FOOD FOR THE MIND AND EYES

 

Shovana Narayan’s curating of a two-day event, mounted at SNA’s Meghdoot auditorium, where a theme perceived in different ways by eminent speakers also acted as the topic round which a group Kathak programme was structured by Asavari, proved to be particularly interesting – and quite a change from the usual fare. The first evening’s topic ‘Ramatwa’ or ‘Ramness’ ,if one wants an English translation, pertaining to an abstraction of how one perceives the qualities epitomising this epic hero, had the cynic wondering at the relevance of Dharma,‘Rama Rajya’ of the ‘Maryada Purush’ in this age of atrocities, where the moral fabric is so weak. Perhaps this is more the age for a crafty Krishna, who while fighting for Dharma, would accomplish this through even unconventional means – something beyond the range of the straight- laced Rama. With so many Sitas of the day still having to face their ‘agni-pariksha’ with no Ram or even Hanuman to come to their rescue, it was inevitable that the discussion would centre around Rama’s treatment of Sita and his general attitude towards woman. Ultimately, a most penetrating interpretation of the day about ‘ Ramatwa’ came from Swami Srivatsa Goswami, Chairman of Sri Chaitanya Prem Samsthan, centred in Brindavan, the heart of Krishna bhumi! Maintaining that even Rama did not know what he was, he said that the only woman he addressed as Beloved in Tulsi Ramayan, whose pre-tasted berries, he was willing to consume with joy was Shabari – not even Sita who was never addressed by the term of endearment he used for Shabari. That Shabari belonged to a low caste, was old and blind made no difference to Ram – and this one act for Goswami signified the essence of Ramatwa.

Ashok Vajpeyi poet and art writer wondered how to address the qualities of the essential Rama amidst so many Ramayana versions - for this whole character created through Kavya (of Valmiki followed by innumerable others in Sanskrit and later all regional languages) and represented through innumerable other art forms, with perceptions reconciling myth with history. Between divinising what perhaps was a pure non- sectarian vision in Valmiki, and imagining his avatar in real life, we had come to a state to-day of constantly destroying the ideals we proclaim to cherish. Ramatva will continue to live in India’s aesthetic consciousness through Kavya, song, dance, painting and other types of art like puppetry etc. No real-life Ram Rajya is possible. Mehru Jafer, a Lucknow based journalist who has taught Islam in the Vienna University and American Webster University denounced this concept of ‘Ramatwa’, which intimidated like Hindutwa and made persons of other religious denominations feel like strangers in a country they considered a part of themselves. Just Ramaon the other hand would be a concept she could come to terms with, and so also for many like her. Mehru, speaking from the heart showed how words with suffixes (‘tva’ in this case), acquire a connotation which can intimidate a section of the people. The moderator made it plain that barring the abstraction of an idea and of bringing people with different perceptions together, there were no boundaries imposed by religiosity in mind when the seminar was planned.

The dance part of the evening “Kab Aoge Ram” epitomised some of the best of Shovana’s creativity in Kathak. To chaupais beautifully sung in the traditional style by the now rejuvenated Jwala Prasad , dancers from Asavari showed snippets of Bharata receiving with veneration the ‘paduka’ of Ram and other glimpses. The production had its climax in the finale where Shovana danced to the contemporary poem of Kamala Singuiji. In a blended Hindi dialect and dance, Ram is denounced for his lack of trust in Sita. “ I cannot ever forgive you Rama.Did you take the Agni-pariksha when you for days on end stayed at the palace with so many damsels around? Why then for Sita? But Sita in her own way had her revenge, for by disappearing into the bowels of the earth embraced by her mother, she sentenced you to exile in all the years left to you. By her deed of not going back to you Sita upheld her own and woman’s dignity and pride. May be today if woman’s voice is heard like that of man’s you will be forgiven.” The passion and involvement of Shovana and the music of Jwala which keeps ringing in the ears along with the cymbal playing in khandajati made for a memorable evening.

The topic for the second evening “The Veil” with Manjari Sinha as moderator had in speaker Pavan Varma an eloquent start, with quotes from Ghalib, Shankara and others in Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi, with the veil perceived as the curtain of ignorance and maya, which keeps the jivatma chained to a cycle of births and deaths, preventing one from seeing who the real person is. Removing that veil was the ultimate act of liberation every discerning human being aspires for. Then you see the non- duality (I am and am the karta (Tat twam asi) and Chidananda roopam. For Dr.Arshiya Sethi, cultural activist heading Kri Foundation, veil was the symbol of bondage, keeping womanhood bound. It is the symbol of a patriarchal society where woman’s voice has been smothered. Even in Kathak the ghungat with all its ‘nazaquat’ used in different ways to titillate male gaze, was a politicising of ghungat space. Bharat Mata was visualised happily with no ghungat. Women fought side by side with men-- “Khub ladi mardani”, says Subhadra Kumar Chauhan. In Kathakali, the curtain, let us not forget, is removed and then the real dance begins.

Saeeda spoke of the battle of wills between man and woman in Ismat Chugtai’s poem ‘Ghungat’. She referred to the 53rd verse in the 33rd Sura of the Quran, which refers to the guests at his wedding refusing to leave even well after, when he was wanting to join his bride. At last was the descent of the Hijab which was a curtain between him and the guests imposing on the hospitality, so that he could be alone with his bride. Radiance so strong that eyes after a moment turn away is how Ghalib and Sufi poets describe Hijab, where blinding beauty has its own protection. The speaker personally was not in favour of the Hijab and veil prescribed by religious heads.

Ravindra Misra, journalist and critic referred to the fact of woman always visualised through the ghungat in Kathak where the ‘gat’ and the different ways of using the veil were very essential parts of the subtlety of the dance. ‘Lajja’ or shyness was always in the Indian perception the most becoming trait in a woman.

Shovana’s Kathak presentation ‘Ghungat’ based on the Ismat Chugtai story was essentially a ‘battle of wills’ between a man and his newly wedded bride. Always conditioned to believe that he would lift up the ghungat and expose her face on the wedding night, the bride refuses to obey the newly wedded husband who orders her to remove her ghungat. Angered at her refusal, he walks away from her for years. When he reappears one day, the woman is overjoyed – though the same order meets with the same response from her - with his leaving her again. Finally when she picks up the strength to go to him herself without the veil, he is no more. Ego not giving in, in both the cases destroys two lives needlessly. Shovana’s interpretation, again with the music of Jwala, had an emotive throb which made for powerful art.

LEELA VENKATARAMAN

 
 

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