That was how the Natya Darshan seminar showcased some female icons of devotion.
Vibrant energy of the “Mad and Divine” words, songs, and dances of India’s beloved female saint-poets transformed Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan on December 23, 24, and 25. Andal and Meera’s yearnings pervaded the space, as did Akka Mahadevi and Lalleswari’s courage, and Kanhopatra and Janabai’s devotion. This well-attended event, sponsored by Kartik Fine Arts, Arangham Trust, and www.narthaki.com was inspired by Convenor Dr. Anita Ratnam’s vision. As Anita remarked during the proceedings, “My purpose in ‘Mad and Divine’ was to bring these women from the past and juxtapose these iconic figures as inspirations to engage with their passion, their resistance to patriarchy as we multi-task in our contemporary lives.”
The agenda included morning sessions by cultural thinkers and scholars from across India and abroad interspersed with poetry and dance, and resonant evenings with performances exploring the theme of madness and divinity.
Artists, interlocutors, and scholars used interdisciplinary tools to investigate how “madness” embedded in social censure is different from madness as transcendence, significant especially in the context of gender and cultural politics since saint-poets’ femaleness and female sexuality are controlled rigidly within patriarchy. Even though speakers noted the gender neutrality of divine desire, the fact remains that women like Meera who existed in history suffered severe rejection for breaking social norms whereas male saint-poets were not judged in that manner.
The keynote speaker, Shanta Serbjeet Singh, senior arts columnist and critic, recipient of Sangeet Natak Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award described mystic saint-poets as “avadhuras,” i.e. “eccentric mystics,” and their “avadhurism” as “crazy wisdom.” Singh reminded the audience that the freedom we enjoy today was not available to saint-poets of the past who despite all odds produced remarkable creative work.
The eighth century Tamil mystic Andal’s poems seeking union with Lord Vishnu inspired many speakers — Archana Venkatesan’s learned talk analysed changes in the commonly known versions of Andal ‘s story, namely the figure of Anasuya as messenger in the Sanskrit Divyasuricaritam. Venkatesan noted “the transgressive moment” of Andal’s wearing the iconic garland; her hair scents it as Vishnu’s bride.
Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik’s evocative talk also dealt with visual symbols of hair and clothing on goddess images. “Hair is a vocabulary,” Pattanaik remarked as he showed visual representations including one of Sita sending her hairpin to Rama via Hanuman.
Indeed, the spiritual is accessed via the sensual as epitomized in Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s engaging “transcreations” (taking translations further than the linguistic to convey the spirit of the original) of Andal’s “eroticised calls to the divine.”
The second morning began with Maharashtrian saint-poet Kanhopatra’s story presented delightfully by Rajashree Shirke as kathakar and dancer with her ensemble. Kanhopatra, the radiantly beautiful daughter of a courtesan, rejects marriage to the powerful King, desiring union only with Lord Vitthala who rescues her. Madhavi Narsalay examined three female saint-poets of Maharashtra — Mahadaisa and Venabai, both child widows, and Janabai of the lower caste.
Janabai was featured again, along with the Kashmiri Saivite saint-poet Lalleswari in an original choreographed work by Rama Vaidyanathan in a stunning, deeply moving and evocative finale to the conference’s nine evening performances. This new work like other evening performances was created specifically for the theme of “mad and divine.”
Chitra Visweswaran’s moving dance rendering on Meera’s bhakti started on the third morning, followed by conferring the Lifetime Achievement Award by Kartik Fine Arts on Vyjantimala Bali in a memorable ceremony, surrounded on stage by Chitra Visweswaran, Sudharani Raghupathy, Anita Ratnam and Chairman L. Sabaretnam. Bali, an ardent Andal devotee, received a traditional Andal-style garland made especially for her from Srivilliputtur. Bali then delighted the audience with dancing to a verse from Krishna Karnamrutam.
An unusual presence at the gathering was a contemporary Swedish woman, Uma Giri, ordained as a Naga sadhu, who shared her experience of being drawn to a spiritual path like the saint-poets of bygone times. Giri exemplified that such phenomena are still with us today. She talked to documentary filmmaker Madhureeta Anand about living within the predominantly male Naga Sadhu religious order.
Some presenters journeyed beyond India. Akhila Ramnarayan analysed First Nations poets of Hawaii who evoke indigenous spirituality to resist colonisation. Nirupama Vaidyanathan explored parallel goddesses from Spain, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and India’s Meerabai (1498-1547). Both share overlapping historical time-periods, both renounced material comforts to embrace a devotional path. Pallabi Chakravorty and Scott Kugle jointly presented the Muslim Sufi tradition of ecstatic devotion and the syncretism of Hinduism (Meera) and Islam in Bhakti and Sufi traditions rendered in Mah Laqa Bai’s poems, an 18th century mystic and courtesan.
(The author is Professor, University of California, Irvine, and the author of ‘Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora, Palgrave,’)
‘Dance must have bhakti'
For Vyjayanthimala Bali, who was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award by Kartik Fine Arts, “Bharatanatyam has shown the path for purification of the mind. I dance with a lot of bhakti in my heart. I believe that dance must have bhakti.” In her acceptance speech, the veteran said, “I try to adhere to the Thanjavur style taught to me by Guru Kittappa Pillai and I like to bring back some beautiful pieces from ancient times. I don't know if I am worthy of this award. I am ever so grateful and I am really, really humbled by it.”
She delineated a conversation from Sri Krishna Karnamrutham that describes the naughty child Krishna when caught red-handed trying to explain to a gopi why his hands were inside the pot of butter. Later, during a conversation with dancer Anita Ratnam, Bali spoke about her early years. Excepts:
How did you take up Andal's Triuppavai and other devotional themes for dance?
I grew up in my grandmother Yadugiri Devi's home in Tiruvallikeni. The house, opposite the Parthasarathy temple, was always full of religious fervour. My grandmother used to know the Nalayira Divya Prabandam verbatim. Andal and bhakti were within me all the while. In the 1940s, I performed Andal Tiruppavai for the first time at the National Girls High School. I did nine that day. But I wanted to perform for all 30, so I started to work on Sri Andal Tamizh Maalai. Madurai Krishna Iyengar composed beautiful music for the verses. I sing those songs and live with those thoughts. Specially during Margazhi. There is never a better month for me.
I've heard about your hectic practice sessions...
Yes. My grandmother was very particular about my practice. Even if I returned from shooting at 2 a.m., I had to bathe and practice at 3 a.m.