Tag Archives: Kantha Shasthi Kavasam

The Venus Flytrap: Is There A Holy Text As Hardcore As The Kavasam?

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After a lapse of a few years, I began to listen to the Kantha Shashti Kavasam again. The hymn has sentimental value to me – in the past, it gave me a sense of connection to my childhood and ancestral ties and generally operated in the role of a mnemonic. In the unholy ennui of the present, however, my rediscovery of it brought out a whole different kind of awe: the schmaltz of my memories and the high-pitched vocals are the only delicate things about it. The Kavasam isn’t just beautiful; it’s badass.

If you’re not familiar with the text (there are some terrific English translations online), the Kavasam (meaning “armour”) is a long invocation to Muruga, beloved deity of the Tamils and crown prince of the Saivite cosmos. Composed in the 19th century by Devaraya Swamigal, it’s a lyrically magnificent work. It begins, naturally, with praise and welcoming, and then, once the little lord is nicely flattered, begins to get quite specific in its demands.

Up until about midway through the hymn, the devotee puts forth requests for protection, mostly in the form of a list of the various body parts long enough to sound like a recitation from an anatomy textbook. Having ensured that the pretty prince with the pretty vel has been appointed to look over everything from each of the thirty-two teeth to the colon, things start to get very lively.

Now, up until this point, things are still pretty standard, as far as devotionals go. Then out pop the monsters. Great tail-shaking devils are named and dismissed, as are fire-eating ghouls, baby-devourers, night-roaming spirits, folk entities special enough to have names of their own – all of whom henceforth must run away as if struck by thunder upon hearing no, not our little lord’s name – but the singing supplicant’s! After this comes the litany of voodoo tricks – of which the supplicant has a suspiciously impressive knowledge of. The hymn ends with more medical grievances and praise to the deity, but not before its most spectacular segment: in which Muruga is asked to tie up the devotee’s enemies, roll them up, stomp stomp stomp on them, break break break their bones, pierce pierce pierce their bodies and set them on fire.

Basically, if you want proof of the inherent badassness of the Tamil people, look no further than the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam.

Is there a holy text as hardcore as the Kavasam? Maybe some old Hebrew stuff – but then, the god of the Old Testament is generally seen as curmudgeonly and cantankerous. Unlike the adorable little Muruga, sweet-smiling with bells around his ankles and flowers behind his ears… who will eviscerate your enemies.

There are lots of things from my Tamil heritage that I’m grateful for. Most importantly among them: Sangam poetry, curvy hips and a high tolerance for libations. The drama, intrigue, sabotage and high stakes apparently also come with the genes, if the texts and arts of this culture are anything to go by, but then so does the little avenging god, resplendent, ecstatic – completely aware of the devious nature of his chosen people, and just as prepared to bestow the grace of his bling in your moment of need. Bring it on mofo, my lord has a vel and I’ll have you know that it is bejeweled, baby.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.

Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.

When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.

I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.

I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.

But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.

Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.

There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.