Myriad moods of Ashtapadi

Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao and Aruna Sairam.  

The Sri Vishnu Mohan Foundation, Chennai, recently organised varied events over five days to “Reawaken Jayadeva.” The foundation, which seeks, through such activities, to connect with our culture, could not have chosen a text more impactful, more defining of our cultural identity. Dance and music performances, harikatha, namasankirtanam, academic lectures — Jayadeva was evoked in a myriad ways.

Two things immediately spring to the mind about Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam — its exquisite lyricism and explicit eroticism. Paradoxically, it is a religious text.

At the very beginning of Gita Govindam, Jayadeva seems to declare that the religious, the erotic and the literary are on equal footing. “If your mind finds absorption in remembering Hari, and if it is curious about the art of love play, listen to these sweet, delicate verses.”

But how does one reconcile its bristling erotic content with a religious purport?

As Prof. H.S. Shiva Prakash of JNU pointed out in his lecture, Hinduism is a complex web of diverse philosophies, worldviews, and praxis, and there is no one positioning of women within it. But, most mainstream paths and indeed those of Buddhism and Jainism too, advocate shunning of women if one is serious about spiritual progress.

One explanation of the erotic exuberance in a purportedly religious text such as Gita Govindam is that it is metaphorical — the love and yearning of Radha is that of the bhakta for the divine. Bridal mysticism!

But, considering the detailing of erotic acts in the Ashtapadi hymns, this explanation does not quite satisfy. Perhaps we should go by Jayadeva’s own clear statement, that there is no conflict between the erotic and the religious. One meditates on the love play of Radha and Krishna just as one might meditate on the Lord’s feet.

Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao’s presentation travelled across the country and across centuries in tracing the impact of Gita Govindam on painting, literature, music, dance and film. Supported by clips and slides, the audience was offered a treat, “the result of six years of research,” he said. Aruna Sairam sang a few Ashtapadi verses — each note and movement delivered with power and feeling that we have come to associate with her singing.

Sujata Mohapatra is easily one of our best dancers today. Beginning her performance with a gripping rendition of the Dasavatara song ‘Krishnaaya Tubhyam Namah,’ she performed three well-known Ashtapadis — ‘Kesimathanamudaaram,’ ‘Yaahi Maadhava’ and ‘Kuru Yadunandana.’ And these were disappointing. A more serious engagement with the text would have better brought out the depth, texture and intensity of the Ashtapadis.

Radha asks her sakhi to bring that Kesimathana to her and make him love her — ramaya mayaa saha. Sujata portrayed Radha in this as an abhisaarikaa — creeping out after removing the anklets, removing that thorn, furtive looks – all elements of the abhisaarikaa. But the context of the song is in a verse just before it in which Radha, who has seen Krishna dancing and playing with the other gopis, walks away tormented. She says “He steals away from me and craves other young women and yet my heart wants him, what am I to do?” Such is her torment in Kesimathanamudaaram.

While she certainly reminisces an occasion when she was the abhisaarikaa, her inner scape is more complex.

In ‘Yaahi Maadhava,’ Radha, seeing telltale signs of his love with another woman, spurns Krishna. If one keeps in mind the description of Radha’s suffering in previous Ashtapadis like ‘Saa virahe tava dinaa’ Sujata’s portrayal of Radha in ‘Yaahi Maadhava’ was restrained to a fault.

In ‘Kuru Yadunandana,’ perhaps among the most erotic of the Ashtapadis, Sujata had a male dancer playing the role of Krishna — and how one wished that Krishna was, like in the other pieces, an absent presence. The interpretation didn’t capture the intensity of the Ashtapadi.

Vishal Krishna, in his Kathak performance, was winsome in an ebullient depiction of ‘Lalitha Lavanga’, taking the liberty to throw in a verse from another Ashtapadi — ‘Chandana Charchita.’

In the penultimate Ashtapadi ‘Kshana Madhuna,’ cast in the bewitching raga Lalit (music by Pt. Madhup Mudgal) so appropriate for evoking the wee hours of the morning,

Vishal managed to create the intensity of longing, Krishna cajoling Radha to come to him. There was minimal hasta abhinaya, and the magic was created by music, lighting and Vishal’s charismatic stage presence.

Ashtapadis are an intense saga of love and separation, longing and despair. If one were to situate each Ashtapadi in its context in the overall composition there is so much more to them than portrayals of formulaic nayaka and nayika.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 2:27:16 PM |

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