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Call of the Coucal
Synopsis . . .
Circumstances make us attribute certain prejudiced characteristics to objects and entities around us resulting in our identifying them with "good" or "bad" and tending to look at the world through this distorted lens that shows up everything in only two drab shades. However, life is a multi-colored kaleidoscope, which is to be enjoyed in all its facets. Some are lucky to find themselves in situations that help clear such prejudices revealing life in all its glory.
The short story that follows has such a scenario as its theme."
Call of the Coucal
A usual dawn
The deep-throated call of the Coucal punctuated the serene quietness of the spring morning, as Dayakar Dronamraju pushed himself to get ready to go to the University.
"Coop--Coop--Coop-Coop-Coop-Coop", said the bird again, involuntarily propelling the young man towards the window that looked out into the large garden behind the house, a room and an attached bath of which he was allowed to call his abode against a payment of a decent sum every month to the grim and unsmiling house-owner. The calls of a few species of birds that frequented the verdant backyard were the little and apparently, inconsequential sounds, that made his otherwise drab existence outside the domain of his only passion - dance - that he pursued at the University, endurable. The call of the bird seemed to impart the feeling that things weren't so bad with the world.
Dayakar looked out from the window longingly. On more than one occasion, he had hesitantly asked the house-owner whether he could have a niche in the garden to himself. There was a door that led out into it, but which had been padlocked permanently. From the accumulated dust between the door and its frame, he could surmise that it hadn't been opened for years. The recollection of this fact would provide a hushed answer to his question every time, even before the house-owner chose to part with his precious words of unqualified and categorical denial.
A spotted dove fluttered away from its perch on a bush close to the window as the young man approached, and found a safer post some distance away, looking back in the direction that it came from to be certain that it was not being pursued...
A dancer's dimension
"Koo-ku-ku-ku-rooo krooo krooo", the dove called; settling down when all seemed well, and started to preen itself, spreading out its tail like a fan. Dayakar moved his body and hands to mimic those of the bird.
This was a habit that he had had from childhood, which was further accentuated when he started to learn to dance. His artistic imitations were not reserved only for the primary objects of his affection - birds. He could be often glimpsed in some secluded corner impersonating an energetic cabbie, a sedate road-sweeper, an excited dog, a cantering horse, a morose buffalo, a busy bee, a marauding mosquito . . . even a contemplative celestial, bestowing an exaggerated, artistic flourish to their otherwise mundane actions or even inactive cerebral indulgences. It was a dimension of existence that only a dancer could realize and revel in.
A few minutes gaze at this island of peacefulness seemed to infuse a sense of purpose into Dayakar that quickened his pace of activity and he was soon out of his single-room tenement to step into and wade through choking traffic of both the solid and the gaseous kind to reach his destination.
The daily 45-minute bus-ride was always a time for deep contemplation, when Dayakar would vainly attempt to knead his conflicting emotions into a homogenous whole. His fears and aspirations, his predilections and aversions, would don the guise of phantoms and angels and fight a pitched battle in the arena of his imagination to establish unassailable supremacy and fail likewise. Dayakar would be overwhelmed by melancholy at one time and ride the crest of a euphoric wave of elation at another, none of which would be long lasting. But there was never a dull moment in that world of thoughts, just as it was in the realm of reality. After all, the first was only a reflection of the latter, seen from a different plane of reference and therefore providing a different but otherwise thematically similar perspective...
The bus stopped at the University gates and Dayakar got off mechanically, most of his mind still engrossed in the other realm. His feet marched towards a temple a short distance away - another every day routine that included bowing to his favorite deity with a silent prayer upon his lips that the remainder of the day to follow should go well for him. He had often wondered why he had taken a particular liking to this deity among countless others among the Hindu pantheon. The only explanation that he could come up with was that this one had a peacock for a mount, and he happened to love birds.
However, he could not explain the paradox of his discomfort with the classical dance form that he was a student of, that made use of only mythological narratives to showcase its vast repertoire of idiom encompassing gestures, stances, facial expressions, and body movements. This was highly constraining and seemed to restrict dance to a narrow niche, while he believed that it should ideally be a liberating exercise. Not having attained a level of maturity that comes only with experience and perhaps age as well, he could not identify or pursue an avenue that would sever this restraining shackle. Any attempt to do so at this stage would have also been detrimental, as most of his seniors - whom he considered to be immersed in tradition, would have disapproved of his inclination.
There was an expectant air in the classroom that day. A legendary dancer from another city had been invited by the authorities to conduct a weeklong workshop on the nuances of choreography. Dayakar, who was recognized as one of those talented but reticent kind, took his place among his course-mates, sitting cross-legged on the dance floor in the last row, while the teacher took his, in a similar manner a few paces away, facing them.
"We will begin this workshop by setting the subject of dance aside for the time being and considering the normal day of an average person in contemporary times," said the teacher in his lyrically resonant voice...
The thoughtful teacher
The interest of the students was tickled, though there wasn't anything explicitly exciting about the introduction. The fact that this wasn't how a class usually started, was reason enough to infuse an element of novelty.
One of the students volunteered to describe an imagined typical day of a housewife. At the end of her narrative, which could neither be called brief nor termed exhaustive, the teacher declared that this was a "wordful" choreography of the identified theme from the perspective of the student in question. Its effectiveness, aesthetic value, and intensity depended on the words that she employed to convey her point-of-view and the manner and tone in which they were expressed. It was an example of choreography - something that we all indulged in everyday upon every notional platform. Dancers used their exclusive idiom to do a similar thing. The more keenly that we observed happenings around us, and the more imaginative we were in conveying our impressions, the better would be the recital. The teacher followed up on this simple yet profound explanation with a rendering of the student's story of the housewife, using a basic set of articulative gestures, and then another using more elaborate and involved ones.
"If the choreographer strives to compose lyrics appropriate to the subject and set it to a tune that creates a suitable atmosphere, designs attires for the artistes that is proper for the situation, and does all this with sincere devotion, the final creation can be nothing but a masterpiece."
"Guess, a choreographer also needs to be the communicative kind with good man-management skills, to be successful," commented a student.
"A good dancer, by definition and also in reality, possesses a certain basic level of dedication to his or her craft and so can be expected to be fully involved in a collective effort, unlike situations in other areas of living. A choreographer's skill in personal management is made easier by this inherent quality. Let me demonstrate this. Who is the most taciturn among you?" asked the teacher.
All eyes turned towards Dayakar unhesitatingly, which brought a smile to play upon the teacher's face...
"You are Dayakar Dronamraju, if I remember right from the introductions. As part of our exercise, you will have to choreograph a piece involving the rest of us here," declared the teacher.
Dayakar blinked. "But Sir . . ." his voice trailed away.
"Don't worry. We are all here to help you. The first step towards doing anything is being convinced that what is to be done has a conscience of its own and you are only playing a little part, as do all the others concerned, in making that entity realize its full potential. That way, you eliminate the focus upon yourself and your possible triumph or fiasco. Yours is only an insignificant but important role, while the focus is on the entity."
"Yes, Sir . . ." said the young man, not being sure whether he fully comprehended the meaning of the teacher's words.
"Now, tell us what your likes are, and dislikes and your daily routine. That will be the theme of the piece to be choreographed. You can be open about your feelings. No one is going to take you to task for expressing them."
Dayakar felt a little emboldened by this assurance. "I love birds, Sir. Everything about them - their calls, their gait when they walk, their manner of flight. I dislike the theme of dance compositions always being centered on mythology. It makes this art form far removed from life. And I also dislike the modern pace of life and its disregard for subtleties."
"Good. That is sizeable material to choreograph a performance from," remarked the teacher.
"You mean to say that all of this should be included? I would be comfortable having only what I like in my play. That would induce me to contribute wholeheartedly to the effort."
"But that would mean that it will not be reflective of certain other things, which is as much reality as things that you like are. It will be a skewed point-of-view, as much as you seem to think mythology is. And remember, you are only playing a little part in the process, helping the play to develop itself," reminded the teacher.
"How can one amalgamate the cacophony that hits you on a busy road and the vile language the people mouth, with the sweet calls of the birds?" argued Dayakar.
"You find the call of the birds to be sweet because you cannot understand it. If you knew their language, you will realize that their conversation is as vile as you think human conversations are," returned the teacher.
It made the young man pause. He had never thought on these lines and the teacher's contention seemed absolutely valid. It made him to gradually shed his unreasonable inhibitions and see life from a more healthy perspective. Not just him. The other students too felt its effect. The interactive session of choreography gathered momentum and continued over the next five days.
It was the last day of the workshop and the last item on its agenda was a stage performance of the play collectively choreographed by the students, with Dayakar in the lead. He was a Coucal carrying a deity representing a combination of wrath and adamance. The theme represented the daily life of a common man assailed and assisted by a host of deities mounted on birds with appropriate traits, manipulating his moods accordingly. It was a blend of mythology and modern living, characterized with the customary flourish that was the privilege granted to artistes of all genre.
As the play reached its climax and the audience expressed their uninhibited appreciation, Dayakar understood the full import of the teacher's words.
The play was a success; he could almost sense its soul. The deities appeared very real going about the stage provoking beings to react in manners commensurate with the moods, feelings, and proclivities that they represented, as they did every moment of every day in real life. They no longer seemed removed from reality and entrenched in stone in a mythical past.
That evening, sitting by the window in his dwelling overlooking the garden, he realized that the call of the Coucal too had a new connotation.