STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST

THE DISCIPLINED UTOPIA

A MONTH WITH THE ODISSI DANCERS NEAR BANGALORE, INDIA

DISCUSSED: The Only Proper Response, A Garland of Skulls, Reverent Poses, A Radical Decision, The Pedagogy of the Gurukul, Early Practitioners, A Party Girl, A Place Where Nothing Else Exists, Bureaucracy, A Nightmare, The Goddesses, rasa, The Secret, Collard Greens, Curves, Women’s Desire

It is ten minutes to showtime. Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy—the principal dancers of the classical Indian ensemble Nrityagram—are stretching in their open-air home studio near Bangalore, India. The sun sank over an hour ago, but the temperature has yet to follow. It is brain-meltingly hot. As the guru, Sen needn’t suffer. After a final warm-up of leaping into the air and smacking her heels against her backside ten times in a row, she calls over her apprentices—three girls in their late teens—and expresses her displeasure. Giggling, one fans Sen with the hem of her kurta. When Sen protests the ineffectiveness of this method, the others dart away and return with a few magazines. Nodding her approval, Sen folds herself in half, nose to knees, and enjoys the breeze’s reprieve. Then she swats a mosquito. An apprentice runs for a bottle of repellent, squeezes some into her palm, and passes it to another apprentice. Together, they massage the lotion into their guru’s arms while the third continues to fan her.
     Satpathy, meanwhile, is clearing the dance floor of errant occupants, namely beetles. Although there is a broom nearby—not to mention eager apprentices—she elects instead to pick one up with her bare hands and carry it over to the paneless windows cut into the stone walls. Gently, she releases it.
     Shrieks of laughter indicate their audience is approaching. Sen and Satpathy typically dance for crowds of hundreds or even thousands at the world’s top venues and festivals. The New Yorker has deemed them “probably the Indian dance company most beloved by American audiences right now (maybe ever),” while the New York Times concluded a 2015 review with “The only proper response to dancers this amazing is worship.” But tonight is a humble affair, just a couple dozen schoolchildren who are spending the week at their famed village. Instead of wearing their usual brocade silks and jewels and crowns of jasmine bulbs, Sen and Satpathy have donned cotton saris over cholis and leggings. Rather than to live musical accompaniment, they will dance to a CD. In place of distinguished critics, they have me.
     The children burst into the studio with laughs and shouts—until Sen casts her dark eyes on them. They become silent almost immediately. Once they have settled onto the mats lining the floor, she reveals the subject of tonight’s performance: Lord Shiva. What, she asks, do they know of him? A dozen hands shoot skyward. Shiva is the god who makes the Ganges River flow from his hair, they say; the one who wears five serpents and a garland of skulls; who has three eyes and four arms; who once drank a pot of poison to keep it from contaminating the cosmos.
     “That is why his neck is blue!” one says as she clamps her hands around her throat. “His wife stopped the poison from filling his belly.”
     Yes, yes, but aren’t they forgetting something?
     “He has a pet tiger?” offers a chunky boy in glasses.
     “Lord Shiva,” Sen announces, “is half-woman!”
     Hindu deities boast so many marvelous attributes, it’s easy to see how double gender could escape their notice. Ganesh is part elephant, Hanuman is mostly monkey, and Krishna is completely blue, after all. Having one breast and one pec, as Shiva’s androgynous iteration does, is pedestrian by comparison. Yet duality speaks deeply to Sen and Satpathy. They tell the children they will be witnessing a display of yin and yang tonight, a celebration of the male and female within themselves, “like a love song, where one half sings to the other.”
     With that, they take center stage, with Satpathy kneeling and Sen standing close behind. As they clasp their hands into anjali mudra, or prayer position over their hearts, their faces turn placid. An apprentice flicks on the boom box and a cascade of percussion and rippling vocals fills the room. The dancers hold their reverent poses a few moments more before spiraling away from each other in a whirl of articulating hands and stamping feet. When they freeze again at opposite sides of the stage, every body part has curled: toes, knees, torsos, fingers, arms, necks, even lips. They hold these windswept positions until they seem almost sculptural, as if they will never not hold them. Then they liquefy into another pose—and another and another, epitomizing grace as they defy anatomy with every turn.
     This dance style, known as Odissi, is based on the sensuous images carved into Hindu temple walls thousands of years ago. Each pose represents a different word, with every flick of the wrist, arch of the brow, and slap of the foot adding meaning. As dancers flow from one pose to the next, they build sentences that add up to paragraphs that merge into stories that re-create India’s most beloved myths and legends. Facial expressions are so pronounced, the overall effect can be of a sumptuously mimed theater, but Sen and Satpathy have elevated the form into something else entirely.
     For starters, these women have been dancing together for more than twenty years. Although Satpathy technically lives outside the village, she stretches, rehearses, and instructs alongside Sen from sunup to sundown each day. On tour, the two are companions for months on end, dancing and sleeping, sleeping and dancing, side by side. So many tens of thousands of hours of togetherness enable them to anticipate each other’s moves almost before they occur, so that on the dance floor they unify into a single breathing organism.
     Their interpretation of Lord Shiva’s duality, then, is revelatory. At one point, they fuse into an impossible-seeming pose with only two of their four feet touching the ground—and then somehow travel across the stage while holding it, moving only their soles and their toes. When they finally split out of the pose, it is like watching a cell divide. By the performance’s end, they have reenacted the expanse of human possibility: male and female, light and dark, creation and destruction, betrayal and seduction, eroticism and holiness. “Dancing” only begins to describe it. No, these women are chasing something sacred. Something pure.
     And that is because, for much of each of their forty-plus years, Sen and Satpathy have placed art above everything and worked tirelessly to sustain that radical decision, societal expectation and family responsibility be damned. This is why watching Sen and Satpathy dance feels so profound: everything has been risked for this ephemeral bliss, which makes its victory all the sweeter.

In the spring of 2014, I travel to Nrityagram to spend a month as a resident of Sangam House, the international writers’ colony based on its property. Depending on the thickness of traffic and the boldness of the driver, it takes from one to three hours to reach the community from Bangalore. Passing villages pulse with ladies selling jasmine, worshippers flocking to temples, vendors shouting their wares, stray dogs darting about, men chewing paan, rickshaw drivers jockeying, jam-packed buses, little boys splitting coconuts with machetes, monkeys scurrying along telephone wires, families of five straddling a single motorcycle, and cows lumbering across the street. Eventually, though, you come upon a swath of amber-colored grassland. A goatherd wields a switch. An old man dozes beneath a tree. And a long, winding dirt road leads to Nrityagram, marked by a wrought iron gate and a sign of hennaed hands forming mudras.
     Dance critic Alastair Macaulay has called Nrityagram a “disciplined utopia,” and first impressions of the grounds are indeed paradisiacal. Gardens are planted and harvested by women wearing colorful saris. Plumeria perfumes the air. Trees hang heavy with fruit. Buildings are hewn of stone and clay. Doorsteps are adorned with chalk drawings. Hindu deities are everywhere you turn—outside entryways, tucked into corners, parading across windowsills—and are enshrined with candles and flowers.
     Equally striking is the village’s dedication to harmonizing with the natural environment. Although temperatures routinely soar into the triple digits here, there is no air-conditioning on the premises—just ceiling fans that feel a tad far away. The home-grown meals are vegetarian and eaten with fingertips off metal plates while sitting cross-legged atop a mat on the floor. Hot water trickles out in two-hour intervals twice a day. The open-air design of many of the buildings, along with the absence of windowpanes, means mosquitoes, crows, lizards, frogs, bats, and the occasional scorpion roam wherever they please. I once saw crawling up a doorstep a spider that was so large and furry I nearly fainted. In my home state of Texas, such a creature would have been shot with a pistol. At Nrityagram, a woman wearing a sari nudged it away with a broom.
     Macaulay’s “discipline” is apparent in the pedagogy. Apprentices study not just dance but yoga, martial arts, meditation, Indian literature, Sanskrit, and mythology as well, upward of twelve hours a day, six days a week, for a period of six years or more. They live here, too, sharing meals and assisting with cooking, cleaning, and gardening before retiring to their dormitories late at night. All “external commitments” are discouraged for the duration of their studies here, particularly romantic ones.
     Known as a gurukul (with guru meaning “teacher” and kula meaning “extended family”), this traditional system of learning dates back to the Vedic period, a thousand years before Christ. It fell out of favor during colonial rule, but it seems the ideal way to learn an art form like Odissi—especially given its history. Scholars trace Odissi’s origins to bas-reliefs carved on cave walls during the first and second centuries BCE, making it the oldest of India’s eight classical dance forms. Some of its earliest practitioners were devadasis, or young girls who committed to spending their entire lives in the inner sanctums of temples, serving God through dance and song. Gotipua, a dance form featuring young boys dressed as girls, later expanded its audience when practitioners performed at festivals and fairs. For centuries, Odissi dancers enjoyed a prized social status, but their reputation tarnished during the Mughal Empire (1526–1707), when many were taken as concubines by the royal court. After the British Raj outlawed “temple dancing” in the late nineteenth century, Odissi nearly died out altogether when its practitioners turned to prostitution for survival. Only after India gained independence, in 1947, did a handful of masters resurrect the form.
     In 1975, a party girl named Protima Bedi chanced upon an Odissi recital in Bombay, and—as she later recorded in her memoir, Timepass—“was consumed by it, as a piece of wood is consumed by fire.” She marched up to the guru, a “small old man dressed in the traditional dhoti-kurta,” and demanded to be taught. He took one look at her halter top and tight trousers, her loose hair flecked with gold, the lipstick-ringed cigarette dangling from her fingertips, and said no way. But this was a woman who had run away from home to be a fashion model. Who had been photographed streaking on beaches in broad daylight. Who had lived in sin with Bollywood star Kabir Bedi before marrying him and then took a few lovers on the side (as did he). Who had—as Sen once said—“done everything that was wrong for a woman to do in India” and thus had no history of taking no for an answer.
     After much protesting, the guru finally agreed to accept Bedi as his pupil if she was waiting on his doorstep by the time his train pulled into the station in the faraway state of Orissa (the birthplace of Odissi) in three days’ time. And though it ultimately resulted in the dissolution of her marriage and enrolling her two small children in boarding school, she was there on time. For three months straight, Bedi danced until the skin peeled off the soles of her feet, until her tears met her sweat, for upward of fourteen hours a day. She was shouted at, ridiculed, and occasionally slapped, but, as she records in Timepass, she gradually learned “to breathe the song of dance into the instrument of the body.” Paparazzi appeared in droves when she held her first public performance, eager for another spectacle by “India’s queen of outrage.” They wound up raving about how she resembled a sculpture sparked to life. Audiences loved her, too, filling every venue. Dance pundits were another matter, however, denying her participation in certain programs and festivals because of her scandalous past.
     In the decade that ensued, Bedi dreamed of creating “a place where nothing exists, except dance. A place where you breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine—dance.” Utilizing all of her contacts (and her considerable charms), she secured a thirty-year government lease on ten acres of barren land near Bangalore. Then she pitched a tent amid the cobras and the scorpions, cultivated a clutch of believers, renamed herself Gauri after the Hindu goddess of love, and willed her gurukul into existence.
     Nrityagram opened its gates in May 1990. Sen arrived soon after, an economics student from Delhi. She gazed upon the columns of the new amphitheater rising from the rust-­colored earth and felt the jolt of possibility. Gauri warned her of the gurukul’s demands, of the rigorous practice schedule and the manual labor, of the expectation that she would give up everything (including her studies at university). Then she invited her to start that very day. Asking for ten days, Sen hurried home to Delhi to tell her parents and pack her trunk and mosquito net. She moved in to Nrityagram in June 1990 and hasn’t vacated since. Satpathy auditioned a few years later, and Sen lobbied hard for her.
     Gauri also recruited Odissi’s top gurus to her village along with masters of the classical dances Kathak and Mohiniattam, chhau martial arts, and yoga. Apprentices arrived from all regions of India and even Japan, eager to learn. Yet obstacles mounted. One guru wielded his power like a tyrant and then spread nasty rumors to the press when Gauri confronted him. Local artists rallied against her, too, jealous that the government would lend land to “an outsider.” Funding was a nightmare to procure, with grants a bureaucratic mess and everyone expecting a bribe or cut. Hoping it would provide a sustainable cash flow, Gauri opened a tourist resort nearby, but it only tripled her stress. Sharp pains riddled her chest with increasing frequency. Numbness dulled her arms. “The office work and fund-raising was draining the joy from my soul and I was afraid of turning ordinary, of losing the spirit within me, of becoming serious about life, of not knowing beauty, love and laughter,” she wrote in Timepass.
     Five years after founding Nrityagram, Gauri decided she needed more peace in her life. Sen and Satpathy were winning rave reviews both at home and abroad; she knew the gurukul would flourish in their hands. So she made a pilgrimage to Tirupati, one of India’s holiest cities, and shaved her head to mark the transition to her next life stage. Timepass calls this her sanyas, the juncture at which Hindus renounce all worldly pursuits and possessions to devote themselves to spiritual matters. Gauri especially wished to meditate on her son, Siddharth, who suffered from schizophrenia. Found wandering the streets of Montreal, he had recently been admitted to a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles. “I want to go into the blue,” he told everyone. Donning a turquoise robe, Gauri made more pilgrimages, bathing in the Ganges River and meditating in ashrams for months at a time. Though her mind calmed, her body declined. She suffered one minor heart attack and then another, three weeks later. Siddharth’s health deteriorated, too, until he committed suicide, in July 1997. Gauri took to wailing in Nrityagram’s amphitheater for hours into the night, then resolved to make a pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar, the Himalayan home of Lord Shiva, which entails a rigorous trek at altitudes of up to 19,500 feet.
     “Where is life taking me? Am I to have an enlightened death?” she wrote in Timepass. “I hope I go courageously, with an aware and equanimous mind.”
She taught Sen the last remaining dances she knew and handed over Nrityagram’s checkbook to the trusted colleague she had primed as her replacement, Lynne Fernandez. Then, in August 1998, she left for the Himalayas with a man who had abandoned his wife and children to join her. Along the way, they stayed with a friend who later recalled Gauri waking in the middle of the night, crying that she couldn’t breathe. She’d dreamed of being buried under mud and sand. Yet the following morning, she was ready to trek.
     Back at Nrityagram, as Sen and Satpathy were just finishing their opening ceremony on the first day of classes with the first group of apprentices completely under their care, a worker ran over, frantic. Every media outlet in India was calling. A massive landslide had been reported in the Himalayas, right where the couple had been camping. Two hundred people were missing—Protima Gauri Bedi among them. Her passport was found. Her body was not.

On the verge of turning forty when I travel to Nrityagram, I am in a reflective state. I, too, have been prioritizing artistic endeavors over everything since my early twenties, so much so that I once spent three years living nomadically so I didn’t have to worry about rent. While I treasure the rewards of this decision—four published books, and a fifth under contract—I feel anxious about all I have sacrificed along the way. A house. A spouse. A child. Roots. Can art really fill so many voids?
     Sen and Satpathy are on tour when I first arrive, but their portraits deck the walls of every room in the colony. In the one hanging above my bed, they hold each other close as they sinuously pose, beaded with jewels and sweat. Everyone refers to them as “the goddesses,” and while that is not a designation I typically ascribe to people, it starts seeming apt on my fifth day in India, when I set off to explore the neighboring villages by bicycle. My (female? foreign?) presence so offends two men on a motorcycle that they roar up beside me and spit at me. Their saliva doesn’t reach me, but their point sure does. Nrityagram feels like a sanctuary after that—a sacred space with women at the helm.
     As writers in residence, we spend most of each day hovering over our laptops in our rooms, but emerge for lunch with the dancers. I arrive late to the dining facility one afternoon, and, as I kick off my flip-flops before entering, I sense something has changed. Normally, the apprentices laugh and chat as they ladle dal onto everyone’s plates. Today, they stand stiffly against a wall, as if at attention. Even my fellow writers seem subdued. I then see why: one of the goddesses—Sen, I soon learn—is propped on a pillow against a column, fresh off an international flight. Her spine and neck are so ballerina—erect that her long black hair and billowing harem pants seem to lava-flow from them. Vermilion covers her third eye; a jewel studs her nose. Silver rings clasp her toes. She is merely eating lunch, but she radiates such regality doing so, it is hard not to feel like a minion. The apprentices take turns bringing her water and hot chapatis while the writers eat and flee.
     That’s when I realize why I have traveled all the way to India: to talk to these women about the nature of artistic obsession.

Sen’s wood-and-stone home features a stairwell with no banister and large, paneless windows. Tapestries tumble from the walls; devotional statues align in rows. Workers bustle about, ironing and scrubbing. Sen leads me into the bright and airy living room, where we sit upon white futons covered with pillows. A lotus blooms on the wooden table between us. Since lunch an hour ago, Sen has changed into a new sari: a violet and red number with gold trim. After our interview and before her next engagement, she will slip into another one. Never have my T-shirt and capris seemed so grubby.
     I start by asking how she discovered her art form. Her mother was also a classical dancer, though she quit when she married her father, an officer in the army. “In India, women don’t take dance as a career—certainly not when my mother was young,” Sen says. Her voice is honeyed, yet she speaks with intention—as if every syllable were notated on a musical score. “The great artists were great because their family was elitist and able to support them, or because their whole family danced and sang. My family is very middle-class. We were taught to enjoy the arts, but thinking about it as a career was not encouraged.”
     Even so, they enrolled her in dance class at age four and demanded hours of daily practice. “I can’t say I enjoyed it,” Sen says, but she persisted until her teens, eventually gravitating toward choreography. A long break made her realize dance’s importance in her life, and she decided to wholly commit. “With me, I do something 100 percent or not at all. The middle of the road is not for me,” she says, swiveling her head from side to side.
     In Gauri’s gurukul, she found a community who shared her focus. They commenced each day at 5 a.m. with a 5K run. “Then we exercised and did basic dance steps for three hours before breakfast and came back at ten for more dance. We would sleep only five or six hours a night. Every day I thought I broke my heel or broke my feet. But for the first time I was 100 percent focused.”
     Discipline, I get. While writing my first book, I routinely logged fourteen—hour workdays. What mystifies me is dealing with the legacy of singular fixation. When I ask Sen how she does it, her right brow rises.
     “Someone once said, ‘Dance is a very jealous husband.’ Once you find something greater than yourself, fulfillment in such a deep way, it is hard to settle for less. But choosing a career in dance is one of the hardest decisions you can make, both socially and financially. Every decision I make, I am aware that other decisions might not work out. It can get lonely sometimes,” she allows.
     Leaning forward, she adds: “Everything we make we put right back into this place, yet it is not ours. It is a nonprofit arts institute, so the government could come take it away at a moment’s notice. I am forty-four years old. All I have is here, yet when my time is up, I will have nothing. I am dispensable.”
     She pauses an extended moment, then swivels her head once more. “But this is my journey.”
     “Do you think it will have been worth it, in the end?”
     To answer that, she must first explain the nature of her endeavor. “Odissi is based on the concept of devotion. It is only when you empty yourself out that you allow others in. It allows a communion with a larger being. Art is a lot about that. You become one with art.”
     Then, she says, there is the theory of rasa, or the overriding emotional theme of a work—love, wonder, fury, horror, heroism, mirth—that an artist conveys to her audience. A relatively unknown concept in Western arts, rasa is the backbone of Indian performance and is especially vibrant in Odissi.
     “You evoke rasa in an audience in the same way you feel it. You take them on a journey in a way that leads to a salvation that unites us all,” she says. “It is like a spiritual orgasm. Your body resonates; your emotional energy is suspended; you don’t feel any difference between who is watching you and who you are. That balance is what you live for. It is the search of all living, to find that perfect balance where you are personally fulfilled and spiritually fulfilled.”
     She allows this to sink in. “But it is a difficult thing to do. Many days, I think of the helplessness of being an artist. There is nothing I have found yet. After twenty years I see glimpses of possibility; I see how little I actually know. It gives you great uselessness but also great eagerness to find it.”
     The search must feel even more urgent now that she’s growing older. Sen has already surpassed by a decade the average retirement age for dancers in the United States. I ask how her body handles the rigors of her work.
     “My body tells me what it can and can’t do. If you take care of it, it will last longer, unless there is something beyond your control. There is no scope for being lazy. You cannot give yourself a break, really; you cannot let up for a second and revel in it, because it has its own fruit,” she says, then sighs. “I struggle with it a lot. I have to make a choice every single day, but I love it enough to make that choice. It is only when I dance that I feel uplifted.”
     At that, a worker enters the room. It is nearly time for Sen to depart for Bangalore, where she will teach a class. Rising from the futon, she extends a final insight: “If you knew the secret of all living, you would not pursue it at all. In the doing is being, and being one with something bigger than yourself, that is enlightenment.”
“Will you know when you do find it?”
     She smiles. “I hope that is the moment when I die—or truly live. Maybe that is the same thing? If you find it, why continue to live?”
     With that, she escorts me to the door.
     With that, she escorts me to the door.

Satpathy meets me in a courtyard before retiring for the night. It is an hour before sunset, so the locusts are screaming. Jasmine spikes the air. I try dressing up this time in a skirt and scarf, but there is no matching Satpathy’s elegance. Even in a simple kurta, she exudes movie-star glamour with her heart-shaped face and prominent cheekbones. Ants swarm her bare feet but she pays them no mind. She has a crisp manner of speaking, as if each sentence were allotted a certain number of syllables. Seated in a low chair, she leans forward on her elbows and never breaks eye contact.
     When I share my struggle with artistic obsession, she lowers her eyelids as a range of emotions ripples across her face. Then she half-smiles. “All I wanted was to dance every single day,” she says. “And I do.”
     Despite being born to a dancer in the birthplace of Odissi, pursuing this vocation subjected her to ostracism early on. People in her village still thought of it as a courtesan dance form, and her mother had grown so conservative since relinquishing the art herself that “if there was a performance where I would be dancing, it was best not to tell her,” Satpathy says. She trained for twelve years before auditioning for Nrityagram, and though she knew it would further isolate her from her family, she accepted Gauri’s invitation to join. “The first three years I was a student here, I would go home and nobody would ask me a single question about where I spent ten to twelve months of my year.” As for her former dance community: “For ten years I was considered to be a teacher—traitor because they felt I ditched my guru when I came here. I was banned from dancing in Orissa for ten years.”
     Her parents grew more accepting when they saw how lavishly she was praised at her solo debut in Delhi; her old guru softened when the New York Times featured Nrityagram in a two-page Sunday spread. Satpathy was finally invited back to her home state to perform in 2003, after winning India’s prestigious Mahari Award. Yet even now, “my mother will sometimes say, ‘No one works this hard; what you earn is very little compared to that.’ I have to tell her, ‘This is my business. Do you see me happy or unhappy?’ And she will say, ‘I see you happy, and that’s why I wonder what’s wrong with you.’ And I will say, ‘Mom, I get something else out of it that money can’t give me.’”
     This ephemeral “else” has guided every decision she has made for more than twenty years now. Even when she got married, her priorities did not waver.
     “[My husband] knew very early on that dance is my passion [and that] dance and Nrityagram would come before him. I do not have to speak it as much as act that way. People say I am fortunate to have found a husband like mine, but I feel I was very clear from the start and I never apologized for what I had to do.”
     Ditto with her decision to remain child-free: “If I raised a child I would have to do it 100 percent, and the way I feel this connectedness with dance, that would not happen.”
     Since turning forty, she—like Sen—has begun taking stock of her career. Of foremost concern is cultivating the next generation of dancers to run Nrityagram. Yet of the fifty who have trained here, only ten have reached the level that Gauri envisioned, and none seem suited for the task. As for the other forty: “They were not ready for it,” she says, shaking her head. “The training is very, very hard here. There is no letting up. You do it again and again and again, and what should come out is inner joy. Usually there is a block and you have to cry it out. They would get frightened and leave and we would find a limb is gone. We were dreaming their dreams, so a lot of the time we were hurt.”
     “What are your dreams for yourself?” I ask, trying to fathom how betraying the body’s changes must feel to someone who nurtures it as devotedly as she does.
     While Satpathy acknowledges that her body “is starting to slow down,” she envisions performing Odissi for another five years. Then she hopes to transition to a form she calls “expressional dance,” “where you don’t have to be young. It gets better and better and better with age. It is much more than what being young and agile can do; it is more flavored, a quiet inner space. You get better with experience and go in and out of emotions.”
     Blinking in the waning light, she adds: “Hopefully I will stay fit enough to be able to do that.”

Nine months later, I greet Sen, Satpathy, and Lynne Fernandez, now their manager, at a Hilton in Durham, North Carolina. They are midway through another world tour, and I am taking them to lunch. Without their typical flowing saris, clad in jeans and jackets, they appear to have shrunk. I present them with a list of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants, but no: they want to try barbecue (“and perhaps some bourbon,” Fernandez suggests). I drive them to the Pit, a high-end joint where cleavers festoon the walls alongside images of hogs. When our server points to his chest to indicate the different cuts of meat, Sen and Satpathy look on with horror while Fernandez laughs and laughs. “This is a vegetable?” Sen asks, nose crinkled, as she separates a collard green from its murk of pork and grease.
     Two days later, they hold a master class at Duke University. Before a studio full of twenty-year-old dance majors, Satpathy demonstrates the trademark walk of the Odissi dancer: take a step, glide one foot up the other at a side angle, then press it down in the opposite direction so that your entire body sways.
     “Every movement becomes easier if you visualize it,” Sen says as we give it a try. “Ours is all curves.”
     We slither across the hardwood floor while Sen nods encouragingly. “Whenever you are angry, just go out and dance,” she says, hands on hips. “Physically, it will exhaust you. Emotionally, it will drain you. And spiritually, it will uplift you. Everything else can be taken away from you, but not the dance that is inside of you. For those of us who have done nothing but dance, we have a very happy life.”
     The next night, I catch their sold-out performance at Reynolds Industries Theater. Called Songs of Love and Longing, it depicts the legendary affair of the maiden Radha and the god Krishna. Offstage, Sen recites twelfth-century Sanskrit poems over the hypnotic sounds of mardala, harmonium, violin, and bamboo flute as Satpathy as Radha enters the stage, dripping in jasmine and jewels. His flute calls out your name, as he wanders through the forest caressing the breeze for your touch. Initially slow and searching, her movements escalate when Sen/Krishna joins her onstage. Back and forth they swap genders through gesture, so that one minute Satpathy is strutting about with the puffed-up chest of Krishna; the next, she is slinking into the coquettish posture of Radha. Ultimately, Sen/Radha is left behind. My bangles are manacles, my jewels a burden. I am weighed down by the pain of separation. Increasingly doubting her lover’s return, she mourns. The spotlight glows red as she melts into its burn. But Satpathy/Krishna finally does return. Ravage this bed of flowers with your footprints, and awaken me with your kiss. Placing her foot on Sen’s knee, she alights above her and splays out her arms as Sen throws her head back in rapture. There is but this moment. Make me yours. The dance thus culminates in something rarely seen in art or in life: women’s desire, wholly quenched.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of the travel memoirs Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, Mexican Enough: My Life between the Borderlands, and All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands. A professor of creative nonfiction at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she blogs at StephanieElizondoGriest.com

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list