The concert season is busily on in Delhi, Mumbai and all over the north and the famous Madras Music Season is about to begin in early December, a phenomenon like nowhere in the world. At least 400 concerts happen over six to eight weeks and leading local newspapers carry entire supplements and pages devoted to performance schedules and reviews for the benefit of the citizenry.
Which makes one inevitably marvel at the peculiarly personal role played by Indian classical dance and music in quietly sustaining faith in at least three generations of deracinated modern Hindus. In their dismay over malpractices like caste, gender inequality, dowry and intolerable ceremonies for hatch, match and dispatch, many sensitive Hindus threw the baby out with the bath water, as we all know to our political and social cost. They broke their connection with worship or became closet Hindus, ashamed to own up to their faith yet unable to seize their birthright with meaningful awareness.
But the overwhelming bhakti bhaav in our dance and music provided relief for this collective wounded soul — a sanctuary of sound where one could sneakily pray under guise of enjoying a purely artistic experience. M S Subbulakshmi was certainly one such sanctuary, where a confused modern Hindu could very privately connect with Divinity, as were many other great musicians.
In fact something exactly like that came up this Thursday in Delhi, in Gowri Ramnarayan’s play, Dark Horse, about the late poet Arun Kolatkar. In the plot, a young woman journalist from Madras hunts out the ageing, irascible Marathi poet who writes in both English and his mother tongue. To her question, “Do you believe in God?” he says, “Well, I know Tukaram and Tukaram knows God.” Now that it’s all out in the open and entire festivals happen with names like Bhaktipravah and Samavani, it’s exceedingly pleasant to look back at how music and dance fed our inner lives about religion through mythology and sustained us in secret.
The closest historical parallel that suggests itself is what happened in Europe with the Renaissance.
When the peoples of Europe converted wholesale to early Christianity, they had to forcibly uproot and throw out their old gods. What followed thereafter? History tells us that Europe plunged into an epoch of plagues, pestilence and blind faith, called the Dark Ages by their own historians. To our Indian eyes, viewing them from our place in the sun, does it not seem curious that only when they got their old gods back, did the Europeans flourish and prosper with the Age of Reason, scientific temper, the works? Of course, all this was unofficial.
Without giving up the benefits of the collective society engendered by congregational Christianity, they let the old gods of Greece and Rome rampage through their paintings, literature, music and architecture. Every town hall or great building in Europe drew its pillars and pediments from the Parthenon, the temple to Pallas Athena in Athens. Even their names evoked the world of the old gods: ‘Diana’ is one example.
With lots of New Age choices, it’s confusing to tell if something is genuine or sheer bakwas masquerading as a hot new truth. But if we look at our own cultural instincts, we see we’re not into building obsolescence like faddy Americans. We seem to enjoy thrift, and recycling most things. Why should we be any different with our religion that has miraculously survived the millennia and deserves that we reform and revitalise it? As much for its own sake, because clearly we can’t do entirely without it, as to keep faith with all the brave reformers who systematically tried to clean up the Hindus’ act? Except, we get to do it on our terms, because nobody can say ‘Don’t’ to a Hindu.
Every one of us has the right to decide what to keep and what to throw of the old ways. If they’re ‘good’, enriching our lives with grace, meaning and beauty, we keep it. If it’s ‘bad’, exploiting others or demeaning them, we don’t. Many of us live in this place already. The religion gives us space, it customises to how much we can handle and it always has its door open for us whenever we want to touch base. Most people would call this ownership, wouldn’t they?