We weren’t entirely sure about the Dancer’s Trail—let’s face it, neither one of us can dance—but we should have known. It was Lakshmi and Storytrails, which meant it was exceptional!
The premise behind Storytrails (www.storytrails.in) is that “India exists in her stories.” It’s a brilliant idea, warmly executed, and the best way for visitors to learn more about this beautiful country.
We first visited Chennai, India for work in 2015 and experienced both the Peacock Trail and Bazaar Trail. In 2016 we explored the British Blueprints Trail and in 2017 the Country Roads Trail. All of these are worthy of their own posts so we’ll leave that for another time. As we were preparing to head to India again (July 2018) we contacted Lakshmi to ask which Trail we should do next. She said the Dancer’s Trail.
Lakshmi Shankar is a gifted storyteller and an amazing person. She started as our guide and quickly became our friend.
Lakshmi met us in the lobby of the ITC Grand Chola (the Chola is a fabulous five-star hotel but you wouldn’t just walk out the door and explore Chennai on foot the way you might do in Paris, for example). As usual, Lakshmi had arranged a driver making getting to the start of the Trail very easy.
We were welcomed into the home and studio of classical South India dancer Shirisha Shashank.
Lakshmi formally greeted us and then said, “Ungala Pakka Santhoshama Eruuku.” We just stared at her. She followed with, “Aapse Milke Khushi Hui.” Still no clue.
Shirisha then expressed the same idea through dance. We couldn’t understand the words (spoken in Tamil and Hindi), but we could understand the dance, “I am happy to see you!”
And so began our Adventure learning a form of classical South India dance called “Bharatanatyam,” with roots stretching back over 2,000 years.
We watched as Shirisha performed a Bharatanatyam dance and then Lakshmi and Shirisha worked together to break the dance down for us. Shirisha would demonstrate a part of the dance and Lakshmi would have us guess what it meant.
What started as something beautiful (yet mostly incomprehensible) began to come to life as we learned the meanings of the various hand gestures, neck movements, eye movements and expressions.
Shirisha demonstrated a complex stance called the “half squat” (hands on the hips, heels touching , toes out, and sinking down gracefully into a half squat). Lakshmi explained that beginners spend nearly a year learning this stance so we didn’t feel too bad that we failed miserably in our attempt:)
We learned that the dancer must master 9 different expressions or “rasas” which are emotions she has to learn to show with her face and feel in her mind and her soul. As Shirisha demonstrated these we tried to guess each emotion. Sharon won!
We learned about and experimented with various eye gestures. We learned about rhythm and practiced with a wooden block and stick. We also tried several twisty hand gestures.
Lakshmi explained how the dance nearly disappeared out of Tamil Nadu by the 17th century then had an amazing revival in the 18th century and is now back as one of the most popular dance forms of South India.
Toward the end, Lakshmi began ad-libbing a story and Shirisha danced it to life, including a part with scurrying rats chased by a beautiful lady (Sharon had shared her recent chasing-rats-by-the-Seine-at-midnight experience with Lakshmi).
When you consider that the Bharatanatyam was originally danced at the temples—and later for kings—we felt quite privileged to not only see it but to have it demonstrated and explained by two such talented ladies. Namaste Shirisha and Lakshmi.
After the studio, Lakshmi had arranged to take us shopping and to have a spin in an auto rickshaw (for us, always a fascinating experience).
Over the course of four years, we’ve experienced five Storytrails, all excellent. The question now is, “What’s next?”