Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Dalrymple : Nine Lives

I love Chola bronzes like the above -- on display in the Cincinnati Art Museum - so it was thrilling to read about the sculptors who continue that tradition today, like Srikanda Stpathy of Swamimalai in southern India.

Unfortunately, no pictures of his work are published in this book (or on the internet) -- and those pictures would be  the most important part of his story.

The details of his practice are fascinating. He seems to be more devoted more to the divinities he depicts than to how his sculptures actually look.  He seems to prioritize the sacred mathematics of proportion - and to running a factory that employs 60 works, turning out 6 new idols per week.   I'm sure that they meet the  requirements of the priests who commission them - but are any of them as wonderful as the piece shown above ?

BTW - the sculptor tells us that  indwelling divinity enters these statues when the eyes are chiseled out - but may depart for a number of reasons - including installation in an art museum - or just getting too old. (apparently 800 years is the maximum life span)

The other nine lives in this collection include:

*Theyyam dancers : this is another devotional artistic practice.  The costume is so enormous, it  takes an exertion to wear them in performance.  The dancer who is interviewed notes that dancers usually do not reach old age -- even though they only perform during the brief Theyyam season.   Indeed he dies soon thereafter.  During the rest of the year, he had worked as a prison guard and digging wells.

*A story teller who travels through Rajasthan telling the story of Pabuji, the heroic cow herder.   A  phad banner, like the above, is used onsite to illustrate the characters.

This episode was especially fascinating to me because it's in the same tradition of epic story telling as the Hamzanama which I read earlier this year - though the last year that epic is known to have been recited was 1928.

* A devotee at the Sehwan shrine of Lal Shabbaz Qalander, a Sufi saint whose tomb is shown above.   She doesn't perform any particular dance, song, or story -- she's just a daily ecstatic celebrant at the shrine - jumping around in her red gown, swinging a heavy club. (kept for protection).   Her life story is quite tragic - her family being driven from India during  the Partition,  and then driven from Bangladesh during the civil war that separated east from west Pakistan. 

*This woman lives in a cremation ground at Tarapith - a worship center for the goddess  Tara.

Her community of devotees seems to take care of each other- and does not harm anyone. But their manipulation of human skulls certainly sounds creepy.  They communicate with the spirits attached to them -- apparently the skulls of suicides and virgins are the best for this purpose.  But what is the purpose, anyway?  It does not seem far removed from what Europeans might recognize as witchcraft:  the practice of supernatural powers to help some and hurt others.  People seek out the devotees when they are in need of divine protection.

As you can see above, Tara can appear quite frightful.

The woman we meet tells us that she left her children - and in-law abuse - to pursue spiritual development.  Back in her village, she was known for being occasionally possessed by the Goddess - and therefore was worshipped as an intercessor

*At the cremation ground at Tarapith, we also meet  a Baul - a member of an itinerant community of devotional musicians.

If Americans didn't have such an individualistic bent, this is the kind of community tradition that Hippie musicians of the 60's might have sustained: always on the road - playing and sharing music - owning nothing except what can be carried.  In contrast to the other religious devotees in the book, the Bauls do not seem to be attached to any deistic cult or temple.  They look toward the God within them -- so like Walt Whitman, they sing "the song of myself"