India | I Just Dance the Way I Feel

“Where are you? I hear birds,” asked my mother the other night while we were talking on What’s App. I told her it wasn’t birds, it was actually the nonstop beeping of the auto-rickshaws and other vehicles. Considering I was on the 17th floor of our apartment building and she could still hear it in New Jersey, you can imagine how loud it is when you’re actually on the road.

Bangalore’s traffic is challenging but wonderful at the same time. Two weeks in, I already know I’ll miss it when I’m home and there are no cows or donkeys walking across the street, no auto drivers to argue with over using the meter, and no motorbikes swerving in and out of small spaces where you wouldn’t think they’d fit.

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With all that said, it was nice to get out of the city last Saturday for a quick daytrip to Nrityagram, a “dance village” of students studying Odissi, a classical religious Indian dance. The students here dedicate their lives to dance, just as monks at a monastery dedicate their lives to religion.

The village was founded in 1990 by dancer Protima Gauri, who described it as, “a community of dancers in a forsaken place amidst nature. A place where nothing exists, except dance. A place where you breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine – dance. A place where all the five senses can be refined to perfection. A place where dancers drop negative qualities such as jealousy, small-mindedness, greed, and malice to embrace their colleagues as sisters and support each other in their journey towards becoming dancers of merit.”¹

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My friend from Leave UR Mark and I took the bus from Bangalore to Hesaraghatta, the closest town to Nrityagram, on a Saturday morning and then took an auto from there. I’d recommend taking a taxi the full way instead – the bus station is one of the most chaotic places I’ve ever been to, we waited for an hour, and the bus attendant tried to get away with keeping our change. The plus side of all that was that the bus rides were around 20 rupees each, and the auto ride was 600 round-trip. So for two people, the trip was about $5 each. A car will be more, as it’s over an hour outside of Bangalore, but you’ll have a much easier morning.

The entrance fee is only 50 rupees. When open, Nrityagram accepts visitors from 10-2, but it’s important to call and check before making the trip, because it is not open every day. After the weekend we went, they were closing for a few weeks due to Diwali and some other events. I was glad we’d decided to come when we did, because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.

Nrityagram is, as Protima intended, “amidst nature”. The grounds were the most beautiful scenes I’d experienced in India at the time and there are gardens aplenty – including some plants I’d never seen before. I’m specifically curious about this one, so if someone can tell me what it is, comment below. The middle of the flower looks like a venus flytrap but that’s not what this is. It’s all over Nrityagram, on a tree with some huge dense round fruit. It also could be from outer space.

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The buildings of the dance village are just as adorable as the concept of a dance village itself. The dancers live on the grounds in huts that you’d think would be on the beach and adobe-like dwellings with gorgeous detail. If I’d been by myself and hadn’t had an auto waiting, I could have spent hours in several different spots just reading and breathing in the fresh free-of-exhaust air.

If I ever want to settle down at some point with a house of my own, I would love to somehow incorporate unique doors and windows like those I saw and fell in love with in Nrityagram. I’m not sure these would fit in in the suburbs of NYC, so I may have to live a less conventional life somewhere else.

10milesbehindme_nrityagram8

We were able to watch a beginner’s class practice soon after arriving. Of the four students in this class, there were two westerners, who might have been European, and two who might have been more local, one under the age of 10, for sure. Odissi is a complicated dance form and it’s no wonder the dancers need to dedicate so much time and energy toward it. I mean, I can get down on the dance floor at my friends’ weddings, but this is intense.

The first thing I noticed was that it must hurt. During the rehearsal session, the ladies’ heels kept pounding on the ground hard. Each joint in their body needs to be bent in a certain way for each specific part of the dance. The girls were stopped quite often by their stunningly beautiful teacher, maybe even each minute, and told they needed to fix one thing or another. It wasn’t a “tourist trap” performance for the few observers who had come to visit – this was the real deal.

When the lesson was over, we explored the grounds a little further, and walked to the amphitheater which was, again, adorable. I don’t know how often this stage is used but if it had been in my backyard in the ’90s, it would have been used every single day.

We heard music for the advanced class beginning so we wandered over to observe. Two dancers, one the teacher from before, and another who I assume was a teacher as well put on a quick performance for the growing crowd. Then there was a longer practice for three advanced dancers who were maybe in their late teens or twenties. These girls were facing the audience, unlike in the beginners’ class, and their facial expressions were quite sassy and flirty. It was similar to the other class in that the dancers were stopped in the middle to correct moves, but instead of learning individual moves, they were actually working together in a dance. At times during the piece, two girls would dance together while the other was solo but complementary, or all three would do the same dance working together. Four musicians sitting on the floor played music throughout.

You’re not allowed to take pictures of (or “click” as they say in Bangalore) the dancers themselves, but if you’re interested in seeing the actual dance, there’s a short documentary you can check out, which also shares more about Nrityagram itself.

We left the second rehearsal before it ended because our driver had already waited longer than we’d asked him to, but on the way out, we paused to see the yoga center and the temple of dedication. The yoga center is on an outdoor platform, shrouded in flowering trees. I had read that you can schedule yoga sessions, but we had not thought of it beforehand. I can speak from experience that outdoor yoga is the best kind of yoga, and I imagine being in this scenery would have made for an awesome class.

The trip to Nrityagram was a nice respite from the chaos of Bangalore, but as soon as I heard the auto beeps again and we were stuck in heavy traffic next to stray cows and dogs, I felt like I was home. The auto drivers’ horns are the music I want to dance to.

xx

This post was written in partnership with Leave UR Mark, a social enterprise in Bangalore, Goa, and Mumbai that connects travelers with local internships and volunteer opportunities in India. Opinions are always my own.

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