TW:Touches upon body image/beauty
When my mother told me to learn Bharatnatyam2, the only place I knew as well as home was the paediatrician’s office. Surrounded by smiling lion stickers and the smell of disinfectant, a woman in a white coat would ask me if I had difficulties breathing that week. It was the first time I felt betrayed by my body. The second was when, during paediatrician-mandated exercise, I couldn’t run two laps in tennis class without needing a break. The third time, I tripped while tumbling in gymnastics, and refused to go back. Dance was the last resort: it was either that or an inhaler all my life.
So it began. Twice a week, I went to a building that smelled like ghee to learn hastas— hand movements—from a teacher I don’t remember now. I do, however, remember girls my age in class calling me The Statue, a reference to how I didn’t move or talk. I envied how easily they could do both. My girlhood was nothing but an oppressive stillness.
On the other hand, my mother seemed to envy me. She’d been a sickly child too, getting injections every other week while her siblings went to dance class. At least I got to do what she never did, she’d say, as she drove me home. I was later to learn that any good Tamil Brahmin girl had to be trained in either Carnatic music or Bharatnatyam. Because of where my father was from, I would never be Tamil or Brahmin enough, but I could get pretty damn close to good if I wore a white salwar and struck my feet on a wooden floor.
Mama was so ecstatic about me dancing that I never told her I only did it for her. Even when we moved two hours away and my lungs were fine, I agreed to find a new teacher. The first four years—the rhythmic chime of the teacher’s nattuvangam, the half-sitting posture we’d get scolded for not having, the special braid Mama would put my hair in—passed by in a haze. For four annual exams, I was the only one in class with a mere passing grade.
When Fifth Year came around, we were to graduate from nritta to abhinaya, from simple movements to acting out stories as we danced. Our teacher sat us down in an enraptured semi-circle and told us about the nine rasas, how each one signified a different emotion, how we were expected to do justice to each one’s depths. To perform Hasya or laughter, we would play children giggling at someone who fell down. A make-believe intruder would induce Bhayanaka or fear, and an adversary on the battlefield Raudra or anger. She said this year would be special, and we should take it seriously. I refused to believe her.
The week after that lecture, we began with Shringaara. A quick Google search will tell you that it is the rasa of divine love and beauty. For that class, we were not lanky, awkward preteen girls—we were women of grace, holding our left hands up as mirrors, pretending to put on kohl and earrings with our right. We got to flit in imaginary gardens to weave imaginary flowers into our hair, waiting restlessly for an imaginary lover who would appreciate it all. There were small smiles, blushes, and looks of satisfied admiration at our hand mirrors: we were, by the end of this performance, worthy of desire.
It was the first year I got an A+ in the exam. I knew the need for beauty well enough by then—the fourth time I felt betrayed by my body, it was when a boy at school called me an ugly monkey. Every Shringaara performance was a reassurance. I began pulling front strands out of my braids, wearing the slightest hint of real kohl, asking Mama for tinted lip balm. Every Sunday, I’d wake up before my alarm, and come back humming what we’d danced to. The music sounded like “beauty is not out of your reach”.
I took the newfound enthusiasm as a love for Bharatnatyam—finally!—and declared that I wanted to be a dancer. When I made my stage debut, I’d practised for a whole year, and I danced for an hour with no interruption. I remember nothing about daily after-school rehearsal, the dizzying exhilaration of performance, or how much my parents had invested in it. All I can recollect are the outfits. The larger-than-life hair, with flowers hanging on by 50 bobby pins. My skin paling under foundation and bright red lips. The rich purple, pink, yellow silk sarees, flared out as I knelt. My first facial, waxing, bleaching—none of which I’ve done since.
When I told my parents I didn’t want to dance anymore, I said the costume was too much effort to put on. They never argued. When I told them I wanted to learn jazz-funk instead, they paid my fees and came to my shows and applauded when they saw me dance to Britney Spears.
The days of pretend hand mirrors are long gone, and I joke that my body isn’t built for them anymore. I think of how I’ve learnt to arch my back, tilt my neck up, and pose like I’m in a music video. How I perform best in a tight crop top and loose pants, because just enough of me is visible to feel sexy. How every time I think something’s missing from my dancing, I put lipstick on and let my hair loose, and I’m suddenly doing ten times better. I know enough about love and beauty to love myself only when I’m beautiful. Shringaar dances around me, both to haunt and to comfort, a choreography I slip into. I come out bruised and dive right back.
1Sanskrit term, means “decoration” or “adornment”
2An Indian classical dance form that originated in Tamil Nadu