personal narrative

The Caravan of the Cultures of the World
- Varsha Seshan

Candles burnt in corners. Garlands adorned the steps and walls. Colourful saris were spread out to cover stained walls. The smell of ghee and sugar filled the air. The donation box was in the shape of a beautiful elephant. The counter next to it sold samosas and butter-milk, among other things.

My sister, Nisha, and I were in the little room beside the stage, finishing our last-minute preparations. The awful nose-ring that looked so good on stage gleamed. Silk costumes, temple jewellery, red alta on our hands and feet, ghungroos fastened around our ankles – everything was ready. It was just another performance.

The difference, though, was that the devadasis of old performed in temples. We were to perform in a charming chapel in France, the Chapelle de la Grande Fabrique, built on a river.

At Renage, a small village in France, Nisha and I were performing as part of the journées culturelles – literally 'cultural days'. It was the second year of a festival with three objectives: to present quality cultural performances to the people of Renage, to promote local art, and to develop a social link that allowed youngsters and adults to share unique cultural moments together.

There was an exhibition of paintings and sculpture of Renage. There was a piano concert and a jazz concert. There was an open invitation to discover the beauty of Renage's chapel, church and cemetery. And there was a Bharatanatyam concert in the Chapelle de la Grande Fabrique.

'In a chapel?' friends in India asked, surprised.

We smiled. Why not?

The chapel was magnificent. A disused French chapel in the middle of nature – what could be more inspiring? Classical dance can be as beautiful in a chapel as in a temple – and perhaps more beautiful in a chapel than on stage.

'But what will foreigners understand? Even we don't understand Bharatanatyam!'

That's the excuse many friends give me for not going for classical performances. When I perform for audiences from different cultures, I shake my head at how flimsy the excuse is. You don't need to understand art. Even without understanding it, you can not just appreciate it, but can be overwhelmed by it.

Our audience that day knew little or nothing about Indian mythology. We explained a handful of stories and ideas, but did not need to remind them that the geometry and symmetry of classical dance have a beauty of their own. We told them Bharatanatyam was a spiritual dance with ancient origins. We gave them a programme that outlined the pieces we were going to perform, to give them a little introduction before plunging them into the deep pool of the performance.

Then, Nisha performed Tulsidas's enchanting Thumaka Chalata. The audience did not know who Rama was. They did not know who his mother was. They had not heard of Tulsidas.

'The piece on motherhood was beautiful,' they said after the performance. 'It was so delightful and so moving! I did not know that Bharatanatyam had such gentle themes as well!'

The sixteenth century saint, Kanhopatra, became one with Vitthal in the temple of Pandharpur. Kanhopatra was said to be as beautiful as the apsara, Menaka, and the king wanted her to be his concubine. Desperate and helpless, Kanhopatra pleaded with her beloved god, Vitthal, to save her. The beautiful imagery of the song compares the young Kanhopatra to a deer trapped by a tiger. Only Vitthal could save her.

I weep each time I perform the piece.

No one in the audience understood a word of the song, which was in Marathi. No one had even heard of Vitthal.

'Is it Shiva?' they asked when I spoke about the piece before performing it.

'No, it's Vishnu. But it does not matter, really. Vitthal is Kanhopatra's beloved god.'

No one was familiar with the language of Indian classical dance. Very few had watched Bharatanatyam before.

When I finished, there were tears in my eyes. The glow of having united with the divine was shining through every pore of my being. At that moment, I knew the audience was with me. I knew that dance had transported them to another world – the world of art and beauty that transcends language and culture.

We did three performances in France that year. I could count the number of Indians at the performances on the fingers of one hand. The others were French, who could not have 'understood' our dances. But they asked us over and over again why we did not perform abroad more often.

Michèle, the wonderful French lady who organized much of it, was with us right through. Perhaps I should mention that this exceptional lady, who loves India and everything Indian, is in her seventies now. When we drove through Renage, we saw posters of our performances everywhere, along with hand-written signs pointing out where the chapel was.

'It's difficult to find the chapel,' she explained. 'So two friends and I put up posters everywhere to guide people. It would be a shame if people wanted to come and couldn't find the place, wouldn't it?'

Michèle had put up posters on each lamp-post. And that was not all she did to promote our performances.

'You should come for it,' she told her gardener. 'It is not far for you, and you won't get an opportunity like this again!'

'You should come for it,' she told workmen who were fixing her neighbour's roof. 'These two beautiful Indian girls ... their dance is unique!'

'You should come for it,' she told a neighbour who brought her some fruit. 'These two sisters – they're wonderful!'

It's certainly thanks to her that we had such a large audience, but she insisted that it was the beauty of dance itself that drew the audience. 'It's Indian; it is traditional; it is beautiful!' she said, simply.

Perhaps Michèle is right. There are some things that cross all boundaries.

We concluded each performance that year with the same piece, choreographed by my guru, Mythili Raghavan. It is a piece of pure technique, in which my guru imagined Rama and Sita dancing together in the forest. It did not matter who Rama and Sita were. Immortal love is immortal love, whether you're French or Indian. No audience needs an explanation for the evident.

And something that always brings a smile on my face is the name of the charitable organization for which we were raising funds through our performances. I imagine cultures and colours blending together inside a beautiful little caravan that is the association itself – La Caravane des Cultures du Monde – The Caravan of the Cultures of the World.

Varsha Seshan At the age of six, Varsha discovered she could write. At seven, she wrote a story about a witch who hated plants, and won the first prize in a story-writing competition. Then she didn't stop writing.
Varsha's first major publication was in 2010 – The Nationals, published by Puffin in a collection of stories titled Let's Play! In 2012, Happy Squirrel published a collection of her short stories titled The Story-Catcher.
A writer, dancer and teacher, Varsha completed her Masters in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She has a passion for Bharatanatyam and has performed in India and abroad.