New music, new dancing, and poorly timed power cuts
A few weeks ago I was invited to be a guest at a local English medium school outside of Trichy, Tamil Nadu. I had only met the headmaster of the school – who extended the invitation to me – for 15 minutes at a bus stop on the Wednesday before the Saturday celebration. Contrary to my last few school visits, I had a few days to write a short speech. However, I could not have possibly prepared for the events that followed and the five-hour performance. I was told that I would be picked up at 3:40 sharp for the 6 PM performance. As 3:40 came and went, a slight sheen of sweat appeared on my skin. I couldn't tell whether I was nervous about my speech, concerned that I was waiting in the wrong place to be picked up, or sweating from the exceedingly hot coffee that I was drinking in 95-degree weather (when will iced coffee catch on in India?). At 4:45, a car pulled up, and the headmaster and my friend Gurunathan, who had introduced me to the headmaster, got out. They did not appear the least bit concerned about the possibility of being late for the performance, and proceeded to sit down for coffee and biscuits. Unsure whether I should interject and remind them about the 6pm start time, I sat and watched hand motions and listened to Tamil for half an hour.[caption id="attachment_2663" align="aligncenter" width="3000"] The Headmaster (right), Gurunathan (center), and me[/caption]At about 5:15 we climbed into the car, heading down the bumpy road on the way to the school. Upon arrival I was greeted by a line of smiling women, all dressed in the same flowing saris decorated with elaborate gold designs. As I was ushered backstage, the atmosphere in the auditorium completely overwhelmed me. There were about 1,000 people present, some sitting in the countless rows of seats, some packed around the edges hanging onto the building’s support beams. I was clearly the only foreigner. Backstage I quickly rehearsed my speech, which would be translated into Tamil by Gurunathan. At about 6:30 we finally walked out onto the stage to take our seats. I looked out into the crowd, immediately conscious of the hundreds of pages of eyes now turned towards me. Above the crowd, fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling at various angles, only half of them emitting light. After a few minutes the first speaker got up to talk. Very little of her speech was audible. Apparently, the electrical crew had chosen the start of the performance to begin testing the sound equipment, as men scurried around the stage, fiddling with cables, adjusting microphones, and sticking a device that resembled a screwdriver into electrical sockets to test their functionality.[caption id="attachment_2664" align="aligncenter" width="2500"] A bigger crowd than expected[/caption]During the second speaker, a blinding beam of light shot out from the floodlights positioned in front of the stage. One of the guests sitting next to me exclaimed loudly to the man operating the setup, who sheepishly dimmed the lights. During the third speaker, the speakers made a loud boom and all of the lights went out. Classic unfortunately timed power cut. After a few minutes the electrons started flowing again, and the speeches continued.Next was my speech. Gurunathan and I took the podium, and I stumbled through a Tamil greeting. It was met with resounding applause from the audience, and I couldn’t help but smile. I didn’t know what I had done to be talking in front of this crowd of people, but they sure seemed happy that I was there. My speech was brief, touching on the hospitality that I had received by so many Tamilians and the delicious but spicy food.After a few more speeches, the performances began. The first act was a beautiful dance by a young girl in the 7th standard. The next five hours were a combination of choreographed dances, short plays, and a reenactment of a famous speech by Swami Vivekananda. The students impressed with the number of lines and dance moves that they had committed to memory, as well as their ability to keep the show going regardless of technical difficulties.[caption id="attachment_2659" align="aligncenter" width="2500"] Swami Vivekananda[/caption][caption id="attachment_2661" align="aligncenter" width="2500"] 3rd standard girls patiently waiting their turn[/caption][caption id="attachment_2660" align="aligncenter" width="1750"] The two best costumes ever created[/caption]It was a fantastic opportunity to really learn about Tamil and Indian culture. Although I remain skeptical that I did anything to deserve being an honored guest at the celebration, I am grateful to have had the chance to experience a performance with music and dancing so starkly different from anything that I had ever seen in the U.S.