Dr. Harsha V. Dehejia talks about his search for Krishna in art, thought, literature and life

If one were to design T-shirts that represent Dr. Harsha V. Dehejia, the sentence “I hope the search never stops” could well be the slogan to emblazon on them. The eminent philosopher and scholar can look endlessly for, and invariably find, Krishna, the metaphor for beauty and love that has fascinated artists of India down the ages, at every turn. Dehejia finds Krishna not just in literature, painting, sculpture and embroidery, in museums and in manuscripts, but also on streets and sidewalks and in casual conversations, “in temples and in Dilli Haat,” in the mind and in everyday life. “Where did we see Krishna today,” he mulls. “Ah yes, in Cottage Emporium.”

There is an easy acceptance of a vibrant tradition that celebrates beauty and takes many shapes and directions, from the spiritual to the commercial, the intellectual to the sensuous. Krishna is after all a vast canvas. But then, so is the doctor. The Professor of Indian Studies at Carleton University in Canada is also a practising physician. And his several books, including “Celebrating Krishna: Sensuous Images and Sacred Words”, “A Festival of Krishna”, “Krishna’s Forgotten Poets”, “Pahari Paintings of Ancient Romance: The Love Story of Usha and Aniruddha” among others, speak of his discipline and unrelenting work over the years. “It’s a punishing schedule,” he admits, but possible perhaps only because he enjoys it.

Dehejia, who divides his time between Canada and India, is visiting New Delhi in the run-up to a reading from one of his latest books — the sole novel in his long list of research works — this Sunday. The novel, “Parul: A Love Story” (Roli Books), is about a learned professor steeped in philosophy and classical arts, who speaks in high English about Indian traditions, referring to Bharatanatyam as “the epitome of Indian classical aesthetic sensibility” but to whom the Garba and Rasa dances that belong to ordinary people are unimportant. This ascetic, whose cave of solitude is the library, meets and is irresistibly drawn to Parul, a woman quite his opposite, one who loves the crafts and folk arts. She lives her life according to the rhythm of the seasons, revelling in every folk cadence of her region, Gujarat. He is all intellect and she all earthy charm — he urbane and she unsophisticated. He admires art for the profound concepts that shaped it, she simply loves beautiful things and learns to make them, to sing songs and celebrate life with a body that swings easily.

The idea of the novel, says the professor, is based on the dashama skanda or tenth canto of the Bhagavat Purana. This is the chapter that describes the leelas or mystic tales of Krishna. This is the basis of the concept of shringara rasa or the romantic emotion, says Dehejia. “And thinking of that, I began thinking how Krishna teaches the gopis (milkmaids of Vrindavan) about the romantic rasa. Many commentaries have been written about the dashama skanda, but I didn’t want to write a commentary.”

So he decided to write a work of fiction set in contemporary times in which “a sensuous woman, charming but uneducated, falls in love with an erudite professor and teaches him what the romantic emotion is all about,” he explains. In a sense it is an inverted image of the Bhagavat’s 10th canto, since the female protagonist here is teaching the male. That apart, the metaphor of the metaphor, so to speak, is quite apt. Like the gopis, Praful is married and has family responsibilities but his passion pulls him away from those (worldly) responsibilities. In the metaphor of Radha’s love for Krishna, the fact that they were not formally married stresses the importance of not claiming ownership of the beloved. It is a pure and unconditional love that draws them together. The author agrees, saying Praful represents the Abhisarika nayika, the woman who braves the elements, the dangers of the road and censure of society to unite with her lover. She represents the soul leaving sansara or the illusory world behind. “It’s a mirror image of the Bhagvat Purana, so she really is what Krishna is in the dashama skanda, and he is what the gopis are. It’s a play on that,” and an attempt to “show the veracity of madhurya of the Bhagvat Purana,” he notes.

“To a certain extent,” he says, “it is my own autobiography, of my own journey, my study of philosophy that I started, as we all do, with Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta.”

Shankara bases his entire philosophy on the concept of maya, stating that this world that we perceive through the five senses is an illusion, explains the author. “And ultimately this world has to be given up for the ultimate Brahman.” He enjoyed that philosophy, he recounts, but “slowly and surely” began to reject it. Indeed, as the story develops, to hear Professor Praful’s scholarly explanations of the symbology of Indian art, the Advaita philosophy, and also to hear the arguments and counter arguments in his mind, is as if to be listening in on a conversation of Dr Dehejia. “I didn’t quite accept the world as maya,” he continues.

In the novel, Praful too adheres to the Advaita philosophy of Shankaracharya and emphasises the ‘unreality’ of the sensory world — till Parul, with the undeniable reality of her charmed and charming being, chips away at his edifice and helps him understand what romance really means. “This woman,” says the author, “in her own simple, unsophisticated way, leads him through the reality and the sensuality of this world — the plants and the flowers and the birds, and fabric, and…everything!”

Dr Dehejia’s journey, though, has been longer than the 11 months of poornima (full moon) trysts Praful has with Parul, during which they converse about the arts and crafts and plants and seasons, and he comes to accept “the veracity and the validity of everything that is beautiful in this world.”

As Dehejia describes his search, we know he had for a guide a tougher muse — his own questioning mind. Moving away from Shankaracharya, he first came upon the Kashmir Shaivism of Abhinavagupta. Not surprisingly, a book came out of this study too: “Parvati Darpana”.

And then, he says, he “landed into” the 10th canto of the Bhagavat Purana, with its colours and emotions and the vibrancy of Krishna. “And that is where I still am,” says the professor, “for the last 20 years — can’t move away from it.”

Other pages from the life of Dr. Harsha V. Dehejia

“Radha: From Gopi to Goddess” (Niyogi Books) — in which about 30 contributors have written on Radha.

Rasikapriya: Ritikavya of Keshavdas in Ateliers of Love (DK Printworld) — in which he has translated the poetry of Keshavdas, considered the father of ritikal or the epoch of mannered poetry, from the early 17 th century. He is also now working on producing a pothi on Krishna bandishes. He would eventually like to have these sung and perhaps illustrated too.

He holds a camp in Chamba where he invites contemporary miniature artists from the different schools of miniature painting and gives them a topic. “The last one we did was Love Songs of Vidyapati. I selected 10 songs of Vidyapati and gave one song each to one artist. That portfolio also came out recently by DK Printworld.”

He organises an exhibition related to Krishna every year at the Krishna Gallery at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. Among the exhibitions he has curated are “Pothi to Chitravali”, “Forgotten Poets of Krishna”, “Fabric Art of Krishna”, and “The Haveli of Shrinathji”.

Splendour in the side-streets

For a man immersed in the study of beauty and the many layers of thought that comprise Indian aesthetics, one wonders how Dr Dehejia, who spends significant chunk of time each year in India, deals with the mundane world of dirty streets, noise pollution and disrespectful urban encounters. Sitting at the India International Centre, with its lush gardens, cheerful fountains, its clean and quiet environs, is one thing. And of course he enjoys visiting Dilli Haat. But what of the smog and the traffic jams and piles of rubbish lying in wait just outside? For the amiable doctor, there is beauty to be found even in shoddiness, like when a leaking pipe, a fallen seed and faulty construction lead to a peepul sapling growing out of a concrete wall. Or take a shrine made out of a stone placed on street side. A man removes his shoes, throws a few coins and moves on. Meanwhile the cacophony of the city road goes on. The sight of this bit of devotion, oblivious to the harshness all around, is the stuff of beauty for this scholar. “One of my little books is called ‘Mumbai Footpaths’. Footpaths or streets are a paradigm of urban India. Yes, there is confusion, and chaos and dirt, and noise and clamour, all of that, but there are some very beautiful things on the street,” he contends. He also comes upon interesting conversations — like the cobblers who shine the shoes of the passersby on the road. The shoe repairers of Maharashtra claim descent from a sant called Raidas, says the professor. They have placed a picture of the saint on the wall next to their makeshift kiosk. “So you start talking about Raidas, and he connects with Raidas. People are spitting, throwing kachra, and you are having this lovely conversation about Raidas!”

And so, says Dehejia, his tryst with Krishna and with beauty goes on.

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