Archive for July, 2009

We booked a house for a much-needed weeklong vacation, and we’ll be heading there soon. A house on the coast, with a private beach, a lovely-looking deck, and more bedrooms than we need. We’ll be with friends, with a 4:2 adult to child ratio, which in my opinion is perfect. And so… I could have some time to write! And yet. I wonder if I should be thinking this way. Part of me has visions of sitting outdoors, looking out at the ocean, scrunching my bare toes in the grass, sipping a Caipirinha, jotting down notes or outlining chapters while the kids nap or play on the beach, and it looks perfect to me. We’ve had a trying last few weeks, and mental escape to a place in which I can create the realities is appealing. (Albeit within the context of 19th century India.) But part of me (and a large part of my dear husband J) feels that if I consider writing my work, or one of my works, and if the point of this trip is vacation, then I should vacate. As in, not write. Not bring my computer. Not attempt to accomplish anything. Which, as a good friend with similar tendencies to mine points out, is an accomplishment in itself, and therefore should be satisfying.

Is it silly even to be worrying about this? My friend’s husband brings his computer with him when he’s on vacation. A few months ago, when we were sharing a vacation house for a few days, I asked him what he was doing. “Coding,” came the answer. “You’re doing work?” I asked. “Well, not really. I’m coding something the way I think it should be done. But it’s a way they wouldn’t let me do it at work.” So. Take that, J. I’m not completely insane. Or at least, there are others worse than me. He was doing something for work that would never actually be used, simply for the integrity of it. Maybe I’ll bring my writing after all.

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I went to see some office space for Chhandika a couple of days ago. I dream of having an office for the organization. Not only to get the boxes of papers, brochures, flyers, video footage and other stuff out from under my bed and my scant storage space, but because I feel the organization will never be able to make it to the next level without a space to call its own, a space in which to greet visitors and possible donors, in which to welcome volunteers, in which to centralize our books, our video, our marketing materials, our production materials. We are too physically scattered now to be as efficient as we’d like.

So I have been looking at office space. One place, for rent last year at the end of my street, and conveniently located just a block from where we hold many of our kathak dance classes, looked perfect. A storefront space, large enough to house a couple of desks, a round meeting table with chairs, some bookshelves, a comfortable armchair, a rug or two, some wall hangings from India, a display of photos and quotes from our events, with storage space for costumes, dance bells, instruments. It was so easy for my mind to fill it, to furnish it, to turn it into a warm, inviting, practical, useful space. I could hear the strains of a sarod, smell the masala chai. But the rent was too high. (And yet. The group that did sign a lease is some esoteric, avant garde art group of sorts, which draws the curtains across the storefront and periodically opens them to allow passers by a view of a pyramid of unlabeled tin cans, or an abstract design of cotton balls strewn across the white floor. Right now there is a gilded television set displaying static. How this group has the money to pay $850 per month in rent, while Chhandika, with over 70 dance students, would struggle to pay half as much, is beyond me.)

Then I looked at a different space, in a residential area, two blocks off of a main avenue. There were three empty offices available within an architecturally interesting ground floor suite which included a kitchen and a circular meeting room with plush carpeting. An aura of hushed tranquility hung over the whole place. The manager of the property showed me around. She spoke in the sparse, quiet way of someone who spends much of her time meditating and cannot be bothered with practical details. I could again picture us using the space, perhaps sharing an office with another group, but it felt too removed from the world. Too quiet, too invisible from the street. Kathak is colorful, dynamic, percussive, full of stories. I wondered what kind of story we could tell there.

The search continues. But my husband brings up some good points: does it make sense for a non-profit organization to be looking for office space, when that will drastically increase our overhead costs? Shouldn’t the goal be to reduce them? In an era of wireless this and off-grid that, is it old fashioned to seek a physical place in which to gather people and stuff? Should we instead be putting the money into streamlining our systems to function more efficiently in a spread-out fashion? How does one reconcile the new ways of doing business with the need for face-to-face contact? Dance is physical, emotional, spatial. We can upload files to Google Documents to access them from anywhere, and we can hold administrative meetings via conference call, but how do we create a space of our own to cultivate human connection when we do not have an office or studio of our own? (All our classes are held in studio spaces that we rent from other organizations.)

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Yesterday was Guru Purnima. Traditionally, it is a day for devotees to honor their guru. Today, for anyone studying an art form, it translates into a day for honoring one’s teachers. I am grateful for my own kathak dance teacher, Gretchen Hayden, who would balk at the term “guru” applied to her (and who has a humility which might well be at odds with the very notion of guru-ness), but who nonetheless plays an irreplaceable teaching/guiding/parental role to many of her students. And I am grateful for her guru, Pandit Chitresh Das.

To the students and disciples of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, however, yesterday must have been a sad day, for last month he passed away, and the world lost a maestro of music. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was a composer and player of the sarod (an Indian classical, stringed instrument) of rare genius and intensity.  As is typical to the arts in India, he was a guru to several disciples upon whom it now falls to carry on his legacy. “Guru” is such a misunderstood word in the West, where it implies someone who has followers, or someone with authority because of knowledge or skills that are real or perceived. But a guru is so much more than that. A guru combines the roles of teacher and parent, who passes on his (or her? I won’t go there right now) knowledge as fully as possible, a jug pouring its contents into another jug, or at least a cup. The death of a guru is a devastating blow, similar, I imagine, to the death of a parent, for his disciples are left with the shocking realization that the responsibility for passing on what they know now falls to them, that they are the only keepers of, in this case, the art.

How many true gurus does the world still have? Those in their seventies, eighties and nineties now represent the last of the generation that grew up studying, practicing for hours every day of their lives, striving for a perfection that sometimes only they could see. One of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s disciples, George Ruckert, did study at his feet for seventeen years straight (during which time he met and married my kathak dance teacher, herself a disciple of a dance maestro) but eventually life and responsibilities altered his course, and he moved across the country for a teaching position at a prestigious university. I am lucky enough to benefit from his music and his compositions, the pieces he creates for my dance group, the notes that come wafting out from his music room when I visit his house. When I hear them, when I dance to them, I feel I am peering into a window to a vanishing world, a window I wish I could open wider for all to see in.

I try not to think about what will happen when my generation’s teachers are no longer with us. Are there some among us who can ever play the same role? Who can create so much, which such talent, with such perseverance, with such focus? Or are we all just too scattered, pulled in too many directions to ever have the time and opportunity, even with the talent and resolve, to create staggeringly beautiful art? True disciples are very much NOT “the people.” They do not get to decide when or where or how much they will work. Anyone who has tied the strings of discipleship has tales of fourteen-hour days of practice beginning before dawn, their guru controlling every minute of the day, down to when and what they can eat, and what they must be able to achieve before being worthy of another lesson. Do we as a generation even know how to choose one thing and stick with it? Do we have the patience to practice for hour upon hour the same movement, the same melody? Do we have the humility to accept that our teacher tell us to go back and do it again, and again, until we do it right? I fear the answer. And yet I understand it.

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