Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Eyes of Mamallapuram

The eyes of the dancers riveted my attention despite the competition from mountain goats that were scampering in the twilight across the cliff behind the stage, above the magnificent 7th century carvings of village life, "Arjuna's Penance." It was a spectacular setting for the performance of South Indian classical dance on an outdoor stage in the coastal village of Mamallapuram. Although I didn't catch their names, I did hear that the dancers were sisters and that they had been performing for over twenty years. Their red costumes were elaborate and even their feet were made up. But the eyes -- their eyes were outlined in black, and the stories their dances told involved expressive eye movements, along with subtle movements of fingers, arms, waist and feet.

The dancers were accomanied by a small band of musicians and singers, all seated at stage left (there was a garlanded figure of Nataranja, the dancing Shiva, at stage right). Bookended by a violinist and tabla player were three women, an elderly woman who played flute and two who sang. The music was rhythmic and infectious. When the dancers first came on stage they touched the ground before each musician to show their respect, and they did this gesture again at the end of the hour and fifteen minute show (there are two performances but we only stayed for the first).

I had been looking forward to this for three years, since my last trip to India with Russill and Asha Paul. I recall the dance festival, which is held annually in December and January, as one of the highlights of the trip. When our pilgrimage was being organized, we were scheduled to attend on a Thursday night. But I saw in an ad on an in-flight magazine that the dance festival was only held on the weekend. So we modified the schedule to include a stop in Mamallapuram on the way back from Pondicherry to Chennai on the next to last day of our two-and-a-half week "Hindu and Christian Ashram Pilgrimage" in India.

We arrived early enough to have a late afternoon snack at the hotel where we ate lunch several days before. The snack included lime sodas, a treat we've grown use to at various eateries. The concentrated lime juice is poured first, followed by soda water and then sugar syrup to taste. The treats included small balls baked with dahl. Yum. We arrived at the performance area, a stage in front of the carvings, early enough to secure good seats on the plastic chairs in the second row, close enough for camera shots.Since it was dusk, we all liberally applied mosquito repellant to all surfaces. While we were waiting I heard a roar from a small engine and saw a cloud of smoke. Soon I saw a man holding what looked like a leaf blower which was pushing out a stream of smelly smoke. DDT. The entire area was gassed and all mosquitos of miles dropped like flies. Good thing we'd all had our children. Soon the chairs began to fill up. We were in the expensive (Rs. 100) seats but there were plenty for the general public, and some sat on the cliff with the goats. Gypsies I remember from my last visit sold cheap bracelets and necklaces to the tourists. When the performance began and the lights went up there was a jockeying by the photographers for the best angles from which to capture the dancers and musicians.

Happy Pongal!

After the performance, which was stunning, a fitting end to the programmed portion of the pilgrimage, we climbed back aboard the bus that has been our home on the road for five days and headed north to Chennai and our luxury hotel. Some of us dozed, others looked out the window at our last extended view of Indian street life, this time in the dark, a dark illuminated by a thousand flourescent and neon lights. I saw signs that said: "Accident Prone Area, Drive Slowly." And in order to encourage this, the traffic authorities put barriers right in the road which the bus had to avoid by driving into the lane of oncoming traffic. Some way to avoid accidents! The suburbs of Chennai spread out for miles and the road was lined with pleasure palaces (an imitation Disneyland complete with elephants) and hotels, restaurants and shops. I saw lots of people carrying tall stalks of sugar cane. Eventually I connected this with Pongal, the harvest festival that began on that 13th and ends tomorrow, after our departure. It's primarily a village festival in Tamal Nadu, but you can't take the village out of the urban resident and Pongal is celebrated here as well.

Pongal in Tamil means "boiling over" and it is symbolized with a clay pot in which rice is cooked with milk until it boils over. It celebrates the harvest of sugar cane, coconuts and rice that we saw everywhere on our travels, but it's also promoted as a time to buy stuff, at least so the newspapers said. On the sidewalks next to the beach in Chennai there is a contest being held to make colorful kolams and some of our pilgrims went by for a look during their shopping spree this afternoon. They didn't get to the government crafts store, however, because the driver they hired refused to take them there. "No parking," was one excuse. But he did take them to several art stores where he no doubt received a kickback. When I hired a car for the day during my visit here three years ago I was likewise taken to a high-priced antiques store where I browsed the merchandise and then made a run for it.

Only a few more hours left in India. I've received word that the missing bags of Sr. Barbara and Sr. Michele finally turned up in San Francisco and have been delivered to them at their houses in Santa Cruz. So British Airways redeems itself, somewhat. The bag Michele brought here, which didn't make it all the way from London, was apparently delivered to this hotel while we wandered the byways of Tamil Nadu, sampling ashram life.

We didn't leave the guest house in Pondicherry (some thought it was more of a hostel) until 2 pm yesterday when I learned that checkout was noon. The desk clerk wanted an additional day's rent. I gave the him the mobile phone number of Mr. Ganesh, the manager of Marvel Tours, and wished him luck. Our documents from Marvel indicated that the guest house meals were included, which was not the case. We spent more on food (good food!) than an additional night's rent (which, if I heard correctly, was Rs. 150, about $4). All of the rooms were named, and mine was "Resolution." I'm trying to decide if my resolution is to lead a tour here again, or not. The name of the room could have been "Indecisive."

On Sunday morning, after morning prayer in the ashram guest house meditation room, we walked a few blocks to Notre Dame de Anges for the mass in English. I wanted to eat at the cafe mentioned in Life of Pi, which I'd visited on my last trip, but there was a big hole in the ground where I remembered it. After breakfast at the Bread Company, a place that would fit right in among Santa Cruz eateries, we spread out to shop and sightsee. I returned to the Ganesha temple and watched the elephant give blessings to the crowd. A number of people handed the beast their prasad of grass from the temple and one man gave it a handful of sugar cane. The pachyderm managed to hold everything, including coins, in the tip of his trunk. A couple of children were allowed to climb up on its back. I'm told there are a declining number of temple elephants in Indian. But it seemed to me he was well treated.

By the time our bus set out from Pondicherry, we were accustomed to the sights and sounds of India we could see from our windows. A man stopped his motorcycle and peed against the wall, in full view of passers by. A group of malnourished puppies played on the corner. The dogs here seem owned by no one; they are more scavangers, jackals, and only the very fittest survive. Cats, on the other hand, seem to be pets, but I've seen very few. Cows of course -- along with water buffaloes, Brahma bulls and oxen -- are sacred and stroll the streets at will.

On the road north we passed many temples all lit up with electric lights, full of people, and we saw tall statues of Hanuman to mark some. We noticed the signs on houses that we've learned indicate various political parties. A leaf is most common. Every surface is covered with advertisements, walls, sides of houses. But billboards were few, and they usually contained semi-pornographic ads for clothes featuring buff guys and gorgeous women, obviously a scandal to village-raised traditional people. The roads are filled with vehicles, two, three and four-wheelers of every stripe, weaving in and out in a dangerous display of chaos; somehow our bus driver maneuvered his large hulking vehicle through the traffic without killing any humans or animals. Everywhere were beautiful women in colorful saris, often containing gold thread (and we saw these expensive, and heavy, saris being woven in the basement of a silk shop in Kanchipuram). and there were fence posts made of slate because wood is scarce, and the outdoor laundromats on every river bank which presented a riot of colorful drying clothes. Against this were the green of rice and sugar cane fields, and the tall slender grace of palm trees, not to mention banana palms and pineapple plants. Tamil Nadu seems a very fertile place (the numbers of people and the abundance of babies were saw certainly attest to that).

India, I bid you adieu.

No comments: