Appreciation — April 21, 2014, 1:33 pm

Vara, A Blessing

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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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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