Copyright
Thomas Hoover.

The Moghul online

. (page 30 of 52)
Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 30 of 52)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


then the other lifted seductively. Gradually the rhythm was taken up by
her head, as it began to glide from side to side in a subtle, elegant
expression that seemed an extension of the music.

She had possessed the room almost as a spirit of pure dance, chaste,
powerful, disciplined, and there was nothing of the overt
suggestiveness of the nautch dancers of the Shahbandar's courtyard. She
wore a low-cut, tight vest of brocade over a long-sleeved silk shirt,
and of her body only her hands, feet, and face were visible. It was
these, Hawksworth realized, not her body, that were the elements of
Kathak dance.

"Now she'll begin the second section of the dance. It's the
introduction and corresponds to the opening of a raga. It sets the
atmosphere and makes you long for more. I know of no _feringhi _who has
ever seen Kathak, but perhaps you can understand. Do you feel it?"

Hawksworth sipped his wine slowly and tried to clear his head. In truth
he felt very little, save the intensity that seemed to be held in
check.

"It appears to be rather subtle. Very little seems to be happening."
Hawksworth drank again and found himself longing for a lively hornpipe.

"A great deal will happen, Ambassador, and very soon. In India you must
learn patience."

Almost at that moment the drummers erupted with a dense rhythmic cycle
and the _sarangi _took up a single repetitive phrase. Sangeeta looked
directly at Hawksworth and called out a complex series of rhythmic
syllables, in a melodic if slightly strident voice, all the while
duplicating the exact pattern of sounds by slapping the henna-reddened
soles of her feet against the carpet. Then she glided across the carpet
in a series of syncopated foot movements, saluting each of the guests
in turn and calling out strings of syllables, after which she would
dance a sequence that replicated the rhythm exactly, her feet a precise
percussion instrument.

"The syllables she recites are called _bols_, Ambassador, which are the
names of the many different strokes on the tabla drums. Drummers
sometimes call out a sequence before they play it. She does the same,
except she uses her feet almost as a drummer uses his hands."

As Hawksworth watched, Sangeeta called strings of syllables that were
increasingly longer and more complex. He could not understand the
_bols_, or perceive the rhythms as she danced them, but the drunken men
around him were smiling and swinging their heads from side to side in
what he took to be appreciative approval. Suddenly Arangbar shouted
something to her and pointed toward the first drummer. The drummer
beamed, nodded, and as Sangeeta watched, called out a dense series of
_bols_. Then she proceeded to dance the sequence with her feet. The
room exploded with cries of appreciation when she finished the
sequence, and Hawksworth assumed she had managed to capture the
instructions the musician had called. Then Arangbar pointed to the
other drummer and he also called out a string of _bols_, which again
Sangeeta repeated. Finally the singer called a rhythm sequence, the
most complex yet, and both dancer and drummer repeated them precisely
together.

As the tempo became wilder, Sangeeta began a series of lightning spins,
still pounding the carpet with her reddened soles, and in time she
seemed to transform into a whirling top, her pigtail loose now and
singing through the air like a deadly whip. She had become a blur, and
for a brief moment she appeared to have two heads. Hawksworth watched
in wonder and sipped from his wine cup.

"Now she'll begin the last part, Ambassador, the most demanding of
all."

The rhythm became almost a frenzy now. Then as suddenly as they had
begun the whirls ended. Sangeeta struck a statuesque pose, arms
extended in rigid curves, and began a display of intensely rhythmic
footwork. Her body seemed frozen in space as nothing moved save her
feet. The bells on her ankles became a continuous chime, increasing in
tempo with the drum and the _sarangi _until the rhythmic phrase itself
was nothing more than a dense blur of notes, Suddenly the drummer and
instrumentalist fell silent, conceding the room to Sangeeta's whirring
bells. She seemed, at the last, to be treading on pure air, her feet
almost invisible. When the intensity of her rhythm became almost
unbearable, the drummers and _sarangi _player reentered, urging the
excitement to a crescendo. A final phrase was introduced, repeated with
greater intensity, and then a third and final time, ending with a
powerful crash on the large drum that seemed to explode the tension in
the room. Several of the musicians cried out involuntarily, almost
orgasmically, in exultation. In the spellbound silence that followed,
the nobles around Hawksworth burst into cheers.

Sangeeta seemed near collapse as she bowed to Arangbar. The Moghul
smiled broadly, withdrew a velvet purse of coins from his cloak, and
threw it at her feet. Moments later several others in the room followed
suit. With a second bow she scooped the purses from the carpet and
vanished through the curtains. The cheers followed her long after she
was gone.

"What do you think, Ambassador? You know half the men here would give a
thousand gold _mohurs _to have her tonight." Nadir Sharif beamed
mischievously. "The other half two thousand."

"Come forward." Arangbar motioned to the singer sitting on the carpet.
He was, Hawksworth now realized, an aging, portly man with short white
hair and a painful limp. As he approached Arangbar's dais, he began
removing the tiny cymbals attached to the fingers of one hand that he
had used to keep time for the dancer.

"He's her guru, her teacher." Nadir Sharif pointed to the man as he
bowed obsequiously before the Moghul. "If His Majesty decides to select
Sangeeta to dance at the wedding, his fortune will be made. Frankly I
thought she was good, though there is still a trifle too much flair in
her style, too many tricks. But then she's young, and perhaps it's too
soon to expect genuine maturity. Still, I noticed His Majesty was taken
with her. She could well find herself in the _zenana_ soon."

Arangbar flipped another purse of coins to the man, and then spoke to
him curtly in Persian.

"His Majesty has expressed his admiration, and says he may call him
again after he has seen the other dancers." Nadir Sharif winked.
"Choosing the dancers is a weighty responsibility. Naturally His
Majesty will want to carefully review all the women."

The lamps brightened again and servants bustled about the carpet
filling glasses and exchanging the burned-out tobacco chillum, clay
bowls at the top of each hookah. When they had finished, Arangbar took
another glass of wine and signaled for the lamps to be lowered once
more. A new group of musicians began filing into the room, carrying
instruments Hawksworth had never before seen. First came the drummer,
who carried not the two short tabla drums but rather a single long
instrument, designed to be played at both ends simultaneously. A singer
entered next, already wearing small gold cymbals on each hand. Finally
a third man entered, carrying nothing but a piece of inch-thick bamboo,
less than two feet in length and perforated with a line of holes.

Arangbar looked quizzically at Nadir Sharif.

As though reading the question, the prime minister rose and spoke in
Turki. "This one's name is Kamala, Your Majesty. She is originally from
the south, but now she is famous among the Hindus in Agra. Although I
have never seen her dance, I assumed Your Majesty would want to humor
the Hindus by auditioning her."

"We are a sovereign of all our subjects. I have never seen this Hindu
dance. Nor these instruments of the south. What are they called?"

"The drum is called a mirdanga, Majesty. They use it in the south with
a type of sitar they call the veena. The other instrument is a bamboo
flute."

Arangbar shifted impatiently. "Tell them this should be brief."

Nadir Sharif spoke quickly to the musicians in a language few in the
room seemed to understand. They nodded and immediately the flautist
began a haunting lyric line that bathed the room in a soft, echoing
melody. Hawksworth was startled that so simple an instrument could
produce such rich, warm tones.

The curtains parted and a tall, elaborately jeweled woman swept across
the carpet. She took command of the space around her, possessed it,
almost as though it were part of her being. Her long silk _sari _had
been gathered about each leg so that it seemed like trousers, and her
every step was announced by dense bracelets of bells at her ankles.
Most striking, however, was her carriage. Hawksworth had never before
seen such dignity of motion.

As he stared at her, he realized she was wearing an immense, diamond-
encrusted nose ring and long pendant earrings, also of diamonds. Not
even the Moghul wore stones to equal hers. Her face was heavily
painted, but still he suspected she might no longer be in the first
bloom of youth. Her self-assurance was too secure. She knew exactly who
she was.

She turned her back to Arangbar as she reverently gave an invocation,
both hands together and raised above her head, to some absent god. The
only sound was the slow, measured cadence of the drum. Suddenly it
seemed as though her body had captured some perfect moment of balance,
a feeling of timelessness within time.

Hawksworth glanced toward Arangbar, whose irritation was obvious.

How can she be so imprudent as to ignore him? Aren't Hindus afraid of
him? What was her name? Kamala?

His eyes shot back to the woman.

Kamala.

Can she be the woman Kali spoke of that last night in Surat? The Lotus
Woman? Nadir Sharif said she was famous.

"Just who are you?" Arangbar's voice cut through the carpeted room,
toward the woman's back. He was speaking Turki, and he was outraged.

Kamala whirled on him. "One who dances for Shiva, in his

aspect as Nataraj, the god of the dance. For him and for him alone."

"What do you call this dance for your infidel god?"

"Bharata Natyam. The dance of the temple. The sacred tradition as old
as India itself. The god Shiva set the world in motion by the rhythms
of his dance. My dance is a prayer to Shiva." Kamala's eyes snapped
with hatred. "I dance for no one else."

"You were summoned here to dance for me." Arangbar pulled himself
drunkenly erect. Around the room the nobles began to shift uneasily,
their bleary eyes filling with alarm.

"Then I will not dance. You have the world in your hands. But you
cannot possess the dance of Shiva. Our dance is prescribed in the Natya
Shastra of the ancient sage Bharata. Over a thousand years ago he
declared that dance is not merely for pleasure; dance is the blending
of all art, religion, philosophy. It gives mankind wisdom, discipline,
endurance. Through dance we are allowed to know the totality of all
that is. My dance is not for your sport."

Arangbar's anger increased, but now it was leavened with puzzlement.

"If you will not dance your Shiva dance, then dance Kathak."

"The dance Muslims call Kathak is the perversion of yet another of our
sacred traditions. Perhaps there are some Hindu dancers who will, for
Muslim gold, debase the ancient Kathak dance of India, will make it a
display of empty technique for the amusement of India's oppressors.
Muslims and" - she turned and glared at Hawksworth - "now _feringhi_. But I
will not do it. The Kathak you want to see is no longer true Kathak. It
has been made empty, without meaning. I will never debase our true
Kathak dance for you, as others have done, any more than I will
dedicate a performance of Bharata Natyam to a mortal man."

The guards near the entrance of the _Diwan-i-Khas _had all tensed,
their hands dropping uneasily to their swords.

"I have heard enough. A man who dared speak to me as you have would be
sent to the elephants. You, I think, deserve more. Since you speak to
your god through dance, you do not need a tongue."

Arangbar turned to summon the waiting guards when, at the rear of the
_Diwan-i-Khas_, the figure of the Chief Painter emerged, his assistants
trailing behind. They carried a long, thin board.

Nadir Sharif spotted them and immediately leaped to his feet, almost as
though he had been expecting their entrance.

"Your Majesty." He quickly moved between Arangbar and Kamala, who stood
motionless. "The paintings have arrived. I'm ready for my horse. Let
the English ambassador see them now."

Arangbar looked up in confusion, his eyes half closed from the opium.
Then he saw the painters and remembered.

"Bring them in." Suddenly his alertness seemed to return. "I want to
see five Inglish kings."

The paintings were brought to the foot of Arangbar's dais, and he
inspected them drunkenly, but with obvious satisfaction.

"Ambassador Inglish. Have a look." Arangbar called toward the hushed
shadows of the seated guests. A path immediately cleared among the
bolsters, as hookahs were pushed aside, wineglasses seized.

Hawksworth walked unsteadily forward, his mind still stunned by the
imminent death sentence waiting for the woman. As he passed her, he
sensed her powerful presence and inhaled her musky perfume. There was
no hint of fear in her eyes as she stood waiting, statuesque and
defiant.

By the time he reached the throne, eunuchs were waiting with candles,
one on each side of the board, bathing it in flickering light. On it
was a line of five English miniatures of King James, each approximately
an inch square.

Good Jesus, they're identical. Am I so drunk I can't tell a painting of
King James?

He looked up shakily at Arangbar, whose smile was a gloat.

"Well, Ambassador Inglish. What say you? Are the painters of my school
equal to any your king has?"

"One moment, Majesty. Until my eyes adjust." Hawksworth grasped one
edge of the board to steady himself. Behind him there were murmurs of
delight and he caught the word "_feringhi_."

As he walked along the board, studying each painting in turn, he
suddenly noticed that the reflection of the candlelight was different
for one.

The paint is still wet on the new portraits. That's the difference. Or
is it? Are my eyes playing tricks? Damn me for letting Nadir Sharif
fill my wineglass every chance he had.

"Come, Ambassador Inglish. We do not have all night." Arangbar's voice
was brimming with triumph.

Hawksworth studied the paintings more closely. Yes, there's a slight
difference. The colors on the one painting are slightly different.
Duller.

They didn't use varnish. And there are fewer shadows. Theirs are more
two-dimensional.

"I'm astounded, Your Majesty. But I believe this is the one by Isaac
Oliver." Hawksworth pointed to the painting second from the right end.

"Let me see them again." Arangbar's voice was a husky slur. "I will
tell if you have guessed correctly."

The board was handed up. Arangbar glanced at the paintings for only an
instant. "You have guessed right, Ambassador Inglish. And I realize how
you did it. The light from the candles."

"The portraits are identical, Your Majesty. I confess it."

"So we have won our point. And you won the wager, Inglish. Still, you
won only because of my haste. Tomorrow you would not have known. Do you
admit it?"

"I do, Your Majesty." Hawksworth bowed slightly.

"So, you did not really win the wager after all. We lost it. But I am a
man of honor. We will release Nadir Sharif from his pledge. I am the
one who must pay. What would you have? Perhaps a diamond?"

"The wager was only for a horse, Your Majesty." Hawksworth was stunned.

"No. That was the wager of Nadir Sharif. You have won a wager from a
king. Yours must be the payment of a king. If not a jewel, then what
would you have?"

Before Hawksworth could reply, Nadir Sharif stepped forward and bent
toward Arangbar.

"If I may be allowed to suggest, Your Majesty, the _feringhi _needs a
woman. Give him this dancer. Let him amuse himself with her until you
can find a suitable wife for him."

Arangbar looked toward Hawksworth with glazed eyes. It was obvious he
had already forgotten about Kamala.

"The Kathak dancer who was here? She was excellent. Yes, that would be
perfect."

"Your Majesty of course means the woman standing here now." Nadir
Sharif directed Arangbar's groggy gaze toward Kamala, who stood mutely,
eyes flashing.

"There she is. Of course. What do you say to her, Inglish?"

Hawksworth was astounded by Nadir Sharifs quickness of wit. He's saved
the woman. He's a genius. Of course I'll take her. Good Jesus, there's
been enough bloodshed today.

"The woman would be the gift of a great prince, Your Majesty."

"So there's manhood about you after all, Inglish. I had begun to think
you were like your king." Arangbar laughed in delight. "So it's a woman
you would have, Ambassador? Merciful Allah, I have too many now.
Perhaps you would like two. I recall there's an Armenian Christian
somewhere in the _zenana_. Perhaps several. They're said to be as lusty
as the Portuguese harlots in Goa." He choked for a moment on laughter.
"Let me summon the eunuchs."

"This one will do for now, Your Majesty." Think how to phrase this.
"Merely to serve me."

"Yes, she will 'serve' you, Ambassador. Or we will have her head. If
she would amuse you, she's yours."

Kamala's look met Hawksworth's. It was strangely without emotion.

Then Arangbar suddenly remembered Kamala's defiance and turned to study
her again with half-closed eyes.

"But not this one. It must be the other one you want. This one will be
hanged tonight, in a room far beneath the _zenana_. After she has
answered for her words. Tomorrow her carcass will pollute the Jamuna. A
man in her place would already be dead."

"May it please Your Majesty, it would satisfy me even more to have this
one." Hawksworth paused. "Perhaps it's what the English call honor. We
both know I did not win our wager fairly. Only by taking something of
no value, like this woman, could I maintain my honor, and my king's."

"You are persuasive, Inglish, and I am drunk. But not too drunk to
suspect you've taken a fancy to this infidel. But if you prefer her to
the other, then so be it. We offered you whatever you wished. She's
yours. But never let her be seen on the streets of Agra again. We will
have her cut down."

"As please Your Majesty."

"It's done." Arangbar turned to Nadir Sharif. "Is it true you've found
a house for the Inglish?"

"I have, Your Majesty."

"Then send her there." He turned to Hawksworth. "Allah protect you from
these infidel Hindus, Inglish. They have none of your Inglish honor."

"I humbly thank Your Majesty." Jesus Christ, I've just been imprisoned
in a house staffed by Nadir Sharifs hand-picked spies.

"Enough. We've been told to retire early tonight. Her Majesty thinks we
drink to excess." He laughed a slurred chortle. "But we will see you
tomorrow, Inglish. To talk more. We have much to discuss. We want to
hear what gifts your king is preparing for us. We would very much like
a large mastiff from Europe. We hear they hunt game like a _chitah._"

Arangbar drew himself up shakily and two eunuchs immediately were at
his side, helping him from the white marble throne. None of the guests
moved until he had passed through the curtains. Immediately the eunuchs
began moving about the room, extinguishing the lamps. By the time the
guests assembled to leave, the room was virtually dark. Kamala and the
musicians had been escorted from the room by Arangbar's guards.
Suddenly Hawksworth felt Nadir Sharifs hand on his arm.

"That was a noble thing you did, Ambassador. We all owe you a debt of
thanks. I have rarely seen His Majesty so out of temper. The
repercussions could have been distressing for many of us."

"It was your idea."

"Merely a quick fancy, an act of desperation. But without your
cooperation it would have been impossible. I do thank you."

"There's nothing to thank me for." Hawksworth drew his arm away.
"Where's this house you've found for me?"

Nadir Sharif sighed. "Finding a secure lodging these days is more
difficult than you might first imagine, Ambassador. But you were in
luck. I remembered there's a small lodge in my palace grounds that is
unoccupied. I did not reckon on quarters for two, but of course the
woman will be living with your servants. The house should serve until
something more fitting can be found."

"My thanks." Damn you. "When do I move there?"

"Your effects have already been moved, on His Majesty's authority. You
can come tonight. My men will show you there. Your dinner is probably
waiting."

At that moment the last lamp was extinguished. Along with the other
guests they groped their way out of the _Diwan-i-Khas _in total
darkness.




CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


"Many years ago I was a _devadasi_." Kamala sat, pillowless, on
the carpet, watching as Hawksworth ate. Her musicians, the flautist and
the drummer, knelt silently behind her. Nadir Sharif's servants stood
by, nervously attentive, pretending to ignore everyone but Hawksworth.
The white plaster walls of the lamp-lit room fairly flashed with
Kamala's diamonds. "Do you know what that is?"

Hawksworth shook his head, his mouth gorged with roast lamb. The room
was filled with its aroma. It was his first lamb since Burhanpur, and
he was ravenous.

"Does that mean yes?" Kamala's Turki was surprisingly good.

Hawksworth suddenly remembered the curious Indian

convention of swinging the head from side to side to signify
concurrence. He had meant to say no, which in Indian body language was
an almost un-reproducible twist of the neck. He swallowed the lamb and
reached for another shank.

"No. I meant no. Is that a kind of dancer?"

"It means 'a servant of the gods.' In South India there's a special
caste of women who serve in the great stone temples, who are married to
the god of the temple. When we are very young we have a marriage
ceremony, like any wedding. Except we are a bride of the temple. And
then we serve its god with music and with our dance."

Hawksworth examined her quizzically. "You mean you were like a nun?"

"What is that?"

"They're something like Papist priests. Women who give themselves to
God, or at least to the pope's Church." Hawksworth paused awkwardly.
"And claim to be married to Christ, so they never lie with a man."

Kamala looked at him with surprise.

"Not even the high-caste men who come to the temple? But how, then, do
they serve this Christian God? By dance only?"

"Nuns aren't known to do much dancing. They mainly . . . well, I don't
really know what they do, except claim to be virgins."

"Virgins!" Kamala exploded in laughter. "This Christian God must be a
eunuch. We _devadasis _serve the temple with our bodies, not with empty
words."

"Then what exactly did you do?" Hawksworth looked up and examined her.

"I was at the famous Shiva temple of Brihadishwari in Tanjore, the
great fountainhead of Bharata Natyam dance in India. There we danced
for the god of the temple, and we danced too at the courts of the
Dravidian kings of the south." She hesitated, then continued.
"Devadasis there also honor the temple god by lying with men of high
caste who come to worship, and by wearing the jewels they give us. It's
all part of our sacred tradition."

She laughed as she watched the disbelief flood Hawks-

worth's face. "I gather we must be quite different from your Christian
'nuns.' But you know _devadasis _are honored in the south. Many are
granted lands by the men they know, and though they can never marry,
_devadasis _sometimes become attached to a man and bear his children.
But our children always take our name and are dedicated to the temple.
Our daughters become _devadasis _also, and our sons temple musicians.
Our dance gurus are part of a hereditary guild, and they are esteemed
above all men. They are the ones who preserve and pass down the sacred
Bharata Natyam dance. You may not believe me when I tell you we are
highly revered by the kings who reign in the south, lands where the
Moghuls fear to tread. They know we are special among women. We are
cultivated artists, and among the few Hindu women in India who teach
our daughters to read and write."

"I'll believe you." Hawksworth studied her, not quite sure it was true.
"But if you're dedicated to a temple in the south, why are you here in
Agra?"

Kamala's dark eyes grew lifeless, and then she turned away. "I'm no
longer a true _devadasi_. In truth, I have not danced at my temple for
many years. The first time the Moghul's army invaded the south, a
Rajput officer who had deserted came to our temple to hide. He fell in



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 30 of 52)