Thursday, August 14, 2014

Girish Karnad's "Flowers" : The Aesthetics Of Dhárma & Kāma

Shiva Flanked By Pārvatī &Nandi On A River Bank
Worshipping Shiva :
An Engraving At Jalakandeswarar Temple, Vellore
Ohm Namah Śhivāya !

There are certain Temples on Earth where the Gods reside. Where the Earth longingly reaches out to the Sky. And the Sky reciprocates with an awaited eagerness. It is in this exalted Space that the mundane transforms into the sublime and a sacred communion happens. When you enter into its sculpted precincts, the magic of the ethereal engulfs your entire being. You can feel the pulsating throb of the Earth as you kneel to touch the ground with your forehead, closing your eyes. Then as you look up at Sky, the blowing Wind cleanses the mystical space between your eyebrows. You start travelling into the microcosm of an unknown Universe. It gets transformed into an unchartered voyage within the vistas of your inner self. This is just the beginning of a long journey crossing the five kosas, symbolised by the five prakaras, transcending from the Annamaya Kosa to the Anandamaya Kosa. It usually takes eons and epochs, involving multitudinous births and rebirths, to finally reach the sanctum sanctorum : the rarefied abode where Shiva and Shakti are in blissful confluence. Under the protective gaze of Their most intimate and primal companion, the Nandi.

To be with Shiva is the only boon one can long for. Being with God, from the early morning UshadKaala Pooja  till the late night Arthajaama Pooja, is a fortune of immense grandeur. Following the fundamental system of the Aagamas, all the six Kaala Poojas ought to be performed with a devout fervour. That is not an easy task. It calls for an ardent love of the highest order. Which is only possible for the exalted few, who become priests not by birth but by tāpas and jñāna. It is the only the divinely-ordained priest who takes good care of the God. And who else but the God will know it all too well? Each and every day, week after week, month after month and year after year, for centuries and eons, transcending Time, the God has to be tended to. The God is first bathed with pure water brought from the Temple pond. Then follows the elaborate abhishekas when the Linga is anointed with cows' milk, ghee and curd, and then with the paste of sandal and the holy ash. Finally, the Linga would be embellished with exquisite flowers, which are intimate to the heart of divinity. The God gets ready for the day with the offering of the naivedhyam, after which the splendid diparaadhana with variously decorated lamps would be performed, along with the chanting of Vedic mantras by the immaculate priest. It is at this blessed juncture that the primal sound in the form of the mantras, commingle with the primeval light in the form of the fire lit lamps. Time and Space shrink into a continuum and the God appears in actuality, casting a magical spell of transcendental bliss for everyone who seek it.  

Though it is the God's leela to create such a boundless ecstasy in the mind and soul of the seeker, the role of the blessed priest in facilitating such a mystical spectacle is of utmost significance. But the ways of God are inscrutable. Even to His chosen priest. Is the life of such a priest, who lives and breathes in close proximity to God, so magnificently wonderful? Will the priest inevitably achieve perfection in all the three social purushārthas to attain the personal finale, the moksha? The priest might become a master of the Vedas, the Vedangas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Ithihasas, the Aagamas, the Tantras, the Sūtras, and the Stotras. However much religious and scholarly the priest might become, is there anything proscribed in the sacred texts, to fall in love? Love. That mysterious domain of human experience. Is it possible for someone to love his God and love his muse with an equal passion? And, what if the muse happens to be a courtesan and not one's wedded wife? Can there be two different forms of love? One spiritually divine and another, lustfully human. Can a priest not adoringly bedeck his lady love with the very same flowers with which he had piously embellished his God? Is it an anti-thesis of his Bhakti? What kind of love is this? Is it an immoral sin - an ethical transgression - calling for divine retribution? Even if the entire world might reprimand such a love between the priest and the courtesan, how does the God take it? Does it have the sanction of God? Would the Guardian Angels protect the lovers under their sheltering wings? Won't Shiva intervene to salvage love? A love which is human, all too human! Will this love get divinely ordained or be damned and crucified? What is the ultimate deliverance? Questions galore. Doubts abound. And a catharsis happens.    

Why is love, beyond all measure of other human possibilities, so rich and such a sweet burden, for the one who has been struck by it?, is a fundamental question on Love posed by Martin Heidegger. Only in the domain of art can we try to grapple with the complexities and contradictions that are inherent in the pursuit of living and loving. Art is where the vortex of human emotions and feelings, longings and desires, intellect and logic come together. With all their shades of black, white and grey, they tend to coalesce into an enigma, waiting to be comprehended. Not with one's mind or even with one's heart. But with one's soul. Art sharpens the perplexity of life and enlivens the mystery of existence. Theatre has been a historically important form of performing art since time immemorial. The ancient Greek drama was initially institutionalised in the city-state of Athens during the 4th Century BC, as a part of the festival called Dionysia, which was celebrated in honour of the great Greek God, Dionysus. This ecstatic cult of Dionysus is said to be having myriad parallels with the mystic religion of Shiva in ancient India. The Sanskrit drama had its seeds in Patanjali's Mahābhāsya of the 2nd Century BC. The modern Indian theatre emerged out of a healthy symbiosis between the rich traditions of the Western and the Sanskritic drama. It has achieved great heights in its artistic excellence. Among the most significant playwrights of contemporary India, Girish Karnad stands out as primordially Indian and quintessentially modern. His play Flowers is based on a folklore from the Chirtradurga region of Karnataka, which fundamentally deals with the metaphysical dilemma between Dhárma (Natural Law or Ethics) and Kāma (Love, Passion and Sensuality or Eros), the twin pivots of human existence.

Girish Karnad's play Flowers is a dramatic monologue about the story of a temple priest narrated in a single night, enacted by Rajit Kapur and directed by Roysten Abel. The plot of the play revolves around a pious priest who gets caught in the quagmire of contradictions between his Dhárma and his Kāma. On a fated starry night, the pious priest embarks to narrate his story. The moving reflection of the constellation of Scorpio on the Temple pond is the only witness. It is indeed the same pond where he had played with the tadpoles when he was a small boy. And took the dip before the Pooja at daybreak ever since. This temple, this tank, these rough grey boulders towering over them, the flowering shrubs and the trees, the birds that come and go through the seasons - they are his world. His private universe. He worshipped Shiva, the all-encompassing deity of the Temple, with immense love and utmost care. Right from performing all the Poojas to conducting the rites and rituals on behalf of the devotees, he accomplished everything with a finesse and grace befitting his Shaivite priesthood. It was not that the devotees kept thronging the Temple all the time. There were many a moments of solitude when none, except a squirrel or a sparrow, would come and go. It was during those sequestered occasions, the priest would sit near Shiva and have intimate conversations with the God. The silence used to be intensely eloquent. Over time, it had developed into a strange companionship, much to the envy of even the Nandi, the eternal cohort of God.

The gathering of flowers and adorning them  fastidiously to one’s beloved God is an artistic meditation on its own accord. It brings out an ineffable joy and a rapturous delight to the flower-gatherer's heart. The flowers are an aesthetic medium to communicate with the God. When the flowers are offered to the God, divine energy gets released in the atmosphere. Flowers attract the innately positive elements in the space and emits them through their petals, thereby transforming the air around with divine vibrations. At the dawn of every blooming day, the priest would meticulously collect the flowers by talking to the various blossoming shrubs and plants, tended by the gardener near the Temple pond. MalligaiSampigaiThumbaiMandaaraiSevanti, and Champaka, depending upon the season. As he would walk towards the God basketful, the flowers would be brimming with joy for they would very soon be touching the body of  Shiva. Their innate longing to confluence with Shiva, the raison d'être of their birth, would be getting fulfilled. Each flower, possessing its own distinct aroma and resplendent colour, would be having an interesting mythology to the narrate the kinship of its ancestors with their intimate Gods. The priest would express his adoration for Shiva by decorating Him with myriad flowers, distinctively at every instance. He would create multitudinous patterns of floral motifs to embellish the God. Like a mother who admires the beauty of her child in her own unique ways, the priest would adroitly decorate Shiva with utmost care and immeasurable love every time. Over the years, he had perfected an ingenuity which was unmatched, thereby becoming a master in the art.

The glory of the beatific Shiva had spread far and wide across the province. Alongside, the eminence of the priest for his dexterity to embellish the God with endless possibilities of floral motifs had also grown. The Chieftain of the province becomes a regular visitor to the Temple, choosing to attend the Arthajaama Pooja late in the evenings, before retiring for the night. The young Chieftain, who has a keen eye for beauty, would get overwhelmed by seeing the ethereal motifs with flowers, which transformed Shiva to glow with celestial sublimity. Many a times, he would appreciatively nod his head and would turn towards his retinue, which after noticing their master's approval, would then utter various standard phrases praising the wizardry of the priest, as well as the services rendered by his wife in facilitating to create such a magic, with the flowers. Life progresses on with its tranquil routine for the priest. Won't the stars be able to discover a more opportune juncture to test their prowess? They instantly grab the chance to conspire against the humdrum of priestly existence. The fulcrum of existence of any individual would turn topsy-turvy only during two decisive moments in life : either upon the discovery of love or upon the death of the beloved. The Eros and the Thanatos. For the priest of our Shiva Temple, life changes at the very moment he glimpses the blessed mole on the left bosom of Chandravati, nesting just near the cleavage. And after which, when their eyes enchantingly meet each other.

She was a wealthy courtesan with sharply alluring features and even more captivating acumen. During a fateful Shivaratri evening, the priest, while giving the prasāda to the devotees after the Pooja, first encounters Chandravati's mole and then her eyes. Her soul speaks to his. He becomes obsessive of her. The priest begins to eagerly await for her arrival with bated breath, hiding his anxiety each time. Her tantalising laughter, her dark sensuousness and her royal dusky demeanour had kindled the hiterto dormant passion in the priest. Her sight had stirred up some unknown chords deep inside his heart reverberating with soulful music whenever he has the glimpse of her. Suddenly she does not turn up to the Temple for a few consecutive evenings. The priest feels agonised to no end. He becomes restless and pleads to Shiva. Then in a huff, he leaves the Temple, carrying the prasāda on his shoulder cloth. And as though he was possessed, his footsteps take him straight to Chandravati's house. Chandravati was a connoisseur of all finer things in life. Her experiences of living and loving had transformed her like that. Ever since she had visited the Temple, she had been longing that the preist should perform a similar mastery with flowers to decorate her body. She had all along been wanting to transform herself into a sublime being. Only the priest could actualise her cherished dream. The moment such a desire was expressed, the priest plunges into action to fulfill the desideratum. Night after night, he collects the flowers from the Shiva Linga before closing the Temple and goes on to embellish the nude beauty of Chandra. The ritual of decorating the sculpted body of Chandravati and making love becomes the leitmotif of the priest's new-found life. He  begins to return to his house past the mid night hour, when everyone was fast alseep. Except his wife. She waits at the doorstep halfasleep and halfawake, to serve him the dinner, without eating herself. Though she comes to know of her husband's love for Chandravati, as the news had already spread in the region, she would never say a word. She continues to serve her husband to decorate Shiva in the Temple, in stoic silence.

Nights are always slippery. Time moves like a dream and Space dissolves into oblivion. Mind goes into a slumber. And the heart blossoms with a gleaming radiance. That particular night in the life of the priest was singularly bewitching. As it has become his wont, the priest tiptoes his way to Chandra's house with those beautiful flowers collected from Shiva after performing all the Poojas at the Temple. He rapturously embellishes the nude body of Chandra. The lovers are in a trance. Till the distant thud of the canon initially intrudes the spellbound priest and then shakes him back. It announces the impending arrival of the Chieftain, for whom an exception had been granted in the edicts to open the Temple doors at anytime, even if the last Pooja had got over. Only during the rarest of rare occasions had the Chieftain made such an exigent visit. In a jiffy, the priest collects back the flowers from the sculpted body of a dazed Chandra. Before rushing to depart from the door of Chandravati's house, the priest gazes at her. Their eyes meet, though for a brief moment, and part ways. Yet again. When the priest reaches the Temple, his alarmed wife is already waiting. A revulsion wells up in his wife when she sees him opening the bundle of flowers that were carried back from Chandravati. By the time the Chieftain reaches the Temple, the dexterity of the priest had re-decorated Shiva with those flowers which were by then a trifle faded in their freshness and glory. Very soon, the very same magnificent Shiva was glowing again with splendid elegance.

After the Pooja, the priest holds out the plate of flowers, which he had diligently picked up from the body of the linga, to the solemnly smiling Chieftain who could then pick up his choice of flower as prasāda. But the smile of the Chieftain vanishes, the moment he takes a flower to press it on his eyes before sticking it behind his right ear. 'I didn't know God had long hair', thunders his voice. A flower dangles down from his fingers, gently dancing in the night breeze. It was a long strand of hair which held the flower in mid-air. The fragrant hair from the wavy plait of Chandravati! Everyone in the crowd guesses that it could not be his wife's hair. Such a public derision to his wife, and not the cold anger in the voice of the Chieftain, anguishes the priest. The priest stands in absolute silence for a while. He looks at Shiva. His Shiva. Who glows with abundant radiance. Strangely, the priest feels mysteriously reassured. He then looks straight into the eyes of the Chieftain and in a calm and confident tone utters, 'If we believe that God has long hair, He will have long hair!' After a pause, the equanimous Chieftain simply says, 'Prove it'. The priest implores the Chieftain to grant him the grace till the Full Moon. 'Done', replies the Chieftain and leaves the Temple. The horses gallops into the yonder of the night.  

The much awaited Full-Moon night come soon after. The twelve intervening days and nights passes away like three long eras in the lifespan of the priest. He does not venture out of the Temple. He continuously prays to Shiva at the sanctum sanctorum. He beseeches the God to save his honour and implores Shiva to bestow mercy upon him. At times, he feels helplessly awful and admonishes God for making him fall prey to the snares of his own mind. Who else had created Chandravati and made her walk into his life, other than Shiva Himself, he questions his cherished God. He confesses to God about his passionate love for Chandravati and the ethical contradictions involved in his impulse of moral responsibility towards his family. Since childhood, the priest is too intimate with the God which gives him an audacious intimacy to even question the divine game plan.Whatever might be the God's intention behind this leela, the priest wanted to come out unscathed in the eyes of the Chieftain and the public. He prays to Shiva with intense sincerity and surrenders at the Feet of the God. Shiva knows the priest too intimately well, for he is one of His blue-eyed boys on Earth. How will Shiva not melt away in compassion to embrace His beloved priest?

The drums starts beating, the gongs redound, the trumpets blare, the conch-shells blow and the Temple bells ring. The Full-Moon had arisen on the Eastern horizon in all its splendor. The Chieftain had come with his coterie of men and the morbidly curious public who had known the recent happening in the Temple had also assembled in full strength. The priest opens the doors of the garbha gṛha of the Temple. With closed eyes and fervent prayers, he does the final Pooja to Shiva. When the priest performs the diparaadhana to the ShivaLinga, everyone gathered are dumbstruck including the priest. The God had grown long tufts of hair all over His head. The long tresses flow all around the God and dances in the air. The priest is choked with an intense purity of emotion. With an profound gratitude and unfathomable joy, he chants the mantras of Shiva which reverberates all across the sky. The commander takes permission from the Chieftain to inspect if the hair on Shiva is true and not a hoax. He holds one of the long tresses of hair and pulls it hard but in vain. He then takes the help of his team of well-built soldiers and they all struggle to pull it away from God. After a long while, one of the tufts come out falling. Blood oozes out the head of Shiva from where the tuft came out. Shell-shocked and apprehending the consequences of incurring the divine wrath, everyone including the Chieftain and his commander fall at the feet of the priest and seeks forgiveness for their actions. But in turn, the priest cries before Shiva and asks for His forgiveness. Blood stops oozing out from the ShivaLinga. Everyone chant the panchakshara mantra Ohm Namaḥ Śhivāya!

In the tumult that follows outside and the turbulence that happens within, the priest faints. The crowd disperses thereafter. And his wife brings him home. When he wakes up, she gives him food and as is her wont, leans on the door, simply saying the only thing, "She is gone". She had probably heaved a sigh of relief and might have been possibly happy to serve such a priest chosen by God, who happened to be her husband. Then the priest goes back to the Temple and peeps inside the sanctum. The wound still remains fresh on Shiva, from where the tuft was pulled out. By then, the Temple becomes heavily guarded and it begins to emerge that the priest would be prized, protected and displayed as the State Saint. Does the priest bask in the glory of his new avatar? No. The intimate voice of his soul doesn't allow him to do so. He becomes intensely restless and feels totally lost. He begins to quarrel with his Shiva. He feels that he had tainted himself. He feels that he was guilty of gross dereliction and sacrilege. He feels guilty of cruelty to the two women he loved. He feels that his God is responsible for him to undergo all these travails. And though his God had saved him from disgrace and humiliation, just because the priest loved his God sincerely, at the end of it, he could not have any answer to the love of the two women of his life. He does not accept this logic of the God and refuses to live on His terms. Ultimately, the priest decides to dive into the pond and shove his head into its hollow confines, not to test his lungs as he used to playfully do in his childhood, but to seek the answers that God had denied him. And the reflection of Scorpio continues to float upon the pond for a long while..   

ShikhaNaathar at Kudumiyanmalai, Tamil Nadu

Rajit Kapur
Girish Karnad

Rating : 10 out of 10