I arrived in
Bangalore during the winter of 1999, and lived with two typical South Indian families, who opened their homes
to me. There, I spent three months studying Bharat Natyam (Indian
Classical Dance) with Shubha Dhananjay.
after beginning my studies, Shubha asked me to tour with her
dance company at large festivals, cultural programs, and spiritual
events... an unexpected honor, and amazing experience! I also
performed and was interviewed on Bangalore television during
a dance competition program, where I demonstrated American
Tribal Belly Dance.
is a high-energy, relatively clean and modern-tech city with a rich
(1) Posing with Shubha's sister. (2) Having fun with Shubha. (3) Standing with a decorated cow during a village festival.
artistic atmosphere. One night I snuck into
an Indian Belly Dance nightclub - where I was the only woman
other than the dancer - in a packed lounge. In India, these
clubs are the equivalent of American strip clubs where men
can get away with ogling a woman in public, except that in
an Indian club, the women dancing don't take off their saris!
They also have to be excellent singers as well as dancers.
Also in Bangalore was the Sai Baba temple, one of my favorite
active temples in India. Once entered, it was almost impossible
to leave, enchanted by the beautiful "bhajans,"
songs filled with devotion. At most active, major temples,
one gets mobbed - but here I found a tranquil environment
full of divine love, filled with quiet, centered devotees
who were simply there to worship with all their hearts.
I used to take morning walks in the suburban townships,
and watch the women sweeping in front of their homes, and
making beautiful, yet complicated powdered chalk and rice
flower designs by hand, called Rangoli. Rangoli are used for
protection, to beautify the outside of the home, and raise
Also in the State of Karnataka, I visited fields of rice
paddies and coffee plantations in natural jungle environments,
where wild peacocks roamed freely. I stayed in Mysore, visiting
a beautiful palace on the ocean, and a famous monkey temple
filled with dreadlocked and naked holy men. I stayed in Madras,
Mangalore, and other wonderful places.
|In Jaipur, a royal
desert city renowned for its superb artisans, you will see
the most colorful turbans, mirrored and sparkling veils, and
the most decked-out elephants and camels in all of India.
Studying daily, in 120 degree weather, with an entire Gypsy
band and dancers that came to my hotel and set up camp outside
in the courtyard, I was able to mimic their dance moves, and
get accustomed to the various rhythms of the tabla and dholak.
Then, after grasping the basic movements, I was taught the
secrets of the pre-performance beauty regime, which takes
as long as the actual show - and includes veil pinning, nose
ring insertion, the designs and positions of tribal facial
markings, applying mehendi,
(1) Dancing with Santosh. (2) Santosh and her sister getting ready. (3) At home. (4) Snake charmer.
putting on ankle bells, and painting
large bindi designs. Later, I was given a gift of a young
Rajasthani women's folk dress, and was asked to perform with
them nightly at a local five-star restaurant. The schedule
of practice and performing would often exceed 12 hours of
continuous dancing: training in total immersion.
Santosh and her Gypsy family took me their Ancestor's origins
in the deep desert lands, where some herders still live - in
three foot tall straw huts they share with chickens
and goats - smoking their hookahs and playing gourd whistles
to their cobras. We also traveled to the Gypsy village, where
in the presence of an Elder, we were expected to pull our
veils over our faces as a sign of respect. I witnessed their
daily chores, like cooking chapatis over a cow dung-fueled
fire, and taking the family mongoose out for a walk.
In the village, I was pushed into a tribal, nomadic Guedra veil dance,
with several other women, heads covered, squatting on the sand. All one could see of the ritual
was the women's mehendi covered hands, and bangled arms, emerging from their veils, performing the sacred
gestures of the dance. I was able to train and perform with her and her sisters, and musicians professionally,
as well as in the traditional setting, around the village fire.
|My most recent trip
to India, in 2002, took me to the Elora Caves, a breathtaking
range of mountains impregnated with miles of temples and sculpture,
carved from the mountain itself during the Hindu, Jain, and
Buddhist dynasties between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. Viewing
these miraculous carvings, one literally feels the grace of
God and the inconceivable level of divine inspiration the sculptors
must have attained, to bring these cavernous temples and sculptures
Dodging bats, with sketchbook in hand, I studied the ancient
tantric jewelry from the bodies of the goddesses themselves.
It was also my rare fortune to witness the annual birth of
the waterfall that cascades
(1) On the sacred Sufi burial ground. (2) Posing before the Warrior Goddess Durga, at Elora.
over the caves on the start of
the Monsoon. Luckily, I didn't run into the indigenous King
Cobra, or the Tigers that drink from the fall's pond during the night.
On the morning of a Solar Eclipse, I traveled over ten kilometers
on foot, wearing my flip-flops and a sari... down two desert
mountain ranges, in search of the obscure temple of Mahakali.
After I participated in the puja, received my blessings, and
ate my coconuts, I proceeded back up the mountains without
any water... falling Ill in the 100-plus degree heat. I lay
on the ground praying for water with all my heart, until finally
the Monsoon came, answering my prayers and saving my life.
There is also, deep within this mountain range, the world's
largest monolithic sculpture - a most exquisite temple dedicated
to Lord Shiva, carved out of a single piece of stone. And
nearby, is the Grishneshvara Shiva temple, housing in its
inner chamber, a living, breathing Shiva Linga, known to bless
women desiring to have a child. Seeing the stone Linga actually
breathing was an indescribable experience.
I also visited many sacred Sufi Burial Grounds, such as Khuldabad,
and paid homage to the departed Sufi saints. With my bare
feet, I could feel the sacredness of the ground beneath me,
reflecting the serenity of these teachers of Divine Love.