Music is at the heart of FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. The
setting for the story—16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India—had already been
laid down by multiple visits to that stunning part of the world, where temples
and fortresses rise up from golden sand, where textiles are jewel-toned, and the
sky is devastatingly blue. Take away the power lines, and everything else looks
much as it must have five hundred years ago.
The next story layer came in a very different shape: a class in kathak dance, a
classical storytelling art from North India.
The moment I set foot into the dance studio, I was smitten. Jingling ankle
bells, syncopated rhythms of the tabla (drums), precise footwork, lightning fast
turns punctuated by perfect stillness. The moments of silence in music sometimes
speak more than the notes themselves.
In kathak, the dancer becomes an instrument. In addition to studying dance
technique and compositions, the dancer must become intimately familiar with the
cycles in which Indian classical music is structured—the 16 beat cycle (tintal),
the 14 beat (dhammar), the 10 beat (jhaptal) and many others—and develop an
awareness at all times of where in the cycle she finds herself. Much as a writer
must bear in mind at what point in the narrative arc she finds herself. In
addition, dancers memorize their compositions and recite them in a series of
mesmerizing syllables that roll off the tongue: kita taka tun tun na tete dha
dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. The hundreds of small brass bells around their
ankles lend music to every step, a hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle
of rain, a deafening jangle indicating an exploding storm. And then there are
the sounds of the feet, sharp slaps of entire soles coming down hard on the
floor, deep drumming of heels, soft pats of tapping toes
I began to attend class weekly, and afterwards I jotted down new compositions
and patterns so as not to forget them, making up my own system for recording
what for generations has been an oral tradition. I tried to put on paper what my
body was learning. It was a new form of research, and it rapidly bled into my
fiction writing. A story had started forming in my mind, based on the history of
kathak, a branch of which goes back to medieval Rajasthan.
From the moment I started writing the book, I tried to maintain an awareness of
the power of rhythm in writing. Word choice, sentence length, the sounds of the
syllables on the tongue all contribute to the experience of absorbing a story.
When it came time, in the manuscript, to convey through words a moment of dance,
I found myself dancing the piece in my dining room, or in my head if I was
writing in a café, willing the feeling of the music and movement to flow out of
my body through my finger tips and into the keyboard. I tried to hear the
musicality in the raindrops of the city’s first rain in five years, in the beat
of hooves as a horse galloped over searing sand, matching their sounds to dance
After drawing writing inspiration from movement and music, I now draw movement
and intonation inspiration from the words, enhancing the readings with kathak
gestures, and modulating my speech to match the rhythm of the words. A full
circle, as in a musical cycle.
Mitter Duva is an Indian-American writer raised in France. She is the author
of FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN
(She Writes Press, October 2014) and a co-founder of Chhandika, a non-profit
organization dedicated to the Indian classical dance form called kathak.
Educated at Brown University and MIT, she lives near Boston with her husband and
two daughters. Visit her at her website.
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