Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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Celebrating dance

flamenco

The chairs are arranged along three sides of a square, in a typical courtyard of a house in the Barrio de Santa Cruz. The entrance is deceptive but soon you find yourself seated in a functional foldable chair, looking at a 12 feet X 12 feet wooden stage set firmly in the middle of the courtyard. The fourth side of the square has 3 chairs facing the stage, placed about a foot apart, with a small table with a pitcher of water. The wall behind these is covered with a creeper that has seen many seasons and innunerable performances of the traditional flamenco dance that were are waiting to see. A woman dressed in black comes in with a young bearded man carrying a guitar. Without much ado, she starts singing, a soulful tune, foreign sounding words, maintaining the beat with claps. The male flamenco dancer enters at some point, tapping his feet, using his hands and his body to convey the power of his passion as he dances to the music. At times, the woman is singing in the background, sounding very far away, though she is right behind him. The guitar provides both the melody and the percussion at other times, again seeming to be an unnecessary accompaniment to the force of the performance by the dancer. But there are times when there is no sound other than the tapping of the black-soled shoes on the wooden stage in a still night in this courtyard where the audience holds its breath as it watches him perform. The dance is memorable not because the dancer is able to perform intricate fast-paced footwork impeccably but for his ability to overwhelm and overturn the other artists and relegate them to the background as his joy for the art form spills out and takes over the entire audience.

The guitarist then performs alone, slowing down the tempo and bestowing a sense of calm after the explosive performance of the dancer. The melody and talent of the guitarist appeals in the way that instrumental music tends to do, connect at a higher level by making you listen to something beyond mere words that our ears strive to hear most often.

The beautiful senorita in a figure-hugging red dress, with her hair tied tightly appears. She takes up a striking pose and begins her dance. It is a high energy performance – she moves likes a tightly wound spring, exuding strength, passion and grace with the tapping of her feet and the movement of her hands and body across the tiny stage. Her dress moves likes waves of water around her, fluidly crisscrossing her swaying and tapping form. She seems angry almost, giving off vibrations of extreme emotions as she concludes her performance. Once again, the song and the guitar take a back seat as the dance takes over. Before we know it, there is a crescendo and the performance is done. The audience claps as the artists come in to take a bow, and a second one as the applause continues. And then there is silence as we step out into the narrow bustling lanes of the Santa Cruz quarter on a Saturday evening. The night is young, and so is everyone seated at the bars sipping sangria while waiters handout trays of tapas. The tourists take a look at the lit up cathedral in the night, the bells of the Giralda look down on the square benevolently. And I feel immersed in the history and spirit of Andalusia as I go to bed.

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Travelessence – Spain

spainI have a dream, a small wish really. To buy a world map. A large one. One that I can hang on a wall in my home. With little stickers, I want to mark the places I have visited. Red stickers for places I lived in – Bombay (before it became Mumbai), Washington DC, San Francisco, Hyderabad, Singapore. Green for places where I was a tourist – Rome, London, Sydney, Paris, Barcelona, Bali. Yellow for the ones that beckon – Turkey, Bhutan, Greece, New Zealand.

In this series, I would like to share with you, my thoughts on some of the places I have visited – exotic locations, religious pilgrimages, family holidays, business trips and outings with friends.

The first essay is one I wrote on a business trip cum holiday with my good friend, Anupama to Spain in 2012.

We were strolling along La Rambla, the most happening part of Barcelona, ice-cream cone in hand, passing shops selling souvenirs, juices and trinkets. We had arrived from Granada a few hours earlier. The large poster announcing a series of concerts at local basilicas displayed at a travel information kiosk caught our attention. A long list of performances were scheduled for the months of October and November at various spectacular locations within the city. There was only one that we could possibly attend, a Spanish guitar performance by Manuel Gonzalez that would begin in a couple of hours at a church that appeared to be located within walking distance of La Rambla. Did we have a list of places to see, things to do, eat, shop and admire in Barcelona? Of course we did. But the best experiences happen when there is a change in plan. We booked tickets for that evening’s performance.

We barely made it in time to the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi, a beautiful church built in the Gothic style of architecture. The seats were almost full with a low buzz as people waited for the artist to arrive. At exactly 9 p.m. Manuel Gonzalez, a distinguished looking man appeared on stage with the Spanish guitar and started playing. We had a program brochure in Spanish listing the pieces to be played. But it did not matter what was written or announced, the music enveloped everyone in that room.

The wonderful acoustics of the monument, the ambience of the location, the time of day and the mastery of the artist over his instrument, I am not sure if any one of this was responsible for the temporary bliss that overtook me as I found myself immersed in this wonderful music. If I closed my eyes, I could have sworn that the sounds emanating from the stage were from a piano, or was it the drums or a saxophone perhaps? The artist was highly accomplished in taking the instrument to its limits of creation.

Music, particularly instrumental music has the ability to transcend barriers of language fluency, accent and articulation to make a connection with the listener. As a person familiar with Indian music, I am always looking to connect with something I already know – the instrument itself, the raaga, the movie, composer, artist. I try to compare it with something I have heard previously, see if I remember the words. The pure joy of the moment gets diluted by tricks of memory. Here none of my past knowledge mattered, a simple melody, a succession of notes, a series of tunes registered in my consciousness. And filled me up.

Spain as a country seems immersed in music. Whether it was the banjo player outside Puerta de la Justica at Alhambra, or the guitarist in the sunny square near the Alcazar palace in Seville, or the unusual music created by a strange instrument called the “handpan” outside the cathedral in Granada, they all created haunting melodies, some sang words that I didn’t understand but could probably guess, while others just struck a chord in my heart, completely bypassing my bossy head.

As Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”. With each day that I spent in beautiful Spain, struggling to communicate my need for vegetarian food or ask for directions to the toilets or enquire about train timings, I felt less uncomfortable at my “foreignness” and more connected to total strangers who showed the way or happily took photographs when asked. I read somewhere that it is important to “Travel more. Getting lost may help you find yourself”. Isn’t that the purpose of all journeys, if not all travel?