[December 27, 2003 – 2335 hrs] I have just returned from Sri Lanka, or to use the anglicised equivalent, Ceylon.
It is a strange country: the old and the new mingle kaleidoscopically. The sights and sounds of a bygone age persist, and the devices of modern science have yet to lend a uniform colour to the land, the kind that we know so well in our world and are tired of. Things there haven’t changed in a long time, but one can see the tentacles of change creeping over the land – to what effects one can only speculate.
At the time I write, there are a lot of German tourists in the country. Many Deutscher have settled permanently, running hotels and inns by the seaside. At one such place, on Christmas’ Eve I encountered a bunch of revellers. They were the only other tourists in the hotel, apart from us, and the rest of the human populace comprised the supporting staff – all Ceylonese. I was sitting on the beach with a friend discussing the structure of sociological science, when we were joined by the Germans and their campfire. I soon found myself joining them and the hoteliers, dancing and singing songs to the beats of a Ceylonese drum. I and the friend ended up contributing Hindi songs to the pool of reggae and local tunes. I hardly knew the complete lyrics to what we sung, but it didn’t matter. Germans, Sri Lankans and Indians crooning and waltzing in unison made a fine sight... I remember thinking that in all my years of gay youth, I had not once done this with my peers – but here, on a lonesome beach with nought but the endless sea and twenty fellow humans I knew not a whit, I just let go; singing tuneless, half forgotten songs with gusto, and enjoying it as much as my beer-intoxicated companions. But the moment, like all others of its kind, passed.
There were other such moments: some to be remembered and some timeless. It is of the timeless that I would speak.
I attended a dance performance with my fellow travellers; they wished to carry away memories of the land they had visited, and I just tagged along, not purposing to dissent. The evening, however, soon proved unexpectedly interesting.
Sri Lankan dance is much like other South Indian dances I have seen: most evident is the vivid profusion of colour, the (sometimes overdone) ornamentation of gestures and clothing, the garish masks, participant musicians, a wistful grace, and the conscious usage of these as representational schemas for storytelling & celebration, with an underlying obsession with good and evil. One would find human passions portrayed, celebrated, and perhaps even reviled, but the darker side of human nature a la Dionysius, or the lesser known myths of Shiva are sadly missing. Perhaps these are sanitised versions of the Balinese dances, whatever their origin; but the Ceylonese dances have retained the element of fear that completes a theatrical experience. However, the performance I witnessed expressed little of that fear, probably because I was surrounded in a comfortable auditorium with hordes of tourists noisily clicking photographs for posterity, cheering and clapping whenever they saw a particularly acrobatic flourish, or a difficult musical piece. So I experienced but a thinly watered version of what should have been a visceral shock. Victorian blandeur1 at its best.
We arrived late, and midway through a dance called the Mayura Natuma (Peacock Dance), performed by flaccid young women attempting to portray the litheness of the peacock, with all the intensity of a prostitute who cares not which faceless demon is making love to her - just figures in front of a mirror 2. Then, just as I was about to write the whole evening off, I noticed a woman who was evidently enjoying the dance; she seemed to be living the dance, swaying as if possessed, smiling incessantly – the genuine smile of one who smiles to herself and not for the gratification of a voyeurish audience. And I gazed, and gazed… and asked questions of myself: Who was she? How old was she? What kind of life did she live? What hopes and fears did she have? And in an instant I found myself transported hundreds of years back, to outside a temple, watching her dance… I saw her being raised for this life as a child, bonded to the temple, growing up, always dancing, always smiling. I saw her marry and bear children, grow increasingly less attractive and hence less valuable as a dancer, old and rejected and leading a simple, ignored life in the confines of that little temple village. Did she lose that seed of joy I saw? Would she lose it now? And I gazed...
And the dance ended. The flaccid young women were replaced by a set of flaccid men, old and young, equally lost, equally tired of the motions. And again I saw, this time in a corner, a vigourous old man putting all his life force into the motions. He presented a stark contrast to the automatons occupying the rest of the stage – the tireless celebratory madman, crying to the heavens to take notice of him, crying to the audience to laugh and sing with him. And I gazed… but asked no questions this time: I just laughed and sang and danced with him as he would have me do.
The evening progressed, and dances went on. Each time the performers went and came I would look for the young woman with the lotus eyes and the old dancer in the corner, and my eyes would follow their life-rhythms. Each dance brought with it its own special mode of celebration, but the song of the young woman and the old man persisted through the evening. The final act was a fire-walking show.
I found myself a vantage point from where I could see both the watchers and the watched. The act began; the performers sprinted across hot coals layered over a sand pit, threw gunpowder into the air and ignited it with their breath blown across torches. Bursts of fire billowed into the eyes of the audience, and at opportune moments they clapped for the virtuosity of the men who performed for their entertainment. I looked for fear, but technology and touristy curiosity had done its trick: all I found was Nikon cameras capturing Kodak moments. When the deed was done, and the people filed away, no doubt muttering to each other how wonderful an evening it was, and how beautiful the clothes of the dancers had been, and how absolutely exotic the whole experience had been – when the deed was done I went to have a look at the fire-pit. There were ants in the fire pit, scurrying amidst the searing heat, seeking comfort from the sudden calamity that had visited them. Hundreds of ants, big and small, rushed around madly, frenziedly seeking a way out of this hell. Did the men who set up the pit know the ants had gotten there first? And then I saw fear, not in individual ants, but in the collective as it fought to retain its structure… I let them be – by morning the coal would have burned out and the colony would have reorganized. Life would find a way, until the next evening’s performance.