Natya Darshan seminar  
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat 

February 19, 2009 
Kartik Fine Arts presented its annual Natya Darshan seminar on December 27, 28 & 29, 2008 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. Convened by Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind, the subject was 'Eternal feminine narrative through song and dance.' Every morning started with a half hour dance recital on the Devi.  

The first morning started with a dance presentation by Lavanya Ananth, an invocation to Devi to verses from Lalitha Sahasranamam, extolling the beauty and virtues of the Devi. Leela Samson, Director of Kalakshetra, inaugurated the seminar and delivered the well prepared keynote address. She spoke about the different cults and symbolisms, female principle of giving birth and nurturing, tracing the history of the cult and bringing out the spiritualism behind the whole concept. Shaktism is an amalgamation of cults. Shakti commands as much respect as Vishnu, the supreme god. She is the personification of primordial energy. Tantrism is based on magical symbolism. Goddess Kali is the supreme goddess of the tantras. The Trinity work towards annihilation of evils through the Shaktis. All over the world, the earth is represented as the Mother Goddess. Images of the lingam (Shiva) and yoni (Shakti) have even been found in Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Atharva Veda has a beautiful poem Prithvi Suktham on Mother Earth. In her highest form, she is Mahadevi. In Harivamsa (1st to 3rd c), she is identified as Durga and they are amongst the earliest written sources on Durga. The earliest statue of Shakti dates to 1st century.   

After her brief and illuminating speech, the 'Award of Excellence' was conferred on Padma Subrahmanyam and The Dhananjayans. Accepting the award, Guru Dhananjayan said, "At this age, it is heartening to get recognition like this, and gives us a pep to continue our work. Awards like this motivate us. As performers, we are cutting down our work, so youngsters get more opportunities." He requested everyone to call the art 'naatya' and not 'dance' which is not the right translation. "Like ballet is called a ballet performance, call our performance as naatya, otherwise it is misleading."  

VP Dhananjayan, Shanta Dhananjayan, L Sabaretnam, Leela Samson, Padma Subrahmanyam, Sudharani Raghupathy, Chitra Visweswaran
"We are all lucky that we had a beautiful one week conference on the Ramayana and this seminar on Devi is uplifting in its religiosity, intellectualism and spirituality in the field. Youngsters will be benefited if parents bring their children to such lectures," said Padma Subrahmanyam. L Sabaretnam, Chairman of Kartik Fine Arts said instead of calling it Padma's Bharata Nrityam, it should be called Bharata's Padma Nrityam!  He also announced that Shobana would be the convener of the Natya Darshan seminar 2009. 

The moderator Jayachandran of Kalakshetra gave a brief and informative speech on the pantheon of world mythology, where energy is signified as feminine like Devi in India, Isis in Egypt and so on. Nike of Greek mythology and Durga both kill buffaloes. Feminine worship is not restricted to India but is a global phenomenon. Tracing the concept and history of the Mother Goddess is like tracing the history of mankind. Over the years, symbolism changed and several avatars ascribed to a goddess that in a pantheon, if all are listed, only 5% would be known names.   

Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao gave a power point presentation on the Sri Chakra. Mantra, yantra and tantra are interconnected in our religion. Mantra is the formula, yantra is the diagram and tantra is the technique. A sloka and mantra are not necessarily the same. If you learn from any other source, it is a sloka. If you learn directly from the source, it is a mantra. Y derives from the root yam, to control. That which expounds knowledge of mantra, yantra and their application is called tantra. Sri Chakra is a geometrical diagram employed in the worship of Tripurasundari. It has mystic powers and great significance in Shakti worship tradition, and is verily the body of the Mother Goddess. Definition of Sri Chakra is found in Adi Shankara's Soundaryalahiri. Some Sri Chakras have open squares, some are closed. 

Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao 
TN Seshagopalan 
Rao spoke about how Muthuswami Dikshitar, the youngest of the Trinity and also widely traveled, interpreted the Sri Chakra through his mystically beautiful Navavarna kritis, each pertaining to an enclosure. In each kriti, Dikshitar with great thought to the raga and tala, brilliantly brings out the name of the chakra, its geometry, presiding deity etc. As he explained various enclosures and significance of the Sri Chakra, Sumitra sang some of the pallavis. Shiva and Shakti are inseparable. The 9 enclosures constitute the body of Shiva and Shakti separately and together. It has been said, one can attain the results of performing a 100 Vedic rituals by the mere darshanam of the Sri Chakra. Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao has authored a book on the Sri Chakra and his elaborate presentation within a limited time drew a standing ovation.  

The last program for the morning was a harikatha by musician TN Seshagopalan and his group on sreetwam and gurutwam based on the Ramayana, but there was more emphasis on the latter.  

The second morning started with the presentation of Navarasa Varnam on the Devi (who manifests herself into various forms and rasas), composed by Lalgudi Jayaraman many years ago. The dancers were Sridevi, Aruna Subbiah and Priya Murle (students of Sudharani Raghupathy) and Uma Namboodripad, Mridul Vivek and Akhila Shankar (students of Chitra Visweswaran) who had choreographed the piece themselves. The orchestra comprised of KSR Aniruddha on mridangam, Sukanya Ravinder on nattuvangam, Nandini Anand on vocal, R Thyagarajan on flute and Sitarama Sharma on violin.  

Prof. S Raghuraman gave a scholarly input on varied aspects of the feminine narrative illustrated aptly through dance by Lakshmi Ramaswamy and her disciples. When approaching the Shakti cult, one has to take into consideration, the Thamizh literary tradition, social situations and anthropological applications. The present Amman worship evolved from the worship of the Mother Goddess. When did the Mother Goddess cult start? People worshipped nature in early times.  Wind, rain, fire, snake (all that posed dangers) became gods because man was afraid of nature. Since motherhood gives rise to a new generation, man started to worship the feminine goddess as a procreator, a face of courage, a face of mercy, a mother who protects her children, to help fight enemies, to give courage to fight them, to protect one's family... The earliest representation is of 'Kotravai' (a lady who gives courage and victory) and appears in an ancient Tamil work Tholkappiam of the pre-Sangam era. She was worshipped by Sangam warriors before setting out to war, and was the primary feminine deity of that age. In Sangam age, there was no mention of 'Shivan,' and a society that had elevated motherhood to god status, now put weapons into her hands. This Kotravai later developed into Shakti, Amman and Kali.  In all epics the world over, only male gods were worshipped. Latins and Greeks extolled hero worship, but in Tamil an ordinary woman Kannagi (Silappadikaram) was elevated to a god status.  

Shakti was made into lesser deities because of social conditions and political situations. 5th to 9th century saw rise of bhakti literature. After 9th century, we have literature about war. Kali is revered again as outsiders started to invade our country. We need literature to motivate, so Kotravai called Kali was invoked, but a god should not just be a destroyer but should also be nourishing. So the benign grace of the Devi was extolled. The sapta matrikas (Brahmi, Maheshvari, Kumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda) have their own iconographical features and are Shaktis or powers of Brahmanic gods. There was also a group trying to bring Shakti down the level. The song "Om Shakti Om Parashakti" used by people of the lower strata to the goddess for courage is still being performed in some villages.  

Prof. S Raghuraman 
Lakshmi Ramaswamy 
Prof. Raghuram spoke about 'Oozhi Koothu,' Bharatiyar's homage to the folk goddess, her terrible dance of destruction which is arrested by the advent of Shiva in his auspicious form, and they unite to recreate the worlds once again. He also explained about a line of thought, of how the symbols of Shiva had anthropological significance. The solo demonstrations by Lakshmi and enthusiastic group demos by her students were neat and added interest to the whole lec-dem. As Jayachandran later summed up, god became need based, then became a virtue and in future, may just become history. 

On the morning of the final day, Mythili Prakash presented a composition on Devi about the beauty, grace and strength of the goddess as Jagatjanani, set to music by Srivatsa. This was followed by a lecture and power point presentation by Dr. Anand Amaldoss, a Prof. of Sanskrit and philosophy. He spoke of the eternal feminine narrative, its proper perspective, to point out the mystery of how life and universe is contained in the Devi; some details of history of how this goddess phenomenon is universal; how this phenomenon from India has inspired other cultures of the world to rediscover their own tradition.   

Mythili Prakash
Dr. Amaldoss
The concept of the Mother Goddess is universal, and transcends cultures and religions.  
In the goddess religions of India where the goddess symbology is dominant to this day, the female represents the maya. She is time and space itself. And the mystery beyond her is beyond all pairs of opposites. So it is not male, and it is not female. It neither is nor is not. But everything is in her, so that the gods are her children. Everything you can think of is a production of the goddess.  

Dr. Amaldoss elaborated about the universal Isis, the avatar of the goddess in various cultures. The Roman philosopher Apuleius (born c 125AD), in his book 'The Golden Donkey,' makes Isis speak to Lucuis: "They call me the first born among all human beings. I am Artemis among the Athenians, Aphrodite among the Kyperiens, Diana among the Cretans, Porsepina among the Sicilians, Ceres among the Eleusinians. Others call me Juno, Bellona and Hekate. The Ethiopians and Egyptians call me by my real name Queen Isis." 

There was a period when the Mother Goddess was wiped out and women subjugated because of religious practice, but she came back. He showed some beautiful slides of paintings and sculpture from different parts of the world - a Minoan goddess with snake, Isis as patroness of the dead, the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Tibetan Dakini, Tibetan Green Tara, Persephone and Hades, Amaterasu, Venus by Diego Velasquez, Ishtar, Lilith Innana from Mesopotamia, Shiva and Parvati, Mother Mary's Immaculate Conception, Pieta, Durga, statue of Guanyin in Hong Kong and so on.  

The Devi is equally social, political, anthropological and religious, is not only to defend the rights of women, but all of us. Whenever the force of evil takes the upper hand, divine intervention is important, like the Devi.  In India, some popular texts on the Devi include Devi Mahatmyam (attributed to sage Markandeya), Soundaryalahiri by Shankara, Abhirami Andadi by Abhirami Bhattar, Sri Stava by Kuresa.   

The next presenter was Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. She was once a master of ceremonies for a seminar on world religions convened by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, where representatives of world religions like Mayas, Incas, Shinto, Druids, African religions and so on participated. She found extraordinary similarities between all the old cultures and sanatana dharma; every old culture believed in Mother Goddess and Bhoomadevi worship was common. "Thatti kumbuduthal" is common motif for all Indian dances and theatre tradition and is the first link between Shakti and performing arts. The Bhoomi Suktam appeases all aspects of Prakriti to protect us from calamities. In sanatana dharma, women are already elevated. The first judge for a Vedic debate on a metaphysical deliberation amongst Vedic rishis, was a lady Gargi. Much later, we had the concept of ardhanari equality of man and woman. Religion has been helpful in also understanding scientific matters. In the human brain, the male part signifies intellect and feminine part, intuition.  

Padma's mother Lalithamba had composed about 1000 kritis on Devi. The Devi can be graceful to bless, or fearsome to win over enemies, in vatsalya and veera aspects. Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati embody all that is wisdom. Much before the Indus Valley civilization was the Saraswati civilization. It is not a mythical river but is flowing 150' below the earth as satellite pictures reveal. Saraswati civilization was responsible for entire Bharatavarsha (India). She gave definition of Bharata - Bha is beejakshara for Brahman, a person enjoying the bliss of perceiving Brahman, Bharata is the man, Bharati is the woman, Bharata gave us Natya Shastra and so on. Amba is lasyapriya, layakari, sringarasampoorna, rasagnya (knowledgeable in rasa). Tagore composed "Basanthi" inspired by Dikshitar's "Meenakshi me mudham dehi." In Natya Shastra, Bharata mentions nritta matrikas. Though Gayatri mantra evokes the sun, it is given a female embodiment. Arjuna was addressed as Bharata by Krishna in Mahabaratha.  

"Shakti is a link between Vaishnavism and Saivism as I've interpreted in my dance dramas," said Padma.  Shatavadani Ganesh from Bangalore wrote a Sanskrit verse on Athena (Aathal in Tamil) and Padma Subrahmanyam composed the music in Slav style. She performed an excerpt from it, a verse each on Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati and an excerpt of a karagam song from Thirunelveli in Tamilnadu.  

"Dance and instrumental music have all been part of our worship. That's why we find sculptures of dancers and musicians in our temples. The place where drama and dance is performed becomes the temple. There is no need to go to a temple to perform. That's why we do not wear footwear on stage," said Padma. She spoke about how the Velankanni temple attracts people of all religions, showing that the concept of the Divine Mother transcends boundaries.  

To conclude, it was an interesting 3 days of well prepared presentations enjoyed by a fairly good number of rasikas. However, it would have been nice if the convener had made her presence felt more, especially where the question/answer sessions went slightly out of hand on one occasion. We now look forward to what topic the next convener Shobana has planned for this year's Natya Darshan seminar.