Exploring the devi in her elements through dance is a daunting journey through text and movements. The dance form becomes a vehicle to the devi, her moods, presence and power.
My journey in unravelling the layers of Indian mythology, our deities, their attributes – those that have been penned by great seers, saints and thought-provoking authors have often made me open my eyes with astonishment and wonder. Many of the thoughts remain relevant even today. The gen-next in the art world are the ones that are hungry for reworking traditional thoughts within their own parameters of thinking. A spiritual trip to Haridwar and Auroville recently has triggered my thoughts on devi, her power and presence.
Shri Aurobindo, a great devotee of the Mother Goddess, spoke extensively about trishula and Shakti in some of his lectures. Trishula as an astraa or weapon did convey to the common man – destruction. But for the initiated and the evolved, it has meant much more than a weapon, which the devi used to vanquish evil. The very stance of her holding the weapon exudes a huge sense of power. Why was devi as Durga with the trishula seated on the mighty lion considered aggressive and powerful?
In Hindu iconography, positive aspects of the vehicle are often emblematic of the deity that it carries. Nandi, the bull – Shiva's vehicle, represents strength and virility. Mayura, the peacock, vehicle of Skanda, represents splendor and majesty. The hamsa, vehicle of Saraswati, represents wisdom, grace and beauty. However, the vehicle animal also symbolises the evil forces over which the deity dominates. The ferociousness of the lion, its majestic mane and its immense strength compliments the devi – a vahana that is ideally suitable to the power and aggressiveness of Shakti. What could be the colour of the flower that is this regal, dynamic and compelling avatar of Shakti? Red, of course, there could be none other but the colour of the blood that adorns her. It is perennial and flowers through the year.
Armed with sufficient information and research done, these symbolic divine aspects and elements, the endeavour was now to bring them to life through the idiom of dance. This was to be done by the young and vibrant dancers waiting in the wings to be brought to front stage. A challenge certainly, but surely possible, the job of selecting a dancer for an element proved to be a key facet. As they say philosophically, the devi chose her dancer for each of the element. The test of success was to present these traditional elements in a manner that the youth of today are willing to engage or relate to them. “New wine in old bottle”, was the mantra to execute.
A devout bhakta of devi, especially having received the blessings of Saraswati from our guru on Navratri many moons ago, the chanting of the mantra enables and guides me through all these artistic endeavours.
My attempt was to bring forth the elements that symbolised, or rather, were synonymous with Indian deities. Divya Trilogy, the work, explored the divine elements surrounding the deities, the reason and the method for their creation, their usage, their relationship with the deity or owner. Our deities are recognised by the weapons they carry, the vehicles they rode, the flowers that were used to pay obeisance to them etc.
This was an attempt to bring forth the significance – physically and meta-physically of these elements Divya Trilogy presented Divya Astraas, Divya Vahanas and Divya Pushpams. Nearly 15 dancers and a combination of nattuvanars and musicians from across India teaming up with lyricists, writers and composers was a huge exercise resulting in successful performances in Delhi and Bengaluru. They are now moving to Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai. Each dancer enabled himself or herself with the material available and then looked for contemporary resources to create for them.
In the three-part series, we explored the concepts – the episodes that dancers researched to bring them to life. Traditional knowledge, compositions, ashtakams and shlokas of saint composers very intelligently combined with new lyrics and compositions yet keeping the artistic classicism intact was the challenge.
In keeping with the ensuing Navratri, we explore devi’s astraa, pushpam and vahana as presented in the festival of divine elements.
In Hindu mythology, an astraa was a supernatural weapon, presided over by a specific deity. The bearer of the weapon is called astradhari. To summon or use an astraa required knowledge of a specific incantation/invocation, when armed. The deity invoked would then endow the weapon making it impossible to counter through regular means. Specific conditions existed involving the usage of astraas, the violation of which could be fatal. Because of the power involved, the knowledge involving an astras was passed on in the guru-shishya tradition from a guru (teacher) to a shishya (pupil) by word of mouth alone, and only following the establishment of the student's character.
Certain astraas had to be handed down from the deity involved directly, knowledge of the incantation being insufficient by absorbing one’s consciousness in the sound vibration of these names of god. It will do several things, such as alter and improve the electrical impulses that are generated by the body, and help defend oneself from the negative impulses that one may encounter.
In this way, it helps create a peaceful attitude within the individual and a healthier disposition. It also prepares one’s consciousness for perceiving higher levels of reality. It opens one up to the spiritual world, gradually reveals one’s true spiritual identity, which would also allow one to see the unity between all people. It harmonises one’s existence with nature, and even begins to rekindle one’s real relationship with the supreme soul, god.
"Drawing out a shula (trident) from his own shula, the wielder of the pinaka (trident) (referring to Shiva) gave it to her." While every astraa was described using compositions, renowned bharatanatyam dancer Dakshina Vaidyanathan Baghel came up with a unique manner of invoking the trident or trishula – the powerful weapon of Shakti representing women power through the shlokas. The shlokas used in the performance describe the hand gestures from Abhinaya Darpana. Trishula mudra described the origin of the trishula weapon in the hands of the goddess.
Angered by the bull-headed demon Mahishasura trying to conquer the world by killing the devas, the trio Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva expelled a cosmic amount of energy which amalgamated to form Goddess Durga. Lord Shiva then gave her the trishula as her weapon to kill Mahishasura. Trishula Kundalini describes the tantric symbolism of the trident – the three primary nadis that run through the body. Ida (the left nadi, having the energy of the moon, which represents the left parasympathetic nervous system), pingala (the right nadi, having the energy of the sun, which represents the right parasympathetic nervous system) and sushumna (the central nadi which runs along the spinal cord).
Touching upon Kundalini Yoga, outlining Devi or Shakti or Kundalini as the energy or strength is coiled at the base of the spine in the muladhara, by pranayam and controlled breathing exercises through the left and right nostril – that is ida and pingala – one can kindle this strength or Kundalini and slowly make it rise up through each of the seven chakras until it reaches the top – the sahasrara chakra – the ultimate realisation.
The physical effects of the exercise on the body – the heart gets purified, the body is rid of disease and the five senses are heightened. As the devi (symbolic of the body's inherent strength or energy) rises through the sushumna nadi, the mind gets purified and one starts to think clearly. Shiva – the cosmic truth, the spiritual realisation above, Shakti – the inner strength within – as she rises, they unite at the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head – the thousand-petalled lotus. There is no need for any external worship anymore, the body itself has become a Shiva temple.
Be like a flower, open, frank, equal, generous and kind. A flower is open to all that surrounds it: nature, light, the sun rays radiating a joy and beauty. It is frank and hides nothing of its beauty letting it flow frankly out of itself. Its generous giving without reserve or restriction, sacrificing itself entirely for our pleasure. Its kind, tenderness in abundance, its presence filling us with joy. Happy is he who can exchange his qualities with the real qualities of the flowers. (Mother – Aurobindo Ashram)
Japaa or hibiscus or the red-hued flower is the favourite of devi as Kali. Through dance, we have explored the relationship between the flower and the goddess. Personifying the flower, the presentation by Tanya Saxena described its beauty. “I am as bright as the sun; and I bloom throughout the year," says the Japaa. “I am the one who adorns the Goddess Kali.” Kali, who personifies destruction, holds in her hand the sickle and the decapitated head of the asura Raktabija.
Kali is dark like the night, and drinks the blood of her enemy, is adorned by a garland of skulls, whose right side signifies motherly protection and left – annihilation. The one who transcends ‘kala’ or time, and whose third eye can burn anything in its path. Whose dance of destruction surpassed even that of her husband Shiva, so that he had to lie in her path to stop her from destroying the world – prompting her to stick out her tongue when she mistakenly stepped on him. “That Kali is my Mother, and Mother to all the world," says the Japaa. “I am born from her, the dark soil of her skin giving me life; her right eye bestowing love and her left compassion, her right hand bestowing courage of protection and her left bestowing anger. I mimic her soft-petalled face – and my stamen her – exposed tongue. I am protected from weeds by the gardener’s sword, the same sword that she uses to protect all her children. I am red like her eyes, her hands, her tongue, and my red satisfies her thirst for blood. I am her favourite, I am the Japaa kusuma.”
Vahana denotes the being, typically an animal or a mythical entity, a particular Hindu deity is said to use as a vehicle. In this capacity, the vahana is often called the deity's 'mount'. Upon the partnership between the deity and his vahana is woven much iconography and mythology. Deities are often depicted riding (or simply mounted upon) the vahana. Other times, the vahana is depicted at the deity's side or symbolically represented as a divine attribute. The vahana may be considered an accoutrement of the deity: though the vahana may act independently, they are still functionally emblematic or even syntagmatic of their 'rider'.
Durga's mount, the lion. Jaladhi (ocean) also gave her a very beautiful pankaja (lotus) for her hand. Himavan (Himalaya) gave her the vahana simha (lion as carrier) and various types of ratnas (gems).
Himalaya gifts her a ferocious white lion. Seated on her vahana, the lion, devi proceeds to attack Mahishasura, the half-buffalo, half-human asura, who had got a boon that no god, man or animal could ever kill him. Drunk with his power, he ruled the Earth and the heavens and tortured and tormented both the devas and the suras (earthlings).
Devi Durga undertook a severe penance before she came face to face with the asura. On the beginning of the ninth day of the waxing moon, Chanda and Munda come to fight her. The devi turns blue with rage and Goddess Chamunda sprang forth from her third eye. She kills the demons with her sword.
The significance of elements related to the pantheon of gods and goddesses and a celebration of their powers are necessary to demystify. The endeavour to present them through the arts by young performers along with inputs from composers and writers has been successful every time. Exploring the devi, her powers and presence over and over again is a never ending journey. Young performers and thinkers give this journey more depth and freshness.