The room is thick with sweat; we watch the windows cry. The fans seem to be cycling hot air, blowing it back in our faces sarcastically. This is Kolkata heat, to which there are no perfect antidotes: not billowy cotton blouses, nor cold lime lollies, nor dips in the swimming pool.
The men wear dance dhotis with T-shirts — Che Guevara, Berlin, University of Texas Longhorns, as if the contents of an American high school’s lost-and-found has been emptied into their closets. We women are draped in dance saris — swathes of cloth in bright yellows, oranges, reds and a dainty gold border, tied around the waist and pleated over the shoulder. Our hair pinned up in sticky buns, eyes darkly lined with kajol, a dangling jhumka from each ear, and foreheads adorned with a bindi. The guru shouts out the opening sequence, hitting together two marble sticks to keep the rhythm as we progress with our rapid footwork. Ta, ta, ta…
In this room I get to shed one identity for another. Not a medical student, not a researcher, but a dancer. I have been learning Indian classical dance, namely Bharatanatyam, since my childhood in New Zealand. It is a form of dance that has infinite ways of expressing the familiar and the foreign.
During my fieldwork in India, dance has provided the antidote to what is lonely, depressing, and disheartening. When I dance, my body feels alive, my every muscle yields to a common purpose. Through a combination of rhythmic movement and expression, my body expresses the pain of a woman who has been scorned by her husband, the trepidation mixed with adrenaline of a warrior going into battle, or the humble devotion of a poor man addressing the divine. There is a well-known saying in our dance halls: “Whither the hand goes, the eye follows. Whither the eye leads, the mind follows. Whither the mind goes, the mood follows. Whither the mood goes, there rasa is born.” In the Indian classical tradition, rasa is taste. Not the taste we feel on the tongue, but the emotion that we feel in the world and relish through a work of art, such as anger, fear, happiness, peace, and many more in the nine Sanskrit rasas.
In the clinic or the hospital, we often say one thing and mean another. “Are you feeling well?” we may ask, with a down-turned mouth. “It's a pleasure to take care of you,” with tired eyes. Or, “I hope you get better,” with hurried feet already turned towards the door.
In dance, we must always mean what we say. Otherwise we are simply not dancing.
As I have written before, the work of caregiving is a visceral experience for those who both give and receive care. At the end of a day in medicine, the legs hurt, the back aches, the eyes falter. And yet, this very flagging body is the vehicle of another’s well-being.
To reclaim our bodies for the healing arts is to feel the connection between the hand and the eye, the eye and the mind, the mind and the mood. This is why medical schools and residency programs should focus on wellness initiatives, give space for the re-connection of healers’ minds and bodies, and foster initiatives for the creative, visual, and performing arts in medical schools and hospitals (such as our own Medicine and the Muse program at Stanford).
Maybe a little knowledge of nava rasa has utility in the hospital. To know what twitching of our own face may signify a growing anger (raudram), or what ironies might provoke laughter (hasyam), what losses lead to a heavy disgust (bibhatsam), what situations of learning and practice are rife with fear (bhayanakam), and what beautiful moments of healing leave us agape with wonder (adbhutam). By knowing our own mood, or the mood produced by our environment, we can embrace that emotion — or deflect it — with the hand, the eye, and the mind. We can choose to accept anger, or we can brush it off. We can ignore laughter and wonder, or we can take a moment to savor the surprises and satisfactions of our hectic day. Maybe all action begins after we taste the pause.
Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.
Amrapali Maitra is a sixth-year MD/PhD student at Stanford studying medical anthropology. This academic year she is based in Kolkata, India, conducting dissertation research on women’s health, poverty, and gender-based violence. She is a 2013 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow.
Photo by Pabak Sarkar