A South India Adventure

A South India adventure:
The ‘Dance Hula, Dance!’ cast, a high voltage group on the move.

by Dawn Fraser Kawahara, C. May 2007

The energy crackled through us as we boarded our China Airlines flight from Honolulu to Taipei. Despite the early departure and lengthy flights, the group voltage didn’t diminish across the date line all the way forward to Bangkok, and after a brief tour in Thailand, arrival in Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Hula and instruments enlivened the layover and pre-boarding time for us and for other waiting passengers. These impromptu “fun” hula times drew attention, interest, and some would-be dancers who jumped right in…

Even if we weren’t dancing and singing and strumming, just lining up for the inevitable security scans and checks, clustered around hand-carried instruments, implements and baggage, or lolling and resting in our seats, our matching diamond-patterned halau shirts multiplied by 20 and friendly chatter drew attention to us as a “troupe” from Hawai`i–dancers, musicians and helpers on the move. More than that, our tour was made all the more memorable because we were a bonded group of friends respectful of each other and all committed to furthering the excitement and “the truth of ancient hula” under the long-time guidance of Ka `Imi director Roselle Keli`ihonipua Bailey, our respected Kumu Hula and friend. Besides sharing Hawaiian culture and aloha spirit through hula and teaching, we had a mission in mind: bringing helpful goods and learning aids in the spirit of friendship and respect to the very needy children of Imayam School. This, as well as our lodging in destination Tuticorin, were set through our member Savitri’s Kaua`i connection with Vi Ganesan Herbert, director of the Kolam Foundation…

After dinner and a span of uninterrupted sleep stretched out flat in comfy beds of the Hotel Maxx in Bangkok, we again took off early on our private sightseeing bus. We strolled through the famous flower market and marveled at the bountiful blossoms, then toured the Grand Palace/Wat Ka Preo Complex and the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha before leaving the city. Our special destination was Phimai, an archaeological dig in progress related to the ancient Khmer civilization. This treasure is not yet known as well as its related Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor Wat. Our special connection was long-time member, Ka `Imi president Heu`ionalani, who has worked at the dig for several seasons. She, like our members who came from Virginia, Oregon and California, and Germany, would join for the South India adventure. First, we would visit cultural sites of interest in the Phimai area.

Our evening orientation in no way prepared us for the type of deep-level experience we would all share at the dig. Even the magnified and echoing sounds of our voices singing the chant for the ancestors within a vaulted ancient temple we visited on the way didn’t clue us.

But at arrival, the volts of internal electricity produced by the villagers’ vocal and instrumental answer  to our chant of greeting started the high-power experience. Looking deep into the burial pit area of the dig, viewing the actual bones of what might truly be Polynesian and Hawaiian ancestors while chanting, the inner and outer connection was amplified. The solemn hula, chant, and resounding drumming that followed resonated outward and held the watchers–the archaeological staff and villagers–spell-bound. No one watching spoke or moved for a time.

The spell hovered even after the official opening ceremony. Our troupe was followed Pied Piper-style to the village center, performers and watchers arranging themselves and the hovering energy sparks still almost palpable. The ebb didn’t seem to come until long after the moist-eyed farewells and waves as our bus made its way through the farm fields heading back to the capital city. Even our special “dinner out” at Silom Village, complete with Thai folk and classical dance performance and musicians plus a memorable meal, couldn’t compare with the unexpected level of our Phimai “chicken skin extraordinaire” experience.

Our Thai guide was noticeably affected, too. We left his care as friends, rather than just another bunch of tourists. He stood waiting, waving us onto the plane, proudly wearing the Kaua`i lei po`o (head lei) Ka`iulani had managed to keep fresh.

Tamil Nadu adventuring
There is a saying in India that not a day should pass when a person doesn’t visit her/his four interior rooms–physical, emotional, religious, and spiritual–if not to stay awhile, then at least to stop in and promise an upcoming longer stay. Even if this was never expressed in words within the Ka `Imi group, it seemed as if the entry into Thailand and South India brought it to us in the air we breathed, food and water that nourished and hydrated us, and contact with the lively and friendly people of Thailand and Tamil Nadu we met all along the way. Also, most noticeably, with our special guides and hosts, and drivers.

We arrived in Chennai on a most auspicious day, according to our friend Vi. January 15 falls as the midpoint of three harvest festival, or Pongal Days, when a sweet made of rice, raw sugar, coconut, nuts and raisins is traditionally eaten. No sooner had we been met, greeted and led to our tour bus (air-conditioned!), than our hosts arranged by Vi’s contacts plied us each with a container of specially home-made Pongal sweet, sandwiches, snacks and large bottles of mineral water. Hunger would not travel with us the miles south to our first overnight stop in Trichy, short for Tiruchirrapalli.

Once out of the city’s bustle and grime, fields, palm trees, some rivers and streams, and low, strangely-shaped mountains flowed by as the bus made good time. Toward sundown, after watching small villages and random huts, trashed and unkempt areas, Tepairu commented on how very poor and undeveloped an area we were traveling through. He gave voice to what we all had not failed to notice, solemnly counting our own blessings during quiet miles traveled.

The last remaining member–Andrea, from Germany–had joined us at the Chennai airport, and the group chose to practice oli, mele, and hand/arm gestures along the way. This use of bus travel time for practice and enjoyment would reoccur many times over the three weeks. Tepairu brought out his guitar, He`ui and Keahi and Kealamai, their `ukuleles, and the interior of the bus “rocked.” Roselle often rose from her seat midway down the aisle with Jim to visit with the various clusters, make a suggestion, define a motion, or just join in. Parking lots, bathroom ante-rooms afforded more practice space, not to mention hallways on our room floors and lobbies, when appropriate.

The Ka `Imi troupe was priming itself for the Imayam School warm-up short performance once we’d settled into our brand-spanking new, dorm wing of the Annammal Teachers Training  College–named for Vi’s Great Grandmother–in Tuticorin. And then, the Subbiah Vidyalayam High School, over 75 years old with 1500 students, named for Vi’s Great Grandfather, its benefactor. Our benefactor there in Tuticorin was Mr. Ganesan, Vi’s brother-in-law, who is the male heir of Subbiah and manager. There were also well-attended and wonderfully hosted performances at the Saint Mary’s Catholic College, and the Jain Vidalya School, and a dance festival and games day at the Annammal Teachers College.

The original schedule was worked and re-worked day by day. Savitri and Moanikeala tackled the details seemingly effortlessly with their organizational skills.

At each school, we were treated in turn to glittering, costumed performances of folk and classical Bharata Natyam dance by amazingly proficient students of the dance. We also visited an orphanage where classical dance was being taught. One morning at the Imayam School our troupe had the opportunity of getting in behind the girls’ exercise class, where every head and finger position, and step was a preparation for the dance. Even hula proficiency didn’t ease the complexity of rhythm and positioning; there were many involuntary “Woops!” and “Oh’s”. This amused the kids, who were beautifully behaved and quiet until class ended, when the giggles and laughter behind polite hands could be let free.

Traveling in style, learning customs of the land
Everyone in the group took care of others at some time, helping to carry, aid with the big steps on and off the bus, iron creased costumes, make quick changes, wind and tuck the pellon puffs, pin, give hairpins and Advil, produce extra toilet paper–valuable in its scarcity, insect repellant, batteries, snacks, snacks and more snacks. When our M&Ms and energy bars from home ran out, we all concurred that the savory snacks and ice cream of Tamil Nadu were delicious, along with the delicious vegetarian foods upon which we feasted. Our bus crew kept us well-supplied with fresh fruits and mineral water. Aside from some respiratory problems and personal adjustments to time changes and spicy foods, we all stayed healthy.

Combined with the air-conditioning and sun curtains, we were traveling like royalty as compared with the hot, dusty open-aired buses and trucks jammed with commuting citizens we were to encounter. We drew stares as we rolled along or walked through the villages and towns, for it was evident we were not of Tamil Nadu, not with our lighter skins and some, with nutmeg and light brown hair, and Shivani, with her golden tresses that drew many admirers. The matter of color consciousness drew me up short when one young girl who asked for my autograph at the school said admiringly, “Madam, you are so fair,” and me, a dark brunette in my youthful days.

Our two “young ‘uns” in their twenties–Ka`iulani and Makanani-showed special awareness and caring. As Roselle explained when doing introductions prior to the performances, we had dancing hula this young teacher and pharmacy student, and those who were mothers and grandmothers, professionals from many walks of life. “Our” three men were seniors, retired professional men, too. Her statement about Ka `Imi’s womenfolk always caused a noticeable ripple in the audiences. We learned that in the Indian tradition, once a woman, especially a married woman, no longer a girl, dancing to perform, or in public, is left far behind. I thought how much of a cultural difference this was  from the tutus at home, who are known to sometimes dance the naughtiest of hula at local celebrations.

By the time we met our “angel” guides, the lively and beautiful Malar and the knowledgeable Professor Selvaraj and his wife Kalyani–all of whom became our good friends–we had perfected our Tamil language “aloha” greeting, “Vannakam”, hands together at chest level with a polite dip of the head. Vi had also primed us to say thank-you, “Nandri”. Many Tamil Nadu people were proficient at English, so communication was easy.

We learned immediately that by practicing the polite greetings, we brought treatment of the same kind and much appreciation toward us as foreigners who were following local tradition. Our adoption of local modes of dress, wearing loose, light, covering garments, was also appreciated. After a week in the Tuticorin area, we also noticeably developed the head-bobbling habit that we assumed means, Yes, yes, we are listening to you and honor what you are saying with our attention. My husband and I find at times, just like our strong memories of the trip experience and people, this has stayed with us. We are sure we’re not alone.

Temples & statues,  kolams & courtesies
Also remaining strong are a collage of memories of our “temple” days: pre-temple shopping, dawn preparation as we dressed in salwar chameez and dupatta (pajama-like pants and tops with head-covering scarves) and saris, temple flowers pinned in our hair–for the women, shirts off and bare chests–for the men, bare feet for all on the stone floors and flights of steps of ancient, rock-carved holy places. The high panoramic views over city sprawl and lazy rivers; the dank smell of foot-worn interior passages to the center of the holiest of holy Hindu temple interiors, the dim lit niches and adornments of the goddess and god statues. The fragrance of jasmine and marigold blossoms, ghee (clarified butter); spicy odors of turmeric and chili pastes; the crackle of candle flames; children’s treble voices calling out, “Happy Pongal Day!”; priests intoning; people chattering animatedly; dark brown skins of the Tamil people, their large, dark eyes, watching, their ready smiles and returned “Vannakam” greeting; painted elephants salaaming with their trunks. Our first views of sunlight shimmering a path over the Bay of Bengal; holy cows, goats, and people-people-people.

Much of this could not be caught by film and digitized light and shadow, but our group’s many photos will act as mnemonic devices. The individual journals will hold each particular view, and our halau computerized slide show, put together from several sources by Keahi, holds high points that express the elements of our ancient paired with modern “Dance Hula, Dance!” presentation. This was especially geared and related to what we knew and researched about South India, Hindu gods and goddesses, and the Tamil Nadu people, Hawaii’s “cousins”.

At our post-trip gatherings all group members have expressed that our times spent with the two amazing headmistresses of the Imayam School–Saraswathi and Ponrathi–and their teachers, and especially their students, was the jewel of our collective experience.

Meeting the youth who showed at each instance they were hungry for learning was a treat in itself. Their manners, their welcome, their enjoyment and pride in sharing their special school were central. Many students walk miles barefoot at daybreak to attend, coming from villages of utmost poverty; some are orphaned or abandoned and have been given a home at the school. Being of low caste, also–and the caste system is still firmly in place in India–these youth would have no way of receiving education and changing the economic straits they have been born into without the miracle that is unfolding at this school. Imayam School gives them life now and in the future.

It was inspiring to read the quotes of Vivekenanda written in English on the school blackboards for our edification. These affirmations are regularly used to motivate the students, to give the children self-esteem. We viewed with appreciation a display of the intricate kolam designs created by the students under the artistic tutelage of Saraswathi, a respected kolam artist. One morning at the school we were given a demonstration and tried our faltering hands at this traditional art–rice flour drizzled adeptly through practiced fingers, creating spirals and flowers on the earth. Housewives and shopkeepers still create this practical art daily to feed the ants at their doorways. We were greeted at each school we visited, along roadways, with special kolams, which could be likened to sand painting of the American southwest, created anew with symbolism for special occasions.

Beyond Imayam School  kids, ‘fire & water’ & the downhill slope
We formed groups to give the students a morning of various workshops, from hula through biology to Polynesian drumming. We attended the students’ science fair, well thought out and presented on a shoestring budget; we walked through the school garden, which is being developed to help feed the staff and student body their one generous mid-day meal of the day; we admired the round, domed dorm for visiting teachers in progress; we attended singing and drumming lessons. We ate delicious food served on banana leaves with our fingers in the big meeting hall and drank sweet tea. We tried learning some Tamil words (they spoke pretty good English).We joined in the exercise sessions. We sang and danced for the kids, and they, for us. We took their pictures and showed them the digital screens while they grinned. We walked through their village, nodding Vanakkam, smiling, to their people; we admired their temple.

Most importantly, though, we bonded with the kids, and they, with us.

Another group who established very strong bonds with us was the kitchen staff at Annammal Teachers College, who fed us mouthwatering vegetarian meals morning-noon-& night of our stay–and morning came early, and nights, late after performance. As a mahalo, we offered an impromptu performance our last night in Tuticorin, also packing in the student teachers. The roof was practically lifting by the time Roselle joined in the hula fun, the clapping thunderous.

Sleep came late after that adrenaline rush, yet the troupe left at daybreak to head south for Tirunveli and fit in a special shore temple visit at Tiruchendur, not far from Cape Comorin, where the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea come together. Guided and coached by Prof. Selvaraj, who traveled along with us, we managed not to look bedraggled for the occasion. That came later, before a good sleep.

Madurai – Pondicherry and Auroville – Mammallapuram, an ancient shrine and temple site near Chennai: these were our further destinations heading north once again along a coastline that had been deluged by last year’s tsunami and was still recovering. At each stop there would be new friends, generous hosts such as the Professor and Kalyani, and Malar and husband “Raj”– who invited us into their homes and introduced us to their families–cultural contacts, learning and sightseeing, and performance. Our time in South India was ticking away, and our thoughts were leaning toward home in the same way one thinks of coming home after an exciting, action-packed day.

“We are water, and you. . .  are fire,” Roselle had aptly told the Professor when asked what she saw as the differences between sacred hula and Bharata Natyam dance. Two of many shared, key elements of two peoples, joined in respect and new understanding of our differences, and our many similarities.

Without trying, we had visited each room of the “four rooms” many times over; we were content, sad/happy, elevated and acculturated. We offered our pule, prayers, gave thanks for our lives, our blessings. We were a family, we were Ka `Imi, The Seekers of this cultural and goodwill exchange. We had received numerous gifts of heart, and we gave of the heart, our best Hawaiian aloha.