Malaysia’s foremost exponent of Odissi shares the experience of performing the ancient classical Indian dance form in an Indian city that has stood, virtually unchanged, since the 12th century.
THE first time I ever laid eyes on an image of Fort Jaisalmer, it made an indelible impression on me: Rajasthan’s desert citadel rose dramatically from its arid surroundings like the demon lord Ravana’s armoured fist.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, to have been born in that era, in 12th century India, when people seemed to be able to weave a tapestry of dreams into their lives?
I never dreamed that my secret fantasy of performing in the Golden City of Jaisalmer could possibly become reality.
But, propelled perhaps by this inexplicably fervent desire, events seemed to collude to fulfil this wish of mine, and late last year, I find myself in India’s largest state preparing the Sutra Dance Theatre dancers for the stage.
No less than the Maharana of Udaipur city, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, had invited us to perform there. First on his birthday that is celebrated in Udaipur, and, subsequently, at the Gorbandh Palace in Fort Jaisalmer itself.
My dream to be a little dot in the rich tapestry of Fort Jaisalmer is coming true....
Through a nuclear playground
The bus trip from the city of Bikaner to Jaisalmer, however, leavens the fantasy with harsh reality. The barreness of the great Thar desert drives home the point that life here is no bed of roses.
Passing through Pokhran, we see row upon row of sleek, modern windmills, and I naively wonder why they’re there.
My question is answered when I notice the increasing military activity; several convoys of border security forces pass us on the road. In the distance, we can discern makeshift garrisons; they harbour armoured cars, tanks, and missile warheads, all ready for use in training or a real war against traditional foe, Pakistan, we are told.
The Pokhran region, after all, has the dubious honour of being India’s first nuclear test site: On May 18, 1974, the ironically-named Smiling Buddha project culminated in India’s first nuclear test. Then, in May 1998, India again quickened the nuclear race: five devices were detonated, exacerbating India’s political rift with Pakistan. The controversial tests resulted in US-led international sanctions against India, and Pakistan countering with her own nuclear tests.
The romantic desert dream was shattered and people stopped coming to Jaisalmer altogether for a long, lonely time.
Strife is not foreign to this part of India. Once upon a time, Jaisalmer was an important meeting point in the ancient overland spice and silk caravan trade route through Asia. Both plunder and trade provided wealth for the princely Rajput desert fiefdoms that included Jaisalmer.
From their strategic positions, rapacious rajas raided and taxed richly laden camel caravans. They filled their coffers and built magnificent palaces and forts such as Jaisalmer. Rich merchants built lavish havelis (mansions) as the region also became a melting pot of trade.
When the Suez Canal was opened in Egypt in 1869, it halved the previously dangerous and laborious overland Europe-Asia trade journeys. That, of course, put paid to the caravans and, consequently, Jaisalmer, along with many other desert cities, lost its lustre.
Now, it is tourism and the army – strange bedfellows, indeed! – that are providing an economic boost to this region.
By late evening that day, we reach Gorbandh Palace in Jaisalmer city.
Made of the yellow sandstone that typifies buildings in this region, the palace is lavish by any standards. We are certainly pleased with the space in which we are to perform. Sivarajah Natarajan, Sutra Dance Theatre’s technical director, immediately sets to work, overseeing the setting up of the lighting and sound systems.
The dancers, being true troupers, get to work, too, mapping out places, exits, and entrances on stage even before they freshen up after our wearying 10-hour bus ride from Bikaner.
We have, in fact, clocked over 400km from Udaipur to Jaipur, 350km from Jaipur to Bikaner, and, now, 350km from Bikaner to Jaisalmer.
As for our event the next day, it transpired just as previous performances had: we survive an outdoor venue in freezing winter weather and score a tremendous success.
Having performed Spellbound, our Odissi production, in many venues throughout India, we are now confident of its effect on the audience. But it’s still nice to hear the by-now oft heard compliment again: “We never imagined that a Malaysian troupe could perform Odissi so well!”
At dinner that night, we plan our “assault” on the fabled nine-century-old Fort Jaisalmer that rises from the city’s centre.
Built in 1156, the fort still shelters and accommodates thousands of inhabitants today. It is one of the world’s few forts to have been lived in continuously for centuries.
Alighting from our bus at the main entrance, we walk up sinuous, cobbled ramparts to reach the Surya and Ganesh gates. These narrow streets are designed to prevent a head-on assault of the inner gates by enemy soldiers riding elephants crazed on bhang (cannabis). The intoxicated and maddened beasts would ram the massive doors to knock them down – if they could get at them in sufficient numbers. Thanks to these narrow streets, though, they couldn’t, and Fort Jaisalmer withstood many sieges over the centuries.
As we walk the fort’s maze of cobbled lanes just wide enough for pedestrians and perhaps a cow or two to pass each other two abreast, we encounter many a grand haveli with beautiful lattice work facades. The intricately carved stonework looks like ethereal lace rather than heavy stone.
The mansions generally all have relatively plain ground floors and exquisitely carved and decorated first floors and zenana (women’s quarters) that overhang the streets.
Passing through an unassuming alley, we come upon one of the fort’s biggest tourist draws: the magnificent Jain temple. It offers us an encounter with sculptures of gods, goddesses, and celestial dancers in the most imaginatively distorted and dynamic positions. The flamboyant figures are in stark contrast to the calm stillness of the Jain tirthankaras (enlightened human beings who were teachers of those seeking spiritual guidance).
Beyond the fort’s walls, the practically untouched city’s ancient ambience is enhanced by vendors selling colourful crafts ranging from toys, patchwork bedspreads and tapestries, to brassware and Rajput paintings.
Touts abound, and vendors accost us boldly from their stalls. “Let us help you spend your money!” one unashamedly declares. “Live for the moment!” another philosophically advises us as he tries to get us to buy impulsively. The Sutra girls gleefully share tales of their bargaining prowess only to be deflated at the next corner when they find that, once again, they’ve been had!
Over tea, we have a fascinating conversation with a man who explains the significance of the traditional Rajput turban, which is tied in different ways by men of different castes.
The man, immaculately dressed in traditional attire, turns out to be a minor Rajput prince. The “bling” in his pierced ears, rather than looking affected as it might have on his fashion-conscious suburban counterpart, exquisitely enhances the mystique of his Rajput allure, making this prince look decidedly authentic and macho!
Our bus driver urges us to hurry back to the bus so we won’t miss the sunset out in the desert. Driving at breakneck speed, the bus arrives at a nearby camel village. After the usual haggling, we find ourselves unceremoniously jolted up to sit in between the camels’ humps, and are soon trotting hurriedly off on our first ever camel ride.
The girls scream with every bumpy step – more from pain rather than delight. A camel ride can be difficult for the novice but it’s a fascinating experience, nevertheless – and our camel driver gallantly retrieves all the dropped slippers and scarves.
We reach a slightly elevated area, and dismount awkwardly to sit with others who have come for the same purpose.
The setting sun is a great red round mass against a mauve-orange backdrop. It’s a minimalist desert painting whose hues seem to change ever so slowly as the sun disappears into the horizon.
I wonder if any of our girls, fazed by the brief but intense camel ride, relate the setting sun to our own dance of Aditya Acharna, the homage to Surya (sun), which has become our signature piece in our performances in Rajasthan.
Meditating on this amazing view before us, I’m reminded of this barren landscape’s myth of origin, as told in the ancient Indian epic, Ramayana:
Rama, it is said, was angered by Varuna, king of the ocean waters, because the king refuses to build a bridge to Lanka to save Rama’s beloved wife, Sita (her abduction by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka Island, is central to Ramayana’s narrative).
To teach Varuna a lesson, Rama aims his magic arrow towards the sea. Fortunately, Varuna relents at the last minute, and the incendiary arrow is deflected, only to land in this part of Rajasthan, laying it to waste.
Not surprisingly, the Bhatti House that founded Jaisalmer claims lineage from Krishna (of Chandravamshi or the Line of the Moon) rather than Rama (Suryavamshi or the Line of the Sun), whose devastating arrow causes the land to turn barren!
The next day we head to the city of Jodhpur, passing once again through Pokhran. Along the way, and at the behest of our trusty bus driver, we stop briefly in a desolate temple. The mandir (temple) had been built to honour Baba Ramdev, a local avatar of Rama.
Ramdev the saint lived in the Middle Ages and was quite unlike other battle-hungry princes. He was a champion of the poor and was even opposed to the entrenched caste of untouchables. He was deified together with his trusty steed. The cult of Ram Dev commands a considerable secular following of both Hindu and Muslim devotees.
We sit with our bus driver for a few minutes, listening to feisty bhajans (devotional songs ) offered up in Ram Dev’s memory. As the drumming spirals to a crescendo, I still hear unresolved voices over that of the saint who, even centuries ago, had envisioned a society that could free us from suffering of our own making.
Momentarily, however, a stillness takes hold of me. In the arid Rajasthan desertscape, I feel like a grain of sand, blown here and there, but still somehow able to fulfill my fantasy of being a dot in the epic tapestry of this ancient land.