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

Day 2: Traversing borders through Bhakti
-  Kiran Rajagopalan
Pics: Lalitha Venkat

December 24, 2011

The second day of ‘Mad and Divine Women’ began with Rajashree Shirke’s ‘Sant Kanhopatra,’ a powerfully arousing performance piece on the 15th-century CE Marathi saint-poetess.  What made this production so captivating was the brilliant way in which impeccably performed music, dance, and dialogue had all come together to make Sant Kanhopatra’s fervent devotion to Vithoba extremely tangible. Especially evocative was the depiction of Kanhopatra’s final capture by the Badshah of Bidar at opposite ends of the stage.  On one side, several dancers enacted Kanhopatra’s physical anguish at the hands of the Badshah’s men.  Simultaneously, Rajashree portrayed the sant’s indomitable spirit, which still cried out to Vithoba despite the intense beatings.  Kanhopatra’s death was also sensitively portrayed with her body sauntering off stage and her spirit merging with darkness.

Rajashree Shirke
Shirke and group
Dr. Madhavi Raghav Narsalay then introduced three other lesser known Marathi saint-poetesses in her session.  Several interesting observations about the role of women in the bhakti movement were revealed from the lives of Mahadaisa, Janabai, and Venabai.  For example, the Marathi bhakti cults were patriarchal and all three women were devout followers of male sants. Likewise, the struggles of widowhood and casteism compelled these women to turn to fervent spirituality.  In the case of Mahadaisa and Venabai, both were young widows who had sought Chakradara and Ramdas, respectively, for spiritual guidance.  On the other hand, Janabai, born an untouchable, was driven to god because of intense prejudice.  Ultimately, all of them were regarded as “mad” due to their transgressions against social norms, but their works reveal the contrary.

Madhavi Narsalay

Narsalay’s observations

Anita Ratnam, Ketu Katrak, Priya Sarukkai, Vasudha Ravi

Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s engaging session on Andal’s Nachiyar Thirumozhi, also highlighted this Tamil saint’s unique niche in the bhakti movement.  Andal’s life was very brief, compared to the other female saints.  Therefore, her poetry is characterized by frank expression of impetuous and reckless longing for Vishnu.  At the same time, her command of chaste Tamil and Puranic mythology betray her youth.  Her poems are layered, dense, and filled with unexpected connections between images, allegories, and metaphors. Accordingly, Priya presented her “transcreations” of pasurams from Nachiyar Thirumozhi as a way of deconstructing Andal’s complex poetry.  She started with a direct translation of the pasuram, and then examined the links between dissonant images and metaphors.  As a result of discovering these hidden nuances, she revealed her parallel and free translations. Meanwhile, Vasudha Ravi sang the same pasuram in different ragams to suit each of these translations.

Akhila Ramnarayan

Akhila Ramnarayan’s lecture on bhakti in a global setting was a welcome inclusion to the conference in that she chose to highlight women authors outside India who use native spirituality as a form of protest against colonization and westernization.  One writer she mentioned was Huanini-Kay Trask, whose works introduce readers to Hawaii’s unique spirituality and sharply criticizes “mainland America’s imperialistic policies” which have directly led to her state’s cultural and environmental degradation. Unfortunately, Dr. Ramnarayan did not have enough time to present her thoughts on how such writers and Indian mystic saint-poets are connected.  A discussion on the social, cultural, and political contexts in which modern “first nation” writers and Indian mystic-saint poetesses flourished would have also been fascinating.

Despite the brevity of the last presentation, the second day of the conference was just as enlightening as the first.  Dr. Ratnam concluded the morning session moments before the daily scheduled power-cut!

Priya Sarukkai

Kiran Rajagopalan is a Bharatanatyam dancer based in Chennai.