Arundhathi Subramaniam, Chitra Srikrishna to celebrate spiritual temperaments through art

Arundhathi Subramaniam and Chitra Srikrishna will present a jugalbandi of performance poetry and musical rendering to celebrate the plurality of spiritual temperaments

Published - June 12, 2024 06:19 pm IST

Chitra Srikrishna

Chitra Srikrishna | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Why do we hear so little about women mystic poets? For poet Arundhathi Subramaniam and Carnatic vocalist Chitra Srikrishna, this quest led them to discovering women mystics and their works; the duo will present their learnings as a jugalbandi at the Indian Music Experience in Bengaluru on June 16. 

In a bid at creative experimentation, Wild Women - A jugalbandi will be based on Arundhathi’s latest book, an anthology of sacred Indian poetry titled Wild Women: Seekers, Protagonists and Goddesses in Sacred Indian Poetry while Chitra will present a few verses in melody.

“The idea for a jugalbandi with poet Arundhathi came about through our mutual passion for Bhakti poetry. I had invited her as a guest speaker when I was handling a music appreciation course at the Ahmedabad University, where I delved into the roots of the Bhakti movement, the works of the mystic poets and their social impact. Arundhathi shared her insights of the Bhakti mystics and their poetry. During the pandemic, we began discussing a collaboration inspired by our shared love for this poetic tradition,” says Chitra.

For Chitra, this jugalbandi is a natural corollary to the success of her previous musical production, Bhakti - A Musical Journey with Mystics, presented at local and global platforms. “Our aim with this unique collaboration is to blend Arundhathi’s insights on Bhakti poetry with my musical interpretation, creating a new experience that delves deeper into the essence of mysticism and music with an emphasis on sacred feminine outpourings, based on her book,” she says.

Did the two choose verses to suit raga and tala? “This program is a creative dialogue, where Arundhathi will present a poem and I will follow it with a musical interpretation, with Deepikaa Sreenivasan on the mridanga. Some of the selected poems have been previously set to music by renowned musicians such as Pt. Kumar Gandharva and Lata Mangeshkar, while others, such as the Kashmiri verses by Lal Ded or Rupa Bhavani, I have newly set to music,” says Chitra.

Deepikaa Sreenivasan 

Deepikaa Sreenivasan  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Understanding the deep-rooted significance ingrained in the poetic verses was fundamental to Chitra in order to score the right raga and cadence. “The selection of poems was a collaborative process; I approached the selection from a musical perspective and considered its appeal to a diverse audience. The poems to be sung in this jugalbandi span various languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Sanskrit, Marathi, and Kashmiri.”

While engaging with the poems of Arundathi’s book, Chitra says she realised how little she knew about Bhakti poetry. “The poets were unfamiliar, the vernacular poetry in its original form was diverse, as were the nuances of poetry appreciation including rhyme and alliteration.”

The book celebrates the divine feminine by showcasing the poetic expressions of various eras and regions from lesser known gems such as 14th century Kashmiri Lalleshwari (also known as Lal Ded) and the Tamil pet Avudai Akkal, to well-known figures such as Andal and Meera.

“Translation plays a crucial role in unlocking the beauty of vernacular poetry, allowing us to appreciate the lyrical elegance and the profound insights of these poets,” says Chitra.

Wild Women - A Jugalbandi will take place at the Indian Music Experience on June 16 from 6-7pm

Wild women author Arundhathi Subramaniam

Wild women author Arundhathi Subramaniam | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Not for the faint of heart
Arundhathi Subramaniam spoke to Metroplus on her recent book where the mystery of female mystics unfold:
Tell us a little about Wild Women...
As a poet and seeker, I’ve had a long-standing fascination with sacred literature in this subcontinent. Wild Women, was fueled by my curiosity about the female mystic poets of this land. Why do we hear so little about them? And when we do, why do we hear about them only as demure songsters and obedient followers? As I started my research, I found myself fascinated by the innumerable audacious women in this subcontinent — so many unmapped, and undocumented. The few celebrated ones have been flattened into calendar art. The others are simply ignored or forgotten.
Above all, I was ambushed by the voltage of their poetry — their intensity, the capacity for dialogue and dissent, the rage, passion, eroticism, ecstasy and the bracing spirit of freedom and enquiry. This unfolded into an archive of women sacred poets of this continent — a reminder of some astonishingly feisty, irreverent sacred ancestors who deserve to be much better known.
Would you say the book is a must read for anyone exploring the Bhakti movement?
This is not merely an anthology of Bhakti poets. This is an anthology of women of varied spiritual persuasions. There are early Buddhist nuns, tantrikas, bhaktas, Vedantins, Sufis — the whole gamut. Some are contemplative, some devotional, others are intellectual, and still others deeply emotional.
That mix was integral to this book. It was intended to celebrate a plurality of spiritual temperaments and orientations. It also asserted that despite all the vibrant differences, we are part of an amazing sisterhood that deserves to be celebrated. Here is a tribe of women that asked difficult questions, refused to settle for easy answers, and above all, refused to be tamed by the gatekeepers of faith or culture.
Could you tell us about a few of them? 
Although the women in these pages are seekers and mystics, their poems are not merely about the ecstasy of moksha. These poems are also about subversion and social critique. The slave girl, Punnika, empowered by the Buddha’s teaching of equality, asked pertinent questions about caste inequality and ended up converting a ritualistic Brahmin. This happened 2,500 years ago!
Soyarabai, the 14th century Dalit woman mystic from Maharashtra, wrote a poem in which she asks why menstruation is considered impure when it is the very basis of human life. The later Tamil Brahmin child widow, Avudai Akkal, questioned notions of ritual impurity and the 18th century Telugu poet, Tarigonda Vengamamba, refused to bow before religious authority. She flouted the norms of widowhood by wearing vermilion, jewellery and flowers in her hair. 
These are not docile women by any means. These are women who would not be domesticated by priests or pundits, religious sentinels or cultural guardians. These are wild and wise women.
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