My first Bharatanatyam costume was made of saffron yellow silk with fuschia borders, woven with golden zari thread that glimmered under the stage lights. A costume like this was usually custom-made for the dancer, but my mother bought this outfit secondhand for a fraction of its value. It was created for another girl, but destiny led it to me.
The first few times I performed, my mother struggled with the costume’s delicate origami — the order and position of its many pieces. We didn’t have YouTube tutorials in the early 1990s. My dance teacher, Sudha Aunty, who was from Hyderabad in India, demonstrated how the costume should be worn in her living room, where she taught me in the early years. At our weekly sessions, she sat on the floor with her wooden stick and block, observing me dance with kohl-rimmed eyes, and offering a steady stream of critique. After she pinned and poked me into the costume for the first time, I tried a simple adavu and marvelled at how different it felt. The fabric glowed in my peripheral vision, and the rustle of silk gently amplified my movements. The sleeves of the sari blouse gripped the baby fat of my upper arms, and the waistband was tied so tight it left a red groove around my belly. This new discomfort made me more aware of my body. The familiar steps felt less mechanical, and more alive. In the worn cotton salwar kameez I wore to practice, I was only exercising; in costume, I became a dancer.
My favorite part of the outfit was the fan, which was formed by a length of pleated fabric hooked to the pants. When I sat in aramandi, a half-sitting posture with heels together, the fan unfurled crisp and shimmering. I stood in front of the full-length mirror in Sudha Aunty’s bathroom, squatting and standing, watching the fan open and close like a magic trick.
We became a family that danced when I was just a baby in a puff-sleeved dress, bouncing on my mother’s hip. My parents had immigrated from Guyana, South America to Nova Scotia, Canada, to pursue their graduate studies. There, they joined a cultural association and began socializing with other displaced West Indians. On weekends, my parents and this close-knit group of families held get-togethers at each other’s homes, jiving barefoot and singing along to Bollywood and reggae, calypso, and soca. The photos, pasted into a crumbling album, are a vision of the 1970s: bell bottoms, miniskirts, and thick framed glasses. There were orange carpets, macrame planters, and brown velour sofas they pushed back to create a dance floor. The aroma of their potluck dinners of dahl, potato curry, roti, and jerk chicken melded with the base of the music, creating a welcome oasis in an unfamiliar place.
By the time my parents answered Sudha Aunty’s advertisement for Bharatanatyam classes, I was nine years old, and we were living in the suburbs of central New Jersey. Once again, we were culturally isolated in a foreign country, trying to connect with families who looked like us. But unlike the community in Canada, I was the only girl in this diaspora whose parents hadn’t migrated directly from the Subcontinent. When asked What part of India are you from? What language do you speak? I had to give a makeshift history lesson. I mumbled about British colonization and indentured servitude as the other girls listened with blank expressions. Even the adults regarded me skeptically.
So you’re not Indian? But you look Indian. This response crushed me again and again. I was not Guyanese any more than I was Indian, any more than I was Canadian or even truly American. I didn’t know how to explain what I was or wasn’t. All I knew was that I was different.
I took refuge in practice, dancing for hours in my parents’ basement alongside shelves of chickpeas and bulk packages of toilet paper, my feet rough and calloused from the concrete floor. My determination surprised my parents and delighted my teacher. Everything about this art form was foreign to me – the rhythms of carnatic music, the Sanskrit verses Sudha Aunty patiently translated, the complex coordination of facial expressions, hand gestures, and footwork. Inexplicably, I hungered for this knowledge.
I remember learning the namaskar on my first day of class. This was a sequence of gestures asking for blessings from the earth, from God, and the lineage of gurus before us. I remember Sudha Aunty’s hands shaping my hands into the mudras I did not yet know. I remember squatting all the way down to touch the matted carpet of her living room floor, then my closed eyelids. As Sudha Aunty sang the notes – Kita taka tadi gina ta, kita taka tadi gina ta, kita taka tadi gina ta – I heard the distant echo of a familiar place, a faint vestige of a past life. In that living room in New Jersey, I was a castaway coming home.
I knew my mother felt the connection, too, as she sat on Sudha Aunty’s couch, observing my weekly lessons. She had always wanted to learn Indian classical dance, but the circumstances were never right. As a child, her father felt that dancing was improper; as a wife and mother, she had too many obligations. Now, she lived vicariously through me, helping me remember the steps and Sudha Aunty’s corrections when I practiced at home. She rented every Bollywood movie with a classical dance sequence at the local Indian video store. Again and again, we watched overdubbed copies of Noopur, which featured my heroine, Hema Malini. We marveled at her form and grace and made notes on her technique.
On stage, I was a dancer speaking a physical language I worked incredibly hard to learn.
As I got older, I became a senior member of the dance school, and performed regularly around the tri-state area. My fellow seniors, some of whom are still in my life today, became sisters; we laughed, cried, bickered, gossiped, and vied for Sudha Aunty’s favor. At festivals and competitions, we arrived in minivans loaded with garment bags and colorful Caboodle cases packed with makeup and pins of all sizes. Over the years, we presented folk dances, film dances, dance dramas and items from the Bharatanatyam repertoire.
Through it all, my mother ferried me up and down the New Jersey Turnpike to every practice. She spent full weekends in service of my performances, waking early to iron my costume, taking me to the venue for dress rehearsal, then waiting for hours for my slot in the overbooked program. Looking back on it now as a mother myself, I am baffled by the sacrifice of time my mother made for me. She was divorced by then with three kids and a full-time job. With Bharatanaytam in our lives, we had a place in the growing South Asian community, and the illusion of belonging we both sought.
In the early days, my mother got me ready, but eventually, I learned to dress myself. I would apply layers of foundation several shades lighter than my actual skin, giving me a ghostly pallor. I’d stab my scalp with V-pins to secure the fake bun and braid, and adorn them with garlands of orange and white paper flowers. I’d draw an exaggerated cat-eye with thick strokes of liquid eyeliner and a beauty mark on my chin. Step by step, I learned to look the part, an outsider finding my way in.
I felt invincible in this delicate armor; my shy, bookish personality eclipsed by the layers of silk, garish stage makeup, and temple jewelry inlaid with red, green and pearl stones. I loved feeling like no one I knew would recognize me on the street, not my classmates or teachers, nor my neighbors or relatives. In that grand uniform, I was hiding in plain sight, my cultural baggage disappeared. It was a hoax that delighted me again and again. I could have been a Bharanatyam dancer from Chennai, Mumbai, or Kuala Lumpur. In those layers of saffron, fuschia and gold, it didn’t matter that there was no Indian language on my tongue. On stage, in step with all of the other girls, I was a dancer speaking a physical language I worked incredibly hard to learn.
But even Sudha Aunty, who had shaped me, Pygmalian-like, never forgot my origin story. At my arangetram, where at 16 I became her first student to present a full two-hour Bharatanatyam repertoire, she reminded the audience of my truth.
“Look at this Guyanese girl,” she said to the crowd of my extended family, high-school friends, and the entire dance community. “Look how far she has come.”
On stage, my muscles trembling from exertion, my make-up smeared and my skin stiff with dried sweat, I felt exposed. Sudha Aunty spoke with love, but what I heard was this: no matter how many hours I practiced, I couldn’t shake my family history. I would always be good – for a Guyanese girl. All the silk, gold, and drugstore make-up in the world would not change this. I was shaky from the highs and lows of the night, but Sudha Aunty had trained me well. I smiled into the crowd, pressed my palms together and bowed.
Twenty-four years later, my collection of Bharatanatyam costumes – silken ghosts in parrot green, peacock blue, and poppy red – now live in purgatory in my basement. As my baby daughter mimics my hand gestures, swirling her chubby fingers in the air, I wonder if she will be curious about Indian classical dance. Will she feel the siren call of carnatic music? Will she find pieces of herself in a language she can’t understand? I wonder if she will ever wear my old costumes. Or if, like my first hand-me-down outfit, destiny will lead them to another girl, another story, another stage.