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In sacred rapture

When Priya Sarukkai Chabria was a child in Chennai, the eighth century Tamil poet Andal was a familiar presence. In fact she was everywhere: in books, music concerts, dance performances. However, Chabria’s more recent curiosity about the mystic poet of took off only when she saw a young girl at a coming-of-age ceremony dressed up as Andal. She says, “Earlier, I had seen young girls at ceremonies dressed up as geishas and Bollywood starlets: all emblems of female sexuality. However, the sight of one dressed up as Andal was fascinating. I later went to several little photo studios in the city, and I was stunned by the number of Andal photographs I saw.”

Chabria’s book, The Autobiography of a Goddess , co-authored with Ravi Shankar and published by Zubaan Books (which she will be discussing at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival) offers an English translation of Andal’s ‘ Thiruppavai ’, and ‘ Nacchiyar Thirumoli ’. In these poems, devotion and desire flow seamlessly into each other; the body is not seen as a source of distraction from spiritual pursuits: it is celebrated as a sacred site waiting for the divine to enter. A remarkable example: “Virginal I place myself before / You as offering / small / though I be my love grows / like him who grows / make his desire for me grow / large enough to swallow my smallness/ in sacred rapture.”

Chabria, has spent eight years working on this project, she says. “Ravi and I met in New York. When he heard that I was translating Andal, he too wanted to be part of it. And I thought it would be interesting to have a man translate Andal into a contemporary eloquent idiom. We did not translate the same poems together. At times, we came up with absolutely different translations of the same poem. I think mine came from a woman’s perspective. I felt free to use any poetic form that would bring out the emotional valency and spiritual depth of Andal’s poetry.”

Andal was the only woman amongst the 12 Alvar saints of South India dedicated to the worship of Vishnu. Translating her required Chabria to learn the intricacies of Tamil poetics from the Sangam era, to devour literature on Vaishnava mythology, and also to research the concept of sacred geography.

Andal, she says, “was 13 years old when she wrote ‘ Thiruppavai ’, and 16 when she wrote ‘ Nacchiyar Thirumoli ’. That explains the vitality and honesty you hear in her work. She is completely frank about the body. She wants to unite with Krishna as her lover. She is not mild or pleading. She is urgent and demanding.”

Chabria is a poet, so it must have been challenging to let her own poetic voice not come in the way of translating Andal’s work. She says, “Usually when people translate mystic poetry, the philosophy overrides the poetry. Our approach as translators was to see her as a poet first, and let that come to the forefront.” Translation is more about voice than words, she says. adding, “I was once told that these translations are like fireflies. They illuminate certain parts of the experience Andal was describing. Ravi and I wanted to present her poetry in contemporary English. She needs to be known more widely than she is, especially outside South India.”

Supported by a travel grant from the Ministry of Culture, Chabria looked for Andal’s voice in places associated with her, visiting Srivilliputhur — legend says Andal was found here, lying under a tulsi plant — and Srirangam, where Andal is believed to have merged with Ranganatha, a form of Vishnu. “Both the pilgrim towns appeared too busy and commercial. I couldn’t hear Andal there, so I eventually got permission to go to Meghamalai [the forest reserve]. Being there was like going back in time. It was the kind of landscape Andal would have lived in. I heard elephants trumpeting. I saw nature in all her glory. I heard Andal more clearly. From being her translator, I became her bhakta . I could feel that sense of the sacred permeating all of life.”

Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar will discuss their translations of Andal at Artists’ Centre, Rampart Row, today at 5.30 pm as part of KGAF

The writer is a freelancer who tweets @chintan_connect

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 9:55:38 AM |

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