Volume Five, Issue 1

My Decadal Diary Of Desires, One December To Another

Chitra Gopalakrishnan

10 December, 1990

The gentle, swaying movements of the Mohiniyattam dancer matches the smooth, pliant swing of the tall coconut palms that line the small beach town of Kannur, in northern Kerala. Her soft, gliding, stylized movements mimic their oscillations to the call of the undulating waves of the Arabian Sea.

In the month of December, in this southernmost state of India, where the weather is near-perfect, warm but comfortably so, a stage has set up close to the seashore. This especially for visitors like me, who have come to experience this state’s tropical beaches and backwaters, to get, in the bargain, a taste of the making of its culture; traditions, lifestyle, culinary, literature, and art and dance forms included.

Today, our exploration is to be visual, in the form of the sensuous dance of Mohiniyattam.

Our introduction to it comes from a woman presenter, Brinda Menon, dressed in a tantalizing shade of mauve, whose diction, like the folds of her sari, swirls with fluid grace.

Brinda speaks slowly, and thoughtfully. “This is a dance devoted to lasya or the feminine aspect of dance attributed to Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, the third deity of the Hindu trinity, the other two gods being Lord Brahma, the creator, and Lord Vishnu, the preserver. It is among the few dance forms that allow the female dancer, or the naiyka as she is often called, to candidly claim her sexuality in performance, to push past the dominant nationalist body politics.”

With the same conversational ease, she continues, “As the liberties of Mohiniyattam allows a self-journeying into a force that cannot be contained, it is, perhaps, the reason why it stands a distance from the élite precincts of dance forms elevated to the status of the classical. Of course, many dances labeled classical, like the south Indian form of Bharatnatyam, and the east Indian Odissi, which are in their own ways as deeply sensual, have been trying over years to negotiate their innovations with traditionalists, and new audiences abroad.”

After a brief pause to allow latecomers to settle in, yet with no hint of impatience for these people with poor manners, she continues, in her fleet-footed prose, “Female desire, women’s needs, cannot be reduced to a single experience. The tangle of their secret dreams is woven of many skeins, varies between one and another, is often irresolute and mutable, and has a bafflingly diverse and messy spectrum of manifestations.”

“It is this enigma, this inner conflict,” she emphasizes, this time carefully pausing for effect, “that Kanak Nair, our dancer for today, will search through in the next two hours, as she gives herself the permission to experience what she finds pleasurable, and seek her own answers about what she wants. You will, I am sure, find old dualisms, like light and dark, good and bad, dirty and clean fall away.”

As the final flourish, before the performance is set to begin, she introduces the organizer, Sheila Kumar, who is brief, colloquial, yet as eloquent in her address. “Like all the women who have adopted this dance form in the past, Kanak Nair, has a deep knowledge of how to communicate through her body, in motion and in stillness, with rigorous precision and spontaneity. And, she shares her insights on mythology, temple architecture, Natya Shastra, the codified dance repertoire as laid down by the ancient Sanskrit treatise on performing arts, and on body kinetics, that dissects the movement of limbs, muscles and even nerves, in her books. Her writings could help those who wish to delve, explain, argue, persuade, and philosophize on the subject of female desire.”

Kanak Nair appears on the stage breathing her aura. Her presence, even in stillness, is spectacular. Electric. For me, she has already set a sense of place, and mood. Every detail contained in her speaks to my twenty-year-old being.

She moves to pay obeisance to the deity, and greets her audience using the mudra (hand gesture) of folded palms. Draped in the traditional, profusely-pleated, ivory-white and gold nine-yard saree, that to an uninformed viewer looks more like a skirt, with a matching blouse, and a melak as a covering piece over her bosom, the small fan-like piece that she wears just below her waist, and above the skirt-like saree holds my attention. It throbs with an energy of its own.

As does her glittering jewelry, adornments on her forehead, on either side of her parted hair, and on her nose, ears, neck, waist, fingers, hands, wrists, and ankles, that throw light flashes every time she moves.

I notice her eyes blackened dramatically with kohl, her brows penciled for effect, her prominent red pottu (dot) that glistens on her forehead, her rouged cheeks, the ends of her palms stained vermillion, and her lips reddened in the extreme, all of which, I am sure have been carefully and adroitly crafted by a skilled team of makeup artists to help her project her emotions.

Her hair spun into a bun and poised on the side of her head is strung with layers of jasmine flowers, and their perfume finds its way to us mixed with the aromas of sand, the salt of the sea, sunshine, coconut trees, and enticement. The scent of sandalwood also spirals out to us from somewhere, maybe from stacks of incense sticks, cleverly hidden away from our view.

“Did you know Mohiniyattam was banned by the British at the beginning of the twentieth century as ‘vulgar’?” she asks us from her position of advantage on the stage, her voice the texture of raw silk. On her right are musicians, seated on the ground of the stage, and on her left is a single, tall, brass lamp, its six corners alight with flickering flames kept alive by long, oil-laden cotton wicks.

“Yet this dance form, called the dance of an enchantress, continues in present day India, even as we persist in culturally contextualizing shame and devaluing female sexuality.”

In reply to a question, from a gentleman in the audience, on how this dance form has survived, she says, “The fact that it has been an integral part of ritual and temple culture has, perhaps, helped it survive. It did fall victim to efforts to rewrite its corporeality, through a cleansed version of Indian womanhood, one that lays emphasis on uncompromising gait and postures, all in the name of purity and classical dance, but revivalist efforts over the years have reinstalled its essence.”

A lady, who identifies herself as British, is curious about the nomenclature. “The name Mohiniyattam, Kanak Nair explains, is “derived from Mohini, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, who appears as a woman, a divine beauty, during a battle between the devas (good) and the asuras (evil). Lord Vishnu, as Mohini, uses her supreme charm to procure amrita, the nectar of immortality, and distributes it among the devas to ensure only good will prevail in the world.”

A straggle-toothed teenager, with torn jeans and a crumpled t-shirt, surprises the audience by his question on the dance’s recognizable features. “What is special about this form of dance,” she says, “is that it relies less on jathis (rhythmic footwork patterns), and more on stylized movements of the body and feet, dramatic eye language, facial expressions, and hand gestures called mudras as abhinaya (enactment) techniques.”

In her choreographed performance of ‘Lila’, based on the well-known poem of Kerala’s renowned poet Kumaran Asan, and danced against the dramatic backdrop of the sea, sky, and sand, to lyrics in Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit, Malayalam, and Tamil, Kanak Nair’s repertoire is similar to the Bharatnatyam.

In her ekaharya abhinaya (or solo dance), she works her way through the classical dance form’s timetable of cholkattu, invocation to Goddess Bhagavati, swarajati or pure dance, varnam, where she elaborates her story, padam, where she describes her emotions, tillana or pure dance, and the final elements of shlokam and saptham.

The use of her toe and heel in a flowing manner, her calculated, conscious and softly restrained footwork, and her circular movements of her torso, synchronized to the chiming wind instruments and cymbals played by the musicians, is evocative as it is sublime in its adherence to its classical moorings. Her involvement with the tala (beat), bhava (emotions) and abhinaya (expressions), for a suave balance between these three elements, stamps her signature on this performance.

Yet with my smattering of knowledge on dance, I am well aware that she has found a unique physical vocabulary, a tasteful, refined corporeal aesthetic, very much her own, to take her audience through a journey of her needs, physical, and emotional.

As I watch Kanak Nair spin out her desires, her poeticising of her presence, from her innocent childhood, to her exciting adolescence, to the freshness of first love, to the full bloom of youth, to her fulfilling marriage, and her sudden widowhood and deprivations thereafter, I react to the unbridled sensations she captures.

I savor the manner in which her body rings with discoveries of innocent sensualities, and bolder discoveries of the erotic. I delight in her capacity to feel joy as well as give joy so clearly evident in her movements. And, I exult in how she goes from being bashful to bold, in how she morphs from being a grammarian of allure, edgy, ravenous, and moody, to a screen for her audience to project their own secret fantasies and longings. And I marvel at how she articulates her unfulfilled needs in widowhood.

Like Kanak Nair, I, too, dare to know my body, fully, in my twenties. Not as an obsession chased with single minded intent, my pursuit of career, and reading being far more voracious, but as a matter of personal choice.

Though not a dancer, but fitted with a charismatic body presence, I am forward in discovering the erotic as a source of my power. I abduct the madness of desire, its highs and lows, and its dangers, subterfuges, and competitiveness.

I, like her, break out of being weighed down by my social identity, and do not allow the world to leash me within limited roles, sexually or otherwise.

Neel is a presence in my life in this stage. He is one who fires my erotic imagination, takes me from tame fantasies behind the quivering net curtains in my mind to the awakenings of pleasure. He opens me up to new trysts, many frissons of excitement, to the secrets and stimulations of the sensual universe, and I go on to new lovers, who are as exciting yet gentle, and respectful of my needs, and strangers to coercion and violence.

10 December, 2000

Through the length of my thirties, I continue to throw out social conventions, and seek pleasure as I deem fit. My acts are acts of will, leaps of action, to know myself. My inner workings.

I do it not so openly, perhaps, yet not in secret. And I ensure my liaisons do not impair other women’s hearts and lives.

I dare to want more from my body, even as I own the thrill of its outrageous and polyamorous freedoms, and its brute force that physically gushes out.

Yet through shared excitement of passions, the sorrow that comes with the end of a relationship, and even the rancor in some cases, I am able to rise far beyond the mechanics, the acrobatics of sex.

My intense relationship with Sanjay, a social anthropologist, progresses fast, and we become remarkably familiar with one another in a short span of time. Our bond deepens when we work together in a village in north India collecting data on maternal health. We come to know each other, cerebrally and viscerally, as closely as we come to know the dawn chorus of the babblers, the animated sounds of bells, hooves, and wheels of bullockarts, the quiet domesticity of the village, the toil of women, the insides of their sun-blistered homes, and the travails of men as they struggle to find work.

We are not afraid to live a life in felicity, in freedom, without a future, and also to let each other go without bitterness.

In my relationship with Avik, that happens three years later, and dissolves within a year, the tinge of bitterness and hardness of heart last a while.

In my self-exploratory journey, I am aware, that in a country where the socio-cultural ethos is one of suppression, and control of the female body, my acts are ones of defiance.

Yet I continue to be unyoked from the prevailing the family and monogamous culture by refusing marriage, by chafing against society rules, power balances, restrictions, and by refusing deference.

This, even as I remain secure in the enhanced power my liaisons bring me.

I am not ready to settle for a world of deprivation, or loss.

10 December, 2010

In the decade of my forties, I open up to conversations on cultural scripts that mandate women’s disinterest in sex. Women have as much desire as men, I argue.

Though I part of no movement, I speak up for sex without stigma. For consensual liaisons beyond officially recognized coupledom’s. In blogs, in social forums.

I move freely between the personal and the political, the anecdotal, and the philosophical. I try to connect the missing social, cultural, and historical dots.

I join a photography series initiative that is firecracker vocal on the female body and meant to inspire discussions on sex and female pleasure. I earn an army of supporters, in the land of the Kamasutra, and as many critics.

I balk at the rough-tongued decimation of my character, the trampling’s, pay the price for being convention-defying, and break down as the community takes it upon itself, with vitriol, to tackle female eroticism, me, and my spirit.

I survive.

And I even manage to integrate the pieces of my sexual being into something the seems to me relatively whole.

10 December, 2020

As I turn fifty in the course of this year, and am as yet unmarried, there is a place in my mind, in my body, that feels different.

There is a silence within that is far removed from the riotous emotions, desires, and intimacies of before. Yearning, physical or emotional, is no longer a powerful physical narrative for me, and I seek out more restful stories.

This year is, after all, a year of social isolation. A year where the lack of connection, fear, mortality, and loss reigns. A year where something fundamental has changed within me, and the world. It is also the year when inter-faith relationships and marriages are being stridently opposed in my country, more than ever, under the banner of love-jihad, a struggle against love. A moral climate of denial, where empathy is not big, is underway.

But it is more than just this. The silence within has approached much before the onset of 2020.

It is not as if I have completely shrugged the weight of my monetary wants, or the messes of daily life. On the contrary, on many days, the outside world of consequence does invade, and destroy.

But what I have done is this. I have let go of the pursuit of my physical desires. There is something illuminating about my earlier journey, my wanting to define my person in my way by venturing outside of formal constraints. It held its truth, but now I choose to walk on another road less travelled.

This relinquishing, abstinence if you will call it so, leads me to a quiet space, maybe not wholly filled with spiritual love, as you imagine I will say, but one that is liberated from desire, its craving and slaking. Here, I find well-being, and simple pleasures seem far more alluring than the extremities of passions. This plain tinkle of recognition washes me in a kind of light, an ordinary, prosaic light, one that soothes me with its calm.

Again, it is not as if my body does not recognize other tactile pleasures or suffer from disturbances in its serotonin and dopamine levels, but it is just that I am free from the wildness of desire. I don’t feel the need to dive back into that sensual brawl. And, the seeming tedium of my space does not faze me.

I must admit though, on days, I feel a kind of nostalgia for the ghosts of my old excitements, my private anguishes, yet my dispassionate, new-self shrugs it off.

Perhaps, this is story of divergence is one already told by other women of my age. One of a reduced core. A low libido. Dried uterus and vagina. The loss of ground to younger women, as many women seem to look at it. Maybe it holds no surprises.

Yet in my case, my space is not a desolate place to be in. Nor is there a sense of abandonment. There is just a feeling of freedom, a sense of liberation, in letting go of the drama of enthrallment. Yes, I agree the drama falls short in my life but there is a certain relief in going without it.

Is my current situation a yearning for something outside of myself? A search for something to free me of the burden of crafting my own storyline? Or an attempt to untangle myself from competing stories of women around me that frighten me with their many confusions? I cannot say.

So I will thwart the impulse to narrate this self-awareness as salvation. As beautiful or transcendent. Or a releasing epiphany. Or remedial, almost like a treatise on toast. I will merely say ‘it just is’ in my case. I did not wish it or work towards it, it just arrived, and I have submitted to it. Submitted, I assure you, is not a semantic overreach.

I know that other women will have their own journeys, their desires might hold out for far longer, and buzz like fireflies, their din, and revelry lasting longer. And that there will always be space between our travels.

Chitra Gopalakrishnan: "I use my ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism. See www.chitragopalakrishnan.com."

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