Aai: my dearest mother
– Jhelum Paranjape, Mumbai
August 4, 2010
Aai – that’s what we say for mother, in my language – Marathi, the mother tongue of Maharashtra. Aai loved dance, she still does. She is a natural dancer. She was born with dance in her, and her body was nothing but grace and poise. But …Why am I saying ‘was’…? I should say, ‘is’…! Today, even at 80 and with joint problems, one can see that inherent grace and poise…and a free spirit… she gets up spontaneously at any party when the music comes on and dances; she does that every year when it rains for the first time too, gets drenched dancing in the rains…I really am lucky, for I have inherited this natural grace and poise. And I must say her beautiful curvaceous bottom too… these three factors are a definite ‘add on’ for the Odissi dance style.
During the initial stages of my dance career, we all would rag her. Well…not me, but the others in the family… that my dance is actually her surrogate ambition. She was very fond of dance. But her father, a very traditional orthodox man who had stopped even my grandma playing the dilruba after marriage, just did not have the ability to understand that there is music in life, so how could she even dream or think about dance…?
Aai was just 14 when she got pulled into the independence struggle through the socialist organization Rashtra Seva Dal – RSD. (Please do not confuse it with the Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. RSD and RSS are poles apart). Not in a big way, just through ‘prabhat pheris’ and evening ‘shakhas.’ But the fire was ignited in her, the fire to do something for the nation, for the people of the nation. Post independence, this organization started a cultural wing (Rashtra Seva Dal Kalapathak) to educate people and bring awareness in them through wholesome entertainment. They required dancers and musicians. Aai dear was ever ready, but petrified to ask her father. A senior personality from RSD then approached my grandpa, and he agreed only because it was for Rashtra Seva Dal, the nationalist, socialist organization. Aai had to promise that she would not dance anywhere else, and that she would not earn money out of dancing.
That’s how her dancing career took off. Not classical, but folk. Even for folk dancing, many an eyebrow was raised…more so when Aai learnt lavani dance, since lavani was supposed to be the ultimate (and very explicit) in shringar. But poet Vasant Bapat, who scripted all the shows for RSD, used this folk form, very innovatively, very differently.
It’s in RSD that Aai met Baba – my father. It was a love marriage in 1950. Sudha Kotwal got married to Sadanand Varde, and entered a new home. Aai was a free spirited young girl, and remained a free spirited woman. (She has passed on this free spirit to me). My grandfather, her father-in-law, sensed this free spirit in her. There was no music or dance per se in the Varde family, though my father had a wonderful voice, and he did sing patriotic and other songs for RSD. My grandfather also sensed Aai’s love for dance. It was he who encouraged her to continue dancing with the cultural shows of RSD.
She may have been with Guru Parvati Kumar for 2 yrs. Then some domestic responsibilities forced her to go to Kolkata. Guruji gave her someone’s name and asked her to continue there. But Aai did not, because his fees were exorbitant. After 6 months, when she came back and told Guruji, he was furious. “You are gifted, you are so talented, but if you do not give yourself and your dance the importance that you give your family, you will never become an excellent dancer. I do not wish to waste my time and energy in teaching someone who does not want to take classical dance seriously.”
Poor Aai… but in a way her guru was right.
She then found another guru in Bandra. Guru Raghavan Nair. He was soft, or maybe lenient. He let her study at her pace. But she did Bharatanatyam only as a love, not as a career. She was fully into the social awareness programs of the RSD, enlightenment and education through wholesome entertainment. Her heart and soul were there, so after a while she gave up classical dance. But her dancing with the Rashtra Seva Dal Kalapathak continued till she was 52. She has done memorable roles in different dance productions. She has portrayed a wonderful jatayu, in ‘Bharat Darshan’ for which Kathakali Guru Chandrakant Hadkar trained her, ‘Jhanshi ki Rani’ for which Kathak guru Sudarshan Dheer trained her. She has very sophisticatedly portrayed Jijamata (Shivaji’s mother) in the dance drama ‘Shiv Darshan.’
My son Bunckim was born in April 1981. Guruji’s (Kelucharan Mohapatra) workshop was in August. I was still breastfeeding him. I remember, Aai, the little 4-month-old bundle and I would travel by BEST, Mumbai’s public bus service, and go to an aunt’s house that was close to the workshop place. I’d feed him and go to the class. Come back during lunch break, have lunch, feed him and go back to class. Come back at the end of class, have a snack, feed him and then this odd group of three would travel back home by the BEST bus. The full day, Aai looked after Bunckim. If Aai wasn’t there to help at that time, I’d not be where I am in the field of Odissi.
Again, when Smi died, I was completely shattered. (Smi is Smita Patil, my dearest and closest childhood friend). I remember, I didn’t cry at all, but then I didn’t do anything at all either. Aai was concerned. I was not dancing (my daily routine included a minimum of two hours of dance riyaaz along with household chores). She pushed me, but to no avail. Then, on her own and with help from her dear RSD, she organized a program, and said, “Now you have to dance.” And that was true, because if I did not commence my riyaaz, all her efforts would have gone waste. I loved her too much to let that happen. That program made me get out of Smi’s loss.
Even now, she cannot help me anymore, but if possible, she wants to be present for every show that I do as a soloist, or for those that we do through Smitalay. She just loves dance, period. Hence, like all in the family say, “Jhelum, your dance career is her surrogate ambition!”
I must narrate an incident in her early life that speaks volumes of her relationship with her father-in-law. He loved her and her free spirit, and he encouraged her to dance, while she loved, adored and respected him tremendously. He was very curious about her dance, and was very eager to watch her dance. But she was too embarrassed to dance in front of him. When she was being trained in classical Bharatanatyam for the dance ballet ‘Jhelum chey ashroo,’ she was told to practice every day at home. She was told to look in the mirror and perfect her expressions. She would lock herself in her room and practice.
On one such occasion this is what happened. My grandfather was just too curious about his daughter- in-law’s dance. Guess what he did?! He pulled up a table close to Aai’s room door, put a chair on top of it and then he actually climbed on top of these to peek through the shutter and watch her dance! And to top it all, his mother saw him in this position…she was the only one in the family who did not know that Aai, her grand daughter-in-law danced! But, of course, after this incident, she very well came to know and definitely did not approve of it. But her lone disapproval was against the whole family’s approval.
So, that’s my mother dear – Aai.
Aai – 4 feet 10 inches in height; Aai, who strongly believes that I am not short like her because she made me jump a lot as a child; Aai, who taught me to hold my tummy in, even when I was a child and that has given me a terrific posture and has helped me tremendously in my dance career; Aai, who instilled this confidence in me, that if I really and strongly want to do something, I should be at it diligently; and Aai, who along with my father taught me the value of truth. Be true to others and be true to yourself. Well, that’s how I am, and life has been good to me.
Odissi dancer Jhelum Paranjape is the Artistic Director of Smitalay, Mumbai.