Posts Tagged ‘Gretchen Hayden’

After just over four years of dance, K, who will turn turn eight in the summer, received her first set of bells on Sunday. These are the ghungroo*, the little brass bells that are woven (by the dancer, or in this case, the dancer’s mother) onto a length of thin rope. These are the bells worn by the kathak dancer around the ankles, wound tightly in coils over a protective layer of felt, the bells that turn the dancer into a musical instrument. The bells arrive via mail in a clump, purchased in bulk (from, of course) and then we loop them (75 per leg in K’s case) onto the rope in a time-consuming but meditative process that involves a lot of jingling and is sure to wake a napping baby.

The conferring of ghungroo takes place through a traditional ceremony of the type we rarely take the time to slow down for these days. The hall we rented was decorated with Indian cloths and garlands of flowers, the little stage transformed into an altar of sorts, with pictures of the dance gurus (the lineage of teachers of  Chhandika, our dance school), a statuette of Nataraja, Lord of Dance, an incense holder. Each dancer brought an offering of a coin, an element of nature and sweets or fruits to share. The bundles of bells are neatly lined up, each one wrapped in red felt and tied with a ribbon. Our teacher, Gretchen Hayden, sat cross legged on the floor in front of the altar and called up each student in turn, taking his or her bundle of bells, holding it to her forehead to symbolize the mind, in front of her mouth to symbolize breath and speech, and to her heart before handing it to the student who did the same. Despite the thousands of bells in the room, the dozens of children and parents, the video cameras and cell phones, there was peaceful silence in the room as everyone appreciated the significance of what was taking place, the connection with an art form that is so ancient and beautiful, the commitment we each make to carrying it forward, the gratitude we have for our teachers, our students, our children.

It is ironic just how much planning, organizing and running around had to take place just so that K and I could be present for this moment of stillness, tradition and meaning. This was a particularly chaotic weekend during which my other half, J, was away teaching at a black belt martial arts camp, I was enrolled in a two-day writing conference with meetings set up with my agent and possible editors, and apparently both K and her two year old sister required care and feeding. I started planning for the weekend weeks in advance, lining up a series of friends and relatives to tag team to be with S (and K the rest of the weekend), typing out a glossary of her odd vocabulary so that when she started frantically pointing to the fridge and yelling “DEE!” the kind soul who was with her would understand she was asking for cheese, or so that when she touched her nose and said “dodo” it would be clear she wanted to sleep. (Yes, I do have a two year old who asks to sleep, and yes, I do realize how lucky I am.) I had lists and piles everywhere, of things to bring to the conference, of items to bring to the ghungroo ceremony, of things to pack for the little one’s stay with a friend. I had to remember who to leave the stroller with, who would need K’s carseat when, where to leave the present for the birthday party she was going to attend in my absence, when to buy the flowers for the ceremony so that they’d still be fresh for the event itself. I had to remember to leave a change of shoes in the car for when I went straight from the ceremony to the conference, to pick up the ceremony program from the printer before they closed at 5:00 on Friday, to pack tissues and DayQuil in my bag because yes, of course I had to have a cold, to find time to rehearse the elevator pitch for my book, to pre-pack K’s lunch for the break between the ceremony and the class with Pandit Chitresh Das that she was going to attend as well.

And was it worth it? A hundred times over. And not just because of what I experienced for myself, which was augmented by something the lovely author Julia Alvarez said later in the day at the conference keynote address and which I’ll address in a separate post, but because it showed K that this was a matter of importance. Now, of course, she had no idea of the level of mad logistics involved which enabled her to receive her bells that day. She did not see the lists, did not notice the piles, had no insight into the complex logistics.

And that is the way it should be. She is seven. The fact that her parents were overextended that weekend, the fact that we had so many things to juggle all at once, that we are constantly feeling like we have to give one thing up in order to do the other, that is our own doing. Perhaps when she grows up she will be better than we are at finding the right balance. But for the moment, having her think of her attendance at the ceremony as a matter of course, having her find it a normal and fully-integrated part of her life, that is what matters the most.

And now here is what that little asterisk next to “ghungroo” is all about: As I was making edits to the ceremony program before sending it to the printer, I consulted with my teacher as to how to spell the word for the bells. There are so many ways that it is transcribed—ghunghru, gungroo, ghunghroo, ghungroo—and we wanted to pick one and be consistent with it. Then my teacher sent me an email with the following subject line: Is it a g or a gh, an u or an oo?!! And something silly was triggered in my brain:

The question is how do
You spell the word “ghungroo?”
Does it end with a U?
Or do O’s make the oo?
Is there one H or two?
If I only knew
We could then say adieu
To this pesky issue.
It seems the circumstances
Under which one dances
May well affect the chances
Of different types of spelling.
But when someone will choose
To use the O’s or U’s
Or downright refuse
The H–there is no telling.
But some advice for you:
Don’t put them on askew
Or up to your genoux
(for the French among you)
Or tie them to a gnu
Or EVER wear them to the loo!

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A couple of years ago, a photojournalism graduate student from Boston University named Varsha Yeshwant approached Chhandika, the dance group with which I am closely affiliated, asking for permission to create a multi-media project around our dance. Specifically, she said: “I want this to serve as a small window into the world of Kathak and the culture of the dance outside India. I want it to show the involvement of the students and the teachers in order to pursue a form of dance that is not widely known by the society here.”

Below is the short result of this work. Take a moment (1:29 minutes, to be precise) to appreciate the simplicity of the scene, the peaceful atmosphere despite the pounding feet, the understated grace and integrity of the teacher, the sheer joy of simply being present that emanates from her and the students. There is nothing dazzling in the movements themselves, nor in the outfits—this was a series of informal practice sessions and classes with a mixed level group of students—but the overall effect is powerful. This is what our classes are all about, keeping something so special alive.


for the love of dance from Varsha Yeshwant on Vimeo.

The sunlight streaming onto the hardwood dance floor, the harmony of thousands of ankle bells in unison, the other-worldliness of the singing and movements, the red tassles of the bronze-colored hand cymbals, the warmth and dedication of the teacher, Gretchen Hayden, these images and feelings that Varsha captured are precisely what drew me in to class eleven years ago.

And yes, that’s me in one of the first shots. A side view of my pregnant self in 2010. Enough said.

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