The Mad and Divine Conference

Vyjanthimala Bali credit Sanjeevini D

Vyjanthimala Bali 

23rd -25th December 2011

Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, Mylapore, Chennai

Organised by Kartik Fine Arts, Convened by Anita Ratnam

Sanjeevini Dutta attended the Conference gives her reflections,  hailing the excellence in presentation, performance and discussion.




 A three day assembly of artists, academics, performers and rasikas took place at the Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan under the auspices of Kartik Fine Arts, in Mylapore, Chennai. Curated and convened by Dr Anita Ratnam, of Arangham Trust and of the ubiquitous,, this performer and global promoter of Indian dance has a deep and wide understanding of the form. Through her connections, Anita could draw on US- based academics to artists and scholars working in India in the vernacular languages. The choice of contributors gave a surprising and well balanced flavour to the three day proceedings.

The Conference proved to be extraordinary in may ways: good time-keeping and efficiency augmented by excellence in presentation, performance and discussion. A refined aesthetic was palpable throughout, from the staging and lighting to the choice of performers. The subjects covered were wide-the intersections of dance, poetry, feminism, religion and spirituality. Almost by default a powerful case was made for the continuing relevance of Indian arts and philosophy in modern life.

To start with the theme Mad and Divine, seemed an odd choice for a dance Conference in the twentieth century of 'India shining'. What more could we possibly add to the well-trodden subject of Mirabai, donning her ghunroos to dance in ecstasy of her Lord Krishna? Indian dance is so crowded by repertoire items of Radha-Krishna, (or Aandal in this case of South India ) representing the longing of the individual soul for the divine, and every dancer, no matter how self-centred, still performs such items with gusto. How could a Conference throw any new light or give any fresh experience?

My doubts evaporated as the first morning unfolded. The opening address by Shanta Serabjeet Singh , who remarked 'I am a universalist at this part of my life, so the mad and divine soul is beyond gender and caste' struck a note of intellectual rigour which set the tone for the Conference. Shanta suggested that to understand the divine by using the mind was like 'seeing with the ears', the experience itself was the understanding. She drew a link between creativity and so- called 'madness' or freedom from convention which aids connections between unrelated phenomenon. The subject of innovation and creativity is now on the agenda of organisations and the corporate world.

 Two further presentations of the morning, one in word - Dr Archana Venkateshan and the second in performance by Vidhya Subramanian, delved deeper into aspects of particular saints. Archana, in a full throated delivery, conveyed her passion for her subject matter quoting from a fiftheen century Sanskrit text which provides a departure from the commonly held Aandal story to introduce a new character, the messenger between Aandal and Ranganatha. For a non-initiate, such as myself, such a detail did not have the same significance as for someone who is familiar with Tamil literature.

Briefly, Aandal is considered one of the twelve Alwars or saint poets who lived between the fifth and ninth centuries and regenerated the Hindu religion by practising a form of loving devotion to a personal god, referred to as bhakti. Aandal is the only female amongst the twelve Alwars and wrote poetry of such sophistication in her short life of eighteen years, with such passion and uninhibited expression that a modern woman like Priya Sarukkai Chabria has made it her mission to freely translate Aandal's verses for today's audiences. On Day Two, Priya performed her 'transcreations', which were sung in the original and in it's translated forms. What came across was the translator's commitment and the intense inspiration she draws from the verses. Lines such as 'Splendourous! Thousand jewelled elephants form/ A swaying wall against which Narayana Nampi enters/emblazoned in glory. Heralding/him flags flutter at street ends, garlands/shed fragrance on the town.. from I Dreamt a Dream My Friend, Varanamaayiram, sound like an Orientalist dream and it is hard to be moved until we think of the humble life of a Brahmin's fostered daughter having the imagination to conjure up such elaborate and lavish scenarios. Also what is lost in translation and context is hard to measure. Therefore time and again dance managed to convey more powerfully than word. But more about that later.

However Devdutt Pattnaik in the concluding session of the morning transcended all barriers of context and offered universal observations through the medium of Hindu mythology. He explored the paradoxes inherent in the iconography used in the Mad and Divine imagery: the hair bound in the picture of Aandal and wild and flowing in Aka Mahadevi representing the apparently opposing forces of culture, civilization and the safety it offered with the contrast of the wild nature, the forest, of freedom with its attendant physical threat and loneliness. A key concept is that there is no victim and hero in nature, (if a hawk chases a dove, where do your sympathies lie?, challenges the speaker. Answer in nature there are no villians and heroes. All villains in society are formed by victimhood and only through the imagination and creativity can one escape the cycle.

At the time I was reading The Book Thief  which describes a young girl in Nazi Germany, who precisely does that- defies the hatred and suppression, finding humanity through love of books. Devdutt Patnaik shone a light for me. No wonder his books have made it to airport bookshops.

I only made Malavika Sarukkai's evening performance, missing unfortunately Madhu Nataraj and Narthaki Nataraj also featured the same evening. Malavika performed Maname, Brindavaname, an evocation of Aadal's life through her lyrics translated by her sister Priya Sarukkai and sung by Vasudha. Malavika gave a mature, passionate and fluent performance. Although steeped in traditional imagery of making flower garlands, drawing mandalas, and sprouting lotuses (totally appropriate for the subject matter), it is the freedom and the individuality with which Malavika moves, that draws the viewer into her dance. The music and dance fed off each other, rising higher and higher, enveloping the audiences in rasa. Beautiful use of lighting enhanced by simple stage design, Brindavanamane ended the first day with a flourish.

Day Two opened with a dance theatre performance by dancer-actor Rajashree Shirke and her lively group of young dancers that rocked the stage with their energy, verve, skilful dance and group choreography which upheld the best traditions of jatra or folk theatre. Using voice and text, song (dancers doubling up as singers), solo and group items, they re-told the story of Kanhopatra a courtesan who rejected the approaches of the Raja to find her salvation at the feet of of Vithoba (Vishnu).

It was also a day, where some dissonance was introduced- Akhila Ramnayana proposed that bhakti has been used in other cultures, giving the example of Hawaii, as a form of protest against imperialist policies of mainland USA. It was acknowledged that female saints challenged the orthodoxies of patriarchy and the hierarchy of caste. The discussion could have been taken deeper into the analysis of the role played by social circumstances in veering women towards taking the spiritual path. JanaBai for instance was a servant in the home of Namdev, Kanhopatra a courtesan and the Marathi saints Mahadaisa and Venabai were young widows.

The evening programme featured Sangeeta Ishvaren, Aditi Mangaldas and Mythili Prakash. Aditi performed her well-known piece Seeking the Beloved, as electrifying in repeat viewing. Mythili gave a premier of Ayika:I the Voice of Akka Mahadevi. A dancer in the peak of her physical power, she made a good stab at the theme, misjudging the treatment by making the piece overly chronological and therefore too long. However Mythili was impressive in her rendering of the seminal passage as she discards her clothes with such naturalism, a symbol of her union with God that was totally convincing.

Day Three had yet another set of surprises. It brought forth live examples of sadhana from two extremes- one steeped in culture and civilization, the second an ascetic. Vyjanthimala Bali of the silver screen, a committed bharatanatyam practitioner whose slim and youthful form belie her eighth decade. Receiving a lifetime award from Karthik Fine Arts, she delighted with a short performance.

Uma a sadhavi (female sadhu) of the Nagababa sect (a Shaivite order who roams naked) in a conversation with film maker Madhureeta Anand gave great insight into the life of an ascetic. Hailing from 'an atheistic family in an atheistic nation' (Sweden) she,left home at eighteen, coming first to the UK and subsequently making her way to India. She spoke of her spiritual search in simple terms of trying to understand herself and her place on the earth. Her path was to be a difficult one, being relegated to sweeping floors and washing dishes for the first five years until a sadhu took her under his wing and began her initiation. That was three decades ago. Now she lives beside the Sarayu Ganga, in a hut where she offers shelter to nomadic sadhus and helps local people, living a life of simplicity and reflection. Her message to the Conference was that love and compassion is going to change the world and women are it's best proponents.

The day also featured Nirupama Vaidyanathan who introduced a saint from Western Christianity, Teresa of Alvia, drawing parallels with Mirabai; a joint paper by Scott Kugle and Pallavi Chakravorty on Mah Laqa Bai, a Muslim courtesan with a spiritual leaning, which was the only Islamic reference in the entire three days apart from a performance by Zakir Husain on the same evening on Aandal. The Plenary session chaired by Ketu Katrak became a little rushed as the time keeping went slightly off kilter in the presence of such high profile artists such as Chitra Viveshwaran and Vyjanthanimala Bali.

The final treat of Mad and Divine was Rama Vaidyanathan's Soulful Abhangs and Thoughtful Vachs (Janabai and Lalleshwari). Janabai is from the Vaishnavite traditions which worships God with a human form whereas Lalleshwari from Kashmir is a Shaivite, who saw God as formless. The intelligence of this artist was apparent from the very title and selection to the costume music and choreography, each element in harmony. Opening with Janabai, a humble servant, Rama dressed in a simple cotton sari, is delightful in her play with rhythm as she covers the stage, chiding her Lord to wake up as morning has broken. The lively and electric quality of the first part contrasts well with the portrayal of Lalleshwari which is poignant in the societal jeers she endures.

In Lalleshwari, Rama departs from the narrative, conveying through abstraction the qualities of 'nirguna' that which has no form. With hair flowing dressed in a simple white long shift, Rama uses slow and extended adavus, pure line to vocalised jattis to portray the majesty of Shiva. As she assumes the final pose with back to the audience and arms extended upwards, we assume that's the end. Just then she makes her way towards the microphone to recite 'What do I care if they praise me or abuse me?'. Draping a piece of cloth on each shoulder which she knots each time she gets a rejection or an endorsement, she finds at the end, each is equal. 

The final message is the most powerful truth with which the dancer sums up the entire Conference. How fitting that this universal truth should be conveyed by a dancer through the medium of movement.