Early this year, Piah Diance Studio produced a folk-dance drama called Bandhani – The Ties That Bind Us. They employed me to write the script and treatment. Recently I was talking to Priya Kumar Varunesh, the director of the company, and we thought it would be nice if we can bring the story of Bandhani in the form of words and pictures to those of you who could not see the original production on stage.
For this I am restoring the script as I’d written it. (It was modified slightly for the stage.) I’m also attaching some pictures from that night’s performance. The words are all spoken by a behind-the-stage narrator, and the pictures represent the various dances.
In the spirit of full disclosure, my wife, Aditi Manja, is the creative head of the company.
Dance 1: Matka
I was nine when I first asked my mother what my name meant. She had just returned from the river with a full pot, had removed her bangles and hung them on the nail above the stove. She sat cross-legged on the stool and stoked the blue fire, sometimes fanning it, sometimes blowing at it. When she looked at me her eyes were moist. She held up her bare wrists to me and said, ‘The chains that tie us down.’
For a few weeks after that I wondered what she meant, but soon I forgot her words. I only remembered them much later in my life, after she had long passed on, after my own children had grown up and left. Now I look at my wrists and they appear cracked, like Mother’s had once been. When I bring them up to my nose, they smell of turmeric and vermillion, and of jaggery and cumin.
We are born free, all of us, like the clear river that runs down the mountain. But as we pass through life, we grow tentacles that reach out and bind us to the people we know, to the places we live in. Sometimes we break these bonds, only to make new ones. By the end, all that remains are these dangling ropes that claw at our wrists and ankles, some frayed and burned at the edge, some tight and strong. Much like the river, then, that carries memories of all the places and people she touched during her journey to the sea, we pass on, and like the river, after we dissolve into the sea, it is the ties and memories that live on.
My name is Bandhani, and this is the tale of the heaviest of all chains that shackle my wrists. This is the tale of my love.
Dance 2: Somnath
Poems have been written by better people than I about the knocking of first love on a woman’s heart. After I saw him that morning, we walked all the way up to the lake and sat on its bank, giggling and singing songs of the river. I held my pot on the surface with one hand, letting it bob up and down in the morning breeze. Then I bent it to one side and watched the water flow in through the mouth. With each passing moment it became heavier, and soon I had to use both my hands to pull it out, to stop it from drowning to the bottom of the lake.
As I walked back, amid the other women’s laughter, it struck me that falling in love was much like filling an earthen vessel. If all the sounds were to fall quiet just about that moment, I thought; if our chortles could die down, if the wind that came running over the sands could be stilled, if our bangles could be persuaded not to jingle, if the water in our vessels would not spill – if I could be allowed for one moment to place my hand on my chest, I will hear the soft gurgle of water. I will feel my heart filling up inch by inch, growing heavier, fluttering less and less each passing second, finally coming to rest.
Dance 3: Love Duet
He smells of wet sandal paste, of incense, of ash. He smells of lotuses and camphor, of earth drenched by rain. When his eyes sought mine and did not move away, I thought I was looking at the image of the Destroyer himself, who once trapped the great river in his matted locks. The red line on his forehead could open up any moment, I thought, and the saffron garment he wore turned into the hide of a spotted leopard. His water container took the form of a trident, and he held his hands on his hips and looked skyward, as if daring Ganga to crush him, to wash him away to the underworld.
The day he smiled at me, I wished I could become the thread he wore around his chest. I burned with envy at the chrysanthemums he plucked from the temple compound every morning, because for a few moments they felt his touch. I ran my fingers on the tongue of the temple bell, I brushed the granite doorway of the inner sanctum, I felt the neck of the brass jug of holy water – in all these I found his searching, tender touch.
Then came the night of the full moon. It had drizzled that evening just before sunset, but the clouds had cleared by nightfall. Drops of water still hung off leaves of trees, and every gust of wind sent showers into the silver-lit air. The temple proceedings were just finishing; men painted in black with bamboo tubes in their hands were ambling back to their homes, tired from an evening of dance and revelry. I had tried to catch his gaze all evening, but he would not once look at me.
It was when I got up to gather my things that I felt a hand grip my wrist.
Dance 4: Khanjira
I do not remember the things we said to each other on that magical night. All I remember is the rhythm in which our bodies moved together. We danced as one being deep into the night, and after everyone around us had left and we were the only ones cavorting in the temple courtyard, with the moon hung low in the sky, a thin note of Malhar filled our ears. Neither he nor I stopped to look around us, but if we had, we would perhaps have seen a dark cowherd boy seated on a stone nearby, a peacock’s feather tied over his head, his fingers caressing his flute.
I remember the long nights that I spent alone on my bed, thinking of how many things I would say to him on our first night together. When it came, not one word was spoken, not one word was heard. Much has been written about the language of love. Some say it is poetry, some say it is music and dance, but I think it is silence. When you gaze into the eyes of one you love, the sounds of the world are closed to your ears.
Dance 5: Peacocks
Silence is not just the language of love, but the language of creation too. Mountains and flowers, sand dunes and rivers, trees and caves, the sun and the moon – none of these utter a word. A poet once said that the Earth was mute by birth, and so was the sky. But the clouds float by, thunder for a while, and move away. So it is with men and their need for words, for language. The world has existed long before us, and it will long after we have floated away, like those clouds, and our only remains will be our words, our voices, whispering, speaking, shouting, arguing…
Into the silence of my world came voices. They saw his sacred thread and my nose ring, his ash-smeared forehead and my bangled wrists, his cultured speech and my cracked feet, and they shook their heads. They huddled together and pointed their fingers at us. Their lips moved and moved and moved. I did not hear their words, but I saw the frowns on their faces, the curious shapes into which their noses bent.
I wondered why they did not see the love that bound us together.
Dance 6: Dandi
On the temple stairs sleeps a mad man. He does not beg. He snatches bread and meat from stray dogs. He rolls in the dust. His fingernails are green and black. His shirt is torn, his feet wounded. Flies hover around his head, but he seldom swats them away. He sits with his knees clutched together and stares. Now and then, a devotee comes up, breaks off a fruit, and places it in front of the man. ‘What caste do you belong to?’ he asks.
And the man laughs. He laughs until his sides hurt, and he says he belongs to the same caste as the cowherd who plays the flute, the beggar and undertaker who wields the trident, the king who once ruled over Ayodhya. A priest comes out of the temple then, and calls for two hefty men to throw the beggar out into the street. The men come and pick him up by the arms. As they pass, the man is still laughing, and the priest turns his head away, not in shame but in disgust.
The priests tell us that the gods chose them, that they speak to us in their voices. But the gods belonged to our caste. They once lived among us, danced with us, ate our food, married our women. Now they speak to us through this race of men who have come floating by, and they break the silence of the inner sanctum with chants that only they understand and know to utter, and they tell us how to pray to our gods.
I think about this, and in no time at all I am laughing, like the mad man of the temple.
Dance 7: Garba
‘You cannot marry her,’ they said.
‘I shall marry her,’ he said.
‘If you do, you shall no longer be a priest,’ they said.
‘I no longer desire to be a priest,’ he said.
‘You shall no longer be a Brahmin!’ they said.
‘I no longer desire to be one,’ he said.
‘You are a disgrace to your parents!’ they said.
‘I shall be a sense of pride to my children,’ he said.
‘What do you see in her?’ they said.
‘I see myself in her,’ he said.
He cut off the sacred thread that bound him to the temple and to his fellow men. He rubbed off the sandal paste from his arms, the ash from his forehead. He cast away his saffron garments and dressed in the white and red of my people. With the same hands in which he carried a vessel of holy water, he picked up a flute and a whip. In the same deep tenor in which he chanted verses from the scriptures, he sang the songs of the lost cowherds.
He stopped being a god in his world, and became one in mine.
Images Courtesy: Piah Dance Studio