Performing Arts - Performing for God
by Ashish Khokar
"Hari Om Tat Sat..."
concludes Ajoy Chakraborty, the reigning star of the Patiala school of
vocal music (Ustad Bade
Ghulam Ali Khan's gharana) at the Naina Devi Foundation
event in Neemrana, off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, northern India. Most eyes in
the assorted audience of socialites, movers, shakers and moneybags have a transported
look, and some break into tears.
Why or how does a rendition of classical devotional music succeed in evoking such overt demonstrations of emotion?
When Birju Maharaj, M.K. Saroja or Kelucharan Mohapatra go in search of Krishna on stage, the audience seems to join in. Is he under the chair, in the wings, in the parking lot? Krishna is everywhere, depending on how and where you see him: in the kunj-galis (bylanes) of Mathura and Vrindavan, or in the temples of Orissa where the 12th century poet Jayadev immortalized himself and his Lord's love play in the Geet Govinda.
"It has been the inclination of the Indian mind to assign the genesis of most branches of learning and art to some divine source," opines dance scholar Mohan Khokar. Shiva as Nataraja is the Lord of Dance; Saraswati, the goddess of learning and music; Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver. Thus, the world of Indian arts revolves around the universe of spiritual pursuit—through music, dance, sculpture, architecture, painting and literature.
Unlike the art forms of the West, which essentially celebrate the physical being, the Indian arts sing paeans to the soul. The soul is best represented through the divine, hence a closeness to that source constitutes the spiritual motif of the Indian arts. This is the reason that mythology plays a strong role in communicating the tales of divinities. The dialogue between humans who enact these tales takes the form of a spiritual communication, for the love of a gopi for Krishna is not merely physical, it is also spiritual.
But what is spirituality? It is a sense of belonging, association and communication with whatever 'energy' that has created everything—call it God, Allah, Christ, Nanak or Ram. Spirituality is not religion per se, a concept that is manifested most in the Indian arts.
Where else would a devout Hindu sing praises to Allah or vice versa? A Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan comes calling from Pakistan and all flock to hear him sing Allah Hu. Is it acceptance, music or spirituality? it acceptance, music or spirituality? It is all of this and beyond.
Beyond was the title of an album created by violin maestro L. Subramaniam. His vedic chants had the Western orchestra playing the Vishnustotram in New York, with Zubin Mehta conducting it! This, then, is spirituality in the Indian arts. It accepts the Godhead's supreme; the arts become an expression of His will and their delivery, a mere act of devotion.
Saroja has performed bhakti-oriented Bharatanatyam for 60 years. Having led a life full of hardship and suffering, she is transported when she is on stage. What is it in her dance (or in M.S.Subbulakshmi's voice, for that matter) that connects, soothes and sanctifies? It is that selfless act of performing for God, not for an audience. As Fernau Hall, the venerated critic of The Times, London, said of Saroja: "She is humble in front of her audience, in front of her art, in front of her God."
Spirituality cannot be quantified; it can only be experienced. Those who have experienced God realize the simple beauty of form, which is devoid of a need to even communicate. Thus, if we say that arts communicate, they must, but at purely a worldly level. Beyond that lies the realm of open and empty space, which is all engulfing with the sheer presence of the Godhead. If I don't make much sense, then this is the truth: no words can describe correctly what one experiences in that state.
But what is it that makes a particular art form Indian? What is 'Indian' in a country as diverse, as wide and vast as ours? It is the simple belief in God. Whatever form He is in—which is why India's real self lies in its mysticism, its spirituality and its transparency. Forget ashrams, organized cults or religious leaders because many of them are lost in the quest for siddhi (power).Those who go beyond this maya are the ones who actually befriend Krishna, Rama, Allah, Jesus, Nanak or the Buddha. Faith begins where logic ends, and India is built on faith.
India is an idea, a meeting point for thoughts, philosophies, vibrations, cults, dogmas and religions. It is a land meant for wandering, for searching and for looking. When can you do that? When you have little need for worldly necessities or aids. This is the land where a George Harrison bows to a Ravi Shankar; Where Sarah Ferguson, the erstwhile Duchess of York, comes for solace; where Michael Jackson finds peace ; and where Demi Moore discovers a Deepak Chopra .
Indian art forms, especially music and dance, are held in high esteem as means for communicating with, if not reaching, Godhead. Take the simple drone of the tanpura, for instance. The instrument's four basic strings are representative of the nadabrahma, the sound that connects the entire universe. The concept of nadabrahma itself demonstrates how music is closest to God. Indians, thus are a living embodiment of humankind's communion with God. It is this cultural conditioning which makes the Indian mind (and thus, the arts and the artists) receptive to encountering Godhead through every available means, which can even be as simple as the soulful songs of the Bauls of Bengal.
Among the most touching sights that I have come across is that of a groups of blind minstrels singing dhrupad in a Mathura temple. With tears rolling down their sightless eyes, they sang not for the people or for themselves, but for Lord. When Kumar Gandharva sang, it was not for his own pleasure or to please the audience. The same is the case with Bhimsen Joshi. The audience gets attuned to the vocalist's perception and his rendering. In that moment, nothing else matters but the thread that connects them all. It reaches a sama (oneness) and spirituality begins and ends in that sama.
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