MAD and DIVINE women, Natya Darshan Seminar presented by Kartik Fine Arts
Dec 23 - 25, 2011 Chennai
Conference participants

Dr. Anita Ratnam
Dr. Anita Ratnam, renowned dancer-choreographer of Contemporary Indian Dance, based in Chennai, is recognized nationally and internationally.  Ratnam has a Ph.D in Women's Studies from Mother Theresa University (Chennai), and an MA in Theatre Arts from the University of New Orleans.  She initiated the major web portal of Indian dance, www.narthaki.com that includes reviews, interviews, and feature articles on Indian dance across the globe.  She also played a key role in the revival and restoration of Kaisika Natakam, a 13th century Tamil temple theatre ritual recreated in her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu.  Ratnam is a sought after speaker in universities and academic environments and serves as an Executive Member of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Government of India's national arts committee based in New Delhi.
www.arangham.com / www.anitaratnam.com

Shanta Serbjeet Singh
Shanta Serbjeet Singh, senior arts columnist and critic, author and cultural activist, is the   elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network, set up under the aegis of UNESCO in Seoul in 2000).  She received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India, in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.’s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, the national television body of India and the highest agency for grading performing artistes.  She is also on the selection committees of several prestigious Govt. of India bodies involved in culture, such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Keynote address on ‘Mad and Divine’
This topic of ‘Mad and Divine’ is presumably a pointer towards the nature of creativity; ‘madness’ and the ‘divinity’ stamp the creative person, the one who is popularly known as an artist.  The word ‘mad’ is now no longer a pejorative adjective.  It is a scientifically proven premise for the true artist; modern neurology has found enough evidence in the mass of jelly that is our brain to give credence to that old adage, ‘Madmen and artists are singularly alike.”  As for ‘divine’ the jury is out on that one.  After all, for any number of Beethovans and Tyagarajas who were wonderful artists and almost divine in their spirituality, there are the Einsteins who did change the world but who also beat up their wives and the Van Goghs who cut their ears in frustration.

Dr. Archana Venkatesan
Dr. Archana Venkatesan is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis.  Her research explores the intersections of textual, visual and performance in medieval South India.  She is also the author of The Secret Garland: Translations of Andal’s Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli and a forthcoming translation of Nammalvar’s Tiruviruttam (Penguin India.

Legends of the Goddess: Andal stories in the Srivaishnava traditions’
This paper examines Andal’s story as it circulates in both textual and oral sources since the 12th century, with a particular emphasis on the Manipravala Guruparamparaprabhavam 6000 and 3000 and the Sanskrit Divyasuricaritam.  I explore issues of genre, style and even language choice as I chart the changes in Andal’s story, and the history that such alterations both reveal and conceal.

Vidhya Subramanian
Vidhya Subramanian studied Bharatanatyam initially under Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam and enriched it under Gurus SK Rajarathnam and Kalanidhi Narayanan.  She is Founder and Artistic Director of Lasya Dance Company, having produced nine thematic works apart from several solo and ensemble works, earning critical acclaim.  She holds an MA in Theatre Arts (focus on Bharatanatyam) from San Jose State University.   www.vidhyasubramanian.com

Ojas – with that spiritual energy I yearn’       
Who am I? I am Meera.  I am Andal.  I am Jana.  I am Akka.  I am Lalla.  I am every feminine manifestation that dreams of release from the corporeal that binds me.  Why should I be shackled by the banality of marriage, household chores and sex?  I want to be free to sing, dance and commune with the Supreme.  I may be forced into marriage to royalty, I may be beaten, my life may be in danger, but my fervor cannot be extinguished. For I am ecstatic with devotion, even a little mad.  People call me insane.  I am misunderstood.  I say to them, “Leave me to lose myself in the ultimate that covers my nakedness of ignorance.”  I am sringara in bhakti.  I am bhakti in sringara.  I am the female voice of the Bhakti movement.

A solo work, Ojas – the spiritual energy, is the common space shared by every female saint-poet seen in this conference.  It explores the frenzy of devotion that unites them to oppose societal influence and follow their chosen path to the divine.  Lal Ded’s long absences and love for loneliness were misunderstood even though she fulfilled her household duties.  Akka rebelled against a stifling marriage and became a naked, wandering saint.  Meera was poisoned, ostracized and yet her songs live in our hearts to this day.  They shared common patriarchal domination and resistance to it.  However, they attained union with the divine and their resulting immortalization.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is a mythologist and the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group. Trained in medicine, he worked for 14 years in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry and had a brief stint with Ernst and Young as Business Advisor before joining Kishore Biyani who persuaded him to turn his hobby into a vocation.  He has written and lectures extensively on the relevance of myth and mythology in modern management.  His best seller books include ‘Jaya: an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata’ and ‘7 Secrets of Hindu Calendar Art.’    To know more, visit www.devdutt.com

He will speak on ‘Myth of the Mad Mystical Women’

Rajashree Shirke
Rajashree Shirke, a performer par excellence, has imbibed the technique and nuances of both Kathak and Bharatanatyam dance styles.  She is the Founder-Director of the Lasya Centre for Dance Education and Research, an institute that conducts University certified Diploma courses in Kathak and Bharatanatyam.

‘Sant Kanhopatra’
This is a prodigious and miraculous story in the history of the ‘Vaarkari Sampradaaye’ of Maharashtra - the story of saint poetess Kanhopatra; a story that bewilders historical and spiritual enthusiasts till today.

Kanhopatra was the child of a courtesan (‘Ganika’).  She was smart and bright, and grew up to be a beautiful maiden that made everybody gaze at her in awe-struck bewilderment. Her mother was proud to own such a ‘fine catch’ that would fetch her more than a fine price each time Kanhopatra pleased anybody of high rank or royalty.  She smiled with greed, assured that this ‘child’ would create her a life full of flamboyance and revelry. She only wished to use Kanhopatra to rid herself of the ordinary lifestyle.

Kanhopatra was proud of her beauty.  Streets being flocked with admirers were common to her.  Once during such a gathering, she was surprised to find out that it was Sant Dhyaneshwar’s sermon that had gathered this crowd.  Those spiritual words drew her like a child to its mother!  On seeing the revered idol of Lord Vitthala, she realized an ‘uncanny spiritual awakening’ in her heart.  She had lost her soul to Lord Vitthala!  Her longing grew fast.  Her mother disapproved of this longing, but all in vain.  Kanhopatra’s devotion brought her a fortunate end – at Lord Vitthala’s feet.  This production is in ‘Kathakaar Paddhati’ - an amalgamated version of the ancient form of storytelling  ‘Katha-Kathan Shaili’ from the temples of North India.

Dr. Madhavi Raghav Narsalay
Dr. Madhavi Raghav Narsalay is Assistant Professor of Sanskrit in the Post-graduate Sanskrit Department of the University of Mumbai.  Her areas of specialization include Religion and Mythology in textual as well as oral sources.  Many of her research papers establishing a link between the Epics and Puranas with Vedic Literature have been published in peer-reviewed journals.  Dr. Narsalay has been working in exploring different aspects of female divinities in ancient India with special focus on Maharashtra, taking into consideration the early Marathi literary sources, especially Saint Literature.

‘Institutionalizing identity through divinity: Female saint poetesses of Maharashtra’
The religious map of medieval Maharashtra witnessed a significant change with the rise of Bhakti cults - the Mahanubhava, Varakari and Ramadasi - over 500 years.  Female saints, though small in number have left their imprints on these cults. 

Among five female saint poetesses of Maharashtra - Mahadamba or Mahadaisa of the Mahanubhava cult, Muktabai, Janabai and Bahenabai of the Varakari cult and Venabai of the Ramadasi cult - this presentation focuses on three, namely, Mahadaisa, Janabai and Venabai.  Mahadaisa and Venabai faced widowhood and joined the cultic order.  Janabai, however, born in a low caste family proclaimed herself in her compositions as the servant of saint Namadeva.

These saint poetesses’ life histories and compositions demonstrate that despite being born in a patriarchal society, they took the path not trodden by women, asserting an independent identity especially during a period when women in general were faceless.  In their pursuit for attaining proximity with the god whom they worshipped, they are exceptional women - Mahadaisa (composer of Rukminisvayamvara) appears to be a cyclist, Janabai (composer of Abhaṅgas) emerges as a conformist and Venabai (composer of Sitasvayamvara) becomes a rebel.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a poet, writer and translator.  Her publications include Not Springtime Yet (Harper Collins, 2008), and Dialogues and Other Poems (Indian Academy of Literature, 2005).  Sarukkai-Chabria edits the website ‘Talking Poetry.’ Recipient of Senior Fellowship to Outstanding Artists from the Indian government, she is translating 8th century Tamil mystic poet Andal, writing a travelogue-memoir and a short story collection to be published in 2012. She’s at www.priyawriting.com

‘Aandaal: The Autobiography of a Goddess’
The 8th century Tamil mystic Aandaal sought union with her love, Narayana Nampi, the God of the Universe.  Hers is an intense spiritual call, at once passionate and cerebral, situated in the world she knows yet transgressive as in verse after verse of her second composition, The Sacred Songs of the Lady, she reaches towards all consuming divine splendor.  I shall present some of her sonic sacraments in the English language, keeping close to the poetic conventions she worked within while Vasudha Ravi will render some pasuram in songs, while abiding by the concepts behind my transcreations.  Aandaal’s pasurams have as much meaning today as when composed centuries ago as she sought consonance with the universe.

Akhila Ramnarayan
Akhila Ramnarayan is a literary scholar and theatre artist who completed her PhD on Tamil literature and marumalarcci during the nationalist period (specifically Kalki Ra Krishnamurti's historical romance Sivakamiyin Sapatam) at Ohio State University (2006). She was Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the University of Dayton's Department of English (2005-2011).  Currently, she teaches literature and human rights at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.  Since 2007, she is an active member of JustUs Theatre Repertory in Chennai.
Temporal transgressions: Going global with bhakti
How can the poetry of medieval female mystics from south Asia - and devotional poetics associated with such poetry - prepare us to read contemporary women poets?  My presentation examines through the prism of female bhakti, the work of two contemporary First Nations women poets: Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and Haunani-Kay Trask, both of whom invoke indigenous spirituality in their poetry as a means of political resistance to colonization, and as a reclamation of native worldview, culture, identity, and nation.  Images of the woman artist as renunciate, ascetic, and exemplar of bhakti devotionalism became hugely popular in the tumultuous years leading up to Indian independence, and continue to resonate within the subcontinent today.   In autobiographical poetry that marks the stages of an intensely personal spiritual journey, the bhakta, particularly the female bhakta, flouts the religious and socio-political status quo en route to human-divine union, or so the story goes.  Such familiar narratives surrounding bhakti’s female vanguard - Meera, Akka Mahadevi, Avvai, Andal - typically involve a set of interlinked paradoxes along gender, caste, and class lines:  iconoclasm and orthodoxy, exploitation and agency, role transgression and retrenchment.  But whether bhakti really reflects a democratizing impulse in the social imaginary, or, to the contrary, signals the appropriation of female mysticism’s voices by the religious and political mainstream to preserve the status quo, is a question debated by today’s cultural historians.  Tracing these debates, I argue that bhakti poetics and politics can provide a viable entry point for cross-cultural literary comparison spanning different locations and time periods.

Chitra Visweswaran
Chitra Visweswaran’s research directed towards the  extension of the existing Bharatanatyam repertoire has led to the creation of a voluminous body of work covering the margam, thematic solo, group dance theatre productions, which reflect individuality and are a synergy of tradition and innovation. Her work has been enriched by the music of her vocalist - musician - composer husband Visweswaran.  The couple established Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts in Chennai in 1975.

Meera will always remain an inspiration to those who seek a divine path.  Although she was born a Rajput princess brought up in royal splendour, then wedded into royalty, she became an ardent devotee who dared to be different, to defy social norms, and single mindedly pursue an all-consuming passion.

Meera’s poetic words were not written to display literary virtuosity; rather they are a spontaneous outpouring of her deepest feelings and sentiments.  Her lyrics are simple, musical and potent with devotion.  Termed a rebel and cloaked in the garb of madness by a spiritually unawakened society, as many a seeker before and after her, Meera also, oblivious of social ostracism, courageously forged ahead in pursuit of the Divine Call.

Her songs show the maturing of the relationship of a human soul with the Divine, the blossoming of bhakti from a bud into a full blown flower.  Her soulful yearnings speak of a love beyond the earthly and finally the seeking without evolves into the seeking within. Meera's quest transcends time and space.  Her spiritual journey is one that any soul yearning for the divine can identify with.

Madhureeta Anand
Madhureeta Anand has directed many documentary films and series, spanning a variety of genres.  Many of her films have been telecast on BBC, Channel 4, Discovery, and National Geographic.  She received the Silver Conch Award (2006) at the Mumbai International Film Festival for her film ‘Walking on a Moonbeam.’  She produced and directed a thirty-minute documentary feature (2001) on the Kumbh Mela, ‘In Search of Salvation.’  She was the festival director for the UFO0110 International Digital Film Festival.

‘Hearts in ecstasy: A presentation of images and words about Sadhvis
It is said that coincidences are spiritual puns.  At first skeptical of such a saying, I gradually began to believe it.  As a documentary filmmaker I could have ended up making films on just about anything, but repeatedly and without fail, I ended up in crowds of sadhus and religious men and women.

Travelling across the length and breadth of the country, I would find myself at one dhuni after another.  As I inhaled the smoke of these holy fires, I never suspected that somehow these meetings were fated.  Seeking solace in the middle of dusty, sandy, smoky environs, I found myself gravitating towards the women at these places.  Here I found a new world.  A world set apart from the usual space that women occupy in India.  Always weaving my way in and out of their lives, I would see them again and again.  Over time and many such reunions, bonds and friendships were built.

At this presentation, I will try and represent what I heard and saw - the stories of these women, who they are, what makes them who they are, and why they chose the paths they did.  Most of these women are from the Naga Sadhu tradition and some are Baul singers. Although there are many women who enter these orders by default (because they are widowed or abandoned), the women in my presentation are those who were drawn to where they are today.

Dr. Ketu H Katrak
Dr. Ketu H Katrak (originally from Bombay, India), is Professor of Drama at the University of California, Irvine (UCI); Founding Chair of the Department of Asian American Studies (1996-2004) at UCI.  She specializes in Drama, Dance and Performance, Postcolonial and Diaspora Literature, and Feminist Theory.  She has published widely in journals such as Modern Fiction Studies, Amerasia among others.  Katrak is the recipient of a Fulbright Research Award to India (2005-06), University of California, Humanities Research Institute's Fellowship (2002), The Bunting Institute Fellowship (1988-89) (Harvard/Radcliffe) among other awards.

Closing Plenary: ‘Creative representations of ‘Madness’ accessing the Divine’
Lyric poetry and songs, scholarly words and dance performances conveying the ecstasy of India’s female saint-poets have delighted us over the past few days.  Indeed, such divine ecstasy is found in other world religious traditions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America expressed in possession, and other spiritual practices.  In our gathering here, artists and scholars have delved into different issues such as where “madness” and “divinity” come together; how the arts - literary, expressive, music, dance - facilitate access to divinity; how the inner worlds of the saint-poets collide with outer social and patriarchal controls that judge these female mystics as crazy.  Equally significant are the various avenues of creative resistance that these women embrace often with no concern for their bodily safety.  Gender and cultural politics join together to attack the kind of madness that transgresses social codes.  But for the female saints, such madness, challenging the line between sanity and insanity, is liberatory and transformative.

Who judges that these women are indeed “mad”?  What may be considered “mad” by society is sane in the saint-poets’ quest.  Indeed, such madness itself expressed in divine-inspired ecstasy enables the saint-poet to reach union with the divine.

In the Indian aesthetic the divine is expressed via the corporeal and sensual.  The sensual and spiritual are not separate; indeed the five physical senses convey the spiritual as the devotee aspires to touch, taste, feel the divine spark within her heart and soul even momentarily.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and arts writer. She trained under an impeccable lineage of gurus - Swamimalai SK Rajarathnam, Kalanidhi Narayanan and Kamala Rani.  Sankalpa Dance Foundation, a non-profit organization was founded by Nirupama in the San Francisco Bay area. She documented through oral history techniques the early days of Indian classical dance in California.  Nirupama holds an MA degree in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a gold medalist from the University of Madras.

‘Meerabai and St. Teresa of Avila: Lives in parallel worlds’
My exploration of the prevalent concept of nayika-nayaka bhavam and longing for union in Hindu religious poetry inspired a further journey, namely to find if this “mystical union” was also expressed poetically in other faiths.  This led me to the Catholic St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) who lived in Spain around the same time as India’s Meerabai (1498-1547).   Both were mystics and prolific women writers.  St. Teresa was canonized in 1622; in 1970, she was the first woman to be honored as Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI.

Meera and Teresa, born into wealthy families, renounced material comforts and embraced lives of piety for which they were tested constantly, because of the patriarchal rigidity that surrounded them.  Meerabai faced severe criticism from her husband and family.  Teresa fought to establish an independent convent for nuns at Avila - unusual decision for a nun during the Spanish Inquisition when insubordination to the Church could be construed as heresy and punished with severity. 

In spite of these rigid political structures, the saints’ writings gained them immortal status.  Meerabai’s intense love for Krishna is reflected in her bhajans.  St. Teresa envisioned the soul as a castle with multiple chambers to which entry was gained through “prayer and meditation.”  Her book, The Interior Castle continues to serve as a guide to prayer for Catholics worldwide.  

I compare these women’s innermost spiritual journeys (via translations of their writings) undertaken amidst overwhelming odds.  I aim to demonstrate that the contribution of each poet is enhanced by the examination of the other.

Pallabi Chakravorty
Trained in Kathak dance, Pallabi Chakravorty is Associate Professor in the Department of Music and Dance at Swarthmore College, USA.  She is a scholar of Visual Anthropology, Performance, and Culture.   She is the author/editor of four books and proceedings and several journal articles and book chapters, most notably, Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India. Her most recent work is on Tagore's music and dance legacy and is forthcoming in the history journal South Asia.  Pallabi is the founder and artistic director of Courtyard Dancers (courtyarddancers.org), based in Philadelphia.

Scott Kugle
Scott Kugle is a scholar of Islamic culture and Religious Studies.  He is currently Associate Professor at Emory University (in Atlanta, USA) in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.  His research focuses on Sufism, on devotional poetry and music, and on gender.  He and Pallabi Chakravorty have collaborated on a book entitled Performing Ecstasy: the Poetry and Politics of Religion in India (Delhi: Manohar, 2009).  He has published five books and many articles.  His next book is about gender and spirituality with regard to Urdu poetry written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Hyderabad Deccan region of India (focusing on the poets Siraj Awrangabadi and Mah Laqa Bai Chanda).

‘Dancing for a divine beloved: Mah Laqa Bai and Meerabai between Hinduism and Islam’
I'm wasted away and melted down
Imprisoned in sorrow over you, yet
As if an open ring in a chain
My smile is wide in madness over you

These are two couplets from the poetry of Mah Laqa Bai, a courtesan in late 18th century Hyderabad who is counted as the first female poet to compile a divan of Urdu ghazals. She was not only a dancer and singer, but was also a devoted Muslim mystic.  How can an aristocratic courtesan also be a devotee and mystic?

Mah Laqa Bai’s personality enabled her to pose as a woman performer who was rapt by mystical love that made her madly impassioned and therefore beyond the routine cares of the world.  The first element is the ghazal itself, a form of poetry deeply inflected by Sufi images of madness in love.  The second element is her family history, as her mother abandoned her child to pursue mystical devotion.  The third element is her role as a Kathak dancer, for this allowed her to access a syncretic tradition that involved playful bhakti images of women mad for a divine beloved.

We access the Bhakti undertones of Mah Laqa Bai’s dance and poetry through comparison with Meerabai.  We also include the archive of Mah Laqa Bai’s family history in which Shiite Muslim women learned to dance from roving Bhakti musicians from Rajasthan.

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