Ambapali muttered a silent prayer. This was her first public performance, and the stakes felt sky-high. Not in her wildest dreams had she imagined dancing before such a grand audience.
Her pulse raced and beads of perspiration dotted her forehead. She felt her mouth go dry. Distressed, she looked at Satyakirti for comfort. He nodded imperceptibly. It was as if a silent message had passed between them, and the air crackled with chemistry. She smiled and squared her shoulders.
Excerpt from Ambapali
All eyes were on the girl on the stage. Unlike the other contestants, she was plainly dressed. Her eyes sparkled like twin stars on a dark night. Raven hair framed a pale face with high, delicate cheekbones and a perfectly shaped nose. Her bow-shaped lips were like a pair of trembling rosebuds. She had a regal bearing, but her slender figure and tiny waist gave her an air of vulnerability. The audience felt an instinctive sympathy for her. She had the innocence and the sensuousness of a woman on the cusp of adulthood. They had not seen a woman as beautiful. She seemed the very incarnation of the celestial dancer Menaka.
Satyakirti closed his eyes and began playing the veena. The percussionists struck up a rhythm. The melodious notes animated her frozen limbs. She folded her hands and bowed towards the king, her guru, and the audience.
Ambapali began dancing. Her feet followed the dictates of the veena and the mridanga. She pirouetted and swayed. She twirled and floated. She lost herself in Satyakirti’s music.
Her teacher’s instructions rang in her brain: Dance is a seamless amalgamation of taal, nritya and natya. Use your eyes, face, feet and hands to breathe life into your movements. Let them take you to another realm and unleash your soul.
Suvarnasena’s heart swelled with pride as she watched her pupil execute the most complex moves with ease. As Dharma Datta watched his daughter, inexplicably, a fist of fear squeezed his heart. For some reason, he felt the consequences of her victory would be tragic. No parent in the world would want his child to fail, but he prayed for her failure.
Nishigandha had performed the Anand Nritya, the cosmic dance of a joyous Shiva. Ambapali chose to reply with the Lasya, which was the dance of femininity that portrayed grace, beauty and happiness—the dance of Goddess Parvati.
Ambapali’s movements were soft, and fluid, merging in a graceful blur with nary a sharp edge. Captivated, the audience watched the girl, who appeared as ethereal as the Goddess herself.
When the dance ended, the spectators remained in an entranced silence for a few moments.
Then there was tumultuous applause. The audience had decided in Ambapali’s favour, but it was for the judges to decide the winner. The audience’s hoots and shouts could be heard as the judges conferred. It was a unanimous decision. Ambapali was the winner.
‘Devi Ambapali has surpassed our expectations by winning the contest. She deserves the crown of raj nartaki!’
Stunned by the dizzying blur of actions that unfolded following the announcement, Ambapali’s eyes searched for Satyakirti. She felt overwhelmed by the sudden attention on her. Weighed down with the garlands and the crowds, she sought the reassuring warmth of friends, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Suvarnasena pushed the bashful girl towards Maharaja Chetak and said, ‘She is my student, Maharaj.’
‘Your student deserves the crown, devi,’ said he. The kindly king was a man of few words. His face creased in a gentle smile. ‘I am glad you brought her to our notice.’
‘She is the royal gardener’s daughter,’ the raj guru informed him.
‘Ah! The child who was found in the royal orchard?’ asked the king.
‘Yes, Maharaj. She is Dharma Datta’s daughter.’
‘Where is your father? Didn’t he come with you?’ The king turned to the girl.
‘Baa . . . baba . . .’ Ambapali stammered, her eyes searching the crowd.
‘It’s all right,’ the king hastened to comfort the nervous girl. ‘Tell him to present himself at the court tomorrow.’
She nodded mutely and the king smiled before walking away. The world seemed to spin around her, and she felt faint.
Ambapali clung to her teacher’s hand and mumbled, ‘Devi, I want to go home.’
‘Don’t worry, my child. I will take you,’ said a beaming Suvarnasena. Ambapali had redeemed her honour. The child had taught a lesson to the ungrateful and arrogant Nishigandha.
The jubilant woman led her protégé towards her chariot.
‘But my friends . . . Satyakirti . . .’
‘They’ll find their way home. You are now the raj nartaki. Forget about your past and get used to a new life, Pali. Satyakirti is a part of your past.’
Stung by her teacher’s words, Ambapali interjected, ‘No, devi! He’s my present and future.’
Wisely, Suvarnasena decided to remain silent. It was something she could handle later.
It felt like the longest journey of Ambapali’s life, as the intricately crafted chariot wound its way through the throng of people leaving the amphitheatre and emerged on the road that led to Ambapali’s home.
‘It’s been an exciting evening for you,’ said Suvarnasena, as they alighted from the chariot. ‘Soon it will be morning. Try to sleep for a while. Tomorrow will be a hectic day.’
‘Thank you, devi,’ said Ambapali, folding her hands together.
‘Don’t worry, Pali. I am here to guide you.’
The house was quiet. Her father was nowhere to be found. Where was he? She had been held up by all the ceremony, but he should have returned a long time. Anxiety flooded Ambapali’s mind. She wanted to speak to him. She needed his reassuring presence. Her world had been turned upside down. She felt cold, lonely, and abandoned.
All she knew was that she didn’t want to be a raj nartaki.
What would she do now? A host of thoughts sped through her mind, refusing to slow down. Her breath was laboured, and the room began spinning. Disquiet clutching at her heart, she sat near the door, waiting for her father to return.
It was an intoxicated Dharma Datta who entered the house as it dawned. Shaken after the evening’s events, he had gone to a tavern and drunk himself to oblivion. And then, shame kept him from returning home. He didn’t want to face his daughter. He found Ambapali dozing by the door. Her tear-stained face told him that the girl had cried herself to sleep. All intoxication evaporated in an instant, as he was seized with guilt.
Poor child! Bleary-eyed, Dharma Datta gazed upon her for a minute. And then he crouched near her. He stroked his daughter’s hair, just as he had done since he had found her under the mango tree. ‘I can’t bear to let you go,’ he mumbled.
She woke up and rubbed her swollen eyes. ‘Where were you, Baba? I was so frightened!’ Her slender body racked by sobs, she clung to him. ‘I don’t want to be a raj nartaki!’ she cried.
All she wanted was to marry Satya and raise many children together. A small house filled with love, laughter and music. Those were the essential threads of her happy dreams. Wealth, glory and status had no place in them.
‘Nor do I.’ Sadness filled his heart. ‘I can’t afford to lose you, my child. I have no one else in the world.’
‘When was the last time you ate?’ he asked, suddenly concerned. The pallor on her face troubled him.
‘I am not hungry.’
‘But I am hungry.’ He smiled. ‘You know I don’t eat without you.’
‘What are we going to do, Baba? Will the king be angry if we tell him I don’t want to be the raj nartaki?’
‘Let’s not think about all that. A hungry stomach knows no sense.’ He pulled her up and led her towards the kitchen.
‘Let’s eat first.’
‘What are we going to do?’ she repeated as soon as they had eaten their frugal meal.
‘I will think of something,’ said Dharma Datta, placatingly, though he had scant idea what he could do to handle the situation.
‘The king wants to meet you today. He told me so,’ said Ambapali.
‘In that case, let me not keep him waiting.’
‘Please tell him to reinstate Nishigandha. She can be the raj nartaki till the next Vasant Utsav competition.’ Ambapali brightened at the idea. ‘The king will surely agree to that.’
‘Do you want me hanged?’ joked Dharma Datta uneasily. ‘It’s not for us to tell the king what he should be doing.’
‘In that case, take me with you. A king is a kind man. I will beg and plead for mercy.’
‘No, my child, you will do nothing of the sort. Let me meet the Maharaj and hear what he has to say.’
Dharma Datta left for the palace. He was at a loss as to what he could do to stop his daughter from becoming a part of palace property. All he knew was that he couldn’t live without her.
Suvarnasena landed at their doorstep minutes after he had left the house. She had not slept a wink after returning from her scene of triumph at the amphitheatre. The lady had spent hours planning and plotting the next course of action. Ever since her retirement, she had lived a quiet life. She’d had no idea that the wheels would turn in her favour when she started the dance school to eke out a living.
She missed the attention, the expensive gifts of fawning nobles and the luxurious life she once led. Her reign as a court dancer lasted for three years until she was replaced by a younger girl. It was difficult for a raj nartaki to last for more than a couple of years in a court full of nobles who were constantly in search of nubile girls to entertain their jaded senses.
She was in her mid-thirties now, and the retired raj nartaki had not yet found a man she wanted to marry. Suvarnasena wasn’t a hypocrite. She had no scruples in admitting her weakness for men and wine. Nor did she harbour any illusions about the longevity of her beauty. She knew she had to make contingency plans to live comfortably in retirement.
Not in her wildest dreams had Suvarnasena imagined that things would take such a thrilling turn. She had hoped to taste the fruits of success when Nishigandha had been chosen as the
raj nartaki, but that woman had been ungrateful. The arrogant pupil had not bothered to acknowledge or reward her for the long years of training.
She had waited four full years to get even with the thankless wretch. Ironic that Nishigandha’s disrespect set the string of fortunate events in motion. Ambapali was everything Nishigandha was not. Obedient, gentle and unselfish, the girl was a total contrast to her former pupil.
The lady found Ambapali sitting dejectedly in a corner of the house.
‘You don’t look well, Pali.’ Squatting near her student, she touched her forehead. The girl’s body was burning with fever. ‘You are ill,’ she exclaimed.
‘I am scared,’ Ambapali said in a miserable voice. ‘I don’t want to go to the palace.’
‘Hush!’ said Suvarnasena, leading the girl to the bed. ‘Stop worrying, my child,’ she said soothingly, covering her with a thick blanket.
Fetching cold water, she dampened the cloth and sponged the girl’s forehead to bring down her temperature. ‘Where is your father?’ she asked. ‘We have to call the vaid.’
‘I am cold,’ mumbled Ambapali.
Suvarnasena hurried out and instructed her charioteer to fetch the vaid. He arrived quickly and examined Ambapali.
‘She needs rest,’ he declared. ‘The girl seems to be in shock.’
Although the vaid had not attended the event, it hadn’t taken long for him to be apprised of Ambapali’s appointment as the raj nartaki. Satyakirti had returned home from the amphitheatre at dawn.
‘We expected you to return in a cheerful mood,’ remarked his mother. ‘Why are you looking so gloomy, son? Didn’t you enjoy yourself?’
‘She has been snatched away from me,’ he had replied emotionally. ‘I have lost Ambapali.’
Aghast, the couple listened to the happenings of the previous night. They were fond of the girl and had been looking forward to welcoming her as their son’s bride.
The sight of Ambapali in this state broke the kindly vaid’s heart. The girl’s fate had been decided by her guru and the king. There was not much he could do.
‘She has to be presented at the court. When will she recover?’ asked Suvarnasena, following the vaid out of the house.
‘Ambapali is suffering from severe anxiety. She needs rest. I forbid her to go anywhere for at least a week,’ the vaid said in a stern voice. ‘The poor girl has suffered immense mental
pressure, and that has brought on the fever. She needs her loved ones around.’
‘Devi, you asked for my opinion, and I have given it to you,’ he said coldly. The vaid was a good judge of human nature. Suvarnasena’s pushy behaviour didn’t escape his notice. ‘Let her rest till she recovers. Please ask someone to collect the medicines from my house.’
The servant was dispatched with the vaid, and Suvarnasena paced the room in great agitation. Ambapali has to be restored to good health. I will ensure that she gets the best nutrition and medicine so that she recovers soon. Pali has to be presented at the court as soon as possible.
Ambapali is a strong narrative that explores the life of a young woman who finds herself entwined amidst the machinations of power and ">fights back to reclaim her life.