Blending dance and poetry

Eternal Quest, a very special programme of classical dance based on the works of women poets from the Bhakti movement was presented by three prominent women danseuses of country. The dancers were Shovana Narayan (Kathak), Ranjana Gauhar (Odissi) and Rashmi Vaidialingam (Kuchipudi). The sutradhar of the programme was art writer and artist Alka Raghuvanshi. The programme was presented under the aegis of the India Habitat Centre on January 27.

All the dancers were chosen to highlight the poetry of essentially women bhakti poets including Meera Bai, Lal Ded, Gangasati and Jayadeva. All the four poets belong to the Bhakti Movement that had its genesis in the South of India in the 6th century. It was characterised by the writings of its poet-saints, many of whom were female, that extolled passionate inner, mystical, and highly personal devotional love for the divine. They chose to express themselves in the vernacular languages as opposed to Sanskrit. The Bhakti Movement gained momentum from the 12th centuries in the central western regions of India, it moved northward, coming to an end roughly in the 17th century.

"It is interesting that many of the bhakti poet-saints rejected asceticism as the crucial means toward liberation. Themes of universalism, a general rejection of institutionalised religion, and a central focus on inner devotion laid the groundwork for more egalitarian attitudes toward women and lower-caste devotees. Women and shudras, both at the bottom of the traditional hierarchy ordering society, became the examples of true humility and devotion," said Dr Alka Raghuvanshi.

Kathak maestro Shovana Narayan presented poetry of Lal Ded (1320–1392) and Gangasati (perhaps 13th or 15th century). "The Vaks of Lal Ded stem from personal experience, conveying the realisation that the divine resides within, expressing her yearning and irritation with the divine in turn. Lal Ded who had an unhappy married life, a jealous husband and an ill-treating mother-in-law, walked out of her marriage defying social norms," said Shovana.

Lal Ded rebelled against prevailing social norms, rejecting rituals, revolting against the powerful clergy of the times who had transformed these rituals into a means of exploitation, questioning the secondary status of women and advocating equality for all.

Shovana turned to the Gujarati poet Gangasati's bhajans, advocated the path of self-realisation. In stark contrast to Lal Ded was Gangasati, who was a happily married woman, with a devotional bent of mind and spirit who even converted her husband to the path of realisation.

Similarly, Gangasati's bhajans do not mention any specific deity but refer to god as nirguna, without form or attributes."Both Gangasati and Lal Ded speak of going beyond idol worship, of dissolving the "I" within, and finding ecstasy in merging the self with that of the para Brahman residing within," added Shovana.

The imagery of bhakti poetry is grounded in the everyday, familiar language of ordinary people. Women bhaktas wrote of the obstacles of home, family tensions, the absent husband, meaningless household chores, and restrictions of married life, including their status as married women. In many cases, they rejected traditional women's roles and societal norms by leaving husbands and homes altogether, choosing to become wandering bhaktas; in some instances, they formed communities with other poet-saints.

Moksha, or liberation from rebirth, was not in the following of rules, regulations or societal ordering; it was through simple devotion to the Divine. And the epitome of this yearning was Meera Bai, the 15th Century Sisodia princess from Rajasthan. Kuchipudi exponent Rashmi Vaidialingam performed on Meera's well-known bhajan 'Chalo Man Ganga Jamuna Teer' where Krishna's ostensible playful antics in hiding the gopis' clothes as they bathed is in fact the Lord's attempt to show them the path of surrender to the Divine.

Within the movement at large, useful distinctions have been made by contemporary scholars between those poet-saints who composed verses extolling God with attributes or form, namely, saguna bhaktas, and, those extolling God without and beyond all attributes or form, nirguna. "While the differences between the two branches of nirgun and sagun bhakti are indeed important, their overarching similarities cannot be minimised; both focused on singular devotion, mystical love for God, and had a particular focus on a personal relationship with the Divine," says Rashmi.

Odissi danseuse Ranjana Gauhar was suffused with love as expressed in the Gita Govindam a love song written by celebrated Saint poet Jayadeva in the 12th century. She performed on 'Sakhi Hey Keshi Mathan Mudaram', the sixth Ashtapadi where Radha and Krishna are the vehicles for the universalisation of emotions. "This excerpt describes Radha as abhisarika nayika who is smitten by the cupid's arrows and is entreating her sakhis to bring her to Krishna so that she can be united with him," said Ranjana.

Female poet-saints played a significant role in the bhakti movement at large. Nonetheless, many of these women had to struggle for acceptance within the largely male-dominated movement.

Their struggle attests to the strength of patriarchal values within society as well as religious and social movements, attempting to pave the way for more egalitarian access to the Divine.

Next Story
Share it