Essay: The Centrality of Wander in Creative Practice
St. Valentine’s Day has become a youth phenomenon even in our small towns; it is an unprecedented marketing coup for a globalized lifestyle; a gigantic gobble into the imagination and wallets of a spreading middle class. But let’s look at it differently. As the latest addition to our list of celebrations for this civilization is sometimes compared to a boa constrictor that has an amazing appetite for swallowing other cultural constructions and growing heavier, not falling ill. The Gregorian calendar’s New Year has recently been co-opted. In many parts of the country on New Year’s eve temples bustle with activity because the Gods have happily accepted this Western tradition in the old spirit of absorption. The priests, the flower and incense sellers, the coconut vendors and devotees are also happy.
Yet the survival capabilities of this ancient serpent is being questioned anxiously by the extreme rightwing that issue warnings that make front-page news. These organizations have decided they will work out an action plan to protect Hindu society against various forms of “ cultural imperialism from the West, “ the most recent being Valentine’s Day. Here is another quote that makes ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’ synonymous. “We are extremely concerned over the Valentine culture which has no roots in the Indian soil.“
Not to be outdone, workers from a more liberal political party made bonfires at roadsides out of Valentine day cards. I wondered what was burning, what is left. I thought of ash flakes hissing on roads of opportunism. All in the name of love.
She says to her friend:
He said to me: Keep faith.
So I kept a stubborn faith in him
which grew with every difficulty:
Swollen, taut, ready.
I held this close within myself feeling
his absent presence fill me
full, warm, moist.
this small discharge,
for him a little thing.
His rapid pulling out
of me peels away my very skin.
The centrality of wander
I though of what it is to be a woman witnessing broken relationships and bearing unfinished stories. How could one hope again? This is when she crossed the horizon of my mind, appearing on the brim of the liminal like the glow of a firefly, drifting off and on: The abhisarika nayika, an ancient icon of love in Sanskrit poetics abundant with desire, profuse in interpretation.
Of serpents and stories
The overlapping and intertextuality of the abhisarika nayika‘s myth speaks of more than a fluid entwining between the traditions and the arts; it speaks of the ground from which it was birthed, the womb of the vision. This is of a polycentered universe were profusion and abundance are expressions of the underlying harmony of all life forms. It is this idea that has frothed over in the arts as profligate vitality of thought and gesture, as a swimming maze of multiple narratives and diverse interpretations that allow many points of view to be held concurrently without apparent contradiction.
This is why, initially, the form of many art works seems like liquid chaos. For there are multiple points of entry into paintings and even the margins of the frame can unfold parallel narratives. There is constant moving back and forth in the space-time of narrations and there are stories within stories, and asides. As if a thousand jeweled story -snakes are circling round and around in the lake of perception. Until one isn’t sure which is moving, the snakes or the lake, or are they both static, and is the observer moving? Or in is the play something different?
For me, the wonder of the supple, generous creativity of this subcontinent is its sustained plurality of form and interpretation. For instance, thousands of different versions exist of the epic, Mahabharata. As if there is there just one serpent in the lake that merely sprouted one more head on its many-hooded form to accommodate a newer version of the story while the various other heads continue to shake, spewing their contradictions while special jewels glitter on each hood.
This suggests we consistently live with simultaneous and multiple inconsistencies; and hypocrisy. And one questions how this slippery excess does not slid into a swamp of meaninglessness. At the risk of oversimplification (and this is ironic) I’d say it’s largely because of context-sensitivity: The need to earth the narration within the specificity of resonance, ground it in a landscape of a particularity, an individuation of interpretation, a framing. In the essay Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? A. K. Ramanujan, poet and linguist, wrote, “ In such a world, systems of meaning are elicited by contexts, by the nature (and substance) of the listener.” Therefore, ten different tellings of the same story can exist side-by-side; possibly entwining at points, all reconcilable and specific to different truths.
Profusion and context sensitivity, these two paradigms operate simultaneously one on the other within the same space: Profusion as a window constantly opening outwards, and context-sensitivity as a mirror reflecting inwards, inter-linking reflected stories, opening pathways into the dark margins of ellipses.
Fluid, multiple narratives, besides resonating with the concept of a harmonious, polycentric universe also play a crucial part in the reception of these narratives: They resist easy encoding. This occurs even though the narratives are themselves familiar as in the recurrence of the abhisarika nayika motif or numerous retellings of the Mahabharata. For embedded into these narratives is not only the creative presence of the receiver, the sahrdaya, but also that of the storyteller or the painter or performer. The challenge for each artist during each recreation of the narrative is to give it a fresh luminosity, an apurva form, whereby the narrative is re-birthed in the mind of the receiver, making for a new layer of contemporary meanings. This continuous process of individuation and improvisation allows the stories and motifs to keep churning with each re-telling, at each point in time, in each village and city.
For me, each myth and story holds its tail it its mouth like a great snake while simultaneously shedding its skin. It sloughs off the tight, confining skin of irrelevance, beneath the old body glimmers with fresh scales of light, ready for challenge. Once again soft with hope, it is plangent, vocal, free. It is no one’s property.
These are forms of artistic expression to which I am committed, and which are being threatened in some quarters for there are snake charmers today who want to trap this treasure in small dank baskets of ideology, allowing it to rise only to the seduction of their tunes. Far worse, they want it enslaved for the venom it can spew if provoked in a certain direction, not for the jewels on its hood. And not a thought for its splendour, the coiling, fecund story-self.
What does the wing-beat of the heart stir as it falls towards darkness if not the desire for generosity?
I ask myself about the apurva form, the new luminosity and re-contextualising I should return to the abhisarika nayika who has sustained me so generously.
I first try to imagine the final scenario, death, which illuminates living. In a flash she appears treading the threshold of a time when both inner and outer spaces must be profuse with meaning and slightness, more cherished yet spiraling towards The End. That journey into darkness, taking steps completely alone, transgressing all known modes of behavior and ideology, when one is possibly full of fear, possibly remembering the passage through life and hoping for tranquility, calm as distant moonlight. What could she embody here, I ask myself. Possibly courage?
But it is impossible to imagine that wing-beat of parting which must shock as each taut hope and position is pulled away. Till the very self is peeled away and absence reveals itself in an incomprehensible completeness.
What, then, does the abhisarika nayika embody as I question and love? What is her new interpretation? She is stripped of the significance of ‘illicit’ love and the grand fading echoes of an ultimate becoming. Yet she resonates with the yearning of absence, still stubborn, splendid, transgressive, wandering on wild paths that appear before her feet. She still carries flower garlands of hope and the darkness quickens with her fragrance of difference. What is this avatar of hers? Possibly the creative self journeying. No more. No less.
Rub it Right: New Myths for Old
The genius of the local can often be translated into a dangerous selectivity when the fist of fundamentalist thinking closes in. A predominant local idea can be lofted and twisted as easily as a chiffon scarf in the wind to justify the twisted ease with which narrow and divisive factions gain power to stymie difference. Ironically, these minorities have ‘imported’ the context-free concept of Egalitarian democracy –with a twist. They accept the idea of a universalizing law that speaks of one rule for all to override our uneven context-sensitivity. Thereby they claim sole access to an authentic and homogeneous ‘Indian’ culture. Wherein ‘Purity’ supplants profusion; One frozen Truth replaces the simultaneous living many.
“This is perversion of our culture, it’s immoral foreign influence, “ they say and ban a book without reading it or stop the shooting of a film. “These are the vicious fallouts of globlization, “ they can assert elsewhere and no one is quite sure who is the next victim. Could it be the abhisarika nayika who journeys with her ‘ impure’ burning heart of love? Or a concept of love, newly lit?
She appears and reappears in our various art forms as an image of transgression, desire embedded in her beautiful form, always journeying, signifying a path beyond. In several paintings she appears as a pale figure lighting the fearful darkness of a stormy, demon-infested night. In other paintings she could be tranquil as the moonlight through which she journeys, resolved in her quest. Yet again she could be carrying flower garlands as gifts for her secret lover while each creature of the night is vivid with expectation, rejoicing in her every step. Of course the outer landscape she traverses is a metaphor of the inner, within her frail, fast-beating heart.
In poems and legends she journeys across the forbidden to clandestinely meet her lover for a night of joy, her desire supreme. We can see her in sculpture, arms swaying; her body corroded by sunlight and touch yet alive with movement and passion. And in music and dance she rises with notes and words, with gesture and movement, with breath and improvisations to once again sing the song of rebellion, of refusing to be moored to social mores and conventions. She consistently walks through the centuries and the arts carrying with her the fragrance of difference.
Of course, she was also given religious signification. In the tradition of high aesthetics she personified the concept of the individual atma – the individual self – seeking out the Paramatma, the Absolute Consciousness; her overwhelming sexual yearning transmogrified to encompass a paramount desire for spiritual becoming. With the sky of longing cast over her the abhisarika nayika wanders as lover and seeker, the male always the beloved.
It is she who turns her back on the warm interiors of home to merge with the dark glow of forbidden desires; she sheds her earlier identity like a dupatta, like a veil, a miasma, uncovering deeper levels of self as her love deepens. It is she who stands parting veils of rain, which fall like teardrops, like pearls from a dark yet gracious sky, parting the rain, parting her fears from her desire. Hands reddened with tenderness, eyes lined black with hope, bejeweled by her own splendor she stands on the threshold of transfiguration.
She could be a noble woman or a cobbler’s wife for the sweep of her wandering was not proscribed by a caste, a class, a tradition. Embodying unbounded passion for her secret love the abhisarika nayika is a construct contained within the predominantly brahminical and patriarchal codes of the Margi or Great Tradition. But unrestrained she changes her name, though not her transgressive character, and weaves just as freely through our many older Desi or Little Traditions–the folk, the tribal, the others– and her steps taking on the sensuous lilt of these landscapes. The plangent energy and lack of ‘purity’ in her construction speak of the constant overflow between the different traditions, and the colour of local culture. For the Margi and Desi Traditions have twisted around each other like copulating snakes, or strands of DNA that must be read together in order to make sense, be fecund.
Didn’t we last see her standing on the threshold of transfiguration, sure only of her passionate love?
Her most vaulted avatar is as Radha, the older married woman who goes out into the forests of the night to meet Sri Krishna, her divine lover on the banks of the river Jamuna. She quietens her anklets so that her mother-in-law will not hear her, stills the bells on her girdle so as not to awaken her sleeping husband, and steps out in canto after canto in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, written in the 12th century. But even in her avatar as Radha the abhisarika nayika has gradually been made more virtuous. The jagged, transgressive edges of her construction as the ‘older married’ woman have been elided so that she becomes a gracious consort, a gentle accessory to the Godhead. Today most often we see her in temples and shires in homes, carved of the same white marble as Sri Krishna, standing by his side and bestowing her lesser blessings on devotees.
The legacy of Radha and the many anonymous abhisarika nayikas is sporadic and transformed by commerce and religiosity. But the trail is decipherable even in our best-loved medium. In commercial films the love-call still occurs in the gardens, in sylvan settings of forests and glades, rarely indoors. The exquisitely dressed heroine, the ‘good girl’, still needs the ambience of the outdoors, the suggestion of transgressing the threshold of the home to declare herself in love – in order to live happily ever after indoors.
To return to Radha’s stories I recall a conversation with a childless widow. She was a distant, elderly aunt, draped in the inauspicious white of North Indian widowhood, who related the story when I was a new bride so that I learn how to behave, now that I was indoors. In her version, Radha was a pubescent virgin, always ‘pure’ who devoted herself selflessly to her Lord; the relationship between them remained ‘pure’ throughout.
I remember contesting her version and causing a fair amount of violation. Now I doubt I would dispute the point with a widow who had possibly remained ‘pure’ herself throughout her wedded life. Moreover one needs to wander through the heady fragrance of difference and equanimity, through garden and forest, by the riverside, even through a desert if necessary, seeking the faint far flowering of a cactus blossom.
It’s ludicrous to champion the sale of cards that have tinsel-winged cupids, heart-shaped eggless chocolate cakes for veggie Valentines, synthetic linked-heart necklaces, twin-heart rings, frilly pink lace heart talismans, plastic red roses and syrupy verses. One does not wish to endorse market gluttony, nor cloying poetry.
Far worse, one doesn’t wish to support the sexist agenda that’s crept in to the celebrations for I am informed that the ‘boys’ must buy presents for the ‘girls’. It’s not reciprocal as it was once upon a time in my elitist collage, and we know disparity leads to grave disharmony between the genders.
It is obvious there can be no single perspective, nor easy consensus. But can one condone the juggernaut of multinational culture in order to resist a more immediate outburst that threatens the profusion and simultaneity of our culture? Is it possible to fly unhindered over these landscapes steering one’s path of work by the luminosity of a serene moon? With what wings does one rise when all around there is antinomy and not life affirming plurality? Does context sensitivity have to give way to compromise and shrinking horizons? It’s a truism that globalization means different things in different climates and circumstances. Even so if one wishes to resist this cultural aberration one read with despair that on February 14th 2000 in the city of Kanpur bullies blackened the faces of celebrating couples.
What are the options I wonder. How does one sprout wings of desire that even when spiraling downwards can transport us to tenderness?