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Asceticism and aesthetics

Mridula Garg
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Why is the focus on Mirabai’s personal life rather than her scintillatingly subversive poetry, asks Mridula Garg.

For long, Mirabai, the 16th century Bhakti poet, remained a footnote in the written history of Hindi poetry. With the advent of feminist discourse, she became high fashion, somewhat like khadi. So much so that Kiran Nagarkar wrote a novel about her poor cuckolded husband. Imagine cuckolding a royal personage for someone as ephemeral as God!

Unfortunately the focus of today’s generation of feminist and secular persuasion is on her non-conformist persona rather than the subversion inherent in her scintillatingly lyrical poetry. It other words, she still remains no more than a footnote in literary history. I want to focus on her poetry and judge it on its own merit, not in the context of her so-called scandalous conduct.

It would be well to remember that she was a poet, so dear to the commoner’s heart that she was usurped by the performing arts long before the age of television and cinema. The ultimate ambition of writers today is to be a T.V. face. They willingly surrender literary excellence to acquire a visual identity. Mirabai made no such compromise.

Join me in an exercise. Assume for a moment that Mirabai was not a princess but a common housewife. That she was not averse to her husband. That she did not go out of the house to sing and dance in public places. Assume she wrote the same poetry and lyrics, set to the same ragas during her spare time after attending to a thousand household duties. Would you still hold her up as the first feminist, who fought for her identity? Or would you then see her as one of the great poets of the golden age of poetry?

It is her poetry, not her behaviour, which is important. The most provocative thing is that the poetry satisfies the demands of subversion and rebellion that her persona leads us to expect. Most people lead very different lives from what they expound in literature but it does not make their literary subversion less meaningful. Literature is a medium for creating a parallel world, more logical, just and aesthetic than the real world. It may do so perversely, by crafting an alternate evil world or by showing the victory of evil over good. The objective remains the same; by drawing attention to the acceptance of evil, greed, injustice, inequity, hypocrisy, etc., it draws attention to a world, partially free of them. It does not matter if they do not follow the precepts they expound in their personal lives. That is of no interest to the readers except as material for scandal. Of course it adds spice to publicity.

Mirabai lived in an era, which had no publicity devices other than word of mouth. The inspiration to sing and dance her lyrics ( padas ) came from their innate quality. One aspect of the rebelliousness of her poetry did have an irrefutable link with her rebel persona. In her poems, she confirmed what she practiced. She not only sported with mendicants and religious seers, she boldly asserted that she intended to do so without shame ( loklaaj ) in her poems. Such non-hypocritical affirmation of identity is rare.

Mirabai savoured the ecstasy offered by her poetic creation with total abandon, without reserve or shame. A freedom gained not through activism but renunciation. She demonstrated that a hankering for renunciation could be felt with the same passion as the pursuit of pleasure. It is because of the perfect blend of renunciation and pleasure, that the philosophy and aesthetics of her poetry become more significant than her real life assertion of freedom.

One way of looking at it is that renunciation conferred complete freedom on her. Since she wanted nothing, no one could tempt, threaten or exploit her. She was free of the tyranny of tradition, the temptation of material goods, the clutch of relationships and the dictates of society, including her patriarchal Rajput clan. Here it is expressed in her poem: Why Mira Can’t Come Back to Her Old House: The colours of the Dark One have penetrated Mira’s/Body; all other colours are washed out./Making love with the Dark One and eating little,/Those are my pearls and my carnelians./Meditation beads and the forehead streak,/Those are my scarves and my rings./That’s enough feminine wiles for me./That’s what my teacher taught me/Approve of me or disapprove of me:/I take the path human beings/Have taken for centuries./I don’t steal money, I don’t hit anyone./What will you charge me with?/I have felt the swaying of elephant’s shoulders’/You want me to climb on a jackass now?/Oh please be serious .

It was not as if she did not want anything. She desperately wanted to compose her verses and share them with others. Not just with a couple of poets or admirers in a closed room but the public at large. Not for her the distant reader reading her poetry in isolation. She had to be heard in person, singing and dancing the lyrics she composed. She knew the only way to attain freedom was by discounting all mores defining renunciation and desire. She did not retire to a forest with none to share her joy. She lived in the midst of society, enjoying the ecstasy of renunciation with true fervour. She loved God and cast him in an aesthetically perfect image. She then wanted to share the joyous celebration of his beauty and the poetic rendering of her devotion to him with everyone.

How succinctly she expressed it in this pada : It’s true I went to the Market/My friend, I went to the market and bought the Dark One./You claim by night, I claim by day./I was beating a drum all the time I was buying him./You say I gave too much, I say too little./Actually, I put him on a scale before I bought him./What I paid was my social body; my town body;/my family body and all my inherited jewels./Mirabai says: The Dark One is my husband now./Be with me when I lie down;/You promised me this in an earlier life.

I object to the feminist plea that Mirabai sang of God as lover because society prohibited a married woman to have a flesh-and-blood one. That is the ultimate insult to the rebel poet-philosopher. Why can we not acknowledge that a woman can love and sing of God with the same philosophical devotion as a man? No one ever asserts that Tulsidas sang of Rama because he could not give voice to his love for a man! In trying to make Mirabai the first feminist and rebel, we take away the whole basis of her poetry and existence, her understanding of metaphysical reality.

Mirabai accomplished the impossible in her poetry; by making it an instrument of rebellion through a perfect blend of asceticism and aesthetics. Only an aesthete can feel pain with such intensity that it becomes an instrument of salvation. So intense was the pain of love for her that she relished it with her whole creative being and cast the poet in a new image.

I object to the feminist plea that Mirabai sang of God as lover because society prohibited a married woman to have a flesh-and-blood one. No one ever asserts that Tulsidas sang of Rama because he could not give voice to his love for a man!


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