Sunday, 31 August 2014

Madhya Pradesh - Narratives of Self Discovery

The other day, I was staring up into the sky, my back on the water, as I finished my swim. I saw hundreds of birds flying here and there and here and there, randomly. Some would disappear into some crevice or other and then charge out as if on some urgent errand and there really was nowhere they were going, nor any pattern to their flight paths.

I am usually so driven with reasons for anything I do; conforming to a routine of doing rather than that of being. Watching the birds fly so aimlessly got me thinking - about this journey called life. Where do we go, what is it that we do or why and what is the purpose of it all? Are we any different to these other creatures of nature that fly the sky?

And, it was a trip to Madhya Pradesh that I undertook few months later, which seemed to put into perspective the kind of travel that one does through life – of savouring the little things that come up.  I started seeing that it was in essence only about the journey, the people we meet, the sites we encounter and the images we form in our minds.  Can there be any other point? Yes, I know there is the existential quest of who am I, but can that ever be examined without the experiences we encounter; and then what?

Anyway, let me tell you about this journey to Madhya Pradesh, the middle kingdom. 

Landscape on the way up from Maihar to the Rampur Plateau
One day, quite out of the blue, I got a call from an old friend. She said: “Come see me, come to Madhya Pradesh and spend a few days at my art centre in Maihar”.  I asked her why to which she replied, “I don’t know, just come, I just felt like inviting you."

It isn’t as if we hadn’t been in touch since college, where we studied textile design together at the polytechnic, in mid-late 1970’s. Ambica, now owned and ran a successful art gallery in Kolkata. Art being the common denominator, we did have occasion to meet. But, it was Facebook that really kept the thread of connectivity alive and the way in which Ambica prefaced her invitation was the clinching factor. She has a way with people and is very affectionate; and that did the trick.

It was mid-December when she called. I had planned a Christmas open house on 22nd December, inviting neighbours and friends to share a Christmas cake I had baked - my first attempt. So, on 24th December, I flew to Khajuraho and met up with Ambica and her family and a whole new world opened up to me. The entire journey from Delhi to Maihar and back was enriching – to say the least!

My flight to Khajuraho was on time; well, just half an hour late, but

given that it was ‘fog season’, this was something to cheer. The flight was chock-a-block full.  I had a window seat and thought I would write in my journal but it really was too distracting with my elbow nudging my neighbour on the right and hitting against the plane wall on the left. So I just stared out the window instead, taking photographs of the snow-clad Himalayan peaks which I could see far-far away. The sky was a beautiful powder-blue and soft, white, woolly clouds, like a hand-knitted fabric, extended from below the belly of the plane - a blanket of cloud reaching far out into the distance. The snow capped peaks encircled an imaginary horizon [because I couldn’t see below the cloud cover] like a long arc bending from end to end of my vision. They were faint, yet quite clearly discernible to the naked eye, more so than the pictures my I-phone camera was able to take. I took lots of pictures simply trying to capture the essence of what I could see, but none matched up to the experience of spying those tiny peaks thousands of miles away.

It was this ethereal sight, filling me with a sense of serenity, which got me reminiscing about Ambica and our college days. One of the most vivid memories that I have are of  a bunch  of enthusiastic eighteen year olds working on an assignment of tie-dye – dying our samples, out in Ambica’s back-garden. She had invited us to her home in Sarvodaya Enclave and I think there must have been about ten of us chatting and eating and working. The lawn was a mess after we had finished. There was dye on the grass and strands of multicoloured thread everywhere. Her mother fed us, helped us untie the knots we couldn’t open and then cleaned up after us without any fuss. I haven’t forgotten this for the simple reason that I envied Ambica. My own mother, always a stickler for cleanliness, would throw a fit if I accidentally dropped poster colour [gouache] on the floor. Every time I meet Aunty I remind her of this and she smiles quietly, as if happy to revisit this memory.

Temple Complex in Khajuraho
Anyway, as the flight landed in Khajuraho, I switched on my phone when a sms informed me that madam had found a beauty parlour and was having a pedicure. Khajuraho is a small village in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh in Central India but even so I had no idea that getting a pedicure was an unusual feat. The SUV she had sent to pick me and my baggage, wound its ways from the airport through a complex passage of lanes and by-lanes, too narrow for the SUV, and suddenly Ambica emerged from a curtained doorway - not exactly relaxed but peeved because the beauty-parlour recommendation hadn’t quite met her expectations. There was no loo, no running water and the beautician retreated intermittently to her nearby home to get some hot water in buckets – some pedicure she had!

We then proceeded to the Taj Hotel for a late lunch and onto the temples which I was very keen to see but Ambica wasn’t. She’d been there too often and said it no longer held any charm for her. I refused to go alone and reminded her of the voluptuous drawings she had done at the national museum [another college assignment] and suggested that she should do some here while I wandered off with Satendra, the guide we had hired. Ambica always drew well with a firm, unhesitating line, and her figures were more than ample. The sculptures at the temples in Khajuraho should have been an inspiration but she now devotes all her attention to nurturing artists rather than indulging in art-making herself, so she reluctantly tagged along with me.

I know that Khajuraho is well documented and every tourist  visiting in India has been there and nothing I can say will shed new light on it. But for me, it was my own discovery of this ancient site that enchanted.
 Satendra [09893938015] was knowledgeable and his first few sentences gripped my attention......the erotic postures on the temples? Yes, I found them most interesting, but not titillating although Ambica may like to disagree since I focussed the camera lens with such intensity on as many as I could capture. Something she teased me about for most of the trip.  I was intrigued by the complex poses which seemed impossible and generated a sense of awe for the flexibility that could actually twist bodies into such contorted and complex postures.

 In her book on ‘Indian Erotica’, Dr. Alka Pande says that theses sculptures focus on earthly sensuality and divine love. There are sculpted apsaras painting their eyes with kohl and other alluring postures of shringar. I spied one removing a thorn from her foot in such a convoluted pose that anything less than a yoga master would have toppled off. This was no mundane event, it was being enacted as a ritual of enticement, or so it seemed.  Dr.Pande says that the maithuna couples [lovers] are symbolic of transcendental union and are not ‘coarsely representative of sexual intercourse’.  From the Tantric viewpoint, they depict the rise of sexual energy from the ordinary to the higher plane where the kundalini is awakened. Although they have been “misinterpreted as mysterious pagan rituals”, these figures, in her estimation, are not meant for “sexual enjoyment” but clearly suggest Tantric asanas for attaining self-realisation through union with a female/male partner.

What Satendra had to say was curious. He said that the Chandela kings, who claimed to be descendants of Chandra kulla [moon born], were rulers of this central part of India from 9th - 13th centuries A.D. At that time society was apparently, deeply inclined towards moksh [liberation from the cycle of birth and death] and celibacy was the chosen route to achieve this.  Therefore the Chandela kings introduced erotic sculptures on the temple facades so that when people came to pray, they would also be sexually aroused and thus hopefully procreate. Satendra said the rulers feared that without this, life would come to an end and with it their dynasty too.

Sounds plausible, but as I noted and the guide also pointed out, the postures were very yogic, as opposed to merely titillating. The complex poses seemed akin to a meditative act through the body, where intense concentration was needed. His was an unusual perspective which I tried to verify through the guide book, but they had the usual stuff about the name Khajuraho being derived from ‘Khajoor’ or date palms and that in early records it was actually called Khajurvatika – garden of date palms. The guide book cautioned that though erotic, these sculptures are not pornographic to excite “savage passion” but that they are sublime and sensual. I have to say I was confused.

Alka  Pande says that the “couples in erotic postures belong to a secular theme” where the “artisans gave full vent to their imagination....... beyond the kamashastra prescriptions.” One such example, on the north wall of the Vishwanath Temple, is based on the yogic posture of Shirshana or headstand, where two female attendants support the couple in a coital pose, on either side, while the male fondles their genitalia. Looking at this sculpture, standing in front of it, in Khajuraho, feeling the stone, taking in the carving with my senses, I was in filled with admiration. Was it at all possible? What kind of expertise in yoga would be needed to achieve this? Who were these people, what must it have been like to have lived in that era? It seemed to be so open-minded an uninhibited compared to the times that we live in. Were these couples married? What was their relationship? I had a million questions running through my mind. 
Friezes on Temple facade
 Engrossed with my camera and Satendra’s informative titbits, I could have spent a whole day there. Some of the friezes also depict animal passion in humans in the form of bestiality [Lakshman Temple] which, Satendra said, was indulged in while away on battle [with horses], adding that some friezes also cautioned about such excesses. He pointed out one such sculptural narrative which begins with a woman having intercourse with a dog, someone from the local village is a witness who goes and tells the whole village and then a King is seen dispensing justice/meting out punishment. It was defaced and one could barely discern the figures, but once pointed out, it was quite amazing to make the connection. Sculptures on the temple facades also depicted scenes from everyday life such as dancers and musicians, hunting scenes, animal fights, armies marching to battle, sculptors at work; teachers with their pupils and other activities. 
Defaced Frieze
Ambica rushed me through the large complex of temples and we didn’t even have a cup of tea. She insisted that there wasn’t time as the journey to Maihar would take us about three hours by road, travelling through the famed Chambals hills, renowned for the exploits of  Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. She didn’t want to undertake this journey in the dark. But dark it did get. And having been terrified enough by her, it took all of my courage to insist on a loo stop, bang in the midst of the dreaded hills. It is one of the perils and quirks of travelling through the Indian countryside where there are no public conveniences and we are compelled to answer the call of nature; in natures own unkempt back yard. Phone-torch in hand, gingerly but desperately, I wandered off into the nearest ample shrub, crossing my fingers that no snake would slither by. The rest of our journey, we chatted like school chums with so much to share. Catching up like this was really fun. 
Art Ichol Art Residency under construction - Chambal Hills in the distance
Getting to Maihar in darkness meant that I was unable to see exactly what the location was or where this neo-colonial bungalow, which has a history of its own, was positioned. Unable to sleep because of all the excitement and a new place, I could hear a stream of constant traffic. Plus, it seemed that a railway line was very close by too and around 12.30 am, someone started playing the dhol and then I could also hear a chorus of bhajans. I was later told that the house was bang on NH 7, a railway-line ran alongside the back of the house and there was a mandir nearby too.

I can’t seem to leave behind the railway line and mandir noises. This cacophony of the chaotic Gurgaon urban-scape of Palam Vihar had followed me here too!

When we reached Maihar, from Khajuraho, I met Ambica’s husband Sanjeev, their older son Adit, and Charles Kim, a student intern from the US. It was cold but we sat outdoors, around a fire, drinking wine, exchanging stories and singing old Hindi film songs. But at night, while sleep escaped me, I was still in Khajuraho. I loved the temples. It was really awesome to see every inch of the external stone walls, covered lushly with carvings of such exquisite detailing and near mathematical precision. I have not really studied stone carving much, so was not aware of the kind of skill involved, but looking at those temples made me  think they were totally fabulous, and wonder, how did anyone create something like this? I also mused about the fact that I knew next to nothing about the Chandelas and the Bundelkhand region I was visiting, and anything studied in school was long forgotten.  I finally slept with the thought that life, when looked at through the lens of history was fascinating. As an Indian, all of this was part of my socio-cultural gene.  I wanted to know more, explore how much of this was still part of our ethos, how this may or may not have influenced the Indian woman of today, and why or how these ideas had been sanitised through time. But, unfortunately, I have done little in this regard since I returned, almost a year ago.
View of River Tamasa from Writers Retreat - under construction. Old bridge seen in distance.
I spent four days with Ambica and her family. She wanted me to see everything - Amariya, the writer’s retreat that she was building on the banks of the River Tamasa of Rishi Valimiki and Sita of Ramayan fame, which flows down from the Kaimur [Vindhya belt] mountain range through Rewa and Satna in Madhya Pradesh travelling to Allahabad. The new Ichol Art Centre that was under construction on the other side of Maihar - facing the Chambal hills which we could see in the far distance. 
View from Rampur Plateau
The Rampur Temple plateau which has a breathtaking view and then she also insisted I listen to the Maihar band - the only Indian classical band in the country, doing their riyaaz [daily practice] early one morning. 
So much to see and take in, I felt over-stimulated and barely able to cope, but her enthusiasm was infectious and I went along. We would come home for lunch each day, eating out, basking under the warmth of the winter sunlight. And there was this spacious, antique bed laid out on the lawn where I would sun myself each afternoon. Relaxing after the tours, I would inevitably be staring up at the yellow and white painted arches with colourful Bougainvillea cascading down. I thus pondered upon all that I had seen, heard and felt, trying to figure out how it all fitted in, whether it did or not or how.

Maihar Band
 I had taken this trip just as impulsively and intuitively as Ambica had invited me. A journey had begun and an endless narrative was unfolding. Whether or not there was a purpose only time would tell and maybe we would devise one. But for me, then, as now, the journey was the essence – a narrative of self discovery, through history, memory and more – inhabiting the middle kingdom.