Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dance, lady, dance!

(A series on childhood memories)

A heel injury which could have become permanent and a surprise on her birthday were some of dancer Padma Menon’s unforgettable memories

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Padma Menon was eight years old she experienced an excruciating pain in her heels during dance practice at Chennai. When she went to the doctor he told her there were some problems with her ankles and she would have to stop dancing.

“I was devastated,” she says. “I told my mother I could not stop dancing. There had to be a solution.”

Most mothers might have said, “It does not matter. You can do something else, like play an instrument.” But Padma’s mother, Asha, took her daughter’s desire to be a dancer very seriously.

She procured large sheets, made of small plastic bubbles, which are usually used to wrap furniture. Asha placed it on the floor and covered it with a piece of cloth. When Padma danced on it she did not feel any pain. “I danced on this bubble cloth for more than a year,” she says.

Thereafter, she went to Thrissur and received Ayurvedic treatment from Kunju Vaidyan. “He gave me a regimen of oils and massages,” says Padma. “For the next two years my mother had to rub oil every day on my legs and give me a massage.”

One day, to see whether there was any improvement, Padma danced on a hard floor and got a surprise: there was no pain. And she has been free of the ailment ever since.

At that time Padma was training under Vempati Chinna Satyam of the Kuchipudi Art Academy. And she showed an aptitude from the very beginning. Once she was performing with the troupe in a village in Andhra Pradesh.

“After the performance my guru dabbed the perspiration on my forehead with his towel,” she says. “I understood that I had given the best performance of my life. He would never say, ‘You did well or you were fantastic.’ These little gestures were his way of showing his appreciation.”

But like any human being Padma also suffered from vanity. She remembers a rehearsal for a dance drama, ‘Padmavati Shrinivasam’. Apart from a big orchestra, a large crowd was present and Padma felt she was performing very well.

“Suddenly in the middle of my solo recital, Guruji got up and left,” she says. There was a stunned silence in the hall. When some dancers went out and enquired from the master, he said, “Padma’s dancing was so dreadful I could not bear to watch it.”

Years later, a chastened Padma, 42, says, “He was right. Guruji said to dance well you had to shatter the ego. But because I was thinking how wonderful I was, probably I was not performing very well.”

But even when she performed well there were setbacks. Once, the troupe was preparing to go for a trip to the United States to perform a dance drama, ‘Krishnaparijatam’.

“I was in Class 8 and this would have been a great opportunity for me,” she says. Padma seemed a certainty for the main role but, suddenly, at the last moment, her guru selected another girl.

“I felt very hurt,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why is this happening?’ But my parents reacted differently. They did not say, ‘Oh, this is so unjust!’ Instead, my father said, ‘There will be other opportunities. Just take it in your stride.’”

Padma took it in her stride and never showed her disappointment. “I learned how to deal with setbacks and put on a brave face,” she says “Life is not fair. You have to accept that and move on. I am grateful to my parents.”

But there was a time when she was disappointed in her parents. One day before her 16th birthday she had gone to Coimbatore to perform at the anniversary celebrations of the PSG College of Technology.

“When I left, my parents did not say anything about my birthday,” she says. “I felt upset that they had forgotten.’”

But on the morning of May 26, Padma had just finished her bath when Vempati Chinna Satyam told her somebody had come to see her. She was mystified because she knew nobody in Coimbatore. When she went down to the lobby she got the shock of her life: it was her parents.

“They had driven all the way from Chennai to wish me on my birthday,” says Padma. “I was in tears. They gave me my presents and took me out.” When her guru came to know about it he gave her a silk saree. “I still have it even though it is crumbling,” she says. “It was the best birthday of my life.”

The happy birthday girl was also the best student at the Good Shepherd school. Except for one occasion when she came second to her close friend, Bela Luthria in Class 7, she always topped the class.

But there was one chink in her armour. Padma was terrible in sports but it was compulsory to take part. So she felt that netball was the easiest game to play.

“I don’t know how it happened but I held the centre position,” she says. “I was a bad player. On the sidelines students would shout, ‘Are you dancing or playing?’ Everybody would be booing and making mocking sounds like ‘Takadimi, Takajhenu’.”

At her parents’ house in Thrissur, she smiles and says, “That was a nice way to shatter the ego, wasn’t it?”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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