Tag Archives: art

The Venus Flytrap: Once Again, The Heart

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I went looking for something heart-shaped to use as a photo prop, and amongst my objects just as in my life, I found nothing. That ubiquitous icon had far less presence than I’d assumed, except perhaps by way of ink on paper. I have signed words with lipstick kisses and scrawled sigils, like anyone hopeless and hot-blooded. I thought I had filled my life with love, or at least my longing for it, but it appeared to been abstracted. Not a single heart-shaped handmade soap, cheap ring of sentimental value or box that had once held similarly crafted chocolates could be found among the miscellany that is mine. I made do with a decaying rose – how’s that for a metaphor?

The heart symbol is not mere kitsch; its form is derived from the seed or the fruit of the near-mythical silphium plant. Its other names are uncertain, but it was known to be an aphrodisiac, a contraceptive and an abortifacient, thus making it a regalia of desire and its corollaries like no other.

And then I remembered why I think I see it everywhere: if it feels like the heart symbol is embroidered into my life with the frequency of a hem stitch, it’s because of emojis. Big red ones that throb flagrantly on the phone screen, or burst into tiny heart-bubbles with a sound effect to match. Sweet little multi-coloured ones. I send them everyday. They are sent back to me, always, and this is only because as frivolous as I may be in punctuating my messages with them, I’m not frivolous about who receives them. I can’t afford to be. One of my other, actual hearts – my subtle-body one, not the anatomical one, although we know that the weight of the world on the blood-circulating one is not light – knows better. Not everyone is deserving. Not everyone will meet openness with gentleness, even if the truth hurts.

Earthworms have five literal ones; octopi and squid can have three. We have fewer of those, just a solo organ because of which everything rises and falls, but perhaps several other kinds. Secret hearts no one knows we harbour. Folded-and-kept-in-pockets hearts. Dissolved-like-ash-in-water hearts. We love and lose, and linger in our own afterlives.

Apropos everything and nothing at all, I was thinking of St. Valentine – the martyred saint whose name is taken, sometimes in vain, each year. I must confess that my thoughts were a little macabre. I’d read that the holy relic of his skull, adorned with a crown of flowers a la Frida Kahlo, is kept in a small Roman church. This is of especial importance because his hagiography holds that he was beheaded by order of the law. Other corporeal relics of his are scattered across Europe. My macabre wondering was about his physical heart. Perhaps it was the Kahlo-esque imagery that made the idea that it would be cherished separately spring to my mind.

A heart in its own case, its own cocoon. But isn’t that in some ways always so – that whatever beats within us also has at least one counterpart that tendrils ectopically, as fragile and full as a balloon?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 13th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

[P.S. Read also: https://sharanyamanivannan.in/2011/09/29/the-heart/]

The Venus Flytrap: Nobody’s Muse

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When the legendary cultural critic Susan Sontag was 17 years old, she married a sociologist around a decade her senior, with whom she had a son. Her husband, Philip Rieff, published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, widely considered a landmark text, in 1959. For years, rumour held that Sontag had such a large role in the work that she was practically its co-author. Now, her latest biographer claims to have evidence that it was her work all along, and that she had signed over authorship out of desperation to keep her ex-husband from gaining custody of her child in their divorce.

History doubtlessly contains more erasures like this. I recall once watching the cellist and poet Kevin Gillam perform Bach’s beautiful cello suites. But which Bach did they belong to? He cited scholarship by the conductor Martin Jarvis that it was Anna Magdalena, the composer’s wife, who wrote them. Perhaps this memory surfaced because I’ve been rationing the final few episodes of the cancelled TV show Mozart In The Jungle. I adore it. It “has blood”, to paraphrase the maverick maestro Rodrigo De Souza (deliciously portrayed by Gabriel Garcia Bernal) at its heart. He is irresistible – therefore, best on screen and as far as possible from in the flesh, please. Please! Brilliant, and potentially brilliant, women spin into disorder following affairs with him. One of them begins to receive visits from ghosts of musicians past, just like he does. But it’s women who come to her, beginning with Nannerl, Mozart’s thwarted sister. Then others: women forgotten because they weren’t allowed to shine. They come as warnings.

And there are those left to wreck themselves, supernovas self-imploding, as the profoundly feminist and beautiful Savitri Ganesan biopic Mahanati (which I watched to avoid finishing Mozart) illustrates.

It’s something I think about a lot in relation to #MeToo. A monster’s art isn’t as interesting to me as the art that they suppressed. Many women went underground, remained footnotes, lost confidence and disappeared with nothing to their names. They only came into the orbits of monsters because they had some spark of talent in them too. There must have been more Sontags who didn’t manage to surface again. Maybe their work was stolen. Or maybe it was never made. It might be better to be celibate than to be someone’s muse.

Actually, to be honest, there’s one more alternative. The much-married Lawrence Durrell wrote (this quote is famously misattributed to his friend and fellow rake – I mean writer – Henry Miller): “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Well, speaking as the woman, let me rephrase. Replace with the pronoun of your weakness and try again: love them, suffer for them, and turn them into literature. I prefer to do it all, do it bleeding, and put my name on it too.

Come to think of it, it’s a sweet irony that Durrell is rarely credited for these words of his either. I wonder what Sontag (or her ghost, appearing to an ingénue on the cusp of a mistake) might say about that.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 16th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Voyeurs & Vultures

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Nobody’s saying a divorce can’t be celebrated – except, that right belongs only to those directly affected, who may feel a sense of liberation or closure. But imagine having hordes of people enjoy the news of your divorce, because they hope you’ll be miserable enough to make art from it. That’s what’s happening to singer-songwriter Adele, whose personal announcement has caused great excitement among many fans. Gleeful reports about how she was spotted entering recording studios, with “sources” saying a heartbreak album is around the corner, add fuel.

Some dug up how she allegedly joked to the press, early in her career, “When I’m happy, I ain’t writing songs. I’m out having a laugh. If I ever get married, it’ll be, ‘Darling, I need a divorce. It’s been three years, I’ve got a record to write’”. As though a carefree statement made when she was both younger and just getting acclimatised to success makes such vulture-like anticipation acceptable.

How does Adele feel about her divorce? The correct answer is: none of our business. Is she going to make beautiful music from it? If she does, let it be for her own catharsis. Let her lock it up and have it be revealed in a hundred years. Because those who think she owes it to them to mine her pain for their pleasure – or as a soundtrack for their own cathartic moments – don’t deserve it. An artist’s only obligation is to honour her own journey, in life and work. The audience is incidental. Honestly, so is the art.

I remembered how disappointed I was in 2005 when Tori Amos, my personal queen of teenage intensity, released a seemingly uninspired (but actually deeply grieving, gently healing) album called The Beekeeper. Like other entitled fans, I thought moving to Cornwall to raise chickens and a child had made her lose her edge.

But so what if she had? Did she not deserve her peace? I understood only once I was on the other side, and felt the exhaustion of being projected upon. A literary author is not a superstar, but in smaller but still prickly ways, dehumanisation happens. It runs the gamut from backhanded compliments like being told at a celebration for a book how someone preferred an earlier one and expected more like it; to disrespect of boundaries because personal interaction was presumed to be an all-access pass; to an ugly experience when readers knew a loved one was dying, and someone still had the malice to send me casual criticism while claiming to usually enjoy the pieces they’d never once dropped an appreciative word for. The equanimity I strive for now is this: knowing both praise and aversion are reflections of the recipient, not the maker.

And you know what? And after all those dramatic years of loving Amos’ dark albums, it’s funny how The Beekeeper is almost the only one I still listen to. And I understand now: it’s not that she had lost her charm, or her edge, back then. It’s that I needed to grow before I could see it, and recognise the grace and fire that had withstood what went into the work.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Alebrijes

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In 1936, the artist Pedro Linares Lopez fell into a delirium during a high fever in which he saw a group of fantastical creatures in a forest. There was an eagle-headed lion, a rooster with a bull’s horns and a donkey with butterfly wings – all vividly-coloured and striking, and all shouting the same word repeatedly. “Alebrijes! Alebrijes!” When Lopez recovered, he set to work recreating the hybrid creatures he saw using papier-mache and cardboard. He named his statuettes alebrijes. Lopez lived well into old age, and in the 1980s his alebrijes (which had caught the fancy of the Kahlo-Rivera household, among other tastemakers, when he had first made them) came to tourist attention. They began to be produced from copal wood, held sacred in Mexican culture, and alebrijes are now common souvenirs.

I heard of alibrejes in an interview by the TV journalist Jorge Ramos with an author who influenced me greatly, Sandra Cisneros. Both of them are American citizens of Mexican heritage, and Cisneros had a particularly interesting trajectory: she grew up in Chicago in a conservative working-class background, defied familial expectations by rejecting marriage and pursuing literature and travel, discovered that she was profoundly unhappy trying to fit into and study in the white western academic context, and pioneered a linguistic style that mingled languages and connotations, eschewing translation, trusting in the heart’s power to emote and be understood. Following her success, Cisneros tried her luck in Texas, a little closer to her cultural roots. Still not content, she finally moved to Mexico in middle age.

In the interview, Cisneros described both Ramos and herself as being alibrijes, winged and amphibious and capable of understanding and being in many places. It’s one more lovely way to name ourselves: we who don’t truly belong, who know ourselves best in the margins.

Here is me as an alebrijes right now: light-footed, carved of petrified wood; feline in so many ways; winged, sharp-stingered and solitary as a wasp; my halo held up by flimsy but proud horns. By the time you read this, I will be somewhere in my own heartlands, in a place I’d belonged to my whole life before I’d even set a paw in it. And to where I’ve kept returning, pursuing the truth to a point so deep it becomes fiction. And here is the alebrijes who’s been my obsession, the creature because of whom I first gave myself permission to come to these lagoons: a fish with the upper body of a woman, or a woman who is half-piscine. She doesn’t speak; she sings, and weeps. I have heard her. I have listened carefully.

Over my recent visits, I have found others like me: a new kind of diaspora, neither broken into amnesia nor uncomfortable with our discomfort. Perhaps what we have in common, us alebrijes, is that we know we are different. We know our own sharp edges. And we have learnt to thrive by using the friction of ambiguity as polish. Perhaps it’s a lifelong project, but surely it’s possible: to be made of so many contradictory fractions, but to always hold the knowledge that they re-assemble into wholeness.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: Centrepiece: New Writing And Art From Northeast India

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There’s a beautiful, almost cheeky, red herring in the very positioning of Centrepiece: New Writing And Art From Northeast India, a comprehensive anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, photography and visual art edited by graphic novelist Parismita Singh. Nowhere on the front or back covers does the word “women” appear, but in contributor bio after contributor bio, the pronouns “she” and “her” repeat. (A little earnest fact-checking reveals that one of a duo does not identify as female, but the coup is nearly complete). In this manner, the “centre” of the title is apparent: imagine a world so woman-centric that it need not be announced.

Centrepiece is primarily concerned with women’s work, not work that is gendered but labour of all kinds that is limited, encouraged or affected in some way by gender. “I reject the idea that work is related only to money or food,” writes Aungmakhai Chak in “The Objects Of Everyday Work: A Photo Essay”, which explores a non-capitalist understanding of beauty through the crafting of tobacco pipes, baskets, earthen jars and woven clothing. Rini Barman’s wonderful piece, “Hands That Brew”, is on rice liquor and the gendered politics behind it, while “Daksare Sketches: Through The Needle and the Loom” by Bumbum Studio’s Shreya Debi and Bilseng R. Marak (the duo mentioned above) is about their own work with fabrics, inspired by the daily movements of women and girls.

These are but some examples; the anthology features over 30 outstanding contributions. Singh’s curation of poetry and artwork is to be praised. Never does either feel like filler material amongst prose and photo-essays. Each genre – from nearly academic papers to hashtag poetry – is given its due, with impressive selections. There is an even contrast between the explicit, such as Dolly Kirkon’s paper, “Women At Work: The Gender, Culture, And Customary Law Debate in Nagaland”, and the unspoken, such as Zubeni Lotha’s untitled photograph of women in military gear, wearing gigantic hornbill headgear.

Among the poetry, Soibam Haripriya’s “Curfew” is particularly evocative, finely blending both gender and governmental limitations. It begins, “curfew and rains,/ and you are home/ thinking slowly/ of how life evades you” then reveals its preoccupation – there is a baby bawling, and the narrator longs for the time before she “became/ a pair of milch breasts”, for now she knows, “Biology is your arch enemy.”

Visual art suffuses the collection. “Mayel Lyang” by Alyen Leeachum Foning is a lovely tale of travel and homecoming, using the handiwork of several artists. The book ends on a spectacular painting: in Kundo Yumnam’s “Self Portrait, 17th May 2017”, a woman draws milk-like threads from her heavy nipples, and knits them together. She is headless; the threads swirl around her torso as though in orbit.

The fiction here often plays with the meta-narrative. Jacqueline Zote recounts Mizo lore in “The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Retelling of Mizo Folktales”, in which a woman tells stories by candlelight to children bored during a power cut. In “Women’s Literature” by Sanatombi Ningombam, a woman attempts to write through a day full of half-rinsed laundry, pots spilling over on the stove and other domestic demands. There’s no chance of success, and only as she crumples up her work in frustration does her husband raise his head from his food to notice it. “What is it that you are so angrily tearing up?” he asks. “It’s women’s literature, women’s literature,” she says.

Centrepiece is a gorgeous collection, with page after page of beauty and surprise. What emerges is a heterogeneous series of portraits and worldviews. There is a clear, and admirable, refusal to pander to the non-Northeastern gaze, and so an outsider reader does not suffer from a niggling sense of voyeurism either. Both female experiences and the distinct cultures of the Northeast are given primacy in a rare, and very rewarding, way. There is so much here to enjoy, and to be educated by.

An edited version appeared in OPEN.

Book Review: Sauptik by Amruta Patil

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On a cremation ground somewhere in the present, the past or perhaps even the future, Ashwatthama of the wounds that never heal tells the story of all he saw in the great war to his companions, the crackers of skulls and bearers of corpses. As far as Mahabharata retellings go, Amruta Patil’s has a knack for choosing sutradhars, or narrators – in Adi Parva, the first volume in this graphic diptych, it was the river Ganga. In Sauptik, the concluding volume, the thread is passed to as different a raconteur as possible: unlike a fabled river, the mass-murdering immortal Ashwatthama is not as easy to redeem into elegance of any kind.

This befits the book perfectly, for the tale Patil spins is one of ignominy, betrayal and repeated falls from grace. Throughout, Ashwatthama attempts a preacher position, albeit sitting beside pyres, pus leaking from his forehead. He is immortal but this is ironically his fatal flaw: he is too central a cautionary tale to be able to teach the same. The effect is brilliant: Patil thus dips between pithy wisdoms (a simple clay lamp, sitting upon its own shadow, with the caption: “Directly beneath the lamp, darkness.”), strictly dangerous political instructions (“Small fires in a big forest keep flammable matter in check. A periodic purge may prevent a large-scale catastrophe. Useful, where civilization is concerned.”) and even artist’s notes (on the Sudarshan Chakra: “best shown as a jagged flying disc or as a mathematical sequence or as a moustached minor divinity armed to the teeth? Is Krishn best shown as a galactic nursery? Or a dirt-eating blue baby? Or a dark, bejeweled androgyne? Is devlok – antithesis of dense, low-frequency matter – best shown as purple-pink mountains or as a blank page? All these diagrams – crude as their executor – are only my attempts at making the Enormous accessible.”).

One of the most profound insights in the book, with its themes of jealousy and self-ignorance, comes from the supporting narrative of Ashwatthama as pyre-dweller. To contextualise his setting, the story of Sati’s feral husband Shiv and her hidebound father Daksha is recounted at the book’s beginning. Deep into the narrative, we are reminded of this auxillary story with a series of self-revealing questions: “To learn a queasy truth, ask yourself this: Who’s the Shiv to your Daksha? Of the worthiest of the worthies, whose name do you refuse to say aloud while a litany of others are mentioned? Who do you hesitate to leave room for in your crowded altar, though their credibility is immaculate? Of the worthiest of worthies who do you give thanks to?”

In fact, philosophy rather than story is Patil’s narrative style, and Sauptik requires some familiarity with the Mahabharata, and it is also recommended that its first volume, Adi Parva, be read beforehand. The epic’s sprawling storyline is illuminated in selected parts, with the text often taking on a sermon-like quality. In all retellings of any epic, elisions speak as much if not more than illuminations. In some cases, prior knowledge is necessary – the conveying of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is rendered in simplest terms – “He knelt in the red dust before Krishn. They had a very quiet conversation.” Similarly, a basic familiarity with Vaishnavite cosmology – and indeed, the epic’s other convolutions too – is a prerequisite, otherwise brief interludes like Bheem’s encounter with his half-brother Hanuman are incomplete, and dangling storylines like how Yudhishthir rescued his siblings from the magic lake of the crane-yaksha are completely baffling.

In other cases, inference rather than expression speaks strongest. A diagram of a hand shows each Pandav as a finger, with Draupadi’s name within the palm – but is she what connects the fingers, or what the fist crowds upon?

The answer is unequivocal in Patil’s telling, in which Draupadi is very much the dark horse protagonist, the one rendered with the most pathos and the least equanimity. Some of the most vivid scenes belong to her. In the court of Hastinapur where the game of loaded dice has shown the polyandrous queen to be no more than property, the author eschews the standard narrative of disrobing and divine intervention for a chilling image: unfurled tongue and disheveled tresses, her eyes cold and not bloodshot, Draupadi is Ma Kali herself, pronouncing her curses and vows. Later, a striking scene is dedicated to the combing of her hair with the blood of not just those who humiliated her, but her father, her twin and her five sons too. Her face is extraordinarily beautiful, lit from within, as a handmaiden performs the sanguineous shampoo,

The story of how Draupadi came to have five husbands – often told as an act of obeisance to their mother who tells them to share everything – is spun neatly here as a tale of female desirousness and agency. The Pandav’s mother Pritha (her name restored to its original one from the popular Kunti) too offers counsel in just terms: “The only consent you must seek is hers. Your marriage needs no other approval.” This cannot protect Draupadi from becoming pillage in the war, or soothe her heart of longing and rejection. In a later sequence, she opines how Arjun takes advantage of a pretense of dignity to seek Subhadra out, and make her co-consort among his various dalliances.

The author’s language is evocative, always didactic, and with elegant turns of phrase – memorably, Bheem and Duryodhan wrestling as students in the akhada are “symmetrical as an inkblot folded in half”.

This is a graphic novel, as much painting as it is prose. It is Patil’s third and she retains mastery of the form. When Draupadi is staked in a game of dice in the court of the enemy, she is menstruating in a room painted blood red, its walls unmistakably vaginal in the frame in which she utters her first and only warning to Dusshasan. Elsewhere, despite the book’s themes of carnage and forest darkness, there is beauty, most notably in scenes of intimacy: Bheem and his true love, the rakshasa Hidimbi, amidst plantains and passionflowers; sleep-dancing gopikas in petal-skirted dervish delight, each with a Krishn of her own; the lushly sexual apsara Tilottama.

Patil’s visual genealogy is a rich one, but to her credit, her references never trip into too-obvious, easy-applause territory. So in a poignant double spread about Draupadi’s forest (one chapter elucidates how each protagonist had one of their own), the text explores her defenselessness, emotional abandonments and the way long-suffering patience lends itself to long-held vengeance – while a naked, aurically-dense figure of her calls to mind a stance seen somewhere in Diego Rivera’s oeuvre. Elsewhere, on the epic’s bloodiest night of carnage, we recognise that the Shiv that Ashwatthama has invoked is reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahakala. We admire the tableau and the artist’s astute subtlety, balancing allusion with lyrical expression, and turn the page.

But the last page turns onto blank dismay. Sauptik opens on “[a] caution, a key: Don’t impose your preconceptions onto the story then claim objectivity.” Ashwatthama, survivor of aeons, offers this buffer against the limitations of time-bound mores, but Patil herself fails to take this guidance. In a spectacularly misguided endnote signed by the author, she writes of how “brahmin” and “rajanya” are “not genetically transmitted states” but purposes. And more risibly still, choices: “You determine your varna. The bucks stops with you. It is as easy and as excruciatingly hard as that.”

Ashwatthama speaking this on a battlefield or a burning ground out of time may have had resonance, but Patil writing this in a caste-ridden society where the best one can do with one’s privilege is to renounce the system, rather than find ways to whitewash it, is disingenuous to say the least.

Ironically, Ashwatthama – son of Dron, perpetrator of caste-based violence – himself says it better. After the Eklavya episode, he first attempts a justification – “Contrary to the current narrative, Eklavya wasn’t punished for being a poor forest boy with super skills. He was punished for a serious error: laying claim to a lineage he had done no ground-time to earn, from a teacher who had explicitly rejected him. Was Dron’s rejection unjust? Arguably.” – then moves into lip service towards radical subversion – “Karn and Eklavya should’ve just rejected elitist lineages, declared themselves to be what they were – swayambhus, self-actualised ones… Ultimate cocking-a-snook at a system that kept them out.” It’s a bizarre endnote to a book of philosophy on the folly of hubris, but almost – in an unpremeditated way – a befitting one.

An edited version appeared in Biblio.

The Venus Flytrap: The Colour Of Craving

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The first mango of the season isn’t what it used to be, a rite, sometimes devoured knifeless over the kitchen sink, pulp dripping to the elbows. No – that gives me away as one who eats alone, which I often am, but I know that a shared bowl of slices is how it usually goes. I am avoiding that sweetness this year, instinctively. I don’t need more heat. I don’t need more thirst. But I want that brilliant colour, the colour of the ambrosial flesh that bursts through as nails or blade break green skin. I call that colour, simply, “mango” – but for centuries it was recreated as a pigment known as “Indian yellow”, made from the urine of cattle that lived on nothing but mango leaves.

That too, a colour. Rain-dripped, in my imagination. The voice of a woman without a lover sears across millennia from the Kuruntokai, in a poem about the ardour of the body without an admirer. These specific words: “my beauty dark as a mango leaf.” She grieves its inevitable pallor from inattention; she grieves, in short, a lack of colour.

People went to great lengths to create pigments. They used the wrappings on mummies for a shade of brown, and went deep into Afghani mines for an ultramarine hue made from powdered lapis lazuli. I want to say the great artists of those times knew what riches and gore they held at the tips of their paintbrushes, but the truth is I doubt it. We do not think deeply about our consumption either: the dead trees of our libraries and furniture, the farmers’ tears in our food.

Today’s artists may not have pyramids and mines excavated for pigments, but they still feud over them. Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights over the laboratory-produced Vantablack, the blackest known substance on earth, which absorbs up to 99.965% of light. Stuart Semple then one-upped him with The World’s Pinkest Pink, made available for sale to all, with the exception of Kapoor and his associates.

There are more imaginative names for colours, so striking in themselves that they change the way a fabric drapes or the way the eye drinks in an object. Verdigris. Oxblood. Bastard-amber. Rose madder. Coquelicot. Areca. And there are medical conditions – synaesthesia – which affect the way in which the senses perceive. So one may see music, words and numbers as distinct colours. To some, this cognition is a gift. I wonder if it’s a disorder too, the pleasure I get from language, how singular words are charged for me with emotive dimensions. Sometimes my mouth waters because of a word.

And my heart is somehow soothed by the sight of indigo, made with that dye that cannot dissolve in water but bleeds and bleeds once on fabric, like someone with a lot of fortitude, who cries often. A plant dye that evokes another one, and more poems still: the protagonist of Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar binds her manuscripts with thread dyed with hyacinths, a signature.

And let me just say: Kapoor is wrong, anyway. The darkest material in the world isn’t a colour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Mirror Of Another Time

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I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.

I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.

I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.

In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.

When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…

I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.

But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 29th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Beyoncé And The Badass Ancestral Self

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This week, I mulled over a divination card I came across in an interview with the queer indigenous healer Lettie Laughter. It said: “Your future ancestral self is a badass magician of the heart who will never stop loving you.” The conflation of time in the line was what intrigued me. One becomes an ancestor regardless of whether one has progeny, just as one reaches for ancestors, blood-kin and guiding lights both, from the braided branches of the tree of life. One can go back in time to love one’s known younger self, to unsnag that self from something that doesn’t heal. But the idea of being healer-ancestor and unbegotten-beloved at once was so richly textured that I turned it over and over in my mind.

The following day, giving in to sheer curiousity (the kind where the analysis you’ve read is so powerful that you wonder if the real thing will hold water), I watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Here, too, what stood out for me was ancestry. The proverbial sins of the father are only set scenery. The real story is the suffering of the mothers. We mother ourselves – a line you can read as profane or as protective. In this rendering, Beyoncé counts among her mothers the young poet Warsan Shire and the late radical Malcolm X. There is plenty of amazing black feminist political and spiritualist writing already out there about how she consciously channels the goddesses Oshun and Erzulie Red-Eyes, among other mothers.

“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth,” Beyoncé enunciates slowly, right before the work moves back into the theme of sexual humiliation in a shattering marriage.

I don’t think that speculating about Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z is any of our business. An artist exposes her vulnerability not to have it dissected; her real life is not a circus act. Judging by the ecstatic reactions to it, Lemonade might be the kind of work that mirrors anything the viewer brings to it, which is why the infidelity and betrayal in it have been so resonant for so many.

Is the work personal? Who cares, when it is personal for so many. Truthfully, the spoken word and cinematography were more interesting to me than the music – one needs no embellishment for lines as stark as “[I] plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know…” But Beyoncé’s willingness to be a conduit for collective pain, regardless of whether or not her own is a basis for that exploration, is what I admire.

I must not have brought a particularly wounded self of mine to my viewing of Lemonade. Because what I saw was the artist clearly cast in the mode of Lettie Laughter’s divination card: simultaneously archetypal and in need of healing. This was one way to be a badass ancestral self, for sure. Every creative day of my life, I write mainly so as to make amends for ancestral silencing, and mostly only to console myself. It was glorious to watch another artist do the same, to step into that liminal space and chant to her sistren.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Tragic And Talented

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Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

The Mucukunda Murals

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Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.

Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.

He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.

Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.

Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.

The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.

In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.

At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.

Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.

In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.