The lonely ballerina

The lonely ballerina

“And so you see, I have come to doubt/ All that I once held as true/ I stand alone without beliefs/ The only truth I know is you”. The lyrics are from Kathy’s Song, one of Simon and Garfunkel’s most beautiful compositions.

It was inspired by the relationship between the then 22-year-old American Paul Simon and the 17-year-old British ticket-seller Kathleen Mary Chitty he met while performing at the Railway Inn Folk Club at Brentwood, Essex, on April 12, 1964.

However, when the album, Sounds of Silence (which included Kathy’s Song), was subsequently released in early 1966 to worldwide acclaim, the intensely shy English lass decided to end the relationship because she felt she couldn’t take the strain of living with a celebrity. If Kathy’s Song moved listeners all over the world, the success ironically distanced Paul Simon from the muse he loved.

It is a dilemma creative artistes face. The loneliness of the long-distance runner pales in comparison with that of the poet, the painter, the gymnast or the ballet dancer. “Just when you think you have achieved perfection, your competitor comes up with a superlative performance and you have to strive even harder”, Nadia Comaneci, the first female gymnast to score a perfect-10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, told the BBC on the eve of the 2012 London Games. The unending quest for excellence can distance the gymnast and the ballet dancer from those she loves.

It is a dimension Arya Rajam explores in her debut novel Blood, Sweat and Tears. Despite the now-somewhat war-worn and cliched Churchillian turn of phrase in her title, Rajam could be commended for her ambitious attempt to move away from the 24x7 media-driven milieu we live in to write a novel about a half-Indian ballerina striving for success at first the Moscow Star Ballet Theatre, and then the Baranski Theatre.

Rajam’s protagonist Zaria (meaning sunrise) Krishnan is actually a second-generation ballerina. Her mother Irina Medievsky is the role model for Zaria in more ways than one. Irina, the daughter of two Moscow-based professors of Economics and English, falls in love with Rajiv Krishnan, the son of a business tycoon whose Chennai company is one of the sponsors for a performance involving a fusion of ballet and Bharatanatyam in the form of a shortened version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The two get married, much to the unhappiness of Rajiv’s conservative parents. When Zaria is a child, her father dies in an accident and Irina decides to return to Moscow since she is not prepared to accept the stringent conditions imposed by her in-laws for being looked after in Chennai. Apart from giving ballet classes in Moscow, Irina works as a barmaid, the easiest job to get for someone who is not a college graduate in a city and country where boozing is a way of life. Her two jobs help Irina pay for the education of Zaria whose dance classes are free since her mother teaches ballet. Zaria is mesmerised by the first ballet she sees in a theatre — Swan Lake — and decides she is going to be a ballerina.

The book narrates the story of Zaria’s attempts to fulfill her dream. It could even be called a tale of two cities, with Moscow being Zaria’s kurukshetra, and Chennai the tranquil base to which she periodically returns to catch up with her father’s sister and parents and the children she studied with. Zaria’s life is like the fusion which first brought her parents together in the form of the Indian adaptation of Swan Lake.

In the midst of all that musical harmony of Zaria successfully auditioning for the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and going on to perform the lead in Romeo And Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty, Rajam refers matter-of-factly to the casting couch where ballerinas hand out sexual favours to men who matter, like the fundraising ballet patron Yevgeny, something Zaria feels has to be done. Perhaps Rajam could have likewise mentioned that the Russian billionaires who vacation with ballerinas in the Bahamas are not always gentlemen like the upmarket department-store-chain owner Leonid who leaves Zaria when she does not accept his proposal for marriage.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Moscow on links between Russia’s oligarch-billionaires and organised crime.

To that extent, the ballet seems an escape from reality, like it may have been in the time of the czars. It takes a very perceptive audience to realise that wicked fairies like Carabosse (who casts a spell to kill Princess Aurora but which the good fairy modifies so that everyone in the palace falls asleep for 100 years) need not just be up there on the stage, but all around.

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