A Day in the Life….of a [dancer] would be the most sensible insert. The following could also be substituted: [tender heart, solo woman, Beloved Nomad]
Everyday could be a complete novel unto itself, but I’ll start with a slice of moments from my life.
I awake each day before my alarm clock blares its startling rooster accuracy at 7:16am. I drift out of mostly restless dream filled sleep as the murky light begins to seep in through my colored glass windows. This may surprise some. I have never been known as a “morning person.” It is difficult to stay in bed any longer when you have fallen into it completely exhausted at 9:30pm at the latest the night before.
Enterprising Melea discovered a curd (dai) and milk (dud) shop in the market. We take turns going to retrieve breakfast through the sleepy misty streets of Indian Pushkar. The Pushkar devoid of market hassle and friendly conversations filled with ulterior motives like the Cambodian countryside is rife with landmines.
On my day to venture out, I climb out of my scratchy warm blankets and stumble to the bathroom on sore feet and tweaky knees. Splash water on my face and routinely insert my toothbrush into my desert dry mouth. I don my churidars (leggings worn under a dance sari) and blouse (actually half a blouse also worn under a sari). I pull my hair back put on a long kurta and hoody, wind a scarf around my head, and slip on my dusty sandals. On Melea’s day, I sit for 20mins on the top of my blankets, contemplating the black and white checkered floor of our room while trying to focus on my breath as wisps of the night’s dreams filter through my mind.
I’m greeted by the crisp air and unusual quiet of morning. Sleepy Pushkar is just awakening. I relish in taking part in this morning ritual. I walk the 7 or so mins to the shop, greet the friendly owners with a “Namasteji” a smile and head nod. Some mornings Kisan the orange turbaned milk man arrives at the same time with his fresh milk in copper pots tied to either side of his motorbike. Govinda, also an orange turbaned village man sits to the side of the fire with a newspaper. They invite me to sit on a clean sheet of newspaper with “tola” (small) chai as they ask out of habit “ardha kilo dai and ardha kilo dud?” (1/2 kilo curd and 1/2 kilo milk?) I nod my head with a “ha” yes. I watch a batch of puppies cuddle in a mass of fur near a fire while a bent over street sweeping lady makes her rounds be-speckled with heavy silver clinking anklets. I finish my chai, toss the cup in the gutter, pay for my curd and milk, depart with a ” Donyavad (thank you) Ram, Ram” and of course, smile.
When I return to the room, I, Melea (and Shawna when her lovely self was here) prepare our morning fruit and curd breakfasts. My fruit selection varies from day to day. Sometimes pineapple, sometimes apples, sometimes guava, oranges, pomegranate, and almost always chikoos. That innocuous small round brown fruit. Melea turned me onto them and it has been love ever since. A taste of dates with the consistency of a perfect kiwi.
I prepare my breakfast of champions and then turn to my sari. My beloved 6 meter long purple piece of rose smelling fabric. Capable of being mistaken for a very long bed sheet or the inspiration for lovely curtains. Hard to fathom a respectable, artistic, beautiful piece of clothing at first sight. *Sigh* On a good day, I approach my sari with excitement. As if by donning it I enter into a secret society where all the members are brilliantly beautiful women with long jet black hair and almond shaped eyes. On a not so good day, I feel like a frumpy pale giant. There is an art to wearing a sari. The first time I folded the soft pleats against my belly, I felt palpitations in my heart space and a sudden “Oh!” of recognition. This was the first day that I grasped the understanding of basic body movement mechanics in Stepping class. It was as if the sari bequeathed me with fundamental secrets of Odissi.
I sit perched on the plaster bench outside our room contemplating the day ahead while I try not to dribble curd or honey onto my dark purple covered self. I surreptitiously watch the grandmother across the street on the neighboring rooftop hang her newly laundered saris up to dry. They take up most of the clothesline space as well as the surrounding low walls. She looks peaceful. Up on the roof on her own. Slowly shuffling in cheap blue plastic chappals (sandals) across the cement to the sounds of chirping birds and the sudden flight of pigeons. I imagine it is the only alone time she has during the day. I wonder what she thinks. Is she worried about the day? About her daughter-in-laws or her grandchildren? What will the family meal for the day be? Maybe she has finally reached the age where these are no longer her concerns. She still wears her bangles on her wrinkled forearms and tikka powder in her greying hair. She retains the status of a respectable married woman.
Meanwhile, Melea heats milk up in our improvised kitchen for her first dose of the day’s caffeine requirement. We jointly bought an electric kettle after Shawna and I anxiously and with morbid curiosity witnessed Melea heat milk with a hand held coil that sparked in the socket and melted the cords right off into the milk. We verbalized our hope that she would not electrocute herself (not that we really thought she would….) The tea kettle was a better choice. It has its own character and disposition like every other inanimate object here in India. The only two electrical sockets in the room are inconveniently located almost on the ceiling in the bathroom or above the foot of my bed next to the door. My bed is the obvious choice. The cord of course is not long enough, so we set up a pink plastic bucket upside down on my bed (where my nice blanket has been removed to the head of the bed) with the kettle on top. The plug is wrapped in electrical tape and we have to loop the cord around a few stubby burnt incense sticks above the socket to perfectly maneuver the plug where the orange light blinks on. On a good day there is no spilling and the milk doesn’t bubble over. Lately Ling Shien has been joining us in the morning with a bag of Kerala Coffee grounds. She and Melea make “cowboy” coffee with honey and sometimes white sugar, in glasses snagged from the kitchen or Melea’s improvised java bowl complete with scarf cozy.
“Chelo, class time.” I call to Melea as the time keeper. Vanessa makes her way over some mornings and we lock the door and walk the three flights of stairs down to the street. “Namaste. Good Morning.” Echos against the marble as we greet Fatouh the guest house owner in his lungi and Super Ganesha shirt, the guest house “boys” who have nicknamed me Aloo Paratha for some strange reason after the second time I ordered it, and Mark Bell enjoying toast near the smokeless fire pit.
We arrive at school after a walk through the outer temple (ironically we are not allowed inside the inner temple because we are not Indian, although we are performing an act of puja for the temple everyday in our dance) and up a flight up steps to the green double doors. Most mornings Sudansuji is performing morning puja with incense and kirtan before our offerings to Jaganath, Saraswati, Shiva, and Durga. We deposit our belongings in the inner room, readjust any errant clothing, take a quick sip of water, and position our selves in a semi circle around the altar. We sing our morning prayer invocation to Shiva, Lord of the Dance and I feel the oms vibrate from the marble floor up through the soles of my feet to the base of my spine. A morning mystical musical vibrational cleansing. We finish with Bumi Purnam, a tender beautiful offering to Mother Earth apologizing for our ensuing energetic percussion of feet slapping upon her. I then migrate to the back corner of the class, invariably to be dragged to the front by Sudansuji. *sigh* sometimes it is nice to not have to be an example for others, no matter how much of an honor it is.
Exercises commence with vigor (sometimes imagined, sometimes real) and plenty of sweat. I know I have come a long way in one month, but I have a long way to go in my flexibility and strength training.
Nirodji plays the pakawaj (drum) and calls out and directs Sudansu to make corrections throughout class. Most days Colleena stands composed and poised at the head of the class demonstrating as the lead student. We continue from exercises into stepping practice full of jumping, complex fast steps, and graceful arm sweeps. Sometimes I’m able to hold all of it in my mind and begin to focus of subtle eye, neck, and torso movements. Sometimes it is enough to conquer the feet.
Class finishes with the respite of “Bumi Purnam” and accompanying arm gesture by Nirodji. We are released until 12:30pm or sometimes 1pm. Most mornings I make my way to the poya rice stand and greet Amit “the rice man” with a friendly “hello” and “how are you today?” 5 rps for a nutritious snack of masala rice sprinkled with red onion, crispy rice noodles, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. I take my fistful of newspaper wrapped rice back to my room with an enthusiastic “good morning!” to the rose water laundry man and “App kaise hay?” (How are you?) to the bulk tea man. Occasionally I stop to chat or shake a baby’s chubby hand.
Saris are not lounging clothing, so it keeps me from falling asleep between classes. Sometimes I pull out my violin and practice scales. Sometimes I listen to my Beginner Conversational Slovak tracks. Mostly I read. I started reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series and I devoured them in between classes. (This is possibly why I haven’t seemed to have the time to blog……)
Back to class. Item this time. We spent this past month learning an intermediate level Mangalacharan opening piece because Nirodji decided we were capable of taking on the challenge. We will be performing it at the Temple Dance Festival February 28th. The last week has been rough on my heels. My right heel has been bruised from the sometimes never ending series of jumping and feet slapping. During one class this week, it bothered me so much I must have winced during one of the moves because Sudansuji stepped in front of me with his signature raised eyebrows not unlike my brother Joey, and “Why?” I sat down for a moment only to be called over to Nirodji playing the pakawaj and saying the bole (rhythm; sounds of the drum verbalized) and embarrassingly subjected to what I thought was to be a foot rub in front of the entire class which not necessarily better, turned out to be closer to a foot crunching supplemented by my comedic faces I am told. This is after being told after the morning class that I should be doing “belly exercises” before class. My teachers are honest, hands on, and tenderly brutal at times.
Class is finished and once upon a time full of energy, I continued into the Khalbeliya class with Rahki until 3pm. The last couple of weeks it has been enough to only attend Odissi. I have time to soak up Khalbeliya with Rahki when I build up my endurance.
Back to the room where I invariably find Melea “praying” to the gravity gods sprawled on her bed. Electricity and hot water permitting, we take afternoon showers. Our light bulb in the bathroom went out a few weeks ago, but we haven’t felt it necessary to replace it. Shower by candle light is surprisingly romantic even if it is only a solo affair.
I debark from the bathroom after vigorous foot scrubbing and pumice polishing to the sounds of Aqualung or Coldplay or some other “Kenni” music. Samba Bossa Nova is also a favorite. I tend to play Emma Hill’s music and my Slovak music in the morning when there is time. I slather on coconut oil as moisturizer and swipe a dollop of hair oil through my wet strands. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your perspective) my hair is starting to become golden from the desert sun. This may be seen as a natural gift for some, but it is a sad reality for a girl who dreamt of having the long raven black hair that her older half sister was naturally given. As a young girl, I use to fantasize about looking like my older sister who I knew looked just like Pocahontas. I have never dyed my hair and I’m still not sure I will, but it’s hard to compete with the inky black braids of Indian Odissi dancers.
I don yoga pants and a blue long cotton dress. I roll on a hint of essential oil from our local incense and essential oil man Deepak’s Jaganath Incense shop. I will not reveal my secret scent for all to know. But be satisfied with knowing that as my hair squishes across my back, I imagine tendrils of subtle coy flower scent trails behind me like the whispers of smoke rising above a lit stick of incense.
Melea and I venture out for dinner before Theory class. This is a new thing. We use to eat after class, but class has been getting out later and later. More often then not we choose thali from Papu’s. A friendly family affair of mother, father, young son, daughter. It is a beautiful spread of dal, rice, subji (vegetable curry), chapati, salad, and curd. They know us well enough that they automatically bring us achar (pickle) and we leisurely devour our simple, basic, delicious food. Colleena informed us that dal and rice is basic dancer food, while also adhering to Ayurvedic principles. We have taken this to heart.
We begin to wander our way back down the hectic market street amid the occasional camel, cow, rickshaw, motorbike, pedestrian traffic jam back to school.
We arrive on time only to be greeted by other students also on time. Sometimes surrounded by mildly threatening black faced long tailed monkeys.
Class begins in Indian shanti shanti time. We begin with reciting our 52 mudras like obedient children reciting the capitals of the United States (plus a couple for good measure). Sudansuji and Nirodji teach us the Bole to our choreography and we learn the basics of Indian music theory. I love this part. The math part of my brain soaks it up. We learn 4 count, 6 count, and 7 count rhythms. We learn the meaning of the slokas (Vedic verses) we dance to. Colleena teaches us about the lost art of temple dance and the lore of the Devadasis (temple dancers; the last one died in 2006). Lately we have been treated with amusing childhood stories from Nirod about his boyhood with Sudansu in Guruji’s school. (Nirod is Guruji’s son; Sudansu is one of his students). We giggle at the theatrics, we sit up straight when we are asked to demonstrate our Bole, and we shyly decline to sing the slokas solo. We answer questions like “What is dance?” “What is the difference between a smile and laughing?” Last night we shared dance moves from around the world. African by Melea and Vanessa. Polynesian by Sandra from Peru, Chilean folk from Natalia, belly dance from Renee, and I threw in a dance move I have only ever heard called “the crazy knee.” Figure it out for yourself.
The sun has sent on the pink sugar coated delicate temple spires. The Shiva moon peaks above the horizon. It’s time to return to Sai Baba Haveli with a detour at the peanut stall. Fortified with a newspaper bag filled with roasted peanuts and small round rose flavored sesame brittle pieces perfect for a reading snack, we join Mark and Ling Shien Bell at the fire pit. Ling Shien plays flute that usually carries over long after I retire to bed. We practice chokas, tripungis, and the Mangalacharan. We relax. I read. I journal.
I crawl into bed in utter exhaustion. Limbs are sore. Mind is full to capacity. “Dhintar, dhinitaktar, dhinitaktar, dhinitak, dhin naka dhini” ringing in my ears. Inevitably it becomes the soundtrack to my dreams. I settle. I reflect. I give thanks. I have survived another day. My body has propelled me through the physical training, and my spirit is drifting on the thermals where birds of prey survey the landscape below. I drift to the void of sleep.
Parched throat screaming for pani (water).
Dog territorial barking. Drowsy thoughts of not so compassionate or Ahimsa dedicated ways of removing the jet liner decibel sound.
Off key chanting from a distorted speaker that seems to be located in my pillow but realistically drifts from the lake 100 feet away.
Bells. Ringing bells.
And a day in the life begins again.