Dance of Exemption

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My paternal grandfather hailed from a small village called Navipur in U.P., about a 100 kms southeast of Delhi. That whole geographical belt comprising of Kosi-Mathura-Vridavan-Nandgaon, somewhere in the middle of which Navipur sits demurely nested, is famous for its Holi celebrations. Although I was almost twenty years old when this incident took place, and by then I had visited that village quite a few times; this was going to be the first time I would get to experience those festivities. Needless to say I was excited beyond words.

The high point of the entire celebration was the event which took place on the eve of Holi. To witness that event, we were taken to a spot on the balcony of our ancestral house which oversaw a large arena to its left. A huge nagada sat in the middle of that large arena, and all the village folk had gathered around it. The women came dressed in colorful ghagra-cholis most of which looked quite similar. But what stood out among their costumes, was their vibrantly hued chunaris, embellished with shiny gold and silver laces and decorations all over. I loved those chunaris so much that even though I didn’t own a ghagra-choli, or didn’t evn intend to I made a mental note to pick up of those chunaris up for myself from, as a souvenir.
The younger men and women from the village positioned themselves at the two opposite ends of that arena; obedient and coy, but betraying a shade of impatience for someone’s cue to start the mirth. The elders settled down on the cemented pavements encircling the trees in one corner of the arena, which also served as a vantage point. And then with the roll of that nagada, (which I must admit made far more foot-tapping music than I had assumed an instrument as huge as that would be able to make) like a sudden thunderous downpour, the crowd just burst into a spirited dance. The men danced confined to the left of the arena and the women on the right, with about a 30 odd feet of mutually respected ‘no-man’s land’ dividing them; something I couldn’t quite get the rationale behind. We, the outsiders, were ordered strictly by the elders of our family, to just stay up at the balcony and be silent spectators. Although my feet were involuntarily rebelling against that diktat with every beat of the nagada. I found the restriction on us a tad odd, but it wasn’t the time or the place to argue, so we ‘outsiders’ just begrudgingly complied.

But after a while, looking at all those people dance I did begin to wonder that even if we were allowed to take part, did anyone of us have it in us to match steps with those people? I have seen quite a few amazing dancers in my life, but none like the ones I saw there. Dance is after all a game of energy, right? But the verve with which those people were dancing; honestly, I didn’t know the scale even went that high! I doubted if we would have lasted more than 5 minutes with those people. Especially and amazingly, the women of that group!

There was an odd quality of pep in their dance; which I felt deeply contrasted with their heavy ghagra-cholis and chunari-veiled faces. Their faces interestingly, I must share, remained completely veiled at all times. The chunari didn’t budge an inch, even with all that animated dancing. It made me wonder how they even managed to see where to step. To me, it seemed like an unnecessary irritant. But not to those women, who in fact seemed to be making sure that the chunari kept their faces fully covered at all times. I realized that, even with what I can only assume must have been a seriously restricted view, I had never seen a more happily and freely dancing lot. So I just surmised that it must be because they were after all, used to wearing chunaris and keeping their face covered all the time.

After a while, the dancing style changed. The loosely earmarked ‘no-man’s land’ had now become a battleground. One of the men from the group capered onto that area and gestured towards the women as if inviting a challenger. The women shared veiled glances and fixed on a member of their group to be sent in response; all this while, their feet never stopping for even a second. The chosen one, then danced her way over to her challenger. The music suddenly picked up tempo and the dance became even more exhilarant. The whole thing was now a one-on-one competition about who outlasts whom, with both the contenders’ respective gangs cheering them on. After a few minutes of extremely energetic dancing, one person from that pair of challengers would resignedly walk back to the group and tag someone else to come forward and take his/her place. This went on for at least fifteen such pairs. And amazingly those frail looking, chunari laden, presumably visually restricted women gave those men one hell of a fight and won most of those rounds. It was an incredible sight. The way those women moved, and the embellishments on their chunaris glistened catching the rays of the setting sun, irradiating the whole place, was spectacular. I remember telling my aunt every ten minutes that I must get one of those chunaris for myself. I knew I would never end up wearing it; but I wanted it purely as a memento of that beautiful evening. I don’t think I had ever before or ever again enjoyed so thoroughly, seeing someone else dance their hearts out, when I am forced to merely stand by.

But something about what I saw that evening stuck out to me as an oddity. It piqued my interest enough to make me inquire about that event later that night, over dinner. The restrained and mostly coerced answers I got from the elders in our family, took away every shred of the feeling of gaiety, witnessing that event had left me with.

That night, that somber sleepless night, using what I had seen and the answers I had received, I managed to construct the whole story. A story which did not leave me with the same aftertaste, that evening’s fête had.

The footloose spirit, with which these women danced, in fact, was a by-product of the hackneyed lives they otherwise led. Lives stifled by parochial social customs and fettered by prejudiced dos and don’ts imposed on them in the name of tradition. Every waking moment of their days they follow never ending restrictions dictated by their families and society. Where to go, when to go, whom to go with, whom to talk to, how loud to talk, when to eat, how much to eat. Everything! These yearly celebrations were the only times when the barricades that restrained their every movement were lifted. Only for a short while, only for that day, only for that event, were they exempted from the usual timorous demeanor that they must wear, whenever in public view.

So when the opportunity presented itself, these women made the most of it. That dance wasn’t just a festive ritual for these women; it was the only source of releasing all that pent up vitality and animation inside them. It was a declaration of their freedom, however transient, it might be. Their delirious dance moves announce boldly, that unlike their lives, their spirits weren’t manacled.

Their heavily ornate chunaris, ironically, the very symbol of their perennial subordination, were on that particular evening, most instrumental towards their flitting independence. The fact, as I had learned that evening, was that most of those women would exchange their chunaris with each other before the dance starts. And so no one, not even the men from their own families would be sure of which one amongst the whole assemblage were the women from their families. This whole element of anonymity was the key to the overall blitheness of their performance that evening. They knew that these chunaris would enshroud them; away from the judging, restraining, admonishing eyes of everyone. Their shackles, for that one evening became their safety nets. I now understood why they were so enthusiastically compliant in keeping that chunari in place at all times. It was ironical, but in a rather sweet and redemptive way, that the chunaris which were otherwise a means of making these women inconspicuous to the society they live and breathe in proved to be the cloak on invisibility they very much needed to live those magical moments.

The irony made me smile, albeit with a sadness in my heart. Sleep was scanty that night.

The next morning after breakfast, my aunt called me into the living room where she had summoned a woman who sold those chunaris. When I walked in, on the carpet I saw laid out, chunaris of all possible colors one can imagine. A lot of them, far more stunning and bedecked than the ones I had seen the previous evening. The woman selling them, was squatting on one corner of the carpet, her eyes glittering with the hopes of making a killing this morning. So, I could sense before I even walked in, that my aunt must have been telling her how enchanted I was with the beauty of those chunaris and hence instructed her to lay out the absolute best of her stockpile for me to choose from. No doubt, what was now spread out in front of me, accosting me for a huge purchase, was truly exquisite stuff.

But the truth was, after what I had heard and deduced about those women; it seemed to me that it would be nothing short of a sacrilege, for me to just buy that chunari and wear it. It wasn’t just something one can, rather should, buy with money and wear. Clearly, there were rites of passage to go through before one gets to adorn them. And it occurred to me that I had enjoyed too much liberty, too many privileges all my life to ever even be eligible for that rite of passage, let alone clear it. Everything about those chunaris, their vibrancy, their artistry; was out of my league. I had been much too free, all my life, to merit the fleeting freedom which those chunaris signified. When one is used to breathing as freely as I was, they can never truly know the catharsis found in the act of exhaling after holding it all in, for so long. Those chunaris belonged to the women of that village, only those women; who suffered throughout the year to be entitled to that one evening.

With my eyes and fingers appreciating the sorrowful magnificence of those badges of distinction, which I would never get to wear, my heart just sent a silent prayer to god, asking him to grant these women, many more such ‘dances of exemption’.  

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