Those who saw Roger Milla swinging hips after every goal scored by Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup can never forget his jigs, even if they forget his brilliant goals. In my memory, the people’s revolt against apartheid in South Africa is forever etched as a series of spirited songs and dances performed by thousands of people together.
In India, you cannot think of Punjabis without bhangra. Dances are central to marriage ceremonies not only for Punjabis, but also for many other North Indian communities. Neither can you imagine our tribal peoples, from Santhals to Nagas, without their community dances. Down south, one doesn’t see people dancing on roads, but Bharat Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali etc. are important facets of their polychrome culture.
We Bengalis do not dance. We are one of those dour communities of the world that do not express their joy by breaking into a jig, be it a wedding or a victory on the football pitch. What is worse, we dance at the most inopportune time, during the immersion of the Durga idol, when the Mother is leaving us for a year, when the occasion demands sobriety and quiet introspection. It’s almost like dancing at a funeral.
Ashok Mitra, an ICS officer and a fine writer of non-fiction, wrote that the dancing figures on temple walls in Bishnupur indicate that Bengal too had a classical dance form once. He suggests that just as the modern Orissi dance has been developed by studying the sculptures of Orissa temples, it should be possible to reinvent the Bengali dance by studying the temple figurines of Bishnupur.
These random thoughts crossed my mind as I sat beside a dance floor and watched a group of young men and women capering to the wild tunes of Hindi songs under wilder lights flashing from four corners. The celebration was happening at Ahmedabad, on the day before the wedding of a Sindhi girl with a Bengali boy. Maybe, Sindhis too are like Bengalis. Hardly anyone over thirty danced. And the dances were not traditional. They were very filmy.
The people of Gujarat make up for the total ban on alcohol by giving bizarre names to most innocuous joints. We came across the signs Coffee Bar and Ice Cream Pub. Had our stay been longer, perhaps we would have found a Lassi Inn or a Limejuice Tavern! The dance under reference was happening at a place with a truly hodgepodge name: The Buddha Coffee Bar.
We drank soft drinks or coffee as a giant statue of Buddha sat impassively at the far end of the dance floor. There were sofas around the floor. The walls were gaudily decorated with big red Chinese motifs. Possibly the designer wanted us to believe they were Tibetan. A screen on the opposite side of the Buddha alternately showed the dancing crowd and Omkara without the sound track. But the dancers were oblivious of the sinister designs of Langra Tyagi as they hipped and hopped, egged on by a DJ standing on an elevated stage. Most of the dances began slowly in near darkness, but as the crescendo approached, the steps and gyrations became faster and the light, more riotous. The sweating dancers came close and went apart, formed circles and broke them. The sound was deafening. One could see young hearts coming together and smell a whiff of jealousy from time to time.
As I sipped coffee sitting at a semi-dark corner, two slender girls in bright tops and black capris stood beside me. The older girl was about twelve or thirteen and the younger, maybe, ten. The older girl was dying to get on to the floor; her whole body was shaking with excitement. Clearly, the occasion was new to her. She possibly worried about how her parents would react if she danced in public. An invisible hand held her back. The younger girl was nudging her. Finally, the smaller girl gave her a mighty push and said, ‘Didi, Jah na!’
Didi obliged. She ran to the floor and broke into a dance as Towba teri jalwa, towba tera pyar! was reaching its crescendo.
Another young Indian girl broke off the shackles of hundreds of years.
Published in The Statesman on 6 January 2010