Fire and Ash
Dr. Gowri Ramnarayan’s lecture on Fire and Ash based on her recent production of the same name was captivating, to say the least.
She covered the numerous aspects of Siva, highlighted the contradictions in the concept of Siva, underscored the relevance of Siva in our times, with reference to ancient myths and literature, and in the end, left us amazed and bewildered as to what, or who, is Siva! I, for one, felt transported deep into the mysticism, totally absorbed in the strength of faith that came alive with Gowri’s words and the beautiful demonstration by dancer Anjana Anand to melodious singing by Savita Narasimhan. So much so that as I sit down to pen this report, I wonder if I can do justice to all that was said and shown!
Images of various forms of Siva from ancient times that were projected on the screen helped in giving us a visual understanding. Savita Narasimhan’s paintings that had been done for the production Fire and Ash were done with great sensitivity and symbolized the varied aspects of Siva that the speakerunravelled step by step.
Hindu tradition is replete with images, icons and symbols with multilevel layers of meanings. Siva, unlike Vishnu, has a fearsome image with dreadlocks, snakes for ornaments and ash smeared on his body. But Saints like Appar and Manikkavachakar have melted with devotion at the mere thought of his name!
Siva as Nataraja is an enchanting icon, admired and revered the world over for its beauty and perfection; creating the imagery of cosmic energy and fiery movement, frozen in stillness as a statue.
The stories Gowri quoted from the writings of Kalki Krishnamurthy provided a comic, yet thought provoking interlude.
Talking about Saivism of the Pallava period, she talked about how the beauty of Appar’s poetry could convert the king to Saivism from Jainism. “My interest in Siva grew, with greater exposure to poetry and sculpture. I became closer, more intimate to Siva, and more emotionally charged” she said. A temple and its deity are revered only when great saints and seers have entrusted them with divinity through their writings. To maintain and sustain that divinity, it is necessary for the process to be a continual one through the ages.
She described the drama of the deeparadhana in temples – the devotees anxiously and eagerly waiting as the deity is being dressed and decorated behind the screen, then the screen opening in a flash to reveal the glorious sight of the priest showing the deeparadhana – as the ultimate theatrical device!
Man is endowed with the faculty of creativity and imagination with which he can be the master of the entire universe; Gowri sees Siva as representative of our transcendental power of imagination.
Indian tradition believes that all beings are women and that the only male is the Paramapurusha. Many poets have built their bond with the lord by the magic of imagining themselves to be women. Bhakti poets are amazing in this ability. Gnanasambandar’s Siraiyaarum mada kiliye where the lovelorn nayika begs her pet parrot to utter his name just once was demonstrated by Anjana Anand.
Gowri next took up the contradictions seen in the Siva tattva. As Ardhanareeswara, we see him as the sringara nayaka. God of fire and ash, he is called Jaganmohanan, who attracts the heart of damsels.
The Indus valley civilization seals show him as a yogi with the Trisul for a crown, surrounded by animals, with whom he is completely at ease – Pasupati. In Shamanic cultures he is the god of intuitions, the unknown, unpredictable, uncontrollable, unknowable, unconquerable – in short, dangerous. Even today for tribals, Siva is both the killer and the healer. And we believe him to be the Vaidyanatha.
The Upanishads describe him as the benevolent Siva, belonging to nature and civilization; and the Vedas proclaim him to be the formless cosmic energy. In tantric yantras he is a geometric abstraction. Lingam is another abstraction. Abstraction and concretization play hide and seek.
Gowri spoke about dancer Veenapani Chawla’s work comparing Siva with Arjuna: Arjuna was a great warrior, but also tender and compassionate, uniting both male and female qualities. Today’s scientific research tells us that the brain’s left and right sides deal with emotion and logic, denoting female and male traits.
In Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam we see Siva’s ascetic force uniting with Parvati’s regenerative force, restoring balance in the world.
Taking the song teruvil vaaraano, where the nayika yearns to unite with the lord, Gowri sees it as the aspiration of the human to reach the highest state of being, the strength lying in her not losing hope in spite of her human limitations.
Myths help us to understand our own times, then provide guidance for a solution. Siva trapping the raging waters of the Ganga and releasing it as a gentle stream emphasis environment protection. Our misuse of natural resources and our greed will eventually lead to the cataclysmic destruction that our myths term the end of Kaliyuga. As the archetypal yogi, Siva remains austere and restrained in the face of temptation shunning excess and greed.
Myths tell us that everything arises and subsides in Sivam. Sivam is omnipresent, in every breath we take, in our every action, our constant guide and companion. The item ‘kaatre sivam’, penned by Gowri, put together by dancer Sheejith Krishna and Anjana Anand, and demonstrated by the latter succeeded in bringing all this to life, so profound and moving it was!
Surdas’s song dekhori ek bala jogi again took us to the world of mother Yasoda trying to protect her baby Krishna from the scary mendicant Siva. Anjana’s depiction, Savita’s singing, Gowri’s prelude - all melded into one outstanding rendering that transported us to another realm!
Gowri referred to the mystic poetess Mahadevi Akka whose poems are full of mystic visions and a deep feeling for nature. She sees god everywhere, yet searches for him everywhere; she has complete faith, but is also filled with doubt; even as she grasps at reality, she is afraid of illusions. This completely reflects the attitude we all have today.
Gowri’s cocluding remarks are best told in her own words:
“I realised that art has the power to transform the physical to metaphysical, concrete to abstract, earthly to the transcendental, sight to insight. That is why we revere our poets as rishis and Munis. That is why myth and art can teach us dharmam, better than philosophy. That is why Siva has to be a Yogi, a Bhikshatana, free from all worldly cravings. That is why he is the supreme visionary who teaches us the highest truths through his dancing, drumming and veena playing.
“Siva dances alone: in the golden temple hall; in the vast inter galactic, macro cosmic infinite spaces; and in the chamber of every single human heart; for himself, forgetting himself. From that creative energy we draw our energy, our aspiration.”