first at Bakhtiar Kaki's shrine for a three day festival. It is only after paying their respect there that they head towards Ajmer, for the shrine of khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

The Sufi mystic Bakhtiar Kaki was known for his love for the Sama mehfils and organised or attended them regularly.
It is interesting to note that his last few days were closely connected to a sema he experienced. At the sema he heard the following verses:
" Those who are slain by the dagger of surrender, 
Receive every moment a new life from the unseen."
Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki was so overcome and enraptured by these verses that he fainted away. He died four days later while still in that state of ecstasy.



photos credit: Imtiaz khan

Sunday, April 19, 2015


The Dance of Trees -2

It is the dance of trees, their poetry that inspired my sister Swaati and me to create a dance moment on ‘trees in Indian classical dance’. We danced dances where the trees set the mood -  Mango tree was the minister of vasant ritu, as the koel came to sing on it, and its fruit and blossoms spread a rich fragrance. In this environment on a full moon night, sakhi urges Radha to go meet Krishna near the banks of the Yamuna river. No mango tree has looked the same to me ever since I learnt this dance. In spring I go up and smell the leaves and blossoms of every mango tree I find, wondering when the koel bird will come and enjoy its rasa!


In another dance, the Jamun tree became the playground for Krishna and his friends to relish jamuns while climbing its branches and shaking every branch with merry abandon. As they climb trees and feast on the jamun, Krishna sees Radha coming, and discreetly motions to her to meet near the river. Full of joy, pranks and secret meetings, this mood of Radha-Krishna is truly celebrated in the Jamun tree setting. 

In another jewel like dance by Guru Surendra Nath Jena called ‘Brahm Maya’ , the universe is compared to an inverted tree. This philosophy of the Upanishads, reminds us that the world is an inverted tree, and as we enjoy the fruits and flowers, the roots of this tree are up above, connected with the real divine world. Odissi to me, is this beautiful tree that connects the realms of the earthly and spiritual, delighting in both, celebrating the body and the spirit, finding a lit-up union of the bhogi and the yogi within. 

The Dance of Trees

Trees mean so many things to different people. To me trees have always danced. Dying to dance, despite their roots, they sway from their upper torso. With the slightest wispy wind they sway. Wilder the wind, they rock with abandon, never tired of their dance with the universe.

The Odissi body is quite like a dancing tree. The lower body is firm and fixed, mountain-like and rooted. The upper body in Odissi, sways like a happy tree in the wind. The body sways from side to side, the chest moving with grace and delicacy. Odissi refrains from large, assertive movements. Its gestures are close to the body, containing its energies within. The movement of the wind in the trees is also fine and delicate. Sometimes fine and delicate, it is almost unnoticeable, creating a wispy sound. The stronger the wind, the tree-dance has more abandon – the power of the vibrant emotions of Odissi. The tree dances as the wind sings, and dances to express its fullest self.


Trees in Delhi are as vibrant as the moods of the many ritus or seasons that exist here. The trees of Delhi remind of an American autumn in spring, with the Pilkhal shedding reddish brown leaves like the American maple leaves. The Semal tree also bursts vibrant red with its big flowers, announcing that its time for Holi. 






Childhood memories of the Harshringaar blossoming meant that it was Durga Puja time soon. In one such tree moment, a Harshringaar gave me a lovely surprise – I woke up to see the car parked under the tree to be completely covered in tiny star-like white and orange flowers. It was nature’s installation-art moment,  and we giggled away as we shared this beautiful transformation of the mundane.




Delhi’s Amaltaas tree is also quite like a trickster. Gorgeous yellow blossoms that make a guest appearance only in May, shine splendidly in bloom. As a child I have memories of walking down a road lined on two sides by only Amaltaas trees – in the searing heat of summer, I walked through an illusion of a cool, yellow heaven, surrounded by yellow bliss! Could colour play such an illusion which felt both cool and warm? A delight where one’s body and heart experienced strange sensations quite at odds with each other? Nature’s display of art mesmerizes, and as human beings, artistes simply aspire to spin the mysteries of the universe at their individual level : to paint and dance with all the colours of their own divinity.


Thursday, April 16, 2015


Yogini within


I first encountered the idea of a yogini at the Chausath Yogini temple in Orissa. It is a mysterious space, a shrine with 64 yoginis in sculpture, and no roof overhead this circular temple. It is a space which is powerful and not many are brave enough to come there in the dark. I loved the yoginis, their many forms, sometimes with animal heads and qualities, decorated and bejeweled, a symphony of energies of the universe. A strange connection and attraction existed between us.



A Yogini is said to be a ‘woman in union with the Self’. Someone once asked me if I think there is a yogini within me? It is like asking if I am the particulars that define me or the universal that cannot be defined? It is through spiritual practices that the yogini within soars outward. She cannot be engaged with through conscious effort, she flowers when she intends to. The soaring and blossoming of the spirit, a richness of the self, which signals the Yogini within as she travels light years. 

It is with Odissi that I first experienced time-travel, light years of travel and back in few moments of time. A need to go back every day to a deeper world, the flight of the yogini, her spiritual forest where jewels sparkle on every tree. Every time she travelled, she found another gem of life, sometimes earthly, sometimes alokik. Like all travels, after all such moments there is a  return home to the temple in the heart where the Yogini resides, rich, resplendent and all lit-up. In her garba griha, the inner sanctum, all spaces are fragrant, pious and blossoming with inner flowers.

When I was younger I needed a few hours of riyaaz  everyday and after riyaaz my mind disconnected to engage with domestic duties. It seemed an odd kind of disconnect, a switch on and off. Our Odissi Guru, late Surendra Nath Jena had said that the important thing was to do all our householder tasks, but keep the mind one with God. As a mother of two babies, I wondered if it was actually possible?

Part of the beautiful process of dancing Odissi rhythms has been its systematic work on my soul. Vedic Chanting connected my past, present and future with this journey. And learning music has unlocked many locks further. Opening up to the energies of the universe, I find the Yogini within. As I connected with my own divinity, many energies of the universe connected with me over time. Today, as my spiritual dialogue deepens, yet floats like a wispy cloud, or a child at play, I see so much beauty in utter simplicity and spontaneity in every thread woven into the quilt of nature.