Solo in India: Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) Dance Festival
I can’t really claim to have planned out my ten weeks in India very well. I had a rough route in mind – down along the south-west coast, then up long the south-east … easy! – but not much else. There was only one town I had marked on the map as a must-see: Mamallapuram, a.k.a. Mahabalipuram.
Mamallapuram is a small town about 60km south of Chennai. Lonely Planet dubs it another “backpackistan” and rightly so. The main roads are lined with shops selling the usual Ali Baba-style pants, floaty tops, colourful bracelets … tie-dye as far as the eye can see. Sometimes while in India, I wondered what sort of mental image the average Indian has of Western countries. Judging by the clothes they try to sell to foreigners, and the music they like to play (choice of trance or reggae) in touristy spots, I reckon they think of us as a bunch of stoned ’70s-throwbacks. Actually, that’s not quite right. I’m not convinced India has left the ’70s behind yet. But anyway, there’s a story for another day.
So – why did I want to visit Mamallapuram when it was much the same as any other tourist hotspot? The stone carvings were pretty spectacular but that wasn’t it. No, I was there for the dance festival.
Every year, from the end of December until the end of January, Mamallapuram is host to a traditional Indian dance festival. It’s put on by the Tamil Nadu tourist board and every evening for four weeks you can witness all sorts of traditional dance, music and cultural displays.
I have been belly dancing for six years and practised various other styles before that; dancing is a big part of my life and as soon as I learnt of the Mamallapuram dance festival, I knew I had to go. Information about the event is quite sparse online so I’m not even entirely sure how I stumbled across the first mention of it. Somehow I managed to find out the dates for the 2012/2013 festival and set aside a whole week for it.
The dancing started at roughly 18:30 every evening down by the Shore Temple and went on for two hours. Walking down the beach road to get to the venue, the place was absolutely ram-packed with Indians who appeared to have travelled from various parts of Tamil Nadu for the festival. There were about 100 seats set out in front of the stage and, given the crowd, I expected them to fill up quite quickly. Weirdly, most of the locals stayed out in the street and milled around the various knick-knack and food stalls instead of coming in to watch the performance.
Every night for a week I found a spot and watched the show, mesmerised by the costumes, music and intricacies of certain dance styles. Some performers were clearly amateur, while others took my breath away. The most common styles of dance were the classical Indian Bharata Natyam and Odissi.
Bharata Natyam is the combination of: ‘Bha’ – Bhavam (means expression), ‘Ra’ – Ragam (means music), ‘Ta – Talam (means beat or rhythm) and Natyam (means dance) in Tamil.
As with all good dancers, these girls made it look incredibly easy. I tried my hand at Odissi dance later on in Pushkar (Rajasthan) and let me tell you now – it is the hardest, most physically demanding and tear-inducing dance style I have ever tried my hand at. Basic dance stance is chauka: knees bent and facing outwards. Within a few minutes of holding this posture you will be shaking like a leaf, I promise you.
The dancers create beautiful shapes with their fingers, all of which mean something and tell a story. They do this while gracefully holding their bodies in mind-boggling poses and using their eyes to express all kinds of emotions.
The first day I watched the classical indian style, I could not make head nor tail of the story the dancers were trying to tell. By day three, I was starting to recognise some of the movements and gestures and by the end of the week, I managed to understand about half of an entire performance. How amazing is that?
The dance festival had its kooky moments too: a man dressed as a giant peacock, walking about the stage; a group who appeared to be having an argument mid-performance; and let’s not forget the man who spun a bicycle wheel on his head. All in all, a festival to remember.