[Appreciation] | Unaccounted Blessings, by Amie Barrodale | Harper's Magazine

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Khyentse Norbu’s love poem to Old India

Still from Vara, A Blessing © Moving Temple Pictures

Still from Vara, A Blessing © Moving Temple Pictures

During the winter of 2010, my mother and I were in Kathmandu. Our friend Craig was there too; he was studying Classical Indian dance.

Craig and I were both students of the same Tibetan Buddhist guru, whose formal title is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. His secular name is Khyentse Norbu. (In this article, I’ll call him Norbu.)

It was Norbu who had told Craig to study dance. He had asked some scholars whom Craig should study under, and they had named a man in Kathmandu. I thought it was a prank. Norbu had a mischievous sense of humor. For example, he had a senior student named Ronald whom he often teased. Once, at a teaching attended by five hundred students, Norbu made Ronald wear a beret. People who knew Ronald recognized it as a joke, but strangers reasonably presumed that Ronald wore a beret because he was a jackass.

My mother and I were sitting in on ceremonies at a monastery. One morning, Craig came in with a very stinky man. I don’t often mind body odor, but this man stunk so badly it gave me a migraine. Later, on the temple steps, Craig introduced the man as his dance teacher. He was a fifty-year-old Nepali. Though he spoke very good English, he spoke it so quickly that I couldn’t understand him.

There, on the temple steps, I asked Craig to dance. He said, “Argham, padyam, pushpe.” With each of the seven offering substances—drinking water, washing water, flowers—he struck a pose. He was trembling. He wobbled. The dance teacher looked humiliated. I thought, “My guru is really funny.”

The dance teacher invited my mother and me to his own weekly performance at Kathmandu’s five-star hotel. He asked if there was a particular deity’s dance I’d like to see. I said, “Manjushri?” He said he didn’t have a dance for Manjushri. I said, “Vajrayogini?”

At the performance, a young woman played a typewriter-sized harmonium and Craig’s dance teacher did long dances. Sometimes the young musician sang. I wanted to be moved by the performance, but I was bored. It went on for over an hour: one man, Indian dancing. For the finale, the teacher said he would do Vajrayogini.  

He went in back for five minutes. He came out in drag. He wore a gold crown and red lipstick. I really wanted to appreciate this, but I found myself having to stifle a laugh. The dance just looked like a lot of poses. It did not move me. Craig had told me several times that this man was one of the last people who knew these forms, that he was a master of a dying art, but I wasn’t buying it.

After the performance, the teacher sat with us and said he had been taught to dance by his mother. The memory made him cry. The waiter came, and the dance teacher ordered a mango lassi, explaining, “The soles of my feet are hot, and I have ordered the mango lassi to cool them; that has always worked in the past.” He wasn’t joking. In deference to Craig, I had been suppressing laughter for over a week, but the mango lassi for the teacher’s feet was too much. I finally broke: I laughed in his face. Astonished by my rudeness, the dance teacher ignored me and made conversation with my mother.

Khyentse Norbu’s third movie, Vara, A Blessing, debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on Monday, April 21. It’s a love story, but it is also a love poem to classical Indian dance and its traditional practitioners, the devadasis.

A while back, through his secretary, I asked Norbu what drew him to classical Indian dance. She posed the question and sent a recording of his answer.

He said, “Discipline. Timelessness, even though it’s probably one of the oldest forms of dance. The spiritual aspect of it, and sensuality. And the contents of the dance are almost always surrendering to higher—I don’t know—god, or value, or state.”

“What are you trying to express through that?”

“Nothing specific, apart from what I have just mentioned.”

Norbu, a Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche, received his religious training while in exile in the Indian state of Sikkim, and apprenticed as a filmmaker with Bernardo Bertolucci. His first film, The Cup, won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and was Bhutan’s official entry to the 1999 Academy Awards. His second, Travellers and Magicians, was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival.

Set in a small village in India and filmed in Sri Lanka, Vara is about a dancer named Lila (Shohana Goswami). She wears sun-faded saris in primary colors. Her hair, pulled into a long braid, is often frizzy around her temples. She is a master flirt: playful all the time. She is girlish and imperfect, with soft, lineless hands and very short fingernails. Her face can change from girlish to sexual in a moment. She has a very small nose, full cheeks, and enormous eyes. She embodies a form of beauty we don’t often see portrayed in film or in magazines: she is wholesome, sweet, sexual, playful, and feminine.

Lila is the teenaged daughter of a devadasi who runs a small local dance school. Her mother is poor. To greatly oversimplify: devadasis, or temple dancers, have a low position in Indian society. They were once respected, like ballet dancers in the West. They had patrons, and the children from these patrons were trained in dance. However, when the British came, they misunderstood the tradition as prostitution (it has explicitly erotic aspects), and it was outlawed. Without a position in society, many devadasis in fact turned to prostitution, and now, even in India, the tradition remains generally misconstrued. In travel guides, you will find devadasis described as temple prostitutes.

Prakesh, the wealthiest man in Lila’s village, is referred to by villagers as “the landlord.” He is a bit past marriageable age. He is overweight, he has bad skin, and he seems to have no interest in women. He just likes—in an explicit homage to the first eleven minutes of Satyajit Ray’s Charulatta—to gaze out his window through a telescope.

One day, his lens falls upon Lila. He is smitten. The local matchmaker sees Prakesh watching Lila. He gets the idea that he will fan the flame of Prakesh’s lust through Lila, and then find him a suitable marriage partner. (As the poor, fatherless daughter of a devadasi, Lila is not suitable for marriage.)

Still from Vara, A Blessing © Moving Temple Pictures

Still from Vara, A Blessing © Moving Temple Pictures

Meanwhile, Lila becomes more devoted to the Hindu god Krishna. At a secret place in the forest, before a stone statue of the god, she offers lamps and flowers and dances. These are traditional forms of worship. But she also deviates from prescribed methods. She speaks to the statue of Krishna as a lover might speak under the covers. She says, “I saw a Bollywood movie and I thought of you,” then shows the statue some Bollywood dance moves. Goswami is a terrific dancer. I wished Norbu had done one of those Jean-Luc Godard sequences where the director just stops the whole movie for a dance.

While Lila’s relationship with Krishna develops, her friendship with a low-caste boy named Shyam grows, too. Shyam is a flute player and an apprentice sculptor. His story is borrowed from a short story by the writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, and it echoes Lila’s, expressing, like hers, the arbitrariness of categories like high and low. Shyam is a dalit. He wants to learn to sculpt, so that he can move to the city and escape the tyrannies of village life. He asks a Muslim sculptor to teach him the art, and he asks Lila to be his model. In modeling for Shyam, she glimpses Krishna himself in the boy. Norbu shows this in brief, highly stylized sequences: for instance Krishna brushes his feet through a river for a moment, then Lila returns to ordinary life with Shyam. As he learns more about her form, he asks her to take off her clothes, so that he can see her clearly. Perhaps you can foresee the trouble that develops.

Lila’s devotion to Krishna changes the way she sees Shyam. Her desire for both takes her a bit away from worldly life. In showing how this happens—how physical desire can lead to spiritual experience; how a lower caste boy can make a statue worthy of worship—Norbu dramatizes the relationship between desire and devotion, and blurs the categories of sacred, secular, and profane. And I finally had a glimpse of why Craig had wanted to study with his seemingly ridiculous dance teacher, and why Norbu had wanted him to.

Vara, A Blessing debuts April 21 at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan. It shows throughout the week at the Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea 8 theater.

Amie Barrodale’s first short story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, will be published by FSG.

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