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Closing Plenary: “Creative Representations of ‘Madness’ Accessing the Divine”
on Dec 25, 2011
- Ketu H. Katrak, University of California, Irvine

We have reached the closing session of our 3-day journey guided by Anita Ratnam’s creative vision in proposing this subject of “Mad and Divine” that has brought us together from different parts of India and beyond. I describe Anita in my recently published book on Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) as an ethno-global artist, i.e. as one who is rooted in her indigenous Tamil culture and Indian aesthetics along with openness to global influences. She is an artist and a thinker, pre-eminent as a performer and choreographer, along with her talents as presenter and promoter of India’s visual and performing arts. Indeed, a phrase that Anita used to describe one of our speakers, Devadutt Pattanaik, as one who “connects the dots” is as applicable to her - Anita connects people, artists, scholars and is a catalyst for many artists’ new creations for our “Mad and Divine” gathering.

The past three days have given rich expression via words, lyrics, songs, dances and performances to the many dimensions of the inspiring work of India’s female saint-poets, their different avenues of accessing the divine, and their resistances to social conformity, instead of following the tradition of embracing their husband as god. Their avenue to the spiritual is the body--the human body is the vehicle using voice, movement, and gesture to access the divine, giving a corporeal dimension to the spiritual. The sensual and spiritual come together; indeed the spiritual is accessed via the sensual, epitomized in what Priya Sarukkai Chabria described eloquently as Andal’s “eroticized calls to the divine, to receive god inside her body. For Andal, “the body is a site of the sacred” as Sarukkai Chabria puts it. Similar to the connection between the corporeal and the spiritual is the concept of rasa in Indian aesthetics - rasa includes the notion of tasting food (a sensory feeling), a gastronomical reality, and rasa as aesthetic pleasure (experienced bodily and mentally). Both concepts of rasa flow in a continuum.

Since this is our closing session, I summarize here the highlights of our Symposium, also to benefit those who could not attend all three days. I felicitate our distinguished award-winning performing artists as well as our morning presenters--cultural thinkers, scholars, media columnists, filmmakers, and poets--who have given us much food for thought beginning with Shanta Serbjeet Singh’s Keynote in which she recognized that a certain kind of madness is embedded in creativity. She describes the female saint-poets as avadhurus, i.e. “eccentric mystics”, and further, Singh coins the word avadhurism as a kind of crazy wisdom that we need in our life. She reminds us that the freedom we enjoy today in expressing these ideas was not available to the female saint-poets of earlier days. Our speakers excavate the poetry and history of the female saint-poets -- Andal, Meera, Akka, Laldeb. These names, in colored flowers, embedded in frames of white flowers welcome us at the entrance of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The 8th century Tamil mystic Andal’s lyrical, indeed erotic poems seeking union with Lord Vishnu inspired many speakers - Archana Venkatesan’s learned talk analyzed changes in the commonly known versions of Andal’s story, namely the figure of Anasuya as messenger in the Sanskrit Divyasuricaritam. Venkatesan noted “the transgressive moment” of Andal’s wearing the iconic garland; her hair scents it as Vishnu’s bride. Mythologist Devadutt Pattanaik’s evocative talk also dealt with visual symbols of hair and clothing on goddess images. “Hair is a vocabulary” Pattanaik remarked as he showed visual representations including one of Sita sending her hairpin to Rama via Hanuman.

Rajshree Shirke, as the kathakar (story-teller) narrated and danced with her ensemble, bringing us the story of Kanhopatra of Maharashtra who rejects marriage to the powerful King for her love of Lord Vittala. Madhavi Narsaly also examined three female saint-poets of Maharashtra: Mahadaisa and Venabai, both child-widows, and Janabai who belonged to the lowest sudra caste and hence suffered much prejudice. This history of downtrodden child widows and the outcaste sudras has similarities to the stories of widows in North India who ran away to become courtesans as documented in Veena Oldenberg’s seminal research.

Chitra Visweswaran’s moving dancing rendering Meera’s bhakti started on the third morning, followed by conferring the Lifetime Achievement Award by Kartik Fine Arts to Vyjantimala Bali in a memorable ceremony, surrounded on stage by Chitra Visweswaran, Sudharani Raghupathy, Anita Ratnam and Chairman L. Sabaretnam. Bali, an ardent Andal devotee received a traditional Andal-style garland made especially for her from the shrine at Srivilliputtur. Bali then delighted the audience with dancing to a verse from Krishna Karnamrutam; her profoundly honed artistry was mesmerizing to witness.

An unusual presence at the gathering was a contemporary Swedish woman, Uma Giri, ordained as a Naga sadhu, who shared her experience of being drawn to a spiritual path like the saint-poets of bygone times. Giri exemplified that such phenomena are still with us today. She talked to documentary filmmaker Madhureeta Anand about living within the predominantly male Naga Sadhu religious order. 

Some presenters journeyed beyond India--Akhila Ramnarayan analyzed First Nations poets of Hawaii who evoke indigenous spirituality to resist colonization. Nirupama Vaidyanathan in our Closing Plenary takes us into the parallel lives of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) who lived during the same historical time as India’s Meerabai (1498-1547), and both renounced material comforts to embrace a devotional path. Pallabi Chakravorty and Scott Kugle jointly present the Muslim Sufi tradition of ecstatic devotion and the syncretism of Hinduism (Meera) and Islam in Bhakti and Sufi traditions rendered in Mah Laqa Bai’s poems, an 18th century mystic and courtesan.

As artists, interlocutors, and scholars we have used interdisciplinary tools to investigate the overlaps between the mad and the divine; how art, in fact, facilitates access to the divine; how “madness” as in fully ecstatic devotion is a necessary component of touching the divine even momentarily. We distinguish the judgment of “madness” from social censure, from the judgment of “madness” as transcendence. These issues are significant in the context of gender and cultural politics since the female saint-poet’s femininity, femaleness, and female sexuality are controlled tightly within patriarchal family structures. Even though some speakers have noted the formlessness, even the gender neutrality of divine desire, the fact remains that women like Meera who existed in history suffered ridicule and rejection. Such social censure is not enforced on male saint-poets since they are not judged as breaking social norms the way that women are. Gender and cultural politics come together in branding the women as mad for transgressing social codes, and rendering them as outsiders to society. But for the female saints, there is no choice but to follow their passion and their mad devotion to the divine is liberatory and transformative.

I would like to note a curious paradox - even as the saint-poets reject material comforts, they are not free of desire itself - they have all-consuming passion for the Lord. To express desire in itself (for human or divine) involves what French philosopher Jacque Lacan calls “jouissance” (joy/ecstasy) that “makes sayable a desire [that] both language and the law would disallow” women in patriarchy. As scholar Barbara C. Freeman argues in her article: “A Union Forever Deferred: Sexual Politics After Lacan”, this “specifically feminine jouissance - that moment in erotic (but I will argue perhaps also semiotic) experience is always in excess” (Qui Parle, 4:2, Spring 1991), and hence threatening to patriarchal order.

Let me gesture to similar social censures on women in other cultures - for instance in medieval Europe and its negative judgment of mystic women like Joan of Arc. Scholar Anne L. Barstow in her article, “Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism” makes a useful distinction - “differentiating between active mysticism and the more familiar affective or love mysticism” as in the study of medieval European charismatic women who are often all described as “mystics.”  The “authority” of figures like Joan of Arc was based on “visionary experience” that placed her outside the realm of usual female behavior and was considered heretical by the Church. Joan of Arc’s “visions led her into the central places of masculine power, where she performed as an active mystic, serving as both catalyst and instigator in the political life of her era” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1985. See also Barstow, Joan of Arc: Heretic, Mystic, Shaman, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985, for an expanded discussion).

It is a curious fact that most female saint-poets yearn for a male deity such as Mira for Krishna, Akka for Shiva, rather than goddess figures that also have great power in the Hindu pantheon such as Durga, Shakti, Meenakshi, and figures such as Kali (like Shiva) who have creative and destructive powers. Kali is depicted in some iconographic images as dancing on her sometime husband Shiva in a state of arousal. There are parallels between Indian goddesses and those from other cultures. For instance, Kali parallels the Egyptian myth of the goddess Isis who conceives a son as she flutters over her dead but sexually aroused husband, Osiris.  Another parallel figure is the Yoruba goddess Oya (Nigeria) who has creative and destructive potential like Kali. Oya presides over childbirth as well as death. She guards spoken oaths and brings justice to those who break their word. In Polynesian culture, Pele, the Volcano goddess is creative and destructive. When a volcano erupts there may be destruction, but Pele also creates islands from the volcanic ash - as is the belief for the creation of the Hawaiian Islands.

A further paradox is that although goddesses have great power in Indian traditions as in Africa, and other indigenous cultures of Native America, South America, Australia, etc., ordinary women in these societies endure much inequality in male-based patriarchal social systems. Ordinary women often worship goddesses in the forms of the Earth Mother, a practice in many cultures such as the Greek goddess Gaia from ancient times, the Mother of all things; or Okanaga of the Native Americans who is the Earth Woman, Primal Woman (David Leeming & Jake Page, Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine, NY: Oxford UP, 1994). The Aborigines of Australia worship Kunapipi, as the First Mother who taught songs and the tradition of dreamtime. Overall, goddesses develop characteristics of the particular cultures from which they originate. From Colombia, South America, comes Romi Kumu, a woman shaman who is believed to have “shaped the earth, and created the underworld where the volcanic fires of her vagina seethed and sometimes erupted, creating mountains. She is the mother of all people, ruler of the trees, of the night, of earth and air.”

The concept of sacrifice and self-sacrifice as part of goddess worship involves at times, bodily sacrifice - as Akka sheds clothing and walks naked through the streets lost in her rapture for Shiva. A parallel is found in Near East belief with the goddess Astarte to whom pilgrims come, offer her their jewels, some shear off their hair to become part of her holy priesthood.

Goddesses associated with the serpent motif among the Aztecs and India’s tantric cults are based on “the power of female sexuality. The goddess is depicted at times with a phallus-like serpent emerging from her vulva, suggesting an androgynous power that combines all energy.” The serpent is the kundalini, cosmic energy coiled at the base of the spine according to Kundalini yoga. When awakened, the energy serpent coils through the sacred points of the body and activates the individual, even as s/he activates the Universe itself.

The Great Mother goddess who reigned supreme in pre-classical Minoan Crete in 3rd and 2nd BCE is also a Snake goddess, bare-breasted, holding up snakes, symbolic of regeneration in each hand.  She kept the earth fertile but her terrifying eyes speak of “Kali-like death and destruction. Crete was known for its earthquakes.”


Selected References for the Female Divine
Desmond Marilyn, ed. Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference. University of Minnesota Press, 1988
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. The Witches’ Goddess: The Female Principle of Divinity. London: Robert Hale, 1987.
Howie, Gillian & Jobling, J’annine, Women and the Divine: Touching Transcendence. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Leeming, David & Page, Jack, Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine. Oxford University. Press, 1994
Narnes, Cragi S., In Search of the Lost Feminine: Decoding the Myths that Radically Reshaped Civilization. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2006
Ochshorn, Judith, The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine. Indiana University Press, 1981!


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