MAD and DIVINE women - Mystic saint poets of India and beyond
Natya Darshan Seminar -
Morning Conferences

Day 1: Striking aesthetics and seamless execution
- Kiran Rajagopalan
Photos: Lalitha Venkat 

December 23, 2011

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s main auditorium stage was aesthetically transformed for the inaugural day of ‘Mad and Divine Women.’ Conference attendees were greeted to a spectacular vision of a white temple façade lit with lamps, ingeniously designed by Rex and Victor Paulraj to serve as a beautiful backdrop and a projection screen.  In addition, a stately wooden sofa and chair were placed on stage for the delegates to sit on during the proceedings. 


L Sabaretnam, Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Anita Ratnam
Natya Chudar awarded to Shruthipriya
Convener Dr. Anita Ratnam gave a brief introduction, and then L. Sabaretnam and Shanta Serbjeet Singh were invited to the stage to inaugurate the conference.  In a surprising twist, they unlocked and opened the temple doors to reveal a fully-lit oil lamp bathed in lemon-yellow light!  L. Sabaretnam and Shanta then delivered the inaugural and keynote addresses, respectively.

The conference began with an incisive presentation by Dr. Archana Venkatesan on an alternate depiction of the Tamil poet-saint, Andal.  The account of Andal’s life given by Garudavahana Pandita in his Divyasuricaritram, a 15th-century CE Sanskrit text, deviates significantly from what is mentioned in earlier works.  For example, Garudavahana introduces a novel character, Anugraha, who is the messenger between Andal and Ranganatha.  Moreover, the other azhvars arrange a swayamvara for the 108 Vishnus (the presiding deities of each Divya Desam), after which Andal finally chooses Ranganatha and merges with him. 

Rather paradoxically, Dr. Venkatesan argued that Andal’s “madness” is not depicted in the Divyasuricaritram as transgressions against convention as in the case of the famous incident in which Periazhvar discovers strands of Andal’s hair in a flower garland.  Instead, her madness is framed around the conventional sufferings experienced by a young heroine in separation from her beloved.

Archana Venkatesan

Vidhya Subramanian
In stark contrast, Vidhya Subramanian’s performance of ‘Ojas – with that spiritual energy I yearn’ explored how devotional fervor enabled several female saint-poets to actively oppose society’s stifling expectations of them.  Through a provocative mix of dialogue, abhinaya, and short dance passages, Vidhya brought out flashes from the lives of Andal, Mirabai, Akka Mahadevi, Lalleshwari, and Jana before and after their enlightenment.  Much was said in ‘Ojas’ about how and why they rebelled against the patriarchal system which had tried to suppress them.  If the work is further expanded, it would be interesting to see what else had inspired these women to turn to fervent spirituality.

The first day ended with Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik’s engaging and enlightening session on the “Myth of the Mad Mystical Women.”  He cleverly focused his discussion on the subtle symbolism of hairstyle and clothing of the female saints and mythological characters.  For instance, images of Andal and Gauri with beautifully styled hair and rich clothing are suggestive of the restraint and security experienced in domestic life.  On the other hand, the more shocking, nude images of Mahadevi Akka and Kali with disheveled hair suggest freedom but with underlying sense of apprehension.

Devdutt Pattanaik

A slide from his presentation
Yet, the most intriguing part of the presentation was Dr. Pattanaik’s discussion of the hairpins which bound Sita’s and Draupadi’s hair.  Sita’s chudamani, which undid her hair when she gave it to Hanuman, foreshadowed Rama’s bloody war with Ravana. Similarly, Draupadi’s hair, which was washed by Duryodhana’s blood and bound by his entrails, also signaled the end of the Kurukshetra war!

A discussion with the audience concluded the series of well-executed and concise presentations, and Dr. Ratnam judiciously ended the conference ahead of schedule.

Dr. Anita Ratnam welcomes gathering

L Sabaretnam, Chairman, Kartik Fine Arts, on Mad and Divine

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Vice Chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi, delivers keynote address

Dr. Archana Venkatesan

Gopika Varma

Kiran Rajagopalan is a Bharatanatyam dancer based in Chennai.