Essays: The Unveiled

Probing concepts around veiling and unveiling in sacred literature

Imagine a mirror rotating around itself in the darkness of a sky studded with stars.
 

Now image this as a two-faced mirror, back stuck to back, the centre seeped with mercury. On either side the polished glass reflects what is in front. The reflected images, therefore, are always different. But the core is shared, singular and the same.
 

This is the first image that comes to mind when I sit down to write about the concept of veiling, and unveiling. They reflect different realities, but the two share a secret that is fused at the core. Both evolve from the same source, neither one is a replica. And both reflected images are necessarily different, and equally real. In fact one reflection is the opposite of the other.

The Songs to Krishna

In devotional literature, the concept of veiling and unveiling is celebrated. Perhaps most well known are stanzas from the Gopika-Vastraapaharanam . This version, from the Srimad Bhagavatam , is translated by N Raghunathan.

“In the first month of the season of snows, the young maids … getting up every day at early dawn… went to the Kalindi (river) to bathe, their arms linked as they sang aloud Krishna’s praises… Lord Krishna… gathering up their clothes (from the bank), spoke thus in jest: ‘Come here freely, girls, and take your clothes , each her own.’ … They were enchanted by what Govinda said; and they answered, shivering…, plunged to the neck in cold water, ‘ This is very wrong of you, sir…’ The Lord answered, ‘If you are my servants and will do my bidding, you..should come here and take your clothes.’ Thereupon the little girls, fatigued and shivering…came out of the water, screening their private parts with their hands. The Lord… told them…, ‘Your bathing naked when observing vows was… an affront to the gods. Place your joint palms on your heads and bow down…then come and take your clothes. … the maids of Vraja bowed down…. before Him… When he saw them… the compassionate Lord…gave them their clothes back… Badly tricked by him exposed to shame, laughed at and treated like dolls, even deprived of their clothes, they still felt no anger against Him, for they were supremely content, having their darling by their side.”

When one goes past the obvious in this interpretation, one sees the chastising voice change to passion, voyeurism becomes the embracing gaze, and the losing of protective clothing transforms into the freeing of the spirit.

For the young gopis are bathing together naked in the cold river, their glances sly and darting, their skin chilled while eroticism rises warmly within them. Krishna enters, carries off their clothes still scented with the smell of their bodies and watches the girls watching each other nude. Searching for their clothes they see the voyeur Krishna gazing with pleasure on their cold and aroused bodies. They veil themselves with water, with their hands, with shyness. At Krishna’s call, each one steps out, trembling, aroused, unveiled and realizes the meaning of His words as: Shed the mortal ties that bind you to mundane reality, abandon shame and belonging, free yourselves in my gaze says Krishna the dark god.

Repeatedly in the mystical-religious songs of Krishna, the metaphor of shedding of jewellery, clothes and female modesty, the unveiling of the body, the spread of gleaming skin and hair, revelling in being looked at, the sharing of the secrets of one’s body with another, and above all, sexual ecstasy suggest the abandoning of individual identity to merge with the godhead.

Yet the readying of the mind and body for the tryst, the journey through the grove in a darkness that “wraps itself around Radha’s warm body like a lover”, Krishna in the grove awaiting her, his mind running with images of their anticipated lovemaking is pitched in a carnal intensity that is only too human.

The description of lovemaking too is deliberate, intricate; the ‘battle-of-love’ is a passionate ritual of pain and pleasure until finally, the body is “weak from the excess of joy”. It is through these explicit and graphic descriptions of the sexual union that the body is first unveiled of its own tiredness, its individual limitations; it is universalized and set temporarily free to soar beyond. Besides, the fact of grounding lovemaking in such earthy detail, miring it almost in a mesh, a web of words, a veil of gesture suggests to me the possibility of the grand leap towards the metaphysical.

Both the acts of anticipation and fulfilment and the ideas of the immediate and the mysterious evolve from the same source, the body’s dark thirst, and neither one is a replica of the other. A double mirror with a single liquid core revolves around itself in the darkness of a sky studded with stars. Both reflected images are necessarily different, and equally identifiable and real. The two-faced mirror continues to turn around itself in our inner spaces.

This concept is elaborated in Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions – as Exemplified in the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva translated by Lee Siegel as follows: The soul… can desire, it can love, it can be “ clothed… in the garment of a bride to prepare for a pure and spiritual marriage with God”. …The grove in which Radha and Krishna make love is thought of as the ‘interior castle’, the inner self, and the removal of Radha’s girdle is interpreted as the falling away of all that veils us from the ‘All Seeing Eye’ of God .’

Yet this same tradition celebrates in great detail the post-lovemaking pause when Radha demands that Krishna clothe her again; veiling seems almost as significant as unveiling. The following images are from the Twenty-fourth Song of the Geetgovinda. 

“Put ..a design of musk …on my breasts, Make the mascara…shine…upon my eyes which has had its collyrium removed by the kisses of your lip, Fasten both earrings on my ears, arrange a glossy curl,,,. Put a lovely mark drawn with musk … upon the moon which is my forehead, Put flowers in my radiant hair, Put ornaments, clothes and the jewelled girdle…upon my passionate hips…Put a pattern on my breasts, make a design on my cheeks, fasten a girdle on my hips, fix the mass of my braids with artless garlands, put rows of bracelets on my arms and jewelled anklets on my feet… “

Radha’s imperious commands to tattoo her body with designs of his love, re-cover it and recover it –as it were –before the touch of his hands seems strange and haunting. One notices the languor and confidence of a woman whose mind and body have been smoothened by sex; still…

Dr. Jeevan Pani, scholar and poet, suggested that Radha’s demand that Krishna veil her again in decorum and worldly appearance implies the devotee’s need to once again re-cover herself within the world of maya and appearance. This so that she is able to cope with everyday reality as she re-enters the world of family, customs, codes…

In our context sensitive culture where multiple interpretations abound, dance scholar Saroja Kamakshi views these related concepts from another site. In Kamakshi’s poetic interpretation the emphasis paid to the vasakasajja nayika — the woman who elaborately and ritually dresses herself up for the tryst – relates to a readying of mind and body, an enhancing of individuality, a glowing in preparation for the abandonment that will follow. Veiling the body with clothes and jewellery as described in detailed ornamental poetry suggests its absent opposite. The unveiling of the body presented in its vulnerable nakedness is read as a paring down to the essentials when individual identity ceases to be as it merges into the godhead, unmasked.

The veil of love

Aside from these metaphysical interpretations, reading stanza after stanza of classical Sanskrit love poetry, the images that register –more than of the woman naked— are of the dressing up for the act of sex and then the disarray of desire.

The doing and undoing by need, the veiling and unveiling of passion, the unmasking and masking of the bodies’ secrets – these images are repeated in Rajput miniature paintings as well.

This emphasis on the before and after changes the context of address, reception and viewing. In this tradition more than gazing on the nude stripped and placed in an isolated space of voyeuristic delight, the unveiled body seems part of the series of disguises the body wears; the uncovered body seems part of a flow of its activities, like successive images of the ghats seen from a boat drifting down the Ganga in Varanasi.

Walking Nude through the Wilderness

In the Shaivite bhakti tradition of the vacanas (that means literally, “things said’) of the Kannada poets of medieval poets, Mahadeviyakka was in the forefront with her verses of burning passion that she addressed to her favourite deity, Mallikarjuna, Lord White as Jasmine.

Like Lal Deh in Kashmir, Akka flung off her clothes as an act of social protest, rejecting all ‘notions of modesty as virtue’ in defiance of the hypocrisies and pruderies of society around her. Using her unveiled body as a flaming sword to cut a swathe deep into spiritual freedom, in poem after poem she raises the question of what veiling and unveiling could possibly mean. ‘Seeing’ is challenged, the power of the gaze dismantled, and the politics of identity is raised to a level where normal boundaries sear and char. What then is revealed? This poem is translated by A K Ramanujam in Speaking of Siva.

You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?

Or peel away every strip
you wear,
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?

To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool,
where’s the need for cover and jewel?

The Most Dangerous Image, the Most Desired

With cinema the fact that the nude has an erotic power of arousal however ‘artfully’ or wrapped in mythology it is presented is almost its axiomatic characteristic. Amos Vogel in Film as a Subversive Art reveals a basic truth about gazing at unveiled images on screen. Limb on limb, movement following movement, frame after frame of bodies exposed, thoughts exposed, breath held, pulse racing – these images trigger off deep responses within the viewer as well. Nudity on-screen is a process that forces us to ‘unveil’ a private part of ourselves in the dark-house of the cinema auditorium, to recede into secret memories in a shared space. Vogel describes this experience vividly:

 

However irrational, the taboo (or even the ‘frowned-upon’) image, reflects subconscious realities still operating in men. This can be felt in the pronounced psychological and emotional reactions of any movie audience, subject only to individual variations of intensity or duration. ……. However noisy, they are instantly quieted by sex scenes, the more direct the portrayal, the more pervasive the silence. ‘First’ attendees of sexually explicit films react … with disgust, defensive laughter, or haughty boredom; but they soon fall silent and retreat into private reverie with their less complicated fellow-viewers. … it is the palpable ‘actuality’ of the image, its concrete revelation of the previously hidden, feared, or desired, the lessened ‘distance’ between viewer and simulated reality that is the source of its power. 

 

Imagine a mirror rotating around itself in the darkness of a sky studded with stars. Image this as a two-faced mirror, back stuck to back, the centre seeped with mercury. On either side the polished glass reflects what is in front. The reflected images, therefore, are always different. But the core is shared, singular and the same. This liquid, mercurial core is the self.

Veiling and unveiling are acts of remembering the vastness of the self.

* From exhibition catalogue “The Naked and the Nude” edited by Dr. Alka Pande