Our incapacity to comprehend other cultures stems from our insistence on measuring things in our own terms. ~Arthur Erickson
We danced the dandiya, a dance utilizing sticks that are tapped together individually and with partners in rhythm to the music blaring from the loud speakers, a blend of ancient and modern components of the Indian culture. We danced with sheer joy on the roof top after an abbreviated day at work.
By far, my favorite aspect of international travel is to experience in full living and breathing glory the expression of culture unique to the place I am visiting. On this trip to India, beside the cultural norm of everyday living, I had the good fortune of attending an event featuring classical Indian dance and music and was present and participated in the Navaratri festival.
The dance and music was a festival honoring woman artists featuring female greats expressing their art in the classical, Southern Indian style. The event was held in a small theatre where our seats had a great view of the performers. The first evening we were entertained by a famous dancer accompanied by a tabla, harmonium, sitar, and singer.
She was bare foot with bangles on each ankle in a long dress that twirled hoop like when she spun. Prior to each segment of the dance, she sang the rhythm of the steps she was about to perform. Ra ta Tat TATA ta TAT taa taa ta…
Microphones taped to the floor ensured the entire auditorium could hear as well as see the artistry of her feet as she rapidly beat them against the floor while her arms glided poetically in the air enacting an ancient story. My favorite part of the dancing occurred when two of her disciples performed in perfect synchronicity, twirling, gesturing, tapping, flowing gracefully across the stage.
Day two artists included a famous female singer and a 74 year old violinist with the dexterity of a person half her age. Both, grand old dames of their respective arts, enchanted. The same supporting tabla player was present for all the sessions. His hands flew across the tablas at times a complete blur as he pounded out the rhythms.
Watching the crowd was also an interesting experience. At points through outthe music, people would make a hand gesture, typically palm up. I was not able to decode the musical patterns that prompted the gesture’s but, once they were made, it seemed to make sense to me within the context of the musical passage.
Classical Indian music is not for everyone in India, in fact, the majority of the people at the festival were the elders, people sporting the gray hair that sprouts from wisdom. Many of my Indian colleagues did not care for the music opting instead for more modern type particularly Bollywood tunes. This same phenomenon is also something I experience in my native land where youth gravitates toward the modern forsaking the traditions, forsaking the musical roots that evolved into current forms.
In my younger days, I too followed this pattern, forsaking Big Band of my parent’s era for rebellious Rock and Roll, Heavy Metal, and into Punk. Somewhere along my life journey, I discovered, rather rediscovered the older music, developed an appreciation for Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Beethoven and a wide variety of other musical styles. So, too, I have developed an appreciation for Indian classical music is a style well outside the norm of Western culture.
Most of my two week trip, conicided with the 9 day Navaratri festival commemorating the triumph of good over evil on the ninth day. Shrines were erected on many street corners commemorating, Durga, the victorious deity. I was told there were great fireworks displays prompted from the burning in effigy of the evil deity, Ravana, stuffed whom the stuffed with fireworks, unfortunately, I did not see any of these displays.
On the final day of the festival, my company held a party on the roof of the building at the end of business. People came in their native garb, some in their finest. I wore my recently purchased white Kurta. The chest area fit fine but the waist down fit my like a bedsheet thrown over an infant. It seems my body structure is not made for off the shelf Indian clothing.
Much of the evening was spent playing party games and dancing including the dandiya dance all with much joyous laughter and camraderie. It was evident these people know how to enjoy life to it’s fullest.
The final dance of the evening was free form, no rules, whatever goes. This is where the old customs and new India blended into a celebration of history and the present day. Gone were the structure of the tradional dances making way for each individuals personal style. The beat was heavy, the dancing highly energetic, sweat flying energetic.
Surprising to me, the men and women did not intermingle during this final dance. The men danced in a group of men strutting their stuff like gilded peacocks while the women stood safely outside the mayhem dancing in a more controlled fashion. I joined in with the guys as the elder statesman of the group, cutting it up in my best 80s, spinning, bouncing, head banging, foot stomping flair. Oddly enough, my style blended in with the group and some picked up my dance steps. The evening ended with everyone smiling and laughing.
I bonded with my Indian teammates that night across cultural lines, bonded because I was willing to learn their traditions and they were willing to share their traditions, bonded in a way that cannot occur within the confines of an office, bonded in a way that can only occur when one is willing to take a leap and embrace the beauty of a culture other than the one in which he was raised.