If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Put on your dancing shoes

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


  1. I can only confirm that we Punjabis do get on on the smallest excuse.

  2. I have always loved every dance form. Its possibly the only form of expression where each pore of you is involved , active and alive. Dancing is letting go of inhibitions of shackles, like you said, of beliving in yourself, of being confident and of being in the moment. Its beautiful. So is your post.

  3. Isn't "Dhanuchi Nach" our very own? I like the names of the pubs in Gujarat. They deserve a separate post from you.

  4. Strange, Santanu da, that given our vivacity and easy emotional outbursts, we, Bengalis, rarely give ourselves to dancing, except of course, leaving the jigging/jiving bit of our Gen X , when we are heady and swigging a pint or two, it’s a show off to our lady friends in the parties and clubs……

    I’m reminded of that scene in Ray’s “Agantuk” when Mamata, desperately trying to contain her emotions within the confines of her urbane, sophisticated grooming finally gives in as she, prodded by her hubby, joins the Santhali dance. She perfectly rhythms her coy movements with the tribal folks, clasping their hands to the gentle accompaniment of the madals … and the magic was infectious and instant.

    And, perhaps slightly unrelatedly, that witty rejoinder from Tagore when a dance troupe from Manipur visited him in Santiniketan. Asked about whether they would like to be served tea, the lead danseuse politely declined the offer. Pat came the response from Tagore “ Ah! Your disinterest in tea should be but natural! tomra to noti-r dol, nacha-r dol, tai na ?”

  5. I have often lamented the fact that the Bengali is averse to dance (even I am, in public). Maybe some of us are snobbish, some haughty, regarding dance as a lesser form of entertainment that singing (which all Bengalis learn with harmonium, rabindrasangeet-teacher and gusto). Maybe some of us, like myself, are just too shy. But I do so enjoy witnessing the freeing of the spirit that dancing brings on...Bollywood calisthenics notwithstanding.

  6. Santanu, another interesting article. I think the Malayalis are no different from Bengalis when it comes to dancing in public. Marriages here are such sober affairs. The only time people dance is when there is some music program or during new year celebration, that too in the most awkward fashion possible.

    The title reminds me of my school days when I used to listen to the song "Put on your dancing shoes....and dance away your blues" by Jim Reeves I think.

    The song also brings to memory Rakesh Roshan (Hrithik's father) who danced to this tune at an all Sainik schools NCC camp we attended together during my school days, at Amaravathi in Tamilnadu.(Rakesh Roshan is an alumni of Sathara Sainik School in Maharashtra) Needless to say he was the hero of the camp.

  7. True, dancing in some states of India is still considered to be an unconventional way of expressing happiness. But damn people's thoughts, coz when one is happy all you got to do is shake a leg.. like the punjabis..

    nice post

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  9. Thanks, Mr Chowla, for your comments. We have one Punjabi Sikh family from Noida as our family friends, and in Kolkata, we interact with Punjabis off and on. Warmth comes so naturally to you, and I guess, so does dancing. I regret that I never broke the shackles myself to enjoy the freedom that dancing offers.

    Sujata, You are very right. Dancing is possibly the only form of expression where each pore of you is involved. In a way, it is like meditation. Thanks for your observation.

    Tanmoy, Yes, the “dhunuchi nach” may be unique to Bengalis. I haven’t seen anything similar anywhere else, although admittedly, I haven’t seen much. (For those who don’t know, it is a ritual dance performed in front of the Devi Durga with lighted copra and incense powder kept in a brass vessel.) Let me see if I can write more on Gujarat.

    Kaushik, Yes, there seems to be a dichotomy. Our aversion to dancing doesn’t jell with our overall nature. The scene from Agantuk you’ve mentioned is beautiful. Did Ray use it deliberately as a counterpoint to the boring, urban Bengali middleclass family that is at the centre of the story? I hadn’t heard of the pun that you’ve mentioned. As regards the Gen X, there is nothing Bengali or Indian about it. But even that I would count as one of the pluses of globalisation.

    Sucharita, Thanks. I look forward to reading something on dances in PAST CONTINUOUS or WNBIO. If you have already written, please let me know.

    Gopes, I know, Malayali marriages are almost as quiet as funerals. But you have two great dance forms, Kathakali and Mohinyattam. That kind of compensates. I didn’t know that you were in such exalted company in Sainik School. The song under ref was written by Cliff Richards. (Not that I knew, I know now thanks to M/s Google.)

    JD, Thanks very much. I am delighted that you liked my post.

  10. I read your post only this morning. Coincidence, it may seem, because last evening I saw exquisite dance performances by Pallavi Krishnan and Alarmel Valli at the Nishagandhi Festival. Pallavi, who hails from Bengal, is an exponent of Mohiniyattam, one of Kerala's classic dance forms. Alamel Valli performed Bharatanatyam. Though on the wrong side of fifty, she is so slender, agile and nimble-footed that she reminded me of a dragon-fly flitting from on sheaf of corn to another in a paddyfield.

    But then, we are not speaking of classic dances. Mallus seem to have two left weet when it comes to dancing. I cannot think of one occasion I have danced to a tune, notr can I imagine one in future. In my five years in Punjab, I have envied the Sukhvinders and Pinkies who could break into a dance at the drop of a hat.

  11. This post reminds me of so many songs that urge one to dance with abandon :) Tamilians are not so great at shaking a leg for the heck of it. Bharatnatyam is there but Tamilians are not so great at dancing for the heck of it, but marriages are very sober. Maybe the idea of breaking off shackles is so repungent to some people!

  12. Many thanks, KTR and Vasishnavi. Please do keep commenting on my blog.

  13. Then you should attend a Goan wedding.
    They love dancing.
    By the way heard that you too are sorry were a World Space subscriber.

  14. Reluctunce (or inability) to dance is another trait Mallus share with Bongs. Breaking into a song or dance at the slightest provocation is the most endearing expression of happiness. Like Shammi Kapoor said in Chennai on 6 Feb: "I don't know how to dance. I simply gave expression to my songs." - Kerala Varma


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