Thursday, 17 July 2014

Eyes that Dance: Performance of Anguliyankam

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June 12, 2014. SPIC MACAY CONVENTION, IIT-Madras, around 9:00 pm

The wonderful performance by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt had just finished. The soul-stirring music of Mohan Veena was still ringing in the ears and creating a peaceful vibration within. A group of people were busy rearranging the stage for the Koodiayattam performance by Shri Margi Madhu and his accompanists. Margi Madhu is a performer, choreographer and teacher, and has also been involved in research projects on various aspects of this art form. A recipient of many awards, he is one of the few performers left of this most elaborate and beautiful dance form. Margi Madhu and his wife, Indu G, who holds a PhD in Koodiyattam, run the Nepathya center for excellence in central Kerala. 

This was my first real exposure to Koodiyattam, also called Kutiyattam, one of the oldest dance forms in the world, originating from Kerala. This 2000+ year old Sanskrit dance-drama was traditionally performed only in special venues called koothambalams in Hindu temples and only by Chakyars, a particular community in Kerala. This ancient and living art form is now recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Characterized by slow and steady movements, Koodiyattam is a very difficult art form to perfect, especially because the artist must express the varied emotions mostly through the use of only his upper body, and particularly through his eyes. Koodiyattam performances are lengthy and elaborate affairs, and traditionally range from 12 to 150 hours spread across several nights.
That night of June 12, Margi Madhu’s performance Anguliyankam (Presentation of the Ring), based on Hanuman’s search for Sita in Lanka was a sheer delight for the senses. It brought to life the Sundara Kanda of the epic Ramayana, especially the part when Hanuman finds Devi Sita in Ashok-vatika at Ravana’s place and gives her the ring of Lord Rama. The performance also thrilled the audience in its portrayal of Hanuman’s appearance in Ravana’s court after he is caught by the soldiers of the demon-king.

Typically the ritualistic performance of a single act such as Anguliyankam from the Sanskrit play Ascharya Choodamani is enacted over a period of 12 days. In 1993, Margi brought it outside temple premises and presented the entire text over two-and-a-half years by way of weekly performances. In June 2012, Nepathya Koodiyattom Centre presented the first full-length continuous performance of Anguliyankam outside temple precincts over a period of 29 evenings. This programme was held in collaboration with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where many students and research scholars in Indology and Sanskrit have been engaged in a deep study of the intricacies of this rare art form under the leadership of the noted Indologist and Koodiyattam aficionado Dr. David Shulman. (Read a fascinating account of that performance by Prof. Shulman here.)  

On the evening of June 12, 2014 at the student center of IIT-M campus, setting the stage took about 30-45 minutes. After this, the audience were given a brief but highly informative session by Dr. Indu, explaining some of the richness and subtleties of Koodiyattam, including the sacred nature of the art form and the musical instruments used in the performance. An outline of the story of Anguliyankam was also provided, in which through hand gestures she demonstrated some of what the audience were going to witness in the actual performance.

Margi Madhu’s performance lasted for a little more than 2 hours. But that in no way diminished the intensity of experience. The expression on his face, especially the movement of his eyes, the beats of the sacred copper drums known as mizhavu, the wonderful harmony between the dancer’s movements and the drummers' beats, all of it was enough to take you to a world where everything else sort of disappears and you just want to focus on the subtleties of the drama being unfolded in front of you. 

Margi Madhu's eyes expressed deep emotion compelling the spectator to take up the challenge of exploring deep into the layers, not only of the particular sequence in the story but also of the reality itself. As you begin to appreciate the slow and patient perfection through which subtle movements and gestures depict the richness of an emotion or a feeling, you begin to feel a connection with the moment itself. It is as if you have become that emotion itself for that fraction of the moment. Imagine what it would feel like to experience a full length performance over several days and weeks!

When I recall my experience of sitting through this marvellous performance, two things strike me the most. 

In today’s time when everything is about a fast pace of life and people (children, youth and adults alike) are being forced to move faster and faster and do more and more, what Koodiyattam represents is an opportunity to appreciate the deep and hidden beauty in all that is ‘slow’, ‘repetitive’, ‘patient’ and hence 'perfect'. 

Secondly, in our present age when it has become so common to speak of and even complain of reduced attention span and extremely limited concentration abilities, watching a performance of this dance form from thousands of years ago in itself is a great lesson in developing and practicing deep concentration skills.

~ Photos by Suhas Mehra

For my previous post on the Mohan Veena performance at SPIC-MACAY convention, click here.

Linking this post with ABC Wednesday, A: A is for Anguliyankam

Monday, 14 July 2014

Work and Spirituality

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A new post in the series - Reminders to self

“It is the spirit or consciousness in which the work is done that matters most; the outer form can vary greatly for different natures” (Letters on Yoga, Vol 2, p. 671).
Sri Aurobindo speaks of this truth in his letters on Sadhana of Works (Karmayoga), emphasizing that all work is ultimately Divine’s work and all work is equal in the eyes of the Divine.

Throughout my ‘work’ life, since completing my Masters’ in 1988 until now, I have always been engaged in some type of academic work – either as a teacher, researcher, or even a small stint as an educational administrator. I remember a conversation with a colleague from many years ago when I was still working full-time as a university professor. I had mentioned to her that I wondered sometimes what it would be like to be a worker on an assembly line in a factory where one is simply and repeatedly and almost mechanically doing what one has been trained to do. Keep putting the screw in a certain mechanical part of an instrument, for example. One keeps doing it and doing it and doing it….and years pass by. I have reflected many times about this statement – why did it come out? Was it just an unconscious utterance? Or was there something more to it?

To read more, go to Social Potpourri

Want more on this topic of Work and Spirituality? Click: So, What Are You Working On?

Click here to read more posts in the series, Reminders to self

Saturday, 12 July 2014

What is a Nation?

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A new post in the series - Satyam Shivam Sundaram
 A series featuring inspiring words from various sources, words that speak of timeless truths, words that remind me of the deeper and hidden truth behind surface events and phenomena, words that shine light when all seems dark, words that are just what I need - for this moment and for all times to come.

I have been re-reading Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and The World, a book I really like and have read a few times already. When reading it this time around it very strongly occurred to me that the different perspectives about love for one's nation and the idea of nation as a Mother as portrayed through the characters of Sandeep and Nikhil reflect quite well the dilemma Tagore might have had in his mind at one point of time about these things. If I remember correctly in his essays on Nationalism (which I read many years ago), he explored these ideas in a much more profound way. Maybe I should revisit those essays again after finishing this novel, to be more sure.

But this post is not about Tagore or about this novel. Perhaps there may be a post on that sometime in the future. For now, I wish to speak of something related to this very title of "The Home and the World", some thoughts which were actually inspired by a few recent reflections and observations occupying my mind before I started reading Tagore's work.

In today's age it has almost become fashionable among some sections of the educated, socially upward-mobile elite, especially in India, to think and speak of oneself as a "world" citizen. It has also become fashionable among these people to look a bit skeptically, even cynically at the idea of nationalism or love for one's nation. Such an attitude is considered parochial, narrow, chauvinistic and even conservative. Some of these 'global' citizens even go to the extent of using the word "zealot" in all its negative connotation to speak of those who consider themselves 'nationalists'.

Sometime ago I found myself thinking about why is it so. I could think of several reasons, based on my observations, experiences and interactions. But none of that made much good sense to me or sounded fully correct. Maybe because the social science training in me kept me occupied with exploring the why of people's attitudes, reactions, opinions, biases. None of that really helps address any serious question, because none of that really matters. People's opinions are...well, mere opinions. Subject to change. All the time. Any time.

I came to the realization that I wasn't really focusing on the key idea. The idea of nation. What is a nation? And what does it mean to love one's nation?

Until I came across something in my email. A reminder from one of my teachers. He shared the following excerpt from Sri Aurobindo in another context and my mind was at rest after reading this.
What is a nation? We have studied in the schools of the West and learned to ape the thoughts and language of the West forgetting our own deeper ideas and truer speech, and to the West the nation is the country, so much land containing so many millions of men who speak one speech and live one political life owing allegiance to a single governing power of its own choosing. When the European wishes to feel a living emotion for his country, he personifies the land he lives in, tries to feel that a heart beats in the brute earth and worships a vague abstraction of his own intellect. The Indian idea of nationality ought to be truer and deeper. The philosophy of our forefathers looked through the gross body of things and discovered a subtle body within, looked through that and found yet another more deeply hidden, and within the third body discovered the Source of life and form, seated for ever, unchanging and imperishable.What is true of the individual object, is true also of the general and universal. What is true of the man, is true also of the nation. The country, the land is only the outward body of the nation, its annamaya kosh, or gross physical body; the mass of people, the life of millions who occupy and vivify the body of the nation with their presence, is the pranamaya kosh, the life-body of the nation. These two are the gross body, the physical manifestation of the Mother. Within the gross body is a subtler body, the thoughts, the literature, the philosophy, the mental and emotional activities, the sum of hopes, pleasures, aspirations, fulfilments, the civilisation and culture, which make up the sukshma sharir of the nation. This is as much a part of the Mother’s life as the outward existence which is visible to the physical eyes. This subtle life of the nation again springs from a deeper existence in the causal body of the nation, the peculiar temperament which it has developed out of its ages of experience and which makes it distinct from others. These three are the bodies of the Mother, but within them all is the Source of her life, immortal and unchanging, of which every nation is merely one manifestation, the universal Narayan, One in the Many of whom we are all the children. When, therefore, we speak of a nation, we mean the separate life of the millions who people the country, but we mean also a separate culture and civilisation, a peculiar national temperament which has become too deeply rooted to be altered and in all these we discover a manifestation of God in national life which is living, sacred and adorable. It is this which we speak of as the Mother. The millions are born and die; we who are here today, will not be here tomorrow, but the Mother has been living for thousands of years and will live for yet more thousands when we have passed away.
~ CWSA, Volume 7,  pp. 1115-1116
(emphasis added)

I have read the above passage several times now. I had read it several times before too. And I am sure I will read it many more times in the future too. But my sincere hope is that the deeper truth of these words somehow gets imbibed in me so that any time I find myself speaking of or writing about my country, my India, it is in the light of this truth that my words find their meaning.

I hope, zealously hope that I will recall the essence of this Indian truth of a nation whenever I think of and contemplate on Mother India's past, present and future. That to me would be the beginning of really loving my nation.

And that, hopefully, could then help me really understand why this idea of a nation, this idea of loving one's nation is not at all in any contradiction with being concerned about the larger world beyond the nation. It is not enough to use the fashionable terminology of 'world citizen', 'global outlook',  etc. It is highly necessary, almost imperative that we first realize the psychological and deeper truth about the 'nation' itself. After all, if we don't know our home, how will we know the world.

~ Photo by Suhas Mehra

To read the previous post in the series, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, click here.
To read all the posts in the series, click here.

Linking this post with ABCWednesday, Z: Z is for Zeal.

Friday, 11 July 2014

From Those Other Worlds

Cushions. Check.

Colour. Check.

Wall-art. Check.

Pizzazz. Check.

Midnight. Even the most inviting divan couldn’t do it. Her monkey-mind kept running over many details. Her tired body, aching knees, sore back….all were craving for rest. But she was too restless.

And then the music began…

Three days later, their dream-home was almost all set. Back from his business trip he was happily surprised.

"It does feel like home, doesn't it?"

"Absolutely! But did you sleep at all?"

"Every midnight the pianist next-door played my favourite lullaby. That made me sleep like a baby."

"But nobody lives in that house, dear!"


Image 1: mine, Image 2: google, altered

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Mantra of Protection

The other day when searching for something in Volume 5 of Collected Works of the Mother, the following words caught my attention:
There is the purely mechanical, material prayer, with words which have been learnt and are mechanically repeated. That does not signify anything much. And that has usually only one single result, that of quietening the person who prays, for if a prayer is repeated several times, the words end up making you calm. (p. 139)

Bougainvillea, orange
Spiritual significance: Protection of the Gods: Luminous and clear-visioned 

As I kept reflecting on these words about the value of “mechanical” repetitive prayer in calming one’s nerves, I was reminded of that particular 2.5-hour-long drive home from work one late December evening in 2005.

This was when I lived in Ohio. It was snowing very heavily, a blizzard was in full swing. The roads were extremely slippery and dangerous. It was dark, very dark for 6:30 pm, and the usual drive of 35-40 minutes took me more than 2.5 hours that evening. I was driving very slowly, very cautiously, I was actually quite afraid. At least 3-4 times the car skidded badly, it was becoming very difficult to control the car on such occasions, and a couple of times I was really close to hitting the metal guardrail.

I had never driven in such heavy snowstorm conditions before that evening. And all throughout the drive I was repeating – almost mechanically – the two lines I had heard from my parents and grandmother repeatedly while growing up. These lines were actually the mantra given to my grandmother by her guru. This guru of hers was a simple lady, a neighbour, a friend, who in the ascent of her consciousness had attained some of the highest spiritual realizations but in her outer life continued to live simply as an ordinary almost-illiterate housewife. She was known to her friends-neighbours-disciples, including my grandmother, simply as Sajjan Ji, the Good One.

While ordinarily, a mantra given by a guru as an initiation is not to be shared with or revealed to anyone, this was not a mantra in that sense. This was more of a Mantra of Protection, as I understand. My dadiji had passed on this mantra of protection to all her children and grandchildren. Though I don’t think all grandchildren in the family really caught on to this family tradition but some of us did.

I have, on many occasions, just out of habit, started repeating this mantra anytime I feel a certain fear grip over me, or anytime I feel a certain anxiety. These words just come naturally on my lips, or even if I don’t hear myself repeating them, they are being repeated silently within. These words give me strength, they calm me down. On that wintry evening of the severe snowstorm, I feel it was the force behind these words that kept me going slowly, cautiously and made me reach home safely. The calmness that the repetitive chanting of this mantra within brought upon my nerves was perhaps what gave me the courage to face those hazardous conditions.

My parents' complete faith in this mantra of protection perhaps is a key reason how I too started seeing it in that light. Even after my mother took formal “diksha” and “naam” (initiation) from another guru, this mantra is the one that would most naturally, almost mechanically, come to her lips anytime she felt any anxiety. It would make her calm and give her the strength to go on with whatever needed to be done.

And to this day, my father repeats this mantra every time he feels even a tiny bit of fear or anxiety gripping him. I have seen him silently chanting this mantra even before he puts the key in the ignition of his car. He surrenders his safety and that of others traveling with him to the power of this mantra, and the Divine invoked through its force and power.

I had written this post a few weeks ago, but was unsure as to how to 'close' this. That's why it remained unfinished. Till today.

Today I found myself reminding my father (and reminding him strongly like a tough daughter) of the force and power of this mantra, something he used to speak of when I was growing up. Today I was reminded that no matter how strong we feel our faith is, there are moments in life when we need to be reminded of strengthening it further. Today I found myself praying sincerely that the force of this mantra of protection be with my father. Today I discovered that there comes a time in life when a child really does become the father of man. Or mother.

~ Photo by Suhas Mehra

Monday, 7 July 2014

"Flower in the Crannied Wall"

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Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
~ Lord Alfred Tennyson (1863)

A re-reading of Sri Aurobindo's play The Harmony of Virtue (1892) a few weeks ago reminded me of this beautiful poem by Tennyson. Keshav in the play makes a reference to this poem when he says - "Yes, Tennyson was right, tho' like most poets, he knew not what he said, when he wrote those lines on the flower in the crannies: if we know what the flower is, we know also what God is and what man."

Now if you have read Sri Aurobindo even a little bit, you know that you have to read very slow, very very slow. So that you can absorb and savour. So that you can allow the words to sink in. So that you can allow the force behind the words to do its work deep within you. So that you can let the force behind the thought take you wherever it wants to take you.

And that's how it was for me. I stopped for a little bit after reading this sentence - "like most poets, he [Tennyson] knew not what he said." And I wrote a few days later:
Isn't that true for me too? Perhaps true for most of us? We often find ourselves saying things or doing things without knowing, like really knowing, why we say or do them. Or without even knowing exactly what is it that we are saying or doing. We are compelled by a force beyond us (generally something in our subconscient) that moves us, that makes us choose an action, that leads us to a certain path or circumstance in our life. We don't understand any of the deeper factors guiding our lives, and yet the ego in us says that we have made a choice. We pretend that we are conscious agents and shapers of our lives, and yet we don't even understand a flower growing in the cranny. 
Today after many weeks, I find myself coming back to this poem and also to what I wrote inspired by the poem, especially the way Sri Aurobindo refers to the poem in his play. And I am reminded of a post from last last year - That Deep Pink Flower on the Roadside in which I wrote:
On that particular day, late afternoon while walking home I saw this amazing little beautiful deep pink flower – perhaps some wildflower or some weed, whose name I didn’t/don’t know— gracefully revealing its head from within a thick heap of cement, pieces of brick, and other street garbage thrown together on a street corner. It is hard to imagine that anything so delicate can grow out of such dark and hard material, yet the flower was standing erect on its little tender stem. The resilience with which this flower was blooming in such physical surroundings made me think of the power of opening and receptivity. Within this hard shell created by the cement, clay and pieces of brick there perhaps was some little spot which opened itself to the Light and Force of Mother Nature and voila, life was born! Within that closed, tightly bound construction garbage, there was something in a little spot which was able to receive the Light and Force, and a flower was born. 
How can we open ourselves more and more to the Light and Grace and Force and Calmness? How do we develop within us a greater receptivity to receive this Light, Grace, Force and Calmness? 
Today I find that one of the things that often prevents us from opening ourselves fully to the Light, Grace, Force and Calmness is this pretense that we know, that we understand. When in reality we don't know anything. We don't understand anything.

We are mere playthings in the hands of the larger Nature that throws us in certain life-situations and circumstances. And we make do with whatever choices we think we have. But are those choices that we make part of our destiny or are they a result of our free will? This debate can be endless. But perhaps the truth is that there is a truth beyond the two, beyond the debate between the two. A truth that transcends the two and yet includes them.

Today I am reminded once again of that line from from Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri:

Fate is Truth working out in Ignorance.

I find this to be so insightful, so true. Especially today. But this is not all. From the same canto, another of my favourite verses comes to mind today:

This world was not built with random bricks of Chance,
A blind god is not destiny's architect;
A conscious power has drawn the plan of life,
There is a meaning in each curve and line.
(Book VI, Canto II)

But how often do we remember this? How often do I remember to recall this? I admit I often forget this truth and get worked up over instances, circumstances, situations, events in my life and lives of those I care about and love. I forget that Fate is Truth working out in Ignorance. I forget that I don't know anything. I don't know what makes the flower bloom in the crannied wall. I don't 'understand' the flower, root and all, and all in all. How can I know man and God? How can I know the why of things that I am experiencing? 


Linking with Write Tribe prompt: Pebble in the Shoe. The biggest pebble in my shoe is: me, myself and mine. My ignorance, my pretense, my attachments, my forgetfulness, my arrogance, my ego, me. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014


A new post in the series - Light and Sound
When a picture searches for its music, or a piece of music finds its right picture...the result is a magical experience of Light and Sound.

Yellow, her favourite colour, 
Like the golden-light of her widest smile.
Hiding just enough of that slightly-chipped tooth, 
Exposed in a full-hearted-laugh, in a little while. 

A white-and-sea-green dress, her favourite pearls, 
A head-scarf covering where silvery-grey once shone
They celebrated with her, her birth and life, 
This day, last year, striving that pain isn’t shown.

Eyes full of unspoken thoughts, he sat quietly, 
Aloof, alone, in the middle of it all. 
Burdened by the pain-to-come his heart let out
A sigh that broke down the teary-eyed wall.

Krishna! The Yellow-robed One
In your flute I’ll find my lost Sun.

~ Photo by Suhas Mehra

This is my 100th post for the calendar year 2014. And I thank whosoever planned it to be this way. There is no way I could have planned this special number for this special 100-word-post triggered by a very special memory and experience.
Krishna, You Alone Are!

For previous post in this series, click here.
For all posts in this series, click here.

Linking this post with ABCWednesday: Y, Y is for Yellow

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Beads that Matter

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A new post in the series - Reminders to self

I discovered a beautiful article yesterday on my daily digest from 

Something about the piece stayed with me for a long time, including the title itself, Beauty and The Dumpster. I share below the last two paragraphs from the article, the essence of the piece in my opinion. Or at least the essence that spoke to me. So very directly. So very quietly and strongly.
My ancestors also were first-generation immigrants, who arrived in this country with only what they could carry. The little they came to own was theirs for a lifetime. Anything that broke was repaired; chairs and sofas re-covered, tables refinished. Objects did not come and go but remained stable, adding to the stability of the world. What I have of theirs contributes to the weight of my being.
It is common these days to lament how materialistic we have become, but I do not believe this is accurate. It seems to me that we have not yet begun to value matter. Much that is made today is not intended to last and cannot be repaired. Mana is unable to fill our possessions. Lacking substance, they cannot become proper vessels for spirit. We may ask where objects come from, but they no longer have stories to tell. They too have lost their roots. How, then, are we to leave tangible mementoes of ourselves when we go? What will be left to caress?
As I kept mulling over what I had read in this piece, particularly the last paragraph, I was reminded of those days last year when my sisters and I were trying to sort through some of the possessions of our mother after her departure from this world. I found myself looking carefully, really seeing and feeling through some of my mother's personal objects that have made their way into my home.

Like her sphatik mala that she used for her japa practice, which now adorns the frame housing an old B&W picture of her and my father taken a day after their wedding. The picture rests comfortably on a cupboard which serves as my dressing table, and every time I gaze at the sphatik mala I hope that something of the magical healing power of those beads will rub over me. Every time I wrap that mala over my wrist I hope and pray that something of the energy and force added to those beads by my mother's constant japa practice over many years will rub on to me.

It seems to me that we have not yet begun to value matter. Much that is made today is not intended to last and cannot be repaired. Mana is unable to fill our possessions. Lacking substance, they cannot become proper vessels for spirit. 
This reminder was needed. This reiteration is needed. For me. For all, I suppose.

Meditating on this thought also reminded me of two posts I had written during the time I was engrossed fully with the task of organizing and sorting my mother's personal possessions.

In "The Stuff of Our Lives" I wrote:
And ultimately at some point in time, that definitive moment comes when all our possessions, all the objects, all the stuff we so meticulously collected over our lives stays here in this physical realm, as our last journey out of this realm commences. What happens to all that stuff – the stuff of our temporary lives? Do we ever wonder about this all the while we are busy collecting, possessing, accumulating? Do we ever imagine, even for a split second, how will our loved ones handle all that stuff we so carefully kept in our closets, cupboards, and drawers?
In "Material Life" I reminded myself of the eternal advice from the Mother:
The Divine is in things also and that is why they must be treated with care.
Today I remind myself again of this reminder. Today all I can write is this:
If only we can learn how to feel and value the spirit in the matter. If only we can learn how to transform our material possessions as vessels for the spirit.

To read the full article "Beauty and the Dumpster" by Meredit Sabini, click here.
To read my post "The Stuff of Our Lives", click here.
To read my post "Material Life", click here
To read all the posts in the series "Reminders to self", click here.
Photo: mine