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Beyond Borders

Sangam poetry in Jaffna

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Will you dance in Jaffna in August?" When singer T M Krishna asked me that question over the phone, I happened to be in Delhi, frazzled by a hundred difficult deadlines. There were three students training for their arangetrams in August, an upcoming tour of the US, new dances to choreograph. I started to say "I'm sorry, I can't". What broke that response was the word "Jaffna". I stopped mid-way and took a deep breath. "Give me a little time to decide, " I said.

A couple of months later, I was sitting in a small military plane as dawn broke over Colombo, headed for Jaffna. We sat facing forward like civilian passengers and across the aisle there were men in uniform sitting facing us in a single row. It reminded me of Where Eagles Dare and Hollywood war movies. It was an hour to Colombo and then an hour to double back to Jaffna - almost home again;we rarely realise how close we are to Sri Lanka.

It is deeply fulfilling to be a part of something that is much larger than one's personal concerns and I was excited about this venture that the Indian High Commission there and Krishna had worked so hard to bring about. But on that little plane to Jaffna, I was exhausted and nervous;the flight to Colombo had been at 3:30 am, I had gone to the airport straight from an arangetram and I was facing the rather unnerving prospect of giving a lecture-demonstration in high-flown Tamil that very afternoon. I am comfortable with spoken Tamil, but intellectual discourse and abstractions leave me fumbling for words. And this promised to be a formal affair, with almost the entire Jaffna establishment turning up to launch the event.

At 11 in the morning, hollow-eyed in my room at The Tilko Hotel in Jaffna, I fiddled anxiously with my iPad. What was I going to say? The spectre of the lecture loomed ahead. I started make up at 12. 30 and two hours later, I was led down an aisle through a large hall, packed with dancers, students of dance and art lovers. Everyone stood up and applauded as we walked through - all very grand and ceremonial.

I heard the introductory speeches and my heart sank;Jaffna folk speak classical Tamil, very different from ours. It is like Tamil preserved in time, polite and literary, not the hotchpotch of Tamil and English - Tanglish, that many Chennaivasis tend to lapse into.

After a brief introduction, I decided to present a Sangam poem. It was interesting that the audience understood this ancient poetry, probably better than many Tamilians in India - not the literary cognoscenti, but the lay people. The Jaffna Tamils were very familiar with the Sangam anthologies. Unnuneer Vikkinnan, my Sangam poem on young love, had many in the gathering nodding in recognition. When two elegies that I planned to present at my performance the following day were explained, where a woman lamenting a youth fallen in battle, asks, "Mullaiyum poothiyo? (why do you bloom, o jasmine, in this bereaved domain?) ", people came up to me to say they were very moved by the words.

For the lec-dem, I finally decided an interactive discussion would be easier to handle. Krishna, equally sleep deprived, gallantly agreed to participate as moderator and interviewer. It had been no mean feat of his to organise an arts festival on this scale in Jaffna and he was already something of a hero to them, having also performed there the year before.

Krishna's understanding of dance aesthetics and the fact that my own dance style is intensely musical, made for a stimulating interaction. The questions from the audience were perceptive and intelligent. When do you know you are ready to take the stage? How do you stay true to your style and still be unique? When does freedom to interpret become license?

Sri Lankan Tamils are passionate and proud about their cultural heritage. Dance and the music are part of their collective consciousness and seem to have have seeped into their very marrow. They don't quibble about technique, but just hungrily lap up the arts.

It is a pity they don't have enough gurus with sufficient expertise to shape their enormous talent. They could do with more inputs, enrichment, the shaping of an environment in which to nurture their art. They do come to India in vast numbers to learn dance at institutions like Kalakshetra. In Australia, New Zealand and Europe, they are extremely active culturally.

A hallmark event like this endorses the fact that the arts are vital for those who live tough lives on the fringes. You would imagine that decades of strife and bloodshed might have inured them to the beauty and subtlety of art. But that's not true. Precisely, because they have stared into the jaws of death for so long, they crave music, dance and literature, with their power to uplift, regenerate and heal. (AS TOLD TO MALINI NAIR)

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