Bharatanatyam Dancer // Image via Jim Zuckerman
When Ross and I were in India, we decided we would fill up our free time taking classes from local artisans. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, I stomped around in bharatanatyam dance classes; Ross would take an auto-rickshaw to a drum master’s home, and learn mridangam drumming techniques.
“How did your class go?” I would ask him, rubbing my sore soles.
“Um …” he would say, “interesting. It was interesting.”
That’s because Ross and I, Americans that we were, were used to entering into artistic endeavors for the sole purpose of individual expression. We were going to give bharatanatyam and mridangam drumming our signature style! Really put our personal spin on it! OWN it!
Except, we were not. That is not how bharatanatyam and mridangam drumming is done in India.
One of the main cultural differences between America and, well, the rest of the world is our very short history. Oh, we’ve got a few traditions here and there … Thanksgiving, for example. The Star-Spangled Banner. But, when it comes right down to it, we’re only a few hundred years old. Compare that to India, whose inhabitants have been practicing bharatanatyam dance and mridangam drumming for millenia. Ross and I were not, in fact, going to waltz in and become crazy bharatanatyam dance and mridangam drumming improv artists; we were going to learn hundreds of years’ worth of rhythms, step by step, marching backwards through history learning the works of all the masters before us. Because that is how ancient traditions are handed down: by devoted, rote memorization.
So it wasn’t a surprise that Ross’s drum lessons went the way they did. Here’s how a typical lesson would go at his mridangam teacher’s house:
“Ross sir, I will demonstrate to you this song. Please listen and repeat back.” (An eight-minute drum song ensues)
“Um, OK,” says Ross nervously, “does it start like thi–”
“NO,” says mridangam drum master. “Hand is in WRONG place. Please start again.”
“Ok, cool — I think I got it,” Ross poises his hand and begins, “this feels grea–”
“PLEASE START AGAIN.” Mridangam drum master is frowning at Ross.
“Oh, sorry, let’s see — um — maybe you could review the first 30 seconds or so?”
“Yes. Hands do this.” (Mridangam drum master plays first half of entire eight-minute song)
“Alright … great,” says Ross, “so we begin like this?” (Tentatively plays first few beats)
“Yes, yes … NO. PLEASE START AGAIN.”
It wasn’t trial-and-error, you see. Our teachers’ mode of instruction was: You got it, or you didn’t. If you messed up, go back to the beginning.
Maybe it’s harsh. It’s certainly not the teaching style most of us are used to. And yet … our teachers weren’t just teachers. They were masters. Their craft was their essence, the thing their heartbeats kept time to. When you watched them perform, it wasn’t like watching someone who is very good. Rather, it was like watching a half-animal, half-spirit being that channeled something large and, you got the sense, very profound. More than art. More than history. You were bearing witness to something not entirely of this physical world.
Living in Austin, it’s easy to stick your fingers in any number of creative hobbies. We’re a city, but we’re a small town at heart, and the artistic scene isn’t too hierarchical (yet). Oh sure, there are masters. But they walk among us. They won’t “NO, PLEASE START AGAIN” at you; rather, they’ll calmly take your hands, place them in the general direction of accuracy, and nod encouragingly while you do your own little jam.
Because of that, and also because I think I belong to a generation of frantic skill collectors (see: Zooey Deschanel, movie star/indie rock singer/website founder/Pantene spokesperson), I have a really hard time choosing just one thing. On any given day, I yearn to master:
3. Aerial dance
That’s a lot as it is. I’m far from mastery at any one of them. But then, I’ll read about someone else being awesome, and I’ll immediately start fantasizing about that, too:
Me: Wow, it’s so cool that Lena Dunham is a screenwriter.
My brain: Lady screenwriters are so in these days! Very now!
Me: Right? Well, good for them. Anyway, I’m just going to sit down and write a blog pos–
My brain: Let’s write a screenplay!!
Me: What? No. I’ve never written a screenplay.
My brain: You could do it!!!
Me: Uh, no I can’t. I already have too many hobbies. So! Back to this blog pos–
My brain: Wait wait I know! You know what else is awesome right now? Having your own podcast! Let’s invent a podcast today!
Me: Nice try, but, no. Seriously, I appreciate the ideas and all but–
My brain: TOO LATE! I’m registering you on iTunes right now! Hahaha you’re going to have a podcast!
Me: Oh my God stop. I don’t even know what I’d talk about on a pod–
My brain: Maybe BOOKS or AUSTIN or GREEK YOGURT recipe ideas. Maybe you should let me do the talking.
Me: No no, I don’t think that’s such a good idea…
My brain: WELCOME TO TOLLY’S PODCAST! Today we are talking about her CAT!! Haha!
This is honestly a near-everyday occurrence.
My friend Susan and I talk about the merits of Just One Thing vs. Many Things. She falls into the former group, and as a result, is a magical bikram yogi. She can literally bend her body in half, backwards. She is a nationally-recognized, award-winning yoga competitor and teacher, all because she decided to embrace Just One Thing a few years ago, and immersed herself in her practice wholeheartedly. Whole-bodily.
I, being a student of the Many Things school, have a ton of hobbies that I am so-so at. Some are further along than others. And some (Spanish, distance running) are just never going to progress past first grader level. That’s fine and I’ve accepted that.
However, as I get older and come into contact with things that feel like passions, real passions, a funny thing is happening.
I’m finding more and more reasons to embrace Just One Thing (or, perhaps, Just Three Things). To pursue mastery over novelty. To shut down my brain every time it says, “saxophone player!!! OMG Tolly let’s become a sexy saxophone player!” and gently turn back to the passions I’ve already chosen.
Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you discovered your thing years ago and stuck with it. Maybe this whole inner struggle could be summed up as “First World Problems.” Which wouldn’t be entirely off the mark.
However, it’s been eight years since Ross and I were in India, and I feel like I’m just now beginning to appreciate the teachers we had there. I’ve been thinking about them this morning, Ross’s task-master mridangam drum teacher and my equally unforgiving bharatanatyam teacher, and also thinking about the fact that we are so damn lucky in this town to have so many instructional artists at our fingertips.
But. Cheryl Strayed has this Carlo Levi quote that I’m identifying more and more with these days:
“The future has an ancient heart.”
Maybe I’ll keep evolving and discover something else shiny and new down the road that I want to pick up. But for now, for possibly the first time, ancientness feels like home.