The Reluctant Artist

Indra watched Arjuna walk into his court; tall, muscular, handsome, confidence oozing out of his every pore. Indra, the ruler of Indralok, smiled inwardly at the envious looks of the courtiers. “Welcome, Arjuna! And congratulations on completing your assigned task with the master of weapons, Lord Shiva of Mount Kailash!” He said as Arjuna bent down to touch the King of Gods’ feet. Lifting him up, Indra introduced the warrior to his courtiers.  “This is Arjuna, the third Pandava. He is here to spend some time with us.” Everyone nodded at him respectfully.  After a while, the two walked out of the court deep in conversation, the admiring looks from the divine beings unceasing. “So, tell me all about your learning experiences with Shiva.” “My student days with Him were not only practically productive but also helped to fill my life with sacredness! That’s the power He wields, one of love-laced discipline on His seekers.” Indra smiled again. A fighter and a truth-seeker! I couldn't have asked for more. “That’s excellent, Arjuna. What you learned from Him is going to be extremely useful in the forthcoming war.” “I know. But we are all hoping for a peaceful compromise after our exile. I can’t imagine myself fighting against my loved ones,” said Arjuna, his voice filled with sadness.  “You’ll find a way to deal with it if and when it happens. Come, let us eat and talk about your stay here.” Indra put his arms over the warrior's shoulders and took him to the dining room.  “Dance!” Arjun asked incredulously when he heard Indra’s suggestions that he learn the art of dancing while in Indralok.  “How will dance help a warrior? And isn’t dancing for women?” Arjuna’s voice shifted from surprise to hurt. “Men are born to be warriors, not artists. That’s for women or maybe transgenders!” He finished, his voice now cold with anger. How dare the King of Gods ask me to waste time and energy on something as trivial as dance! “Really? Art is only for women? And what makes you say women cannot be great warriors? Or for that matter why cannot any individual regardless of their sexual orientation do or be whatever they want?” Indra was now angry.  I had thought he had learned humility after facing so many travails in his life!  “Being an artist is an innate ability of human beings, did you not know that? So, you’re already an artist. You are simply not aware of it.” Arjuna smiled condescendingly at Indra, “I’m a warrior and an invincible one. There is no way I will have feministic abilities inside of me.” He almost sneered.  Biting back his ire, Indra said, “Let’s do one thing, and this is not a request, Arjuna. Chitrasena, the King of the Gandharvas, is not only an excellent dancer but also an outstanding teacher. He’s very choosy when it comes to taking on new students, and has a keen eye for hidden potential. Show him your moves and let him decide if you have artistic abilities or not.” Uh-oh! I think I’ve angered him. But then this request is a blessing in disguise. I’ll show him my warrior moves and Chitrasena will realise that I can never be a dancer. Then everyone will be happy. I can go back to being a fierce fighter and Indra will be happy that he tried his best to bring out the artist in me.  The two of them went to meet Chitrasena at his dance school. He looked admiringly at Arjuna and said, “You’re a beautiful man!” Arjuna beamed with pride though he was unsure why he used ‘beautiful,’ usually used to describe women.  But he said ‘man.’ Maybe he doesn't know the nuances of human expression. Moreover, he’s a Gandharva, known for their affliction with art and other effeminate elements. He smiled and nodded patronisingly. “Show me your moves,” Chitrasena said, taking Arjuna to the centre of a vast practice hall. The other dancers moved to the periphery of the room giving ample space to the newcomer, waiting expectantly to see what the attractive man had to show. Arjuna felt uncomfortable. He said, “I don't know any dance moves.” “You don't need to dance. Just do what you are good at. You’re an archer, aren’t you? Pretend you are holding a bow and arrow. Show me how you take your stance before you shoot.” Aah! Perfect! That action of mine would leave no doubt in Chitrasena’s mind that I am too masculine to be a dancer. “What should I aim at?” Indra pointed to a tree outside that could be seen through a window. “Imagine you are going to shoot that tree right in the middle of its gigantic trunk with the intention of breaking it into two vertical halves.” Even better! What tremendous physical strength I must bring into my arms and legs for that feat! My sinewy body would be revealed!  He stood erect yet relaxed, his face calm and focused. His eyes shone as he stared at the tree through the window. Slowly, gently, he lifted his left leg and placed it a couple of feet in front, adjusting it deliberately until his thighs were perfectly parallel to the ground. He effortlessly balanced the weight of his body even as he pressed both his feet firmly down. He lowered himself ever so slightly for increased balance and also to align his imaginary bow with the window. There was complete silence in the hall. Chitrasena’s eyebrows were raised in surprise. Then, Arjuna stretched out his left hand as if he was holding a bow ready to be pulled. He turned his right hand behind his shoulders pretending to pull out an arrow from his quiver.  “Hold that stance,” commanded Chitrasena, his teacher instincts coming to the fore. Indra smiled to himself. Chitrasena has recognized it! “Didn't you learn archery under Guru Dronacharya?” Holding the difficult position easily, Arjuna answered, “Dronacharya taught me how to become the best archer on earth. Lord Shiva taught me some moves that took my archery and fighting skills many notches up.” “Aah! Nataraja, the King of Dance!” murmured Chitrasena happily. Suddenly, it dawned on Arjuna! How could I have mocked any artist if the Lord Himself was a consummate dancer? He had cleverly interwoven dance patterns into his fighting lessons. And this combination of fluidity and strength made me a much better fighter and archer than before. Visions of Him moving with the most amazing grace as he skilfully avoided Arjuna’s strikes filled his mind. He was the most elegant warrior! He always had a smile on his face. Arjuna’s face paled as he realised his condescending and patronising attitude toward art in general, and artists, in particular. Indra smiled at the change in expression on the Pandava’s face. Chitrasena was too engrossed in studying his student’s stance and how to hone his skills to notice anything else. “You are a natural, Arjuna. I would be delighted to teach you the art of dance, music, and rhythm. The three go hand in hand.”  Arjuna disengaged himself from his stance and bowed humbly. “I am grateful to you, and to you, the King of Gods, for showing me what is right.” And so, the lessons began. Every day, the teacher and his special student practised their art. The deeper Arjuna delved into his artistic nature, the more connected he felt with himself. He found the strength to face his weaknesses without guilt and shame and his strengths with pride, not arrogance.  He embraced everything he learnt about his personality, acknowledging and accepting himself, warts and all. One day, in the throes of an intense dancing session, tears flowed automatically. It was as if he touched his soul, the element that connected him with the universe. He was an artist! ********************************* Ramba, Urvashi, and Menaka, the three most beautiful Apsaras of Indralok, were strolling through one of the many verdant gardens dotting the heavenly city of the gods. The garden was luxuriously designed. Large and small trees filled with low-hanging succulent fruits neatly lined the periphery of the huge garden.  Square patches of myriad-coloured flowering shrubs and decorative plants were ornately and uniformly laid out all across the garden. These patches of greenery were flanked by pathways. Some of the pathways were narrow, and restricted to walking, while some others were broad enough for chariots to pass through. Anyone looking down from the high balconies of Indra’s huge multistoried mansion would see a spectacular riot of colours interspersing a gigantic canopy of green. Many stages were also constructed in the garden for dancers, singers, and other artists to practice their art in the midst of nature. In one of the corner stages, a man was dancing under the supervision of his guru.  Urvashi asked, “Who is that graceful dancer?” “Isn’t he handsome too? His beautifully burly arms and calves add the perfect amount of masculinity to his exquisitely graceful movements, don't you think?” Added Ramba.  “Indeed! I never thought Arjuna could move so well,” said Menaka “Arjuna? Who is that?”  “Uh-oh! You don't know, Urvashi? Arjuna is Indra’s son born to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas,” replied Ramba. “Aah! Now I recollect that. But what is he doing here? Aren’t the Pandavas supposed to be in exile after they lost everything to their cousins, the Kauravas, in a game of dice?” “Yes. They are in the 12th year of their 13-year exile. It appears that a war with their cousins is imminent. Arjuna was tasked with learning the secrets of powerful weapons from Lord Shiva. When he had successfully completed this task, Indra invited Arjuna to Indralok for some father-son quality time.”  “But why is he learning to dance?” Urvashi’s curiosity about the young man didn't abate. Urvashi was so enraptured with his beauty that she didn't realise her companions were giving her teasing looks. When no response came to her question, she looked at both of them and saw their eyes glinting meaningfully and their wide smiles touching their ears.  “Oh! C’mon you two! He is handsome and I, like all Apsaras, am drawn to good looks and artistic expressions. Aren’t you?” The three giggled happily at this truthful but playful retort.  “Let’s have a competition among ourselves. He is becoming such a great dancer, right? We will teach him our secrets too. When he is ready, let us have a one-on-one competition with him, and the one who defeats him gets the right to woo him. What say, my dear Apsaras?” asked Urvashi excitedly.  Ramba and Menaka were as excited as their friend at this suggestion. They would get to spend a lot of time with the good-looking human. They decided to approach the warrior. Of course, they chose to keep out the wooing bit from him for now.  ************************************* “What is this I hear? Three beauties are vying for your attention. They are enamoured with your dancing skills and want to share their knowledge with you and have one-on-one competition too!” quipped Indra to Arjuna, his eyes twinkling merrily at Arjuna’s delightful smile. “Yes, father. I’m not worried at all about losing to such exemplary dancers. I’m only looking forward to learning as much as I can from them.”  It was a grand one-month long dance treat for Indralok’s inhabitants. There were recitals almost every day with the three Apsaras and Arjuna vying against each other for the top spot. The intense competitiveness between the dancers did not create animosity. It only drove them to bring their best versions of themselves, delighting art connoisseurs and lovers.  Ramba and Menaka were so enthralled with Arjuna’s dance that they made unwitting mistakes and lost to him. But they did not resent the loss, knowing Urvashi wanted Arjuna far more than either of them.   The final day of the month-long competition arrived. Urvashi and Arjuna were pitting their dancing skills against each other. The dance recital was splendid and spectacular, each giving their best and more to it. The audience was spellbound. The two dancers seemed to complement each other.  They were presenting a romantic ballet and Arjuna’s eyes lit up with passion as he looked at Urvashi, the heroine. The gracefulness of their moves and the heartfelt emotions they portrayed made the onlookers feel that the two dancers were real lovers.  Towards the end of the recital, Arjuna made a tiny almost imperceptible falter, and Urvashi was declared the winner. The standing ovation and the resounding applause went on for a long time before the audience left the hall, delightfully and emotionally satiated.  Arjuna’s face flushed with happiness. Nobody gives such effusive, joyful applause for winning battles and wars. No wonder artists are more popular and likeable than warriors.  *** Arjuna knocked.  “The door is open. Come in!” He walked into a dimly-lit room as he said, “You wanted to meet me, I believe.” As if by magic, a soft breeze caressed his skin making him go dizzy with lustful desire. A soothing, relaxing melody was playing in the background. The room was filled with beautiful, scented flowers. He saw Urvashi lying on a soft, luxurious bed, her body covered by a gossamer gown leaving nothing to imagination. She smiled seductively at him, her red lips lasciviously calling out his name. Arjuna had never experienced something like this! To unite with an Apsara was beyond his wildest dreams! He moved toward her, mesmerized by her beauty, the surreal surroundings taking complete control of his senses. His knee hit the edge of the bed, and the sudden excruciating pain jerked him to reality. He gathered his wits, took the blanket lying on the ground, and covered Urvashi’s nakedness. He could see shock registering on her face. “What is the meaning of this? What kind of a man are you, saying no to the most beautiful woman in the world? And that too when I have initiated the union?” Shock was slowly turning to rage; rage at being rejected by a mere mortal. Men, gods, and even wise sages were ready to murder to spend a night with her. And this man was spurning her. How dare he! Arjuna’s head was down. “Mother! I cannot see you in the way you wish me to.” “Mother? How am I your mother?” Urvashi threw a vase at him (he dodged it expertly), her anger peaking at being addressed as “mother” by the one she had gone out of her way to woo! Her mind was in a humiliating fuzz! “In an earlier birth, you were married to Pururavas, right?” “Yes! So what? That time is long gone! He is dead!” Her high-pitched voice intensified the tension in the room. “Pururavas is an illustrious ancestor of the Kuru clan, and that means you are like a mother to me.” “Don't give me human reasons, Arjuna. I am beyond that! I am a divine being created for pleasure. You cannot get away by repudiating me like this.” “I’m sorry, mother,” Arjuna insisted. “I’m a mere mortal and I’m not beyond human limitations. I cannot give you what you seek!” “You call yourself a man? A powerful warrior! You are nothing but a transgender confused about his sexuality.” Urvashi spat out her spite.  “No, mother! I’m not! I’m like any individual, male, female, or transgender comprising of both the feminine and masculine aspects. I have learned the vital lesson of embracing both aspects here only, when I chose to become an artist, reluctantly at first, but wholeheartedly as I delved deeper and deeper into myself.” “Bah! You have insulted me, Arjuna. I curse you to become a transgender forever!” But even this curse did not abate her rage. She got violent breaking, throwing, and smashing everything within her reach. In a few minutes, she wore a dishevelled look, her jewellery and clothes strewn all over the room, her rage still unabated.  Arjuna bowed low, tears filling his eyes. “I accept your punishment, mother.” Arjuna left Urvashi’s room, concern and worry writ large on his face. He went straight to Indra’s chamber who seemed to expect him. “Come! Come, my son! I suppose you seek my help after your nasty encounter with Urvashi.” “You know!” “Well, I know both of you, and I expected it to end like this.” “Why didn't you stop it?” “And let go of a brilliant opportunity for you?” Arjuna looked askance at his divine father. “I don't understand!” “Your 13th incognito year of exile is due to begin soon, right? Your brothers and Draupadi have already decided on their disguise. Urvashi’s curse will be your disguise.” Arjuna nodded, seeing a tiny speck of light at the end of the dark tunnel. “But her curse is lifelong. What happens after the 13th year? I need my original self if I can be of any use in the war?” “Aah! I’m there for that. I will reduce the curse to one year of your choosing. Urvashi will realise and forgive you when the veil of humiliation and insult covering her mind lifts. Don't worry. You will have her blessing too.” Arjuna smiled and fell at Indra’s feet. Soon, he took his leave from Indralok, and as Indra predicted, Urvashi not only forgave him but also thanked him for bringing her to her senses. He took the path leading to his brothers and Draupadi who were eagerly waiting for him to rejoin them on earth.  I will call myself Brihannala, the dancer, and I will work hard and be a worthy dance tutor. Glossary: Indralok – the abode of gods, goddesses, and other immortal divine beings in Hindu mythology. Lord Shiva – one of the three Hindu Trinities, the other two being Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Kuru Clan – the clan to which the protagonists and antagonists of Mahabharata belong.  Apsaras – immortal beings living in Indralok.  Gandharvas – another group of immortal beings known for their artistic skills, especially dancing and singing.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!