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Why new biology may be headed out to India

Let’s thank our painters, sculptors, singers, dancers, actors and idol-makers who made us interesting to others if not always to ourselves, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2008 23:34 IST

Who is the most-painted figure in the history of European art? Mary. Which Indian deity has more representations of him in formal and informal places of worship than any other? Shiva, as the shivling. Who is modern India’s most-collected icon? Ganesha. Keeping divinity out of art is virtually impossible as most cultures tell us. Author-psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar says, “You know what they’re predicting in the West? That if the focus of biology in the last century was the gene, in this century it’s going to be Memory and Desire, on how the brain works.” And who has occupied centrestage longest as the focus of these two important activities of the human brain? The gods of Indian mythology..

Cut to a fairly recent show in Delhi by Gallery Nyva, called Dakshinayan, that showcased the works of 32 artists from Andhra Pradesh. Its highlights were all ‘divine’ subjects. An ‘untitled’ fiberglass head that looked remarkably like a contemporary take on the gigantic rural goddesses of the South who guard the fields and homesteads. Two spheres made of 22 carat gold on brass, with mustachioed ‘faces’ and wicked spikes, called ‘Sun’ a fat, jolly and beautifully detailed Nardana Ganapathi (dancing Ganesh) in the reds, yellows and ochres instantly associated with auspiciousness. A wildly erotic etching called Sunflower Garden where ripe village maidens lounged amorously around a godly male figure with a bull’s head. The coup: Ramesh Gorjala’s abundantly beautiful Vishnu with kalamkari figures all over his body (“We are the world!”) and an elegant Brahma in the lotus growing from his navel. Gorjala’s painting works at many levels: well-executed, intriguing composition, lovely colours. Loads of cultural context to Indian eyes. And perhaps with ‘exotic’ value to non-Indian eyes?

Or perhaps more. Cut to Kerala, to an institute called Natanakairali in the town of Irinjalakuda. Run by G. Venu, its great treasure was Ammanur Madhava Chakyar (born May 13, 1917), the venerable Kudiyattam artiste, who passed away on July 1 this month. Kudiyattam is a two-millennia-old form of Sanskrit theatre that stayed an in-house pleasure to the privileged communities. It enacted epic themes through arcane mudras, all fearfully complex. It’s the mother of Kathakali which is barely 300 years old. Madhava Chakyar was an ardent (and very handsome) young man who did not want Kudiyattam to be restricted to the temple. He took it right out to the people.

Chakyar had trained under the princes of the royal family of Kodungallur (where the first Syrian Christians in Kerala were centred) and played his first major role, that of Sri Rama at the Koodalmanikya temple in Irinjalakuda, which is the only temple in India to Prince Bharatha, Sri Rama’s faithful brother. I first saw Chakyar in Irinjalajuda in Irinjalakuda at a Natanakairali festival of Kudiyattam. He played Ravana entering the Asoka Vana to look at Sita (who was represented by a Kerala brass lamp to the front left). There was no electricity, only flaming lamps and torches as Chakyar entered, green eyes blazing. Beyond words, like a mural or a Ravi Varma come alive. The gods LIVED.

“That’s why we come to India,” whispered Arabella, a Swedish theatre person watching with me, part of a 40-strong theatre group from Stockholm who were there for a long Kudiyattam workshop. “We Scandinavians threw away our old Viking gods when we embraced a new religion. We hope to retrieve clues to our old cultural intuitions by watching Indian classical theatre,” said her director. Why India? “You are the only major culture that has kept her ancient gods alive,” they said firmly.

Let’s thank our painters, sculptors, singers, dancers, actors and idol-makers who made us interesting to others if not always to ourselves. And do let the biologists come, plumb our brains and map Memory and Desire. They also serve, who keep the faith.