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Gypsy tunes and ghungroo beats

Gypsy tunes and ghungroo beats

Author: Sharmila Ganesan-Ram
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 4, 2009
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/city/mumbai/Gypsy-tunes-and-ghungroo-beats/articleshow/5085136.cms

Introduction: For 15 years, this dancer from Spain has been successfully blending flamenco with kathak

Enlightenment can sometimes happen under a bridge. Sharmini Tharmaratnam was holidaying beneath one such steel rainbow in France many years ago when a group of gypsies from various countries gathered there for an annual celebration. Out came a big, black statue of Saint Mary, draped in layers of clothes. The gypsies referred to the statue as Kali and began to sing to it. When they saw Tharmaratnam, who is of Sri Lankan-Dutch origin but looked very Spanish thanks to her wavy black hair and clear skin, they instantly mistook her for one of them and egged her on to participate.

"I took that as a sign,'' says Tharmaratnam, now seated under the false ceiling of a Bandra coffee shop, explaining why she learnt flamenco and later went on to fuse it with Indianness. Tonight, the dancer, who is in her late 30s, will perform a blend of kathak and flamenco with a bunch of enthusiastic Indian musicians in Mumbai. For 15 long years, Tharmaratnam, who studied kathak under the guidance of Pandit Rajendra Gangani in New Delhi, has been successfully mixing the two dance forms that have similar 'footwork and hand movements'.

"My guru was very open to the idea of blending the two dance forms,'' says the slim choreographer, adding that the greatest challenge in achieving "a good compromise between the two styles'' is dealing with musicians. "Indian music, with its various taals and raagas, involves a lot of brain. In flamenco, there are only two taals. If we try to use too much brain in flamenco-which is based on emotion-the fire will be missing,'' adds Tharmaratnam, who designs her own costumes and performs with both ghungroo and shoes but never together. "Ghungroos are too sacred to be worn with shoes.'' The inter-cultural influences are inescapable. Many songs used in flamenco sound like qawwalis. In a song from Love in Shimla, Tharmaratnam found the dancers doing Sevillanas (a Spanish folk dance). "They were even dressed like Spanish dancers in high heels, high hairbuns and curly sidelocks.''

Life as a gypsy has not been easy for her. Tharmaratnam, who has often been asked to shorten her surname, faces racism everywhere in Europe-whether she's trying to rent a house or while entering a shop. "There are always people following me to check if I am stealing something,'' she says. "I sometimes get fed up of flamenco as it's an art form that began as a mark of protest. So in that sense it is negative.'' Kathak, though, has changed the lives of her gypsy students, including some bullies and drug addicts. Some now carry idols of deities like Lord Jagannath and even dress them up.

Tharmaratnam now plans to settle in Mumbai, perhaps because of the reverse racism here. "Here white skin means you have money,'' she laughs. Time and again, she has had to clear many such myths. Indians think Ricky Martin and salsa are Spanish whereas they are Latin American. "It's flamenco, not flamingo,'' she corrects those who ask her if she performs with feathers.

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