Today, I met the man who loves dance more than anyone else I know. And I realised one’s heart can break from happiness.
I knew we would have a substitute teacher at the part-time dance class I go to in Kalakshetra – it was the Repertory’s turn to perform at the annual festival held to commemorate the birth anniversary of the founder, Rukmini Devi Atthai.
What I didn’t expect to find was three classes combined into one. And a stocky man with a receding hairline, and his black hair tied back in a bun, standing in a half-sleeved vest that was giving way at the joints, in the last row.
I assumed he was a senior teacher, until I saw him dance – sincerely, diffidently, and tiredly.
Our substitute teacher was a student doing her first year in the post-graduate diploma course.
When we ran out of adavus we all knew – which was pretty quickly, since we were a mix of first, second and third-year students – we did a round of introductions.
Everyone except he and I was in school. When our teacher asked what he did, he told her he is in the gurukul at a Shivan temple. He was studying to become a temple priest.
All of us snapped around, stunned.
“Vellore? Angeyndhu vareengalaa?” she asked. (“Vellore? You come all the way from there?!)
“Angeyndhu oru one and a half hours dhaandi irukku, ooru,” he smiled. (“Actually, the village is an hour and a half beyond Vellore.)
“Varaththukku evvalo naazhi aardhu?” (“How long does it take to come here?”)
“Six hours each way. Naan kaalaile 3 manikku ezhundhu, velaiyellaam pannittu, bus pidichindu vandhuduven. Inge oru 12-1 manikkellaam iruppen. 5.30 mudichuttu thirumba aathukku porthukku 12 mani aayidum.” (“Six hours each way. I wake up at 3 am, do all my work, catch a bus, come here by 12-1. Once I’m done, at 5.30, it takes me till midnight to go back home.”)
He added, “Oru problem ennanaa, aathulaiyum practise panna time ille, ingaiyum practice ille, straight-aa class dhaan.” (“One problem is, I don’t get time to practise at home. And here also, there’s only class, no practice.”)
And he did this three times a week.
Since none of us knew how to react, our teacher decided to make us do the adavus again. Maybe she thought a rigorous class was the least she could give a man who travelled for 12 hours a day, and slept less than two, only to find out his regular class had been cancelled.
“Kaiyye ippadi vechukkongo. Adavu azhuthamaa pideengo,” she said, after some time. (“Keep your arms like this. Hold the adavu firm and steady.”)
“Kai inge nadungradhu,” he replied, with an apologetic laugh, “Valaiya matteyngradhu.” (“My hands tremble at the wrist. I’m not able to bend them.”)
She showed him a few exercises to increase flexibility, and then asked us to sit down and do the hasta viniyoga.
His sonorous voice as he recited, “Pathakas tripathako ardhapathaaka...” had the resonance of a temple priest’s, while his plump fingers struggled to bend into the shapes that came so effortlessly to everyone else – to all those of us who hadn’t had to wait till we had the financial independence to fund a course in dance, to all those of us who whined about evening traffic, to all those of us who wouldn’t dream of travelling 350 km a day, thrice a week, leave alone waking up at 3 am to do so. But his eyes had more bhava than any of us could produce, and his smile was delicately coy, almost feminine.
“You know something?” the teacher told the younger ones in our class, “You shouldn’t just do the moves. Think about it. Nishaayamcha. If you go out at night, how will you feel? Raathiri le veliyile pona eppadi irukkum?”
“Konjam bhayamaa irukkum,” the temple priest said, bringing his hands to his chest and looking cautiously around him. (“You feel a bit scared.”) He smiled when the rest of us giggled.
As we finished our namaskaaram, he asked the teacher if she knew anyone who would teach nattuvaangam. “There may be some people here who teach outside,” she said, “But there’s no course.”
He gathered up his things as the teacher left, and I reached down for my bag at the same time. He smiled and nodded at me, as if he was used to the pity I knew was apparent in my own half-smile. He then trotted off behind her, possibly to ask if she could give him the numbers of those who taught outside.
In his quick gait, there was something of embarrassment, as if our collective thoughts on his incongruity in a group of schoolgirls had been vocalised. But there was triumph too, and joy – for this hour, the disparaging remarks he must hear back home didn’t matter. For this hour, people only had admiration and pity for a man who would journey so far, for the love of dance.