The Dancer With The Fish-shaped Eyes

Jun 16, 2013 | Adventures in Travel

It was five years ago that I had first come to Madras. And I had liked it. Yes, it had the same air of restrained chaos that typifies Indian cities. Its streets and sidewalks teemed with people amid streams of honking vehicles, gypsy-like women clutching infants swarmed into traffic at stoplights to beg from captive drivers, hovels of the poor were strewn like rubbish along neglected thoroughfares, sprawling billboards boosted the melodramatic movies made in abundance here, and modern offices, ramshackle huts, and staid Victorian edifices stood shoulder to shoulder. But Madras also has a glistening sea shore on the Bay of Bengal, where the wide sandy Marina Beach runs for miles, giving reprieve from the heat while inviting bathers into a perilously sea that sharks have claimed as home.

The city is called Chennai now, expunging another remnant of the Raj. But it looked the same. I had come back to consult with an editor about an article I had agreed to write for her magazine. And I was planning to visit an acquaintance in the shipping business here whom I had met in Montevideo,Uruguay when he was there trying to buy a used tanker, and I was there researching an article on local artists, and we had found ourselves sitting together one night at a tango show.

“The tango is very intense,” he had said to me as we walked out together returning to our hotels. “It is almost mythological, full of stories and passions. Classical Indian dance has that, too. But Indian dance is not about ordinary people. It is about ritual and religion. Have you seen Indian dance?”

I had told him I had indeed seen it and even knew an Indian dancer in Madras.”

Delighted that I knew his city, he had invited me to visit him at his home inMadrason my next trip toMadras. He promised to take me out for the best food in Indiaand to see the best Indian dancers in Madras. Now I was here taking him up on his offer.

We went to a glittering restaurant where we dined on dishes from the four south Indian states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, sumptuously mingling cinnamon and nutmeg and cumin and cayenne and tamarind and I don’t know what else, and reminding me why the early Europeans searched for a swift trade route to India. And the dancers were all that my friend had promised. Sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, the graceful women riveted every gaze to the small polished marble stage where, to the music of a sitar and a drum, they elegantly performed movements and gestures and expressions that had descended from centuries past, wordlessly telling the epic stories of Hindu mythology. Angling their feet sideways and slapping them on the shiny stone, crooking their lithe arms and curving back their long fingers, alternately smiling and frowning while arching their eyebrows and widening their flashing eyes, they portrayed violence and love, fear and tenderness, defeat and victory, sorrow and joy. And they took me back to that time five years ago when inMadrasI had first seen the dancer with the fish-shaped eyes.

Her name was Samya. It wasn’t that she was more beautiful or more graceful or more dramatic than other Indian dancers. But she was the first one I had truly watched closely. And I had watched her because I had talked to her, and because of her eyes.

I had met her at lunch the day before with the same magazine editor I was here to see again. I was working at the time on an article for her about Hindu temple art. Samya was in her early twenties, I had guessed, and was the daughter of a friend of the editor. Indian parents are very protective of their daughters, she explained, even when those daughters Samya had grown up. So her highly educated, sophisticated parents had arranged for her to learn the trade of magazine editing under the tutelage of this kindly editor. Samya didn’t want to do it. She was quick to announce that. She wanted to be a classical dancer. But her parents wanted her to have a profession that would serve her better than dancing. So they had struck a compromise. She would learn editing if her parents would let her continue to study dance and to perform. She hoped her determination would exhaust their resistance.

At lunch that day the three of us talked about art and writing and magazines. And Samya lectured me on Indian dance.

“It is not just art,” she had said. “We’re not like you in the West. Our dance is more than dance. Our art is more than art. It is an act of ritual and spirit and life. Like the sculptures on Hindu temples. They are gods and goddesses, often swaying their hips, as in dance. And our most important god, Lord Shiva, who is the Destroyer of Evil, is also the God of Dance. He is often depicted dancing in victory over evil surrounded by a ring of flames. And his son Ganesh, who brings good luck, dances, too. If you want to understand Indian temple art, you must understand Indian dance, and to understand dance you must know temple art.”

I had taken a few notes thinking I might use an anecdote for my article. Then I asked her what makes a good Indian dancer. She said that Indian dance may not look as difficult as Western classical ballet because the footwork is simpler. But the art of Indian dance isn’t in the footwork. It comes mainly through the hands and arms and face. You have to get every gesture and expression right. Then she said something that I will never forget.

“A female dancer must become like a temple sculpture. All very sensuous and full and round, not like skinny Western dancers,” and she patted her cheeks and lips and shoulders and breasts and hips. “And you must learn to move your body in different directions at once and bend your fingers way back. And”–this is what I will not forget–“you have to have large fish-shaped eyes.” As she said this, she lifted a hand to her face in front of one eye, pinched her thumb and forefinger together, splayed her other fingers back, and opened a pointed elongated space between them. She had created a large fish-shaped eye. When she lowered her hand again, I could see, as I had not noticed before, that her own eyes were like that. Especially when she opened them full. They were firey dark and unnaturally big and bulging, the lids arching high in sensuous curves from beside her delicate nose and then sloping gently down to soft points near the edge of her face like a long fishes tail. She smiled with her full red lips. Yes, I could see. Hers was an Indian dancer’s face. I asked where I could see her perform. And I went there the next night.

She was a temple sculpture come to life. Draped in radiant silks, her rounded form moved simultaneously in several directions as though born to it, while her bare feet pranced and slapped her arms and hands fluidly told the epic story along with dramatic expressions on her face. But arresting my stare were those large fish-shaped eyes. Yeats was right, I had said to myself–in her you cannot tell the dancer from the dance.

I did not see her dance again because I had had leaveMadrasthe next day. And in the five years since I had seen many other Indian dancers. Always I had watched their fish-shaped eyes. But I had never seen eyes as large as hers. Now, as I watched more dancers dance the ancient Indian tales, captivating the room, I thought, yes, these are wonderful dancers, but they cannot match Samya. And I wondered, what happened to her? Was she dancing and living the dancer’s life she had wanted to live? Or did she give it up to become an editor? Or did she get married and settle into another life? Since I was having lunch with my editor the following day, I would ask. She would know.

When the evening ended, and I thanked my friend for generously giving me more fond memories ofMadras, I was already looking forward to lunch. And as soon as our lunch business was done, I asked my editor what Samya was doing now. This is what she said.

“Samya continued to study dance, and she finally convinced her parents that she could be a successful professional. And she became one of the best classical dancers inMadras. But then one night there was an accident. She fell down some stairs back stage before a performance. They found her unconscious with a leg badly broken at the knee. No one saw it happen. She later explained that she lost her balance after stepping on a something sharp in her bare feet. She was in the hospital for weeks. Then she had worn a cast for many weeks. She feared she would never be able to dance again, not in the way she wanted to. And when she was able to try, she was right. She couldn’t do it. She tried and tried for months, but she couldn’t bend her knee completely or balance on that leg. Eventually, she gave up. She started teaching young dancers. And I invited her to write about dance for the magazine, which she did for a while. Her parents were pleased about that, although there were, of course, sorry about the reason. Then she got engaged to a long-time admirer, whom she knew would always adore her and be good to her. Her parents were happy about that, too. But her heart wasn’t in it. Any of it. You could see that in her face.

“Then one day she didn’t come to the office as she had said she would . She left no message. And she wasn’t at home. We couldn’t find her. No one knew where she had gone. She said nothing to anyone. She just disappeared.

“It was more than a week later that I got a call from a police officer I knew who was helping us search for her. He asked me to come down to the medical examiner’s office. They had recovered the remains of an unidentified woman washed up on Marina Beach. The sharks had been surprisingly kind to her, he said. They had left her relatively untouched. A couple of other things were also unusual, he added. ‘She is dressed in a dancer’s silks,’ he told me, ‘and she has the most remarkable fish-shaped eyes.’”