Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Suchita Senthil Kumar

There is blood on Mayil’s silk clothes.

The slash runs from her toe to the middle of her right sole. Just before the dance performance, she had slipped away from the rest of the dance troupe to drink a sip of water. Her Guru had permitted her to leave, albeit with a stern expression, asking her to make sure she returned on time. Mayil had been sprinting along the length of the temple’s stone corridors when her toe struck a sharp edge, which scratched through her flesh, and now there were splotches of blood staining her dance costume.

A voice from the temple speakers—her teacher’s voice—announces the beginning of the Padam. The juniors of the Isai Dance Troupe are scheduled to perform a slow-moving Krishna Padam right before the final performance of the seniors, a grand Thillana, which means that Mayil has roughly five minutes to report to her Guru backstage.

Mayil attempts to take larger steps to cover the sprawling floors of the temple, but each stride she makes applies force directly to the sole of her foot, sending a searing pain shooting through her limb. She doesn’t want to, and cannot afford to, damage the soles of her feet any more. Dancing will cause enough friction, and she needs to protect her feet for the main stage.

With caution, she makes the decision to stand on her tiptoes, and it’s immediately the wrong move. A section of the slit is situated right on the crease that allows her to push herself onto her toes, and it triggers a fresh wave of blood dripping onto the floor. She balances her right foot on the side away from her toe and limps to the backstage area, slipping into position amongst the rest of the dance group.

“If you were even two seconds late, I would’ve begun without you,” hisses Nandini Ma’am, her Guru, before stepping onto the stage. She announces the marvels of the Thillana and the achievements of her senior students in a clear and welcoming voice.

The stinging at Mayil’s foot and the subsequent pain that twists up her right leg softens with the knowledge that she is going to be on stage in less than a few seconds. A true dancer will dance despite blood and pain, despite sun or rain, her teacher always said. Mayil has an entire legacy clinging to the Bharatanatyam bells around her feet, and she has to live up to that name.

Despite the aching pain, she’s relieved about one thing, and it’s the fact that none of the audience would notice the blood unless they were exclusively looking at her toes. Even if they were, the stain would be camouflaged by the red alta painting her feet, making the injury almost impossible to notice. The same could be said for the blood on the edge of her Bharatanatyam pant—her grandmother’s red and blue silk.

This is Chidambaram, her grandmother’s birthplace. The town where legacies are carved on the gold plating of its temple’s gopuram, the town where secrets lie in the air that wafts amongst the temple walls, the town where Mayil’s grandmother had dreamed of seeing her dance. 

Paati, are you watching me from the skies? Are you blessing me? 

Mayil steps onto the stage, takes her position at the centre, and joins her hands together in the namaskaram. She greets the audience, her Guru, and the Almighty. The music from the violin and nadhaswaram begins the Mohanakalyani Thillana, accompanied by the mridangam and thavil. The sting in her feet numbs away with the music. She becomes one with the breeze, the waves, the stringing of the violin, and the rhythm of the mridangam. This is Bharatanatyam—Lord Nataraja’s cosmic dance.

The Mohanakalyani Thillana, one of Shri Lalgudi G. Jayaraman’s greatest compositions, reverberates off the temple walls. The Carnatic quartet of renowned musicians seem to speak in a mellifluous conversation with one another, letting their instruments converse in place of words. Mayil’s hands and feet move in practised grace with every mudra and every adavu ingrained in each atom of her bones. Her antique ornaments, the jasmine flowers in her hair, and the bells around her feet amalgamate with her skin—they dance with her to the praise of Lord Muruga.

Sundara Mohana Roopam
Vandita Muni Jananandam
Santatam Valli Kaantam
Chintaye Guruvaram Skandam

His beautiful and charming form
is worshipped by great sages to attain divine bliss.
Let us remember the husband of Valli
the magnificent guru, Skanda (Lord Muruga)

Suddenly, the dance ends without her knowledge, the audience’s applause breaking her from her Bharatanatyam trance. She bows down to them with folded hands and walks off the stage. All the dancers gather in a circle to discuss their post-performance joy. 

“I actually injured my leg before,” Mayil says to the rest of the group. “When I went to get some water. There was blood all over the place—it stained my costume too.”

A collective sound of sympathy resouds amidst the group, and everyone agrees that this is the worst thing that could happen to someone right before a performance.

“We should clean your wound or something,” Anitha, her closest friend in the troupe, notes, while the others continue to gush over the temple’s decorations. “Show me how bad it is.”

Mayil bends her right leg at the knee, balancing on her left, to display her feet under the temple light. No blood. She turns her foot around to view the side of her sole. No blood again. Anita shakes her head and returns to the conversation, saying something about the proficiency of the musicians and reminding everyone to take their blessings. 

Mayil continues to examine her feet, only to find no trace of a wound or any blood spilt. She checks her left leg just in case. Nothing. Her eyes follow the path she must’ve taken while walking towards the stage, and there is no blood there either. 

Her eyes rove over the stage, pausing at the sight of a series of crimson gleams strewn across the floor. At the centre of the stage, where she had recently danced, lay a few rubies. 

She looks down.

There is no blood on Mayil’s clothes.