Every Chinese New Year the city of Kolkata gears up to an extravaganza which can hardly be described with words and can only be witnessed by seeing with your own eyes. This city is lucky to have a good number of Chinese families who call City of Joy their home. Most of us are aware of the many Chinese restaurants, shoe shops, beauty parlour or dry cleaning shops that dot the city streets are managed and run by the Indian Chinese community.
During Chinese New Year the streets around Tangra (New Chinatown) and Tiretti Bazar (Old Chinatown) start resonating to the sounds of drums and the footsteps of the Lion Dancers. Managed by different groups they roam from house to house performing the famous lion dance. Each house hangs a bunch of lettuce leaves at a height which the lions must grab and throw back at the occupants of the house as blessings. The lions in return receive red envelopes with money known as Hong Bao.
Many of us have seen the lion dancers performing house to house as well as seen them at special ceremonies doing the dance on poles accompanied by drums and gongs. These look easy and some think it’s just a few boys and girls in a decorated lion costume who keep dancing to the beat of the drums. In reality, it’s nothing less than a martial art, it requires hours and hours of practice and a complete dedication to the master who teaches his students the art of Lion Dance.
You must have seen various write-ups about Chinese New Year so this blog is going to be bit different, it’s going to be about the preparation that goes into making a Lion Dancer. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the lion at its den and it was as if I have been transported to a set of a Chinese Martial Art movie being shot at a real Chinese village. The only difference is that this village is right in the heart of my city.
After lots of communication over phone and through messenger I managed to set an appointment with Master James Liao to allow me to shoot inside his training studio. He asked me to come to the Chinese Kali Temple on a Saturday afternoon and wait for his call. After reaching the spot on time I call him up and he informs me that “a fat Chinese boy will come to pick you up”. Indeed, within few minutes, I see someone with similar description waiting in front of the Chinese Kali Temple.
He asks me to follow him and we go past lanes and by lanes till we reach a spot where there is no road actually and all I could see was ankle deep puddle. We drive over this puddle only hoping that my decade old motorbike does not stop. This part of the new Chinatown was completely unknown to me and things were looking really spooky.
We finally stop in front of a large warehouse with a gigantic wooden gate, something that you see in old Chinese martial arts movies. As I park my bike I hear the familiar sound that of martial arts being practised inside. The door opens and I finally enter the lion’s own den.
For a moment if I were to forget that I was somewhere in Kolkata I could easily make myself believe that I was in a traditional Chinese village and somewhere in one of the thirty-six chamber a Chinese master was teaching his students the art of Chinese Martial Arts. The walls around the warehouse were filled with hand drawn posters which depict the different postures for traditional Wushu moves.
This was a huge old abandoned leather tannery, with old machinery still lying all around in a dilapidated state. A portion of this leather tannery has been cleared where James and his students practise martial arts and the traditional art of Lion Dance. James and his team were busy exercising, these were more of a warm up before the main show.
After a rigorous round of warm-ups, they start practising the famous Lion Dance moves, instead of a fully decorated lion head they use a mockup head with no cover, this way they can see the master and themselves in the mirror and practise all the moves. One by one each of the students are repeatedly made to practise the moves, this is done till each of them naturally out of instinct move to the choreographed position to each of the drum beats.
The final practice was done on the stilts which are the toughest of all, you have to fit like a lion to jump from one stilt to the other wearing the lion costume which is always linked to the second dancer. This is also quite risky so the padded mattress is placed on each of the sides to protect the dancers during practice.
Just when I though the workout was over for the day James invited me to join him and his team for seeing them practise Wushu on the terrace of the tannery. These exercises are important to keep one fit which is essential for a good Lion Dance. As we move up the dark stairs of the old tannery I stop to wonder if I was still in my city.
The terrace, on the other hand, was a scenic beauty of a different kind, on one side you had the rotting drainage from the old tanneries and right in front you could see the gigantic skyscrapers of an upcoming star hotel flanked by an elevated expressway to the side. James smiles and tells me that even though this place is so near to the main road but a lack of direct connectivity has made this portion of Tangra stay in a time warp.
All around me I could see were once tanneries owned by Indian Chinese who had shifted here from the Old Chinatown in Tiretti Bazar. After the High Court ordered they shifted to Bantala and their old warehouses were left back making it a ghost town. This particular tannery was owned by the family of James and he uses this unutilized space for training students Martial Arts.
The training and exercise continued till sundown and during a break I asked James “Why? Why do you do this and that too without money?” He smiled and answered, “I like Martial Arts and since for me it’s a passion I love to teach what I love to do and for this money is never in question”.
As the sun was setting James kept practising and while he was at it I asked him the last question. “Do you realise that almost all of your students are non-Chinese and you are teaching them a typical Chinese form of martial arts?” James while practising the traditional Wushu moves answered with a smile “Martial Arts has no religion, if you believe in it I will teach you, it’s actually beyond religion, it’s a belief”.