Tuesday, 16 October 2012

O Lord White as Jasmine [Signature line from poetry of 12th century poet Mahadeviyakka]

The previous day had been a challenging one, especially the morning half of it.  My inner disturbance was predictably reflected in what went on around me and trying to grapple with myself took better part of the day. I did however, reclaim the day. I went, as planned, to see a show at Lado Sarai and on the way did some chores too, which was heartening.  

I walked into Gallery Threshold and some bells, a rather persistent tinkling, announced my arrival. Tunty came out of her office and walked me through the ongoing exhibition by the artist V Ramesh. The first tier consisted of paintings that referenced the oneness of being, wherein there were some rather realistic, painterly renditions of fruit – jackfruit or kathal, pomegranate and bananas with a reference to the idea that their form was reflective of the human body. In ‘This is it’, a large [60 x 80”] oil on canvas, three stalks laden with bananas were hyper-realistically drawn, magnifying each  mark and detail of form and colour. On the extreme right the fruit was ripe, ready to be eaten. On the central stalk, it was peeled as if about to be eaten and on the far right, the stalk was devoid of fruit, implying that all the bananas had been devoured, picked or fallen off the branch. Part of a human skeleton, from pelvis up to the ribs, was drawn over this stalk. The imagery seemed like a metaphor for life, wherein I inferred that the life of a banana was not really that different from the journey of life as a human being. Born, ripening, sharing, giving of oneself and then upon death, only our bare bones remain, waiting to be interred or buried.  

The lower floor of the gallery, had massive, floor to ceiling canvasses that obsessively dealt with poems of the fourteenth century Kashmiri saint Lal Ded, to the ‘vacanas’ of Akka Mahadevi, a twelfth century [Shiva] Bhakti saint-poet of south India. These canvasses were more abstract in nature and focussed on a single poem by each of the poets. Somehow, Tunty expected a response from me that evoked her own passion for these works. A long discussion ensued, compelling me to focus upon the works and the one painting that stayed with me through the rest of the day was ‘Pining for an Absent Lover’ based on Akka Mahadevi’s longing for her ‘Lord, white as Jasmine’, or ‘Mallikarjuna’, as the legendary Shiva is also referred to. A large canvas, [96x72”] in dark hues of brown and black, with just a hint of white and some flower buds, was covered with these words in multiple layers:
“Like a silkworm weaving                 
  her house with love
  from her marrow,
                                  and dying
 in her body’s threads
 winding tight, round,
 and round
                                        I burn
desiring what the heart desires
Cut through, O Lord,
my heart’s greed,
and show me
your way out,
O Lord white as jasmine.”

 Most of the verse was barely visible; the tone of brown it was written with was overshadowed by strokes, textures and marks in black, grey and browns. The only line that was somewhat clearly visible was “O Lord white as jasmine.” [Akka Mahadevi used this as her ‘signature’ or ‘ankita’ in all her poems]. This appeared in fragments, visible intermittently, all over the large, dull and dark expanse, written in white.  On the right hand, bottom quarter of the canvas, in a burst of white, which seemed symbolic of light, the artist had painted a woman, sitting in a meditative posture, clearly in a trance, her long tresses covering her naked body. This light was surrounded by thorn-like lines and a great deal of dark colour. The rest of the canvas was cloudy, dark; with restless marks overlaying the text with glimpses of red or yellow. And then flowers were strewn across the surface as if showering the divine, but the blooms appeared only occasionally. These were painted in the same realistic style as the bananas and pomegranates I had seen earlier. This painting was odd. I did not feel reassured, or sublime. I could not respond without the intellectual process of looking, analyzing and mentally engaging with the work to find some empathy in its sense of struggle - of dealing with darkness and then lightening of this sombre mood – transcending it. The painting itself may not have conveyed much, but I came away intrigued by the idea of an artist working so obsessively on a few lines of a single verse.  When I got home, later that night, I searched my library, for ‘Speaking of Siva’[i], and read through some fifty verses by Mahadeviyakka[ii].

 The poems were evocative of her struggle with her body, being a woman and how social conditioning confined her in her quest for ecstasy. She is said to have roamed, in a gesture of defiance, with only her long tresses as cover for her naked body, seeking the love of the Lord and kindred spirits. I had bought the book five years ago in October 2007, after attending a poetry workshop organized by Caferati in New Delhi. Professor Shivaprakash, who conducted the workshop, had informed us that ‘vacana’ was possibly the earliest known form of free verse where the poet went directly to the heart of experience, to create new words for self expression. The idea had interested me then but I did not relate as much to the obsession with Siva and this has not changed. However, re-looking at the ‘vacanas’ did lead to some reflection.

The saint poets pursued their spiritual ideals by obsessively invoking ‘lord Shiva’ through their verse. Bhakti or intense love for God is an important aspect of Hinduism of the post-Vedic period, possibly beginning with the Bhagavad Gita. I was born into the Hindu tradition of idol worship and my maternal grandmother was a devout Krishna Bhakt[iii].  One would often find her talking to her two- feet tall, murti[iv] of Krishna, bathing and dressing him and singing bhajans[v] with a great deal of shraddha[vi]. I recollect one evening some thirty-five years ago, my grandfather and I had stood outside her mandir[vii] in their summer home in Shimla, listening to her sing and when she saw her husband standing there she blushed a beetroot red, hiding her face in the dupatta that was usually draped over the top and back of her head.  I could never understand this bashfulness, especially after having given birth to four of his children and neither could I relate to this devotion to a stone statue. I recollect my own mother, following the same ritual of doing aarti[viii]; singing ‘Aum jai jagdish hare’[ix] twice a day, sometimes in such a hurried way, it sounded nothing like a devout prayer.

The bhakti tradition in India encourages worship of deities in the form of murtis or sculptures, but I personally do not conform to this even as I do find myself often folding my hands in front of statues if I do visit a temple. I have a couple of them in my meditation room. They were gifts and I did not really know what else to do with them, so they lie there and I clean and use them for the traditional puja at Diwali. It’s complicated. Inherited ideas regarding faith make it complex and I find myself constantly re-defining its parameters for myself.

In that last two years a statue, being constructed by some locals in Chauma Village in the Palam Vihar region, grew to its full height of 64 feet and a larger than life Shiva, snake coiled around his neck, a Trishul[x] reaching for the skies and accessories traditionally associated with Shiva stood before my eyes. It does not face me but with its back to the East, faces West, or possibly even South west which means that I see the right side of the Shiva statue’s profile. As I draw up the blinds each morning, this is pretty much the first thing I see and often during the day, as I look into the expanse beyond it, in a moment of contemplation, my eyes rest on this bronzed cement statue. Prior to this, when I lived in Friends Colony, there had also been a small Shiva temple, constructed by Dhirendra Brahmachari, a close associate of Indira Gandhi, just two doors down. And even though I was not a devout Hindu, I took to visiting this temple each day on my way home from an evening walk. It may have something to do with the fact that my mother would regularly visit a Shiva temple and chadao jal[xi] on the linga[xii] that somehow it got passed on, like traditions do, or maybe it was the proximity of the temple and the need for a crutch that led me to doing the same for a while.

 The idea of Shiva does intrigue and looking at this visage each day has generated more than just causal curiosity. There are many stories surrounding this unusual being, typified as the God of destruction. Part of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, his place in the pantheon has had a chequered history where his innocent but angry nature has earned him much affection as also alienation. For me it is the idea of a God imbued with such human traits that endears. He loved with a passion and carried mementoes of his lost loves around his neck as a mundmala[xiii]. He was an ascetic with a volatile temper but found compassion when he finally gave into Parvati’s[xiv] pursuit of him and married her. He was brusque and not very finessed, but even so he is a prominent Hindu deity today.
After reading the ‘vacanas’, I went to sleep thinking about what I had read. The next morning I was sitting quietly in the kitchen waiting for some water to boil. There was no-one in the apartment, except for me. The silence of this part of the morning, of quietude carried over from a night of restful sleep and the early morning calm, is something I cherish. This morning, I tuned into the drone of the washing machine and microwave oven whirring simultaneously and wondered about objects of worship. I thought: if we can pray to a stone statue and find God or a connection with God through this, why could not these sounds I was hearing at this point, be as evocative of the same God?
Why is it only in birdsong and a river gushing down the stream that we think of as connecting us with God? Why is it that machines, which have been invented by men, who are also part of the same spirit, therefore also evocative of God, not worshipped? And then I remembered Vishvakarma the 'divine' engineer of the universe who is worshipped each year, the day after Diwali, when it is customary for all factory workers and craftsmen to worship their tools in his name. But is it the same thing I wonder.

I rather like the idea of worshipping everything from men, women, trees, rivers and birds to tools of one’s trade, but somehow feel that most of this is done as part of a ritual rather than any realized veneration.  In essence we need to find ways to find our connection with God or spirit through everything we do each day. In ancient India, everything was designated an art because it was not what the activity was but how it was done. It was the level of devotion which imbued everything- from cooking, kissing or weaving that made it an art. I guess the key to this would be to find the silence within, however we do, and then keep that as we go through the day, living with awareness of how everything is really just an extension of one’s own being and it really does not matter which path we walk. What matters is that we stay connected and feel empowered by this, writing poetry, walking naked in the forests or painting words on a canvas. 

What matters is not what we do, but how we experience life through it, to arrive at the ideal where everything, every experience is accepted with utmost faith.  This ultimate human endeavour is easier said than done, where as Akka Mahadevi wrote: 

“If sparks fly
  I shall think my thirst and hunger quelled
  If the skies tear down
  I shall think them pouring for my bath.
If a hillside slide on me
I shall think it flower for my hair.
O lord white as jasmine,
if my head falls from my shoulders
I shall think it your offering.”[xv]

[i] Penguin Classics ,translated by A.K Ramanujan
[ii] Akka Mahadevi [another way of addressing this saint poet]
[iii] devotee
[iv] statue
[v] Hymns/songs of devotion to God
[vi] devotion
[vii] temple
[viii] A prayer that is sung during an offering of light to the deity - a plate with lighted candles[diyas] is circled before the statue of the deity
[ix] Hail the lord of all creation/God
[x] Trident
[xi] Pouring milk mixed with water
[xii] Shivling/ lingam – representation of the HIndu deity Shiva used for worship in temples. The lingam has been interpreted as a symbol of male creative energy or the phallus and is represented with the yoni, a symbol of thegoddess r Shakti, female emergy. The union of lingam and yoni represents the indivisible " two-in-oneness of male and female, from whinc all life originates"
[xiii] Necklace of skulls
[xiv] Shiva’s consort
[xv]  Verse 65, translated from Kannada by A. K Ramanujan. Penguin classics pg 102


  1. Gopika,

    Hazaar salaam! What a piece of work, both a painting in words and a meditation, both strung together, like beads on a neck sitting on shoulders that have lost their consciousness of society around. Nakedness, as in Akka or Lal Ded, is "absence" of the material, although our eyes, fashioned to see the body, sees the nakedness of the body only.

    The Bhakti tradition stands diametrically opposite to the gyaana tradition. One is of love and one of enquiry. Both lead to the same end, Knowledge of Self.

    I am sending this post to my partner for reasons I cannot disclose now and to her friend, Bharat Nattayam dancer, Seema Agarwal for inspiration. Art as meditation, is a profound way of convergence of yin and yung, the Shiva and the Shakti forces, the opposites, within us. This is what I think. Wish I was there too at the exhibition. I am not a collector of art, but I love all art that takes me beyond!

    More power to your pen and your travel on The Path,

  2. Thank you Julia for the reminder of the paradox, where Bhakti and Gyaana, though seemingly opposite, lead to the same knowing. Threshold did take out a book on V. Ramesh's work. If you are interested you could get a copy from the gallery in Lado Sarai.

    Many thanks for reading. I would love to know your friends' response. Thank you for sharing. I am delighted you enjoyed it. I was bit concerned about the length, but try as I did, I could not make it shorter. :-)

  3. To each their own way of acknowledging the connection to a higher power. Whether the connection comes through being in nature and marveling at what the Universe has created, or if it comes through the appreciation of the results of man's creativity. Perhaps the impact of hearing the birdsong, or watching the sun set is greater because we seldom stop to pay attention, consumed as we are by the whirr of the machines around us. Thich Nhat Hanh has this wonderful line in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness - "While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes.” For me - it is the ability to be mindful that connects to the Universe -

  4. It's true Deepika, each has their own way of connecting and acknowedging God and faith has many dimensions in this world. yesterday I met someone whose front tooth broke during Namaz and he's not going to get it capped because he believes it was a gift from God -a blessing. Yes, I agree, it is possibly because we seldom stop to pay attention to nature consumed as we are by the whirr of machines around us that we make a better connect with the universe/higher power through birdsong or watching the sun set. I too enjoy reading Thich Nhat Hahn and agree that being mindful is an important facet of connecting to our deeper selves, but connecting to the deeper dimensions of the universe, happens when we meditate. Swami Paramahansa Yogananda says that when the yogi switches off the life-current from the nerves[in meditation], his mind is disconnected from the senses, and in thus withdrawing life from the body he/she unites with the energy we call God. Thanks for reading and your comment.

  5. I'm intrigued by the painting on the poem "O Lord white as jasmine". Your detailed description along with the small picture of the painting make me curious to see the real work with my own eyes. One problem I have with many a modern Indian painting is the often disturbingly obvious symbolism that the painter has chosen to put into it. But I suspect this painting by V. Ramesh to be much more interesting, leaving space to experience it also as a thoroughly worked material object, rich in nuances of colour and texture. It invites us to enter the realm of painting as a form of art.

  6. Kariosremembered, you could get in touch with Gallery Threshold which hosted the show and perhaps there could be a way to see the original painting. Thank you for reading and writing in. It is heartening to read that my description of the work and the poem has created scope for you to want to explore this further.

  7. Dear Gopika,

    Thank you for that relaxed meditation.
    I love the silk worm poem and I change the translation slightly. The actual transformation of worm to moth is incredible.

    "Like a silkworm weaving
    her house
    from her body of love

    and dying in her body's threads
    winding tight, round
    and round,
    I burn
    desiring what the heart desires.

    Cut through, O lord,
    my heart's greed,
    and show me
    your way out,

    O lord white as jasmine."

    I was sitting in my wood listening to the three little waterfalls and almost saw Akka playing among the trees.

    "You are the forest

    you are all the great trees
    in the forest

    you are bird and beast
    playing in and out
    of all the trees

    O Akka white as jasmine
    filling and filled by all

    why don't you
    show me your face?"

    "Look here, dear fellow:
    I wear these men's cloths
    only for you.

    Sometimes I am a man,
    sometimes a woman.

    O lord of the meeting rivers...."

    Basavanna 703

    1. Thank you JohnPendrey for these words and thoughts. The Translation that I have used is one done by A.K.Ramanujan [1973 - Penguin classics] But I do like your version. The idea of the marrow translating into a body of love, is both romantic and something I find easier to relate to than the marrow. And I envy you the forest where you could go into such a trance that Akka appeared in spirit followed by Basavanna. In the heart of Gurgaon I have to contend with meditations of another kind - not quite so tranquil and ethereal but where in the cacophony of the shrieks of the urban jungle one may be fortunate to touch a chord of tranquillity occasionally