Dancefish on the Banks of the Yamuna

Ashwarya Samkaria

1.

This is a tale of a young Odissi dancer, a fish, a literary ecologist, and water bodies. On the surface level, all of them are separate entities. But by the end of the story, you will realise how tangled-up everything is. As earthlings, the dancer and the literary critic were steeped in the world of arts. Their apparently divergent practices (one pertaining to bodily movement and the other to linguistic diversity) were quite interlocked. The elder sister Ayesha, training as an ecocritic, was a person of letters studying nature from a literary perspective. Her world was enmeshed in studying the interconnectedness between nature and culture. The younger sister Shirin was participating in the world as an ‘Indian classical Odissi dancer’, a label that was constructed by the cultural revivalists under the aegis of cultural institutions established in independent India post 1947. She derived inspiration for movement in an aesthetic and corporeal language from the natural world that was home to humans, nonhumans, and more-than-human elements. Her dance teemed with images of the earth and earthlings who were re-presented through the dancing body’s movements- as living creatures that moved and participated in the oneness that unites all living and nonliving beings. In their different ways, the siblings were weaving their lives around nature and the environment. The difference was the threads with which their narratives were being woven. 

2.

As a classical dancer, I have always been told that we begin a dance by touching the earth. Wrapped in the nuanced folds of body movements, bhumi pranaam (Salutations to Goddess Earth) is the beginning of a performance of a traditional Indian classical form of dance. No matter how simple or rigorous the dance session, we always begin with a bhumi pranaam. That day was no different. Everyone knew that I was the least troublesome learner in class. But something snapped that day and suddenly my guru flared up. ‘No, no, no, Shirin. This is not how you are supposed to do it. How is it that you are not being able to do such a simple movement?’ she said in a stern and irritable voice. This was the tenth such interruption that now felt like a vivisection. The gap between word and action was widening with every passing minute. Somehow, my body was not bending to imitate the movement of a fish. It had been over a fortnight and my version of the fish’s movement was as sharp as the rise and fall of an unstable heart’s ECG reading. Wiping my hot brow, I felt my heart pulsing and plummeting at the same time. I could not bring myself to understand how the movement had to be done. With a sigh, I closed my eyes, imagined the sweat on my face as the salty seawater’s waves, and made the dip one more time to dance like a fish. In a fit of irritation, my guru strongly hit the wooden taalam. Any hope of redress evaporated at that very moment. Shaking her head in disappointment she said, ‘Beta, you are a fish, not a stick. Break the angularity. You have to be agile in your movement and not stiff. Go home and practise. Your body is shutting down while doing this step. There’s a lot of tension in your body. Find the source and start healing it. Your performance is only five months away.’ The class moved on to the poem’s next line and so did I, reluctantly.

Walking out of the dance class and wiping my sweaty face with my dupatta, I could not brush off an uneasy feeling. Having been a diligent dancer, I could not make peace with my inability. After all these years, why had it become so difficult to move like a fish swimming in the deep end of the ocean? I kept muttering under my breath ‘swim like a fish, glide like a fish, dance like a fish’. It was not the simplicity of the movement that irked me. What gnawed at me was my failing perceptiveness that was pulling me away from performing what I was good at. My irritation was being borne by the edge of my dupatta; it was now frayed. I decided to swim. Maybe Goa’s waters would take away the tension that my Guru had spotted.

The first day of my ten-day holiday on the beach was filled with quiet, inward, and secluded hours. I just wanted to listen to the waves and sleep. Thankfully, my aunt’s house was not far from the beach and I knew that on this trip I would spend less time in the house and more at the beach. Iknoor masi was quick on the uptake. She realized I was best left alone. Thank goodness for such a family. Counting my blessings, I took to writing my beach moments—broken and inconsistent recollections.

Day 1: Quiet. Sleep-blessed. Beach so violent. Moon was closest.

3.

Day 8: Repeated exclamations ‘dance like a fish!’ floated in my mind at lunch. I’ve decided. Tomorrow I’ll go to the fish– see, observe, & learn how to dance like the fish from the fish.

Day 9: I walked into the water hoping to meet a fish & not a crab. I did! With what agility the shoal of fish swam. I didn’t want to disturb them by coming in their way. I could hardly observe subtle nuances of the fish’s movement but did observe how swift, fluid, and quick they were. Cooked Prawn Curry for dinner. Goodnight.  

Day 10: As an Odissi practitioner, I truly enjoy dancing the pallavi— it gives me the scope to hone my technical expertise and find precision in sound and movement. The body listens to the beat and moves itself accordingly, thereby establishing a link between sound and movement. Akin to my training in Odissi in which I am constantly seeking points of contact between the art form and my own subjective understanding and execution of it, the performance of a pallavi mirrors this pedagogical practice as it can only come into existence when there are multiple points of contact between sound, movement, stillness, and movement again. Guess what I did today? I danced the beginning of pallavi on the beach! This pallavi steers the body’s movement by relying on the movement of the big toe. The musical cues were given by the Arabian Sea! What did I just do! The fish, the sea, the sand, the wind, the movement’s design on sand, the crevices, the ebb, the flow— all of it— did not feel like my environment anymore. It felt like me. I felt like it. And in that moment, there was rasa. Ah, see-salty one at that!

4.

Moving waters eroded the land and rocks around its edges to make the beach. Before going to the dance class on January 1st, I decided to visit Delhi’s major water body, the holy Yamuna. Upon reaching the ITO bridge, I walked down to its banks. I wasn’t sure of why I was going to this river that had been deteriorating for a long time. But I pined to see a fish in the water in this place that had been my home since childhood. 

The putrid stench met me sooner than the riverbank did. The closer I got to the bank, the shinier the surface became. I saw a fish, but mind you, not a healthy fish. It was Delhi’s fish—gasping for oxygen under water. She was gurgling and spitting water and air. With a broken heart, I blurted, ‘how do I care for your words when I cannot comprehend your language?’ Jittery, yet transfixed, I lay down my bag and dropped flat on the bank. I knew we didn’t have time. I closed my eyes.

Remembering from my dance class that Lord Vishnu, one of the great Hindu triumvirate had transmogrified himself into a matsya (fish) to defeat forces that were evil, I prayed to Him, heartbroken and as a final recourse, to save this dying fish. It was time for mythical intervention. And lo and behold, something gave. A channel of communication opened. Flapping its restless fins, she started swimming and I stood up to walk alongside with her. All of the fish was submerged, struggling to make the distance in the direction she thought was forward. I do not know what came over me. Having always been immaculately clean and orderly, before I could realize, I started crawling on all fours, as an amphibious reptile might. I was on land, I was in the water. My guru’s voice reverberated in my mind, ‘dance like a fish, dance like a fish’. A distant shout hit my ears, ‘Arey o ladki, kya kar rahi ho?’ And I wondered too, ‘what is it that I am doing?’ 

From ‘dance like a fish’ I moved towards

dance with a fish

dance a fish

dance fish

dancefish

bones and gills conjoined. 

All of me had to move like a fish. All of me was becoming fish. It wasn’t just a hasta mudra (hand gesture) that I had to perfect, it wasn’t just the shape of the alive being that I had to imitate. But what happened instead was a complete being come alive. We swam together a short distance. Before us stood a large iron board, hammered into the riverbank. It said ‘Project Yamuna’. My eyes were bleary reading it. A factory, many factories, somewhere were choking all of us. A loudmouth chimney was letting out acrid smoke that was writing the skies, land, water, air, bodies, minds with words like ‘We produce for luxury, comfort, and progress’. I thought, like the student I am, that the gap between the lifeworld of the fish in the Yamuna and my lifeworld that imagines the river as an artefact seemed breached. A few inches away, I saw a torn book, its paper flung everywhere. I crawled my way to it not realising the tangled mess of plastic net that I had been dragging. 

That day, the river’s foam stealthily crept upon me, drowning my feet and snaking into my anklets. My dupatta was soaked in the effluents of Yamuna. I felt my breath go still.

5.

The twilight hour in the evening. Shirin’s grandmother was sitting in front of ceramic idols, lost in prayer. Her only aim in life was to please the gods with devotion and forcefully compel Him to shower his choicest of blessings upon her two granddaughters. Shirin’s elder sister, Ayesha was an English graduate student currently studying Literatures in English for Creative Writing at Cornell. The siblings would often communicate with each other through their scholarly work. Ayesha would send Shirin thought-provoking quotations pertaining to philosophical or literary expressions while Shirin would return the favour by sharing deep insights captured in movement. 

The agarbatti drowned the floor in the fragrance of sandalwood. Suddenly, the bell rang and Grandmother knew Shirin was home. Hurrying through the last line of her daily prayer for a normal future grandson-in-law for Shirin, she got up and walked towards the door with a lit diya in her hand. A strong believer in the healing powers of sandalwood, Shirin’s grandma was feeling extra positive today. She felt that the stars had aligned. Chanting ‘Hari om’ on loop, she opened the door and let out a loud scream. Shirin was standing at the door, covered in black slime from head to toe. Her grandmother was moving the diya up and down, side to side trying to figure out why, in the name of all things holy, her granddaughter was standing like this with a smile on her face. 

The barrage of anger and dismay was quickly absorbed by Shirin. She cleaned up and called her sister. It was uncanny that at the evening hour when Shirin was dancingfish, Ayesha on the other side of the world had woken up early to revise her 9am lecture on Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. She had been going over the highlighted portions. Picking up the call and unmindful of a hello, Ayesha read out loud, 

“an actant [Bruno Latour’s term] is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events. It is ‘any entity that modifies another entity in a trial,’ something whose ‘competence is deduced from [its] performance’ rather than posited in advance of the action.”

All forces and flows (materialities) are or can become lively, affective, and signaling. And so an affective, speaking human body is not radically different from the affective, signaling nonhumans with which it coexists, hosts, enjoys, serves, consumes, produces, and competes.”

They had talked without talking. 

6.

As a reader reading the world, 

As a learner learning how to read,

As a performer learning how to act,

As a movement practitioner learning how to balance,

the threshold at which I removed my footwear to enter the dance room was like the littoral space where I was struggling to place myself as a dancer learning the idiom and as a living being occupying the environment of a world. The more I tried to draw a healthy fish in my mind’s eye, the more my body convulsed. At that moment, it felt as if the entire room was drowning in the toxicity that I had absorbed and was now releasing. The lines were blurring— the rehearsal was a performance of a lived moment— I was dwelling in my life as I experienced the world. 

I could not not remove the experience. You are a failing artist, they said. 

I am immersed, I believed. 

If I was a member of this society and the world, was the fish not one too? If my dance was telling a story, what about the storyworld of the fish, its yore and its today? Did its home not have a story of its own? 

There arose like a wild wild wave, a pining for a union between what Shirin was seeing and what she was being made to seenot. She was seeing the present that was being effaced and dematerialised. All of the earth has been doing small&big things to proliferate life. We are not apart from our environment, we are a part of an ecosystem. I was only now beginning to apprehend how the human had to attune and dance to the rhythm of the planet.

I do not want to put a full-stop. I am deliberating over the punctuation— comma, semi colon, question mark, exclamation point, or… an ellipsis perhaps? While we pontificate, the fish flipped, flapped, and flopped

I have been pondering over the fish that died. Thinking how to move to tell the fishstory— not the Fish of the classical danceworld but the fish of the choking Yamuna— if only my sweat could infuse into the auditorium the toxic chemicals of the Yamuna. Under the cloud-like foam on the river lay death, slow, corrosive death that ate away the health of the flowing river.

I had to asphyxiate in practice.

The dancer in me did not know how to step out of this in-side to the out-side. What leela could I show– between my material body’s balance that gravitates towards the earth and the dancing body’s balance that I had acquired during training, as they meld to become one. As classical dancers, we are always dancing with gravity and not against it. Our bodies don’t suspend in mid-air. The lines of axis– mine, the earth’s, ours — are rooted as one. In that moment by the banks of the despoiled Yamuna, as the dark night sky foamclouds on its waters and a dead fish swam with me, I was attuned to the rhythmic dance of matter… pulsating, vibrating, its rhythm a mad beat to my heart. The sand signalled the malleability of the material bodymind that can shape itself in myriad postures and perspectives; the winds brought a subtle force that reshapes the contours of things; and the gangrenous factory made sounds of a crescendo rising like a vocalist’s echoing falsetto.

This was the beginning of balancing along the shorelines of becoming.


 

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