Aai: my dearest mother
- Jhelum Paranjape, Mumbai
e-mail: jhelum@smitalay.com

August 4, 2010
Young Aai


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.
Aai dancing Bharatanatyam
Aai-Baba
The partition had prompted poet Vasant Bapat to write a poem titled “Jhelum chey ashroo” which meant Jhelum's tears. The river Jhelum's sorrow at the partition was very vividly brought out through this poem. RSD decided to choreograph a dance ballet based on this poem. They asked Guru Harish Pitale to do it. He was a Bharatanatyam guru. I remember my mother telling me how she and Vasant Bapat spent a few days trying to get a Bharatanatyam dancer to do the lead role of Jhelum. But Guru Harish Pitale had noticed the inherent grace and poise in Aai, and he decided that she would be “Jhelum.” She underwent rigorous training. She was just married, no children to look after, joint family which supported her dance - so it was ok for her not to do too much of housework till the ballet was set... and that's how her classical Bharatanatyam training started. They did umpteen shows of “Jhelum chey ashroo” and she was praised by one and all, wherever they performed. (I remember her telling me that Nana Kasar, who later became a renowned Bharatanatyam guru, was inspired by her dance. He was a compounder with a doctor. He gave that up to devote himself to dance.) But she was aware that she had a long way to go and had to learn a lot. Her father-in-law encouraged her. But then she got pregnant and I was born (that's why I'm named Jhelum). So, for a while, there was no dancing. I think when I was around one and a half years old, she started classes with guru Parvati Kumar. She would carry me with her all the way from Bandra to Taddeo and back, thrice a week. (That was a 10 min walk, then half hour train journey, then again approximately 10 min walk). He was very happy with her dance and her sincerity. It seems I would sit quietly throughout the class, trying to use my teeny weenie fingers to do the mudras that were taught!

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.'
Laughing Aai
Aai enjoying her wine
She did not continue her classical dance training, but her love for it never died. She would take me whenever possible to see dance programs, classical and others, because she loved to watch them and she knew I too enjoyed them, though I was too little to really understand. But it seems even when I was little, I created my own stories and my own dance movements to communicate my stories to my coveted audience of Aai, grandpa and Vasantkaka. So, when I was 9 yrs old, she put me in Raghavan Nair's Bharatanatyam class. But I did not enjoy it at all. I tried for a full year, but could not get any satisfaction. Aai did not force me. She let me quit. Then she tried Kathak. She put me in Sudarshan Dheer's class. Here again, I was not too happy. Poor Aai, she let me quit again. She was sad, but she was sure that she did not want to coerce me into doing something that she loved but had given up. So, when I actually took up Odissi seriously, her joy knew no bounds. She would find time through all her work and do anything to help me further my passion for Odissi.

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.
Aai and Jhelum
Jhelum
And once again, when I suffered a slipped disc, she was there. She was very busy now. Her focus had shifted to women. She was actively working for the causes of women, as part of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti. She didn't have the kind of time, as before, yet for the one month that I was in bed, she was always there to help around the house. In short, Aai was there like a solid rock beside me, whenever the need arose. Mind you, it was mainly for dance. If I had any domestic pressures or problems, she wasn't necessarily there; but for my dance...well, anytime...anywhere...anything.

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.
www.smitalay.com


Comments

Dear Jhelum tai,
I saw you performing today on the auspicious occasion of Guru Poornima and that deeply touched my soul. I could really feel "his" presence there. You easily get connected with "him" thru your art! And many thanks to your Aai for helping and encouraging you to develop your art. Keep dancing, so we can get connected to that almighty every time you perform.
- Laxmi Menon (July 31, 2015)


Dear Jhelum tai, thank you for sharing with us the story of the beautiful soul who gave birth to you. Aai is an amazing being and a inspiring role model for anybody who loves dance.
   - Lulia (June 12, 2015)



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