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

Day 3: Maddening paradoxes & divine connections
-  Kiran Rajagopalan
Pics: Lalitha Venkat

December 25, 2011

The concluding day of ‘Mad and Divine’ was filled with activity as the legendary Dr. Vyjayanthimala Bali was honored with a lifetime achievement award from Kartik Fine Arts alongside the usual morning performance and lectures.  Professors Sudharani Raghupathy and CV Chandrasekhar candidly spoke about their early memories of Dr. Bali.  An ardent devotee of Andal, Dr. Bali was overwhelmed when she was decorated with a special mala and a parrot from the Srivilliputtur Temple.  Much to everyone’s delight, Dr. Bali also gave a surprise performance of a charming verse from Leela Shukar’s Sri Krishnakarnamrutham in which a gopi questions Krishna about stealing butter from her house.  The ceremony ended with a brief question and answer session with Bali and Anita Ratnam.
Anita Ratnam, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Sudharani Raghupathy, L Sabaretnam
Vyjayanthimala Bali
Prior to the award ceremony, Chitra Visweswaran presented a simple, but deeply touching portrayal of Mirabai as an older woman pensively reflecting on the pivotal decisions she had made during her life.  Notable episodes such as her brother-in-law’s attempts to poison her were dramatically enacted with an underlying sense of melancholy.  However, Chitra eventually transformed that melancholy into profound longing for Krishna, and the fervent Mirabai finally emerged at the end of the piece.

Chitra Visweswaran
Uma Giri and Madhureeta Anand

While most of the conference focused on women from the past, film-maker Madhureeta Anand led a session on sadhvis, the modern-day mystic women of India.  She interviewed a remarkable Swedish woman named Uma, a nagasadhvi who has lived as an ascetic in India for several decades.  Immediately, Uma cleared several major misconceptions about ascetics such as the notion that they are all learned people who have mastered the sacred Hindu texts.  In fact, many members of her sect are simple folk from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they left their troubled homes in search of something greater.  Uma then revealed another disconcerting reality:  there is a certain degree of patriarchy and casteism in her Shaivite sect.  As a casteless, foreign woman, she was relegated to years sweeping, scrubbing pots, and silent observation before being fully initiated into the sect.  Sadly, these ascetic sects are now becoming diluted because of these caste and gender issues along with the proliferation of spurious “spiritual gurus.”
Dr. Ketu Katrak also touched upon the inherent paradox of mystic women in her final plenary session.  Despite being fiercely independent and outside of society’s conventions, the mystic saint-poetesses all yearned for a male deity!  Dr. Katrak also argued that this paradox can even be seen in the religious iconography of powerful goddesses from other faiths.  For example, Kali dances in a frenzied state over Shiva’s corpse while Egyptian goddess Isis clings to Osiris’s dead body.

Ketu H Katrak
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, Scott Kugle, Pallabi Chakravorty

Following this discussion were the final lectures of the conference by Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, Dr. Pallabi Chakravorty, and Dr. Scott Kugle.  Nirupama carefully examined the parallel lives of Mirabai and the Spanish catholic saint, Theresa of Avila. Interestingly, Mirabai and St. Theresa lived during the same time period and faced similar discrimination for their dissent against the Rajput patriarchy and the Catholic Church, respectively. However, St. Theresa’s works and life story were carefully preserved for posterity.  In contrast, many aspects of Mirabai’s life remain shrouded in uncertainty, but India’s strong oral tradition has kept her poetry alive.  

Drs. Pallabi Chakravorty and Scott Kugle then spoke about the influence of the bhakthi and Sufi traditions in the works of Mirabai and Mah Laq Bai (a famous Hyderabadi courtesan from the late 18th century CE).  Stirring music and dance are key elements in both traditions, and they are powerful mediums through which a person can reach out to their “beloved.” Surprisingly, Krishna was the sole object of devotion and affection in Mirabai’s bhajans and Mah Laq Bai’s thumris!  

Overall, the morning sessions of this conference were extremely informative and engaging because of the diversity of presenters and topics discussed.  Dr. Anita Ratnam must be commended for skillfully organizing and managing this conference.  Special mention must also be made to all the individuals who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make this conference so seamless.  Let’s see what pleasant surprises Dr. Ratnam has in store for Chennai’s rasikas in next year’s conference!

Chitra Visweswaran

Kiran Rajagopalan is a Bharatanatyam dancer based in Chennai.