Madness from Kashmir
- Veejay Sai
Photos: Lalitha Venkat

January 4, 2012

Every time one reads the lines of the Sufi poet and mystic Hazrat Amir Khusrau, “Agar Firdaus bar rue Zamin ast, Hamin asto Hamin asto Hamin ast” (If there is a paradise on earth, this is it, this is it, this is it!), it makes you feel both elated and equally sad. Elated to know such greats walked the land of Kashmir and sad to see the current state of affairs the state faces. Neither of Kashmir’s performing arts have been archived or documented like other states in the country. Severe unending political tensions in the state of Jammu and Kashmir over the last few decades have also made sure the glory of a culturally vibrant Kashmir faded out in public memory. Amidst all this, when seminal literary works of the female mystic poet Lal Ded were almost forgotten, the Mad & Divine conference organized by Dr. Anita Ratnam of the Arangham Trust and Kartik Fine Arts came in as an appropriate fulcrum to recollect such works.
We have all seen Rama Vaidyanathan dance Bharatanatyam and she is no doubt one of our country’s finest! What we haven’t seen her do before, and thanks to this festival was a completely different and transformed vision of her dance. Rama conceptualized the immortal poetry of Lal Ded and transformed it into a spectacular dance presentation like no one else did earlier. The last memory of Lal Ded in any performing art space was Mita Vasisht’s mono-act. Rama came in with a fresh perspective. What one saw on the stage that evening was a very different Rama, totally unleashed and at her creative best.

Working within the set framework of Bharatanatyam’s movement and vocabulary and yet using her artistic liberties in abhinayic-abstractions and interpretive elements, her dance embodied the philosophy of Lal Ded with an ease that only she could pull off. Her sensible usage of stage space in her choreography stood out exemplary. Dressed in ivory white with her long tresses flowing over her shoulders, Rama’s image worked its way into the rasika’s thoughts. Between acts, as she glided her way to the mike to announce or narrate the various stories of Lal Ded, one could see how much of genuine effort she put into a production of this nature. Lal Ded’s poetry is abstract amorphous philosophy and hence has an element of timelessness in it. She writes about issues that are relevant today, both to the society and to the spiritual seeker. To take such an unstructured piece of literature, like when she speaks of the society’s harsh reaction to Lalla’s philosophy and her response of taking praise and blame with equal measure, using the knots of a cloth on both her shoulders to weigh the symmetry, was a classic act of well-thought-out choreography. With every stride one could see Rama getting carried away into a cloud of mysticism.  By the end of the performance, she not only got a standing ovation from the audiences but also transported them to the land of Lal Ded’s Vakhs. What else can one say about such a wonderful performance of contemporary dance? One had to see it to believe the experience of it. Eminent Prof. Neerja Mattoo, the one and only scholar who worked tirelessly all her life to propagate the works of Lal Ded and bring them into popular discourse and academia over the last many decades, would have been thrilled to view this performance.

One must congratulate Anita Ratnam for thinking Rama could conceptualize a subject of this nature. Though short in its time limit, a subject of this nature could easily be elaborated into a full-fledged production. We hope Rama can work more on it. All along when one thinks of literature or performances from Kashmir, one gets to only see average to mediocre productions of Amir Khusrau’s bio-sketch or folk dances. This production surely opens new doors into the rich world of Kashmiri Literature. Kudos to Arangham trust and Rama for this significant collaboration!

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.