Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Amritsar, and Bharatanatyam in a village

Amritsar 15.11.2010– We got onto the train at 4.30 in the afternoon. I was writing an article for my other blog when my mum, who was dying to visit Amritsar as well and decided to come along, struck up a conversation with someone behind her. The lady had a cute, plump 7 year old with her -Khyati. She turned out to be my first Amritsari fan - a kathak dancer. Upon hearing that I had performed outside of India, she wanted a photograph with me. I awkwardly obliged. Anyway, on we go - the hotel was five minutes from the train station, amidst a lot of promising punjabi dhabas, one of which I was to visit the next day for lunch. Meanwhile, in the hotel, I examined the menu – Slim and Trim Breakfast, fluffy omlettes, 'macroni' and cheese, 'singapuri' chicken, and rolls and titsbits (!!) were among the amusing dishes on the menu. And to drink? Cocktails made of domestic liquor 60ml – my favourite was called ‘Slow Comfortable Screw’. Another one that caught my attention was ‘Suckers Punch’. The management had a note at the end of the menu which had sentences such as – ‘Every efforts will be made to execute your order and full course meals’, ‘Room service facilities are restricted to orders from the Room service’ and ‘Kitchen, where hygienic conditions are strictly enforced.’ Yes, the sentence ended there.

Amritsar 16.11.2010 – Breakfast in the hotel – Fluorescent green aloo tikkis and pink jam. Colourful start. Then we headed to the Golden temple – handsome sikhs all around, I couldn't help but think we are a good looking people! What amazed me even more was the hospitality and general concern for complete strangers - I was told every once in a while that my dupatta might get caught in the wheel of the rcikshaw, and I was warmed to know that the Golden Temple provided wheelchairs for elderly people. The Golden temple itself was a sight for sore eyes. It was a surprisingly solemn and moving experience for an agnostic like me. Besides, the kadha prashad was absolutely delicious.

Moving on, our next stop was Jallianwala Bagh. It was disturbing, but I think they should have kept some of it the way it was then. It was too sanitized and too much like a neighbourhood park now.

People would argue that it may not have been a particularly comfortable memory to preserve. Understandable of course, but then, why preserve it at all? If it was a place where a snippet of gruesome history took place, and if that is what we want to remember that place for, then there should be a proper memorial for it, I think. None the less, it was chilling to see the bullet marks in bits of the wall. Lunch was at Kundan Dhaba – not particularly great, but I had sarson da saag and makki di roti.

The next stop was Wagah Border. The line to enter was insane. Once we got in, the madness began. The official man egging the Indians on made the 'official' statement that no derogatory slogans are to be used, but the aggression of patriotism was obvious. I felt uncomfortable that we outnumbered the Pakistani spectators, but was later told that it was perhaps because of Id that people had not showed up. The whole ceremony made me want to cry, as soldiers on both sides aggressively marched towards each other, the gates were opened almost reluctantly, and shut with gusto. Perhaps the only moment that made me smile was when the flags came together and people on both sides whistled and cheered. Bewildered foreigners looked on and mumbled 'Hindustan zindabad' every once in a while. I was looking beyond, across the gates into Pakistan - what could've easily still been where a part of me came from.

Amritsar 17.11.2010 – Headed to Preet Nagar, a village about 20 kilometres from Amritsar, where the performance was to take place. Got there, got ready, performed. The performance was an interesting experience. It was actually a intriguing change from performing for delhi audiences who know how to behave, how to sit, when to clap, what to say. The performance at Preet Nagar was a riot! Children were running around on the stage while I danced, they laughed at some movements I did, and looked with utter fascination at others. I also had a bunch of drunk spectators who were rushed out, much to the embarassment of the organisers. There was much hooting and cheering. An experience that initially frustrated me, it later made me smile. I loved dancing for an audience that didn't give a damn about what I was trying to do - there was an innocent rawness about it. Those that couldn't care less, walked out as and when they pleased, they talked loudly and roamed around, but the ones that did care - their appreciation showed with as much rawness as the disinterest did. Some of the spectators, particularly the chidlren - were trying to understand what I was trying to say, and other adults told me that I had done a wonderful thing by bringing this dance form to the people. Frustrated at first, towards the end, I was happy. All's well that ends well, eh?

The next day, we returned to Delhi. Amritsar, I'll be back soon!

Photographs - 1. Migrant share-croppers waiting to go home after the harvest, at Amritsar station; 2. Golden Temple; 3. Bullet marks at Jallianwala Bagh; 4. Wagah Border; 5. The three organisers of the Preet Nagar performance. For more photographs, click here.