Tania Ahmed’s feet tap aggressively as she moves forward, her eyes wide and lips sealed. Her arms extend above her head, her nimble fingers cupped together like the hood of a cobra.
In a dance about the tale of the Indian deity Krishna, she is playing a serpent named Kaliya.
Ahmed will soon climb the stage for her Arangetram (Tamil for “ascending the stage”), a debut performance in Indian classical dance that will signify her transition from pupil to professional. Now 23, she has been practicing for this day since the age of seven, when her parents enrolled her at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, under the guidance of her guru, Neena Gulati.
Gulati instilled in her a love for dance, and the discipline it required. Even when Ahmed quit at age 14, overcome with the fear that dancing out the tales of Hindu deities conflicted with her Islamic beliefs, she never stopped practicing.
She gave up Gulati’s classes for 6 years, and began wearing a hijab of her own accord. But the severe anxiety and depression she developed during her college years left her feeling insecure; brought her back to dance in search of solace. “Dance just isn’t something I can ever give up, and Neena aunty was more than happy to have me come back.”
After she finally returned to class three years ago, Gulati introduced her to the woman destined to play Krishna to her Kaliya, Nirmala Lynch.
Lynch, 45, also found her way back to dance three years ago, after a 13-year sabbatical rooted in her two young children and unstable marriages. “My first husband used to say things that would make me feel so horrible for doing it.”
“My kids were young and my husband was physically abusive. He took my identity, my dance, away from me. I didn’t feel like myself anymore, and so when he struck me in front of our son, I knew it was the last straw.”
But upon leaving him she only fell into another unstable relationship. “My second husband didn’t ever strike me, but he was just as mentally abusive.” The stress of her relationship took a toll on her mental and physical well-being, so much so that her body gave up. “Doctors said it was Stress Cardiomyopathy. The Japanese call it ‘sadness of the heart.’”
She had to be revived thrice. “The first thing I said once I was finally stable, was ‘why the fuck did you bring me back?’ I saw the light. I saw my mother, but she told me that I have to live on, for the people and things I love.” People like Gulati, and things like dancing.
“Neena aunty is my mentor. She’s someone I admire not only as a teacher, but as a mother, woman, and friend.”
Gulati, 73, opened her school as non-profit organization in 1971, because she “wanted to promote the art, and ensure that love for it blossoms.” She differentiates herself from orthodox gurus, instructors who she feels can be too rigid in teaching the form. “I value passion and the desire to pursue this form more. That’s what I see in my dancers, like Tania and Nirmala.”
The passion of both dancers is evident in their excitement about playing the roles assigned by Gulati. Tania, 5’1 in height, is excited to play the giant serpent. She certainly towers over Nirmala, 4’9, who is content with playing Krishna in the myth.
The myth goes as follows: Kaliya was a giant poisonous serpent living in a river that passed through Krishna’s village. As expected of most poisonous serpents, Kaliya terrorized the villagers until the day he wrapped himself around a young Krishna, who’d fallen into the river while playing along its banks. Much to Kaliya’s surprise, Krishna’s body began to expand and grow; soon the young boy clambered onto Kaliya’s head, and performed a dance that subdued the snake.
Gulati says that the maturity and mutual understanding of the dancing duo will bring them success during what is traditionally the solo custom of the Arangetram. Ahmed and Lynch decided to dance together in August 2016 with Gulati’s blessing, and the two have been dancing together ever since.
When they’re not in practice, Ahmed babysits for a Wellesley family, and Lynch barbers at the Supercuts in Newton. Ahmed’s job allows her the flexibility to schedule practices that fit Lynch’s work schedule.
Outside of the dance studio, they communicate through impersonal e-mails. Inside, the dynamics shift.
Despite being two decades apart in age, their laughs share the familiarity of childhood friends, their gossiping resembling that of sisters. Each practice sees progress, noted by both between exhausted breaths and bites of energy bars.
“We’re looking so good now. I feel so much better,” Lynch tells Ahmed.
“Yeah, me too. We’re going to be great.”
Their two-hour performance will involve three classical dance forms from the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa- Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, and Odissi respectively.
The amalgam of the three combines speech, mime and pure dance to tell the tales of Hindu mythology.
In nervous yet excited anticipation of the event, both bring to their practices an open mind and open eyes. They offer critiques and compliments without hesitation; their relationship is a harmonious symbiosis highlighting each of their different strengths- Ahmed’s effortless grace and Lynch’s captivating expressions.
“Tania is more crisp in her movements,” Gulati explains. “She’s got better form. Nirmala’s legs don’t have the same flexibility, so I work on improving that with her, while I continue pushing Tania to emote through her face.”
As the number of days till the performance dwindles, the two show signs of fatigue, and experience body aches. Lynch can “feel it in the knees,” and Ahmed has cuts on her feet. But both dancers see their performance as an homage to their guru, and that keeps them determined.
“No amount of time would ever be enough,” Lynch tells Ahmed after a long Sunday spent practicing. Ahmed nods as she gulps, the water in her bottle making waves with the movement. “But we just have to make the most of the time we have, and make sure we do this right,” she responds.
On Saturday, March 18, Lynch and Ahmed meet around 3 p.m. at the Wellesley College Chapel. It is the day of their performance. They spent the previous evening marking their spots on stage, testing the lights, and running through their pieces.
As they run around organizing their ‘thank you’ notes and concluding speech last minute, the tension is palpable. The hours fly by as their fellow dancers from Triveni fret over their hair, makeup, and costumes. Ahmed, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, snaps at some of them as she feels the tug in her hair that is being pulled into a tight bun, and feels the trickle of the alta, a red dye used to paint hands and feet, on her heel.
Lynch presents a calmer front. She lifts the top to the mini black strolley she rolled in, and her peers from Triveni gush over how well stocked and organized she is- with over 10 red sharpies (should the alta fail to dry effectively), multiple hair accessories, safety pins, and all her jewelry safely secured. She pulls out a banana and points it at Ahmed. “Eat this. You need some Potassium.”
Once they are fully dressed for stage, Ahmed and Lynch quickly rush to the prayer room, and shut the door behind them. They emerge two minutes later, and quietly ascend the stairs to the stage.
The performance is preceded by another prayer on stage, to Nataraja, the Indian God of dance. Gulati leads the prayer and lights the incense, guiding her disciples on how to worship the deity’s statue. As smoke rises from the incense, a tear rolls down Ahmed’s face. Lynch’s lips quiver as she holds back tears.
The dancers then take their positions. The music begins, and their bodies follow along. Months of training have made the sequences muscle memory. Each dancer is in sync, like the shadow of the other.
During the two intervals for costume changes, heavy breathing, lip biting, and brow wiping reveals their exhaustion. On-stage, neither deters from the charming smile, the curious eyebrow lift, the shocked gasp, and the myriad of other expressions that the dances demand.
With the final step, there comes a new emotion- relief. For in the end, like Krishna’s conquering of Kaliya, Ahmed and Lynch conquered their Arangetram.