"A secret turning in us makes the universe turn
Head unaware of feet
And feet head
They keep turning."
Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet lived eons ago. Yet, whenever I read his poetry, it is as if I can hear his melodious, magical voice unlocking the secrets of the universe. The second in my series of Mystic, theo-phillic poets, is a painting inspired by Mawlana Jala-ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Born on the eastern borders of the Persian empire ( present day Afghanistan), Rumi attained fame in Turkey. In fact, Turkish art and culture is heavily influenced by Rumi's poetry. During his lifetime, Rumi composed over 70,000 verses of poetry and is now one of the most celebrated poets of the Islamic world. His poetry - spiritual and universalistic -transcends beyond the borders of geography, religion, and time. Infused with love, his poetry encapsulates the yearning and the desire for man's union with the divine. Many of Rumi's intimate verses are philosophical, passionate , and fiery; representing the dialogue of the lover and the beloved.
My painting "All that you seek is within"- is named after one of Rumi's verses. The trance-static movements of the dervishes in Hodja Pasha still haunts me in the form of a beautiful memory. My idea for this painting was to capture the surrealistic experience of a Dervish performing the 'sema'. Often associated with Sufism and the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes, Rumi's work is unique in it's rich use of imagery and symbolism. No other poet has used symbols and metaphors of love and euphoria as resplendently as Rumi. The most mundane of creatures and occurrences attain clarity and beauty in the simplicity of Rumi's words. It is almost as if they reveal a little secret of the universe. " Swirling Dervish- All that you seek is within" is an attempt at assimilating universalism and symbolism of Rumi's poetry on canvas.
.Rumi's poetic world is a universal world. A world of collective conscious and complete beings beyond the trivialities of religion and geography. Today, Rumi's work is read and appreciated by Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists alike. The peace symbol in the painting emblematizes the universality of Rumi's work. It represents the hope that mankind can move beyond the boundaries of caste, race, and religion- towards a future of love, peace, and humanity.
Thee green arches represents the dancer's sub-conscious mind immersed in an ode to nature, life, and God. The falling lava epitomizes the Dervish's consummate religious ecstasy. The Dervish burns in the desire to attain the divine love, swirling in a trance, as he is immersed in the vast depths of the ocean of God. Riding the tide of devotion, the soul of the Dervish is ready to merge in the ocean of the absolute being just as a drop of water in the sea. The ocean in the painting represents the Dervish's passage into the transcendent world. An absolute abandonment leading to unconditional spiritual dividend.
The tulips in the ocean embody its divine essence. Just as lotus is revered in Hinduism, the tulip is a revered flower in Islam and is a symbol of paradise. The most prized flower of the Ottomans, the tulip adorns the walls of many Turkish mosques. The popularity of the tulip in Islalmic art has a lot to do with its shape - the word Allah (God) written in Arabic script resembles the tulip shape. The Arabic letters making the word tulip ('Lale' in Arabic) are the same as those that make the name of Allah, making it a very special flower with an exalted status in Islamic art and culture . Tulips also represent perfect love, thanks to the Persian legend of Shirin and Farhad. According to this legend, Farhad, a brave stonecutter, killed himself when a false message of his beloved princess Shirin's demise was delivered to him. He died on the site of a canal that he was digging through the mountains to win her hand. It is said that with his drop of blood rose tulips, reminding the world of his sacrifice. Since then, tulips epitomize perfect love. In my painting, the foam tulips represent the Dervish's perfect love for God.
Featured in the painting is a night sky with the stars and the crescent moon. The crescent moon and star are on the flags of many Islamic nations; on the top of mosques in Turkey; and even on the shields of Mughal Emperors Akbar, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. According to some, the crescent moon and star is synonymous with Ramadan. However, it is interesting to note the usage of the crescent moon and the stars predates Islam back to the Sumerian era.The crescent moon was associated with the Moon God Sin (God of wisdom) and the star with Ishtar (Goddess of love). These symbols were popular in both the Palestine region and the Aegean region. With the rise of the Ottoman empire, the symbols of moon and the stars were absorbed and recast as symbols of the new faith of Islam. In Rumi's poetry, the Moon often represents the 'Shama' - the radiance of beauty. In my painting, the crescent moon and the stars represent the inspiration of the Dervish, the vision that seeks him from beyond the doorways of his imagination. The moon and the stars embody the divine, dispensing wisdom, love, and spiritual guidance as the Dervish seeks them with his right hand facing the sky.
Symbols aside, the main concept behind the painting is that the entire cosmos- the elements of ether, sky, fire, water and earth all culminate into the consciousness of the swirling Dervish. The idea is that God is everywhere. God is in the ocean,in the air, and in the fire. God is within the swirling Dervish. God is within the one who seeks. Similarly, the fire, the passion, the love, and the wisdom are within the Dervish. All that he seeks is within him.
Soordas- a name that elicits pictures of a singing blind bard in the mind of almost every Indian. It is a name that has been immortalized in the form of poetry and numerous cinematic references. Soordas- which literally translates to 'servant of melody', the great devotee poet of Krishna is credited with some of the most engrossing poems on Krishna's life. The vivid portrayal of Krishna in Soordas's poems is perhaps only rivaled by Tulsidas's portrayal of Rama. However, it is fascinating how a bard with congenital blindness was able to portray Krishna's childhood in such colorful details...almost as if he saw him growing up!
Neglected and abused because of his blindness, Soordas supposedly left his home as a child and met the Hindu philosopher- Sri Vallabhcharya on the banks of Yamuna. This chance meeting resulted in a lifetime of spirituality and immersion in devotional poetry. Soordas showered his creativity, devotion and love to Krishna - the eternal lover. Soordas saw Radha-Krishna's ethereal love and irresistible attractions in the same way as the relationship between the soul and God. During his lifetime, Soordas wrote hundreds and thousands of poems in the Indian vernacular language of Braj. Contemplative devotion being a key characteristic of Soordas's poetry and a reflection of an era in Indian history when the notion of spiritual empowerment was at it's peak.
Soordas is the first of my series on 'Theophilia & Poets'- a series by which I aim to move beyond the realms of religion to capture the essence of some of the well known theophillic poets from Asian history. Theophilia was often an instrument which ushered in a number of revolutions, movements and even established new sects worldwide. Art, culture and religion have always been closely linked. This series is my attempt at further exploring the universality of the message of these theophillic poets across ages. Soordas is special. Soordas's theophillic poems- preaching a spontaneous, selfless motiveless love for Krishna not only paved way for elevation of the previously crude language Braj but also heralded a movement of spiritual awakening in India. This is my interpretation of Soordas in history.
My latest art work is an acrylic texture painting of the Medusa's lair in Turkey. The lair is located inside one of Istanbul's hundreds of underground cisterns. One of these, the Basilica Cistern or 'the sunken palace' was built in the 6th century but what makes it rather peculiar are the two pillars with Medusa's head. It is still a mystery how these pillars got inside the Cistern. According to one legend, they were brought here from a Roman temple. These two column pillars have Medusa's head at their base- one is tilted sideways and another upside down. According to some, they were kept in such a way to negate the power of Medusa's gaze. Others believe, that it was probably inverted as it symbolized a pagan past.
Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters who had snakes for hair and a mesmerizing gaze that would turn any man who looked in them, into stone. According to another legend, Medusa was a beautiful sea nymph who was seduced by Poseidon inside the temple of Athena. Enraged, Athena then cursed Medusa that whoever gazed in her enchanting eyes would turn into stone. Later, Medusa was beheaded by her lover Perseus who used her head to win many a war. Apparently, her stone-turning gaze survived her death. Over time, Medusa's myth developed strong apotropaic annotations and her head-motif came to be used as a talisman to deflect misfortune and bad luck. Throughout ancient Greece and Anatolia ( ancient Turkey), her head was painted or built on buildings to deflect negative energy. Medusa's myth still has a strong hold in the Mediterranean region. Blue and white 'evil eye' representing Medusa's eye are still sold as a talisman by the hoardes. This painting is just an attempt at capturing the mystery of Medusa's head swimming in the tranquil scarlet waters of the sunken palace...
Growing up in the heart of urban India, I would find the Indian Hindu festival of Karwa Chauth the strangest. Every year my mother would dress up in her red bridal finery, decorate her hands with henna and observe the fast of Karwa Chauth. She would refrain from drinking a single drop of water and a single morsel of food till the moon shone through the sapphire sky. Sometimes the moon would rise early. Sometimes it's appearance would be blighted for hours by the clouds. Yet fast, she would. Her lips untouched with food in order to pray for my father's long life. As a teenager I always wondered why my father's life was more important than my mother's. I loved them both equally. I wanted them both to have long lives. Over the years, I went abroad to complete my studies and forgot all about this seemingly inane festival. Until now, that is. Having gotten married this year, I was faced with a rather interesting question. Is the ritual of Karwa Chauth relevent in the 21st century India?
The practice of Karwa Chauth and its origin
Traditions in each household vary, but on the day of Karwa Chauth, most women rise before the sun for a meal known as Sargi, often sent by their mother-in-law. After this, they spend the day decked in bridal attire and the traditional 16 'shringaar' (adornments), their hands painted with henna and a forehead smeared with vermilion. Women of the family or locality gather in the afternoon, recite 'vrat kathas' (legends pertaining to the practice) and pass around trays full of sweets and an earthen pot. In the evening, at moon rise, they look at the moon through a sieve, and then look through the seive at their husbands. They touch the feet of their husbands, who then give them their first sip of water and bite of food from the tray. Wives across many states of India, observe a vrat (vow of abstention) for the welfare and long life of their husbands.
Historical tales are an integral part of Karwa Chauth. Amongst them, is the story of princess Veeravati. Princess Veeravati kept the fast for her husband's long life. Seeing her delicate health, she was tricked by her brothers into breaking the fast. Soon she heard the news that her husband died in battle. Very emotional, she ran to the battlefield and found his body. She decided to preserve it until next year's Karwa Chauth. At that time, she prayed fervently and fasted diligently. She was blessed with her husband returning to life. Two other stories associated with the ritual of Karwa Chauth are that of Savitiri and Karwa. The protagonists of both stories were women who successfully confronted and defeated 'Yama' (the Indian God of death) to win back their husbands' lives. Karwa's husband was devoured by a crocodile. So she tied it with a yarn and told Yama to return her husband and send the crocodile to hell. Yama refused so she threatened to curse him. Afraid of a 'pati-vrata' (a devotional wife's) curse, Yama relented. He gave her husband back and sent the crocodile to hell. Similarly, Savitiri, was a princess married to a prince in exile called Satyavan, whose husband was doomed to die young. When he died, she followed Yama and was able to trick him into granting her a series of wishes, including her husband's life. On the day of Karwa Chauth, these stories take centre stage and are sung by married women who have gathered. Some of these oral 'vrat-kathas' (stories) have been circulating, being recited since hundreds of years. Some of them come from ancient Hindu epics and some are versions of local legends.
While ancient Hindu epics haven't always been the greatest example of gender equality, several tales do emphasise this issue. Alongside the acquiescent and delicate characters of Veeravati or Sita, are examples of strong women such as copper skinned Draupadi, the Lion-taming Durga, and the warrior goddess Kali. However, when it comes to representing the ideal Indian woman, our society tends to hold all-sacrificing, submissive and devotional women as exemplars.What is particularly interesting is that our emphasis of the acquiescent and demure characteristics of mythological women may have come at the expense of highlighting other virtues of the very same women. I have always strongly been of the opinion that if meaning is to be found in mythology, it cannot be through singular elements. Meaning of myths in legends is often contained in an over-all message. It is thought provoking that the story of Savitiri also unveils her resilient, quick and brainy nature in tricked the God of death. Similarity, Veeravati and Karwa represented very courageous and fierce women who confronted war and fought a crocodile and God of death respectively. However, rather than focus on these latter characteristics, our society has more often than not preferred to idolize these women for their devotion and subservient nature. Was this the original intent of these legends? Or has their interpretation been increasingly skewed over time by the agents of a patriarchal system? To examine this further, we can look closer into the symbolism associated with the evolution of this ritual.
Karwa Chauth- symbolism and a regressive evolution
How did the ritual of Karwa Chauth and the legends associated with it evolve? The word Karwa Chauth comes from the words 'Karwa'- meaning an earthen pot and 'Chauth'- meaning 4th day after the full moon. An earthen pot in many cultures has been associated with prosperity, fertility and is a symbolic representation of the womb, or mother Earth. It shouldn't be a surprise that a festival for married women would have symbolic associations to fertility. The festival falls on the 4th day after the night of full moon, a day which according to Indian astrology is often considered auspicious. Fasting in Hinduism is often associated with sympathetic prayer. An object of desire is integrated into a ritual in symbolic form. Consequently, early observers of this festival may have envisioned a link between their self-sacrifice and fertility. The ritual of Karwa Chauth was originally observed in Sapt Sandhu or the North-West belt of India (comprising Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). This region is also the wheat growing belt of India. Since wheat in India is typically sown in the winter, the festival may have originated as a prayer for bountiful crop and prosperity (as symbolised by the earthen pot). Moreover, since the North-West has been the scene of many military campaigns over time. From the war of Kurukshetra to the battle of Patiala, the region has been a hotbed favourite of military campaigns and invasion. Over time, women (at that time, financially dependent on the male members of the family) may have started keeping the fast that was meant as a prayer for prosperity as a means to pray for their men's safe return home.These stories or 'vrat-kathas' may have been used to provide solace to women whose husbands were away on war. They reinforced the belief that a 'pati-vrata' or loyal and devotional wife had the power to confront and defeat death. These stories and rituals probably also served as a tool to control female desires, with their men away at war.
As with many other rituals, I believe the ritual has slowly drifted away from its original meaning and its interpretation further bastardized to suit the views of a traditionally patriarchal society. Karwa Chauth slowly came to be seen as a practice that encourages sisterhood over a common cause - their husband's long life and welfare! The observance of Karwa Chauth highlighted the traditional 'dependency' of women on men. Consequently, it be seen as another way to reinforce a hierarchical relationship between a man and his wife. It isn't a surprise that the states where Karwa Chauth was (and is) most practiced are notorious for the worst treatment of women. The states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh top the list of number of domestic abuse and cruelty to women. These are also the very states where women are the least empowered and least educated. A mere coincidence or food for thought? I would argue the latter.
Karwa Chauth today and as portrayed by media
One would believe that with the advent of modern India, the practice of Karwa Chauth - a festival that can encourage gender inequality - would have faded. However, Karwa Chauth, remains firmly entrenched in modern India with fervid passion. Adoption of this practice by youth role models such as Kareena Kapoor, Suzanne Roshan, Twinkle Khanna, and Aishwarya Rai has led to significant popularity of this ritual. Commercialization of the ritual and its romanticised portrayal in dramas and Bollywood movies (DDLJ, Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gum, and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to name a few) have further fuelled this practice. Thanks to Bollywood, the practice of Karwa Chauth has come to symbolise un-daunting love and romance. Indian media lends supports the false moral universe of Indian cinema where social duties and pativrata-ness of women far outweighs their individualism. So too does the notion that man's life is worth more than a woman's. It is appalling that in n the 21st century, a ritual that perpetuates the idea of 'Pati-parmeshwar' -husband as lord, master and God has been fervently rising in popularity.
Women from other religions and regions have also started to follow the ritual without necessarily realizing what they are promoting. In my opinion, there is no romance in a ritual which implies that in the husband-wife relationship, the man's wellbeing depends upon the woman's self-denial. Neither should there be romance in a ritual that alienates men and widows. In a time when women work shoulder to shoulder with men, why isn't a fast kept by men to promote prosperity of the household and to prolong the life of their wives? Rituals such as Karwa Chauth perpetuate unequal power relations and encourage female subjugation. Gender inequalities have been shown to be associated with poor health and well being. It shouldn't be a surprise that India has much higher rate of maternal deaths (200/100,000 women) compared to its GNP counterparts such as China (37 /100,000 women) or Brazil (56 /100,000 women).
Karwa Chauth in the 21st century India
So what does the ritual of Karwa Chauth mean in today's world? Should it be abolished like the ritual of Sati? Many would argue that other religions also encourage fasting as a means to cleanse one's body and soul. Lent in Christianity and Ramadan in Islam are but just few of the examples. I agree. Fasting is great for the body. What I am against, is the idea of sacrifice as a means to fulfilment of a woman. I am strongly against the gender imbalance portrayed in the ritual of Karwa Chauth. Against its exclusion of widows or men. Furthermore, I am against it being an involuntary practice. Norms and culture are known to influence the world around us. I believe rituals need to change with time. Rituals such as Karwa Chauth subconsciously promote a one-sided equation in households. Gender inequalities have been known to be a key causal factor behind the increasing violence against women in any society. It is time we challenge the norms and rituals that encourage the idea of subservience and the inferiority of women. The very ritual of Karwa Chauth can be used to spread a better message and to encourage gender equality. After a year which saw episodes such as the horrid attack of Nirbhaya, which enraged our nation, it is time a time we tackled the root causes of such incidents.
Many women I know fast for Karwa Chauth. Some do it out of family pressure, some do it for tradition, some to relive a bollywood idea of love, and some to just hop on the bandwagon. However, why not fast for a different reason? Let us all fast this day, irrespective of sex, religion or marital status. Fast for gender equality. If you are a man reading this, I encourage and implore you to fast on Karwa Chauth. Fast to end domestic violence. Fast to promote gender equality. Fast for the women in your life. Fast to bring about a change. A change of mindset. It is time that actors and other male role models come forward and challenge the very ideas behind our cultural backwardness, which indirectly promote cruelty towards women. Until that happens, Karwa Chauth will always be a day that will remain a grim reminder of our patriarchal past - of an India where incidents such as that of Nirbhaya still happen. Such is the relevance of Karwa Chauth in the 21st century India.
Red is my favourite colour. Tulips, my favourite flowers. People who know me will tell you that I am full of life. Hence, Vivacious Red Tulip seemed an appropriate title for my blog. Join me as I muse over daily ramblings and share my very opinionated thoughts over all things random..