The stage is minimally decorated. A few flower garlands are placed alongside a plain banner that simply states the purpose of this event - "Annual Fine Arts Festival - 2003" in a school somewhere in Tamil Nadu. In one corner are two plain-jane ladies with giant square spectacles, well-oiled hair, sandalwood teekas on their foreheads, sitting cross legged on the floor, each facing a microphone. Two men in equally big spectacles and even bigger teekas are sitting next to them, one tuning a mridangam (a tabla type precussion instrument) and another a violin. The audience is murmuring and a few children are screaming and running around in aisles playing pakdaa-pakdee. Everybody seems strangely at peace with themselves; not hard to comprehend considering the total lack of sexual tension in the atmosphere. No show-baaji like garba or bhangra.
Then, she enters the stage. A girl, about 14, draped in a bright purple-yellow-orange colored silk outfit that looks like a combination of a tightly wrapped saree on the upper half and a snug salwaar on the lower. The colors are bright but they blend well. The dress is tight but not vulgar. Multiple golden ornaments adorn her face, her feet, her arms and her hair. Her hair is jet-black, just like her giant eyes, tied in one long plait embellished with flowers and clamped to her dress at the back. A lot of attention has gone into ensuring that she remain as flexible and aerodynamic as possible and at the same time look femininely delicate. The audience immediately takes notice. Most of the kids return to their seats, some don't. Parents of those unruly kids order them to get back promising, with angry hand gestures, great spankings if they didn't.
With almost a violent jerk the bored ladies and men on the stage erupt into a loud musical recital. No one would've imagined that these quiet-looking people could make this loud a noise. At precisely the same instant, as if they were synchronised electronically, the girl springs into an energetic but tender dance. The plain-janes seem to have just discovered what they were born to do. They sing effortlessly and in perfect sync with each other. They are loud but strangely pleasing to your ears. They are not afraid of their voices and present every variation within their infinite vocal range vividly to the spellbound audience. Its almost as if they don't care about anything anymore. They seem to be narrating a story which you strain to understand. Something Vinaayaka, Vinaayaka. Being the dumbass that you are , you don't get it.
The men are not to be left behind. The mridangam walla is vigorously tapping his palms and fingers on his instrument but it does not take over as the dominanting sound in the performance. It only adds to the ongoing harmony. The violinwalla also seems to track the melody with his instrument. Each is doing their own thing but collectively they appear to be one. Like chaar badan ek jaan. Like everybody knows what everybody else is thinking, what their next moves are going to be and then adapting to those moves. The entire ambience is transformed in an instant, like going from 0 to 100 mph in half a second. Many a times these performers don't even rehearse together until they start performing in front of a live audience. Its like years of practice have given them a magical sense of understanding of another musician's frame of mind.
The girl's dance is a whole different phenomenon. Some parts of her body are moving in sync with the mridangam, some with the violin and others with the musical narration. Her fingers, palms, forearms, shoulders, feet, ankles, knees, hips, torso and most importantly her countenance seem to be taken over by the music. Her feet are synced to the mridangam's percussions. The faster the mridangam thumps the faster her feet move. Sometimes your eyes just can't keep up with her pace. Her face shows varied emotions that change with the tempo of the song. She seems to be following the sequence of the story, sometimes acting like a Godess, sometimes a mother, sometimes a flirtatious lover, sometimes a hapless victim, sometimes a mischievious child, sometimes a monster, sometimes a saint, sometimes a human and sometimes an animal. She glides from one character and emotion to another effortlessly. There is not an emotion out there that she cannot present without uttering a single word. She has taken over your mind. You don't matter anymore. Each twist, each action has a purpose. Not a single move is out-of-place or wasted. It all makes sense within the narration. How different parts of her body perform different artistic manoeuvres at any given instant is a frustrating mystery. Heck, you can't even simultaneously tap your head with one hand and rub your stomach with the other.
After a couple hours of vigorous upheavals the music stops, the musicians go quiet, back to their bored idle states as if nothing happened. The little girl gently bows to the audience which is still hypnotized by her presence and exits the stage. You can't help but wonder how many centuries of refinement and education have gone into Indian classical dance and music to have arrived at such a brilliant form. And this is just one instance. There are dozens more, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Odissi, all uniquely different but equally mesmerizing. There is no end to this. When people say Indian culture is great, this is what they probably mean. There is not a single other culture in this world with so much variety, depth and vibrancy. The Chinese come close but not quite.
In the good old days of Doordarshan they used to run classical music and dance performances when there was nothing else to show. You wouldn't wanna be caught dead watching any of that stuff. Just wasn't cool. How ignorant.
For your viewing pleasure here is one of Medha Hari's performances and some random stills from the web.