When I found myself crying

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I am writing this from the edge of Chilika Lake which is a good place to be. There is water, an endless expanse of water, there are birds and there are friends.

Two days ago, I arrived in Bhubaneswar for the Mystic Kalinga Festival, a celebration of bhakti in verse and song, dance and discussion. It was curated by Arundhathi Subramaniam, a poet, a seeker and editor of Eating God.

I knew why I had been invited. Over the past five years, Neela Bhagwat and I have worked on a series of translations of several of the Marathi women poet saints including Janabai, Soyarabai, Muktabai, Bahinabai, Kanhopatra, Nirmala, Rajai and Gonai. I did not know whether I would fit. Because I have never been at something like this before and because I am not a bhakta.

Belief in something

But I should have known that belonging isn’t really a problem with the bhakti marga. It seems to be an inside composed mainly of outsiders.

Among the women Bhagwat and I translated, Muktabai and Bahinabai were the only Brahmins and Muktabai bore the scars of being declared an outcaste. Kanhopatra was a sex worker; Soyarabai was a Mahar, Janabai was a housemaid, in the service of a saint, but a housemaid nonetheless. All these women must have wondered: do I belong? You look at the surface of the poems and you can see assurance, certainty.

They have come back through the fire and brought this with them. You do not have to share the coordinates of their faith to know this; you do not even have to be a believer. (Although it is undeniably true, that everyone must believe, if not in god, if not in a supernatural power, if not in a divine force, a mystic other, then we must believe in science, in nature, in reason. We are all believers. Even those who don’t believe.)

I have been to Orissa before, for MelJol; we had a project here with several village schools and I have been in and out of the State several times. I have been to Puri and to Gopalpur-on-Sea. I have been to the Lingaraja Temple and wondered at the Chausat Yogini Temple. I have been to Konark. So I did not feel that I had to do any of this. I could simply stand by and watch bhakti.

Being moved

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. In session after session, I was shaken and stirred, I was moved and fascinated. Because this seemed to be about people much more than it seemed to be about theology. So for instance, I had read Indira Peterson’s translations of the Shaivite poems many years ago; it was wonderful to meet her and to have her burst into song over dinner. I had read Lata Mani’s Interleaves, which is the kind of book that shifts grounds and strategies so many times you can be...

“It’s not the kind of book I usually read,” I said to her. “It’s…”

I could have used one of the standard adjectives that one uses to writers but somehow the sthayi bhava here was that of seeking and I needed the correct word. It would not come.

“Startling?” Lata said gently.

That was it. Startling.

I was startled by how much I saw in the strange and diverse worlds that were presented here. Danish Husain’s magnificent qissebazi, for instance, the story of a Ram katha and a Ram bhajan that lived in a woman’s stomach and wanted to get out; Parvati Baul’s simple retelling of her story, her journey to becoming a baul, the first time she begged on a train, the experience of receiving alms and understanding that “he was receiving and I was receiving, there was no giving”; Jheeni, a performance by Sanjukta Wagh and Shruthi Vishwanath with musicians Hitesh Dhutia and Vinayak Netke that started a conversation between Arundhathi Subramaniam and Janabai, across centuries, across stations in life, across languages, across, across, across.

Designer self on display

On these pages, not so long ago, I wrote about how tired I was of being a panellist. I think I understand why. It is because one is being called upon there to give an account of the self. That account is tailored and it is manicured. It is the designer self on display and I suspect that the audience knows this as well.

At Mystic Kalinga the self was a bit ravaged, a little tattered, but it smelt real. Music, we are told, reaches the same place that love does and sex and sugar and other drugs. Dance, we are told, gets our mirror neurons firing. This is the science of it. This is what I said to myself when I found myself crying with Parvati Baul. This is what I said when I was in tears again when Sanjukta Wagh and Shruti Vishwanath burst into ecstatic dance.

Science comforts us because it can be reduced, it demands reduction. The rest? It can be reduced for a while, it can even be discussed, it can be translated and nuanced and footnoted but somewhere along the way, it will remind you. There’s something large here, larger than the politics of the moment, larger than the religion you received as a legacy and then worked to make your own, larger. Larger and somewhat terrifying; full of passionate moments and long nights of desolation. That’s why the friends were also important. And why it is good to be by a lake in the company of the birds.

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 1:01:17 PM |

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