Friday, October 27

Maidens' Prayer

Maidens' Prayer

The husband of our dreams
And boxfuls of saree
Bodyfuls of gold, of course
From South Jewelery.

Monday, October 23

Shyama Sangeet

Amay de ma pagol kore
Brahmamayi -- de ma pagol kore
Amar kaaj nai ar gyan-bichare
De ma pagol kore

Make me mad, Mother
Brahma-encompassing Mother – make me mad
I need no more truck with knowing or reason
Make me mad, Mother

This is the beginning of a famous Kali-song (Shyama sangeet in Bengali) written by Trailokyanath Sanyal a hundred or so years ago. Trailokyanath was one of several 19th-century literary men -- Dwijendralal Ray, Nabai Moyra and Kalidas Bhattacharya were some of the others -- who experimented with Shyama sangeet as a poetic form. The genre itself can be traced back to the mystic tradition that has found articulation in, for example, Sufi thought –- the dervishes as ‘mad’ men –- though a feminization of the Mystic is something that is special to Kali. In Bengal, Ramprasad Sen was a pioneer of this genre.

"Ramprasad Sen belonged to Kumarhatta, a place about 25 miles from Calcutta up the Hooghly. His Vidyasundar was written some time in the sixth or seventh decade of the [eighteenth] century. The influence of Bharatchandra is clearly noticeable. In style and characterization Ramprasad is inferior to his predecessor but in poetic fancy he is undoubtedly superior. Ramprasad's humour is also less objectionable. His other works include Kalikirttan and the fragmentary Krishnakirttan. These poems were written in the form of the 'Panchali' style that was developing from the older 'Kirttan' … The simple and appealing melody associated with the songs is also attributed to the poet who is looked upon as a saint. But this melody and the songs pertaining to it may have been the work of another Ramprasad (a Brahman) belonging to Calcutta who was reputed as a composer of 'Kabi' songs. This Ramprasad was a younger contemporary of the first (who was a Vaidya). The songs are purely devotional, being appeals to God the Mother, couched in the words of a wayword but repentant child. ... The sentiments evoked by the songs are a combination of homely affection and pure devotion and therefore their appeal is irresistible." (History of Bengali Literature; Sukumar Sen; Sahitya Akademi; 1960.)

Although many of the earlier poets of Bengali songs were devotees of Kali who followed occult tantric practices in order to experience the Goddess directly, the lyrics themselves have always been in a colloquial vernacular, and this made them widely accessible and popular. Here’s an early Ramprasadi –-

Man re –- krishi kaaj janona
Emon manab-jamin railo pateet
Abad karle pholto sona

Mind mine – would that you knew to farm
Such human-acreage lay fallow
Tilled, would yield gold!

The tilling, the poet goes on to say, would involve devotion to Kali. Songs to Kali celebrate, in everyday language, the role the goddess plays in the devotee's life as a strong, protecting, bountiful Mother. They also celebrate Her essential role in the universe, an universe in which Shakti - Energy - defines the Goddess; a Shakta is a devotee of this Power, which invariably takes female form, which makes the universe move and change. Called Ma in the songs, this great and terrifying force is made intimate. Some examples can be heard here.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa was famously a Kali devotee, and many of these songs are recorded in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which was preached worldwide by Swami Vivekananda.

A long quote from a book on Bengali Sakta Religious lyrics by Edward Thompson (Professor at Oxford) and Arthur Marshman Spencer (no affiliation mentioned), published by the YMCA in Calcutta in 1923 is illuminating:

"[Shakta poems] have gone to the heart of a people as few poets' work has done. Such songs as the exquisite 'This day will surely pass, Mother, this day will pass,' I have heard from coolies on the road or workers in the paddy fields; I have heard it by broad rivers at sunset, when the parrots were flying to roost and the village folk thronging from marketing to the ferry. Once I asked the top class in a mofussil high school to write out a song of Rabindranath Tagore's; two boys out of forty succeeded, a result which I consider showed the very real diffusion of his songs. But, when I asked for a song of Ramprasad's, every boy except two responded. Truly, a poet who is known both by work and name to boys between fourteen and eighteen, is a national poet. Tagore's songs are heard in Calcutta streets, and have been widely spread by the student community and the Brahmo Samaj; but in the villages of Bengal they are unknown, while Ramprasad's are heard everywhere. 'The peasants and the pandits enjoy his songs equally. They draw solace from them in the hour of despair and even at the moment of death. The dying man brought to the banks of the Ganges asks his companions to sing Ramprasadi songs.'

Sister Nivedita compared Ramprasad with Blake. He resembles rather Herrick, in his self-consciousness and his habit of looking at himself from outside. But these are only casual and partial affinities. His lyrics at their simplest often have the quality of a snatch of nursery babble, and sing themselves into the memory of an illiterate folk by a riot of punning sound and alliteration, a musical toss and play of similar syllables. Ramprasad took a childlike pleasure in these, and that untrained literary instinct out of which folklore and folksong are born, takes the same pleasure and has heard him with rapture. Much of his imagery is fanciful and conceited, and of anything but universal validity; yet even this has a charm, examined with patience and sympathy. The student of his poetry will be rewarded with a wealth of local thought and custom and of such stories as flower in the undergrowth and byways of authorised legend. This 'local habitation' of Ramprasad's mind is strength as well as sometimes weakness. His range of ideas and illustrations is narrow; but within that range he is a master.

It is profitable to study the attitude of the remarkable poets of the people, which every century has produced, in every part of India. Indian philosophy has reasoned out certain conclusions; its typical expression, as everyone knows, is the Vedanta; and no one would deny that even the thought of the illiterate has a pantheistic tinge. This has often been pointed out. Perhaps too much has been made of it; men forget how St. Paul confidently looked to find at least this tinge, alike in the thought of idlers in the market-place at Athens and in that of Lystra peasants. If we study the folk-poets, and through them the mental outlook of the simple folk of India, we find vulgar thought often in absolute revolt from those findings of the philosophers so readily and dogmatically put forth in Europe as Indian belief. These are only one side of Indian belief. Tennyson has not expressed more incisively than Ramprasad the rejection, by the mind that has loved, of the doctrine of loss of personal life. What is the use of salvation to me, cries Ramprasad, if it means absorption? 'I like eating sugar, but I have no desire to become sugar.' No thought anywhere--aware as he was of Sankaracharya's monism and in sympathy as some of his moods show him to be with pantheistic teaching -- is more emphatically theistic than his normally is, or rests more decidedly upon interchange and intercourse between a personal goddess and a personal suppliant and worshipper. With the popular religious idolatry, and especially its crudities and cruelties, he has no part. He scoffs at pilgrimage, and offerings to images. 'I laugh when I hear that a worshipper of Kali has gone to Gaya.' He is sturdily ethical, will have nothing to do with the suggestion that good and evil are the same thing, philosophically considered. He is terrified of those six passions who leap over his life's low wall. In a passage famous with his countrymen, he looks past the blood-stained image which represents his 'Mother' to the many, sees with revolt the butchered victims and the red stains upon the flowers of worship, and cries out to that World-Mercy which he has found for himself and which he adores, that he will sacrifice not living, quivering flesh but the Six Passions, the sins of his heart and mind. This passage has never been forgotten by his countrymen. "

Shyama sangeet, along with the more voluminous corpus of Vaishnava songs addressed to Krishna and Radha, constitutes pre-modern Bengali literature. Two later composers in this genre are Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. A Brahmo, Tagore could not be considered a devotee of Kali in any real way; but Rabindranath incorporated his own take on Kali songs into new dramatic forms, which retained the musical structure but substituted the motherland in place of mother-worship –-

Your dry riverbed is at last in flood!
Shout Ma! and set sail!
Boatman! Where's the boatman?
Call out!
Grab the rudder, loosen the moorings!

Your debts grew every day,
None of you did any trades.
Now you haven't a coin left.
You've passed your days tied to the riverbank -
how can lift your shameful faces!
Now untie the boat and raise the sail,
come what may!

Nazrul Islam, the rebel bulbul, was a Muslim Kali-bhakta in the syncretic Indian sense, and his words hark back to the first fiery Kali lyricist Ramprasad Sen:

Amar kalo meyer payer talai, dekhe ja alor nachan
Roop dekhe dai book pete Shib, jar hate maran bnachan
Kalo meyer andhar kole, shishu rabi-shashi dole
Mayer ektukhani rooper jhalak, snighdha biraat neel gagan ...
Vishwe Ma-yer roop dharena, Ma amar tai digbasan

Below the feet of my dark girl, come see Light itself dance
Her beauty makes Shiv yield his breast, He whose hands hold Life and Death
In the black girl's dark lap, infant sun and moon rock
A small glimpse of Mother's beauty, is that giant calm blue heaven above ...
The Earth couldn’t hold Her beauty, so Mother mine is clad by the sky (i.e. is naked.)

Hear it and others here.

Oh Mother
There's kali (ink) on my hands,
ink on my face.
The neighbors laugh.
My education amounts to naught -
I dance and clap my hands.
Only my tears multiply
when my eyes light upon
rows of signs in multiplication tables.
I couldn't care less for
the alphabet's shades of sound
since your shade of dark
isn't among them.

But Ma, I can read
all that You write
on the leaves of the forest,
on the waters of the sea,
and in the ledger of the sky.
Let them call me illiterate.

Sunday, October 22

Diwali & Kali Puja

Friday, October 20


As most of north India celebrates Diwali, Bengal will be worshipping Kali. Why is this so?

Kali is the form of the primordial Mother Goddess which symbolizes Shakti – Power -- as well as Destruction. She has Her origins in India's archaic matriarchal culture. Her radiant blackness came from the dark-skinned tribes who worshipped Her to instill fear and dread in their enemies. She was worshipped with blood sacrifice, and offerings of flesh and liquor. She was All-Powerful, awesome, mysterious as the night, fierce, the sensual and demanding Mother, also an all-merciful Protectress, the Cosmic Female Power, always available for Her devotees, ready to remove their suffering, their fear of time (Kala), who lived in the burning ghats, ready to receive her children back into her womb at the funeral pyre.

Hear me child, and know Me for who I am. I have been with you since you were born, and I will stay with you until you return to Me at the final dusk.

I am the passionate and seductive lover who inspires the poet to dream.

I am the One who calls to you at the end of your journey. After the day is done, My children find their blessed rest in My embrace.

I am the womb from which all things are born.

I am the shadowy, still tomb; all things must come to Me and bare their chests to die and be reborn to the Whole.

I am the Sorceress that will not be ruled, the Weaver of Time, the Divulgeress of Mysteries. I snip the threads that bring My children home to Me. I slit the throats of the cruel and drink the blood of the heartless. Swallow your fear and come to Me, and you will discover true beauty, strength, and courage.

I am the fury which rips the flesh from injustice.

I am the glowing forge that transforms your inner demons into tools of power. Open yourself to My embrace and become part of the light that is in the darkness.

I am the glinting sword that protects you from harm.

I am the crucible in which all the aspects of yourself merge in a rainbow of union.

I am the velvet depths of the night sky, the swirling mists of midnight, shrouded in mystery.

I am the chrysalis in which you will face that which terrifies you and from which you will blossom forth, vibrant and renewed. Seek Me at the crossroads of Life and Death, and you shall be transformed, for once you look upon my face, there is no return.

I am the fire that kisses the shackles away.

I am the cauldron in which all opposites grow to know each other in Truth.

I am the web which connects all things.

I am the Healer of all wounds, the Warrior Mother who rights all wrongs in their Time. I make the weak strong. I make the arrogant humble. I raise up the oppressed and empower the disenfranchised. I am Justice. I am Mercy. I am the End, and in that I am also the Beginning.

Most importantly, child, I am you. I am part of you, and I am within you. Seek Me within and without, and you will be strong. Know Me. Venture into the dark so that you may awaken to Balance, Illumination, and Wholeness. Take My Love with you everywhere and find the Power within to be who you wish.

Ur-Kali as a primal female principle can be found in many ancient cultures outside India, suggesting that in the distant past a common or related matriarchical religion pervaded much of the world. In pre-christian Ireland people worshipped a powerful goddess known as Kele (her priestesses were known as Kelles), from which the surname Kelly is descended. In ancient Finland there was the all-powerful smelly goddess of death and decay Kal-ma, and in the Sinai region of the Middle East there was the goddess Kalu. Kalu was associated with the new moon or amavasya -- lunar periods were called kalends in the ancient Mediterranean. This is one of the origins of calendar. It is likely that these are the result of the interplay of spiritual ideas and practices between India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete and Greece before 1500 BC.

With Aryan and thereafter Buddhist dominance, dark Kali was the goddess of defeated peoples. She remained, however, in the substratum, part of the aboriginal demonolatry and the Tantric occult, and slept on in the names of places like Vajrajogini. The current representation of Kali is relatively new. In the 15th-16th centuries, the flow of the Ganges shifted towards East Bengal, via the Padma to the Bay of Bengal; this opened up a new settlement frontier to which were attracted itinerants – who tended to be from the ‘lower’ social strata than the Brahmano-Buddhist establishment. At the same time, Muslim power in Bengal changed hands from the Afghans to the Mughals. This consolidation of a foreign religion cut off the Brahmanical religion from state funding; the Buddhist establishment in Bengal had been destroyed earlier by the Afghans. As Aryan and Buddhist dominance receded, Kali emerged from the subterranean cultural memory of the slash-burn pastoralists, the hunters, the woodsmen, the tribal smiths and stonesmen who flocked to the new Bengal frontier.

Some of the aspects of Kali also reflect the despair felt at the Muslim consolidation. Thompson and Spencer in their Bengali Religious Lyrics say:

"The worship of Durga and Kali is perhaps most deeply rooted in Bengal, as has already been indicated. I think it would not be hard to find reasons for this. Take the case of Mukundarama, known as Kavikankan or 'gem of poets,' who finished his chief poem, the epic Chandi in 1589. This poem lives today mainly for its value as giving a picture of the village-life of Bengal, three centuries ago. It is at present being edited by a distinguished Bengali scholar and author, who tells me he finds his work very dull; happier times have robbed the poem of much of its appeal. For the poet lived in an unhappy age. In some respects, he is like a Bengali Langland, giving us his vision of Piers Plowman. The local Musalman rulers practised great oppression, and the people felt wretched and helpless. It was natural for them to look for outside assistance, and the thoughts of the poet, their spokesman, turned to Chandi (Durga), the powerful goddess in whom the dreadful energy of Siva was active. In Chandi the beasts of the forest complain to the goddess that they are in terror of Kalaketu the hunter. Under the guise of their speeches and of Chandi's, the political state of Bengal is set out.

Today, men are feeling too proud to consent to be wretched or to despair.Rabindranath Tagore, as is well known, is no lover of Saktism; and, like many patriotic Bengalis, he feels that the time for such an attitude as Mukundarama's has passed. 'The poet was a poor man, and was oppressed. So his only refuge was in the thought of this capricious Power, who might suddenly fling down the highest and exalt the lowest.' It is interesting in this connection to notice that the great period of Sakta-poetry in Bengal was the end of the eighteenth century, when the country's fortunes had reached their lowest ebb."

Sometime in the mid to late 16th century, Krishnananda Agamavagisa, a Bengali mystic (born after 1500) had an apocryphal powerful experience which resulted in a "new" form of Kali. It is said that Krishnananda went to bathe in a river near a cremation-ground (either at Tarapith or Bakreshwar, both in West Bengal), where he happened to stumble upon a dark-skinned tribal – probably Santhal -- girl who, believing she was alone, had stripped naked and was washing herself using a discarded skull-cap from a nearby funeral pyre. Her long black hair untied, and she was engrossed in her bathing, when some movement made her aware of the watching Krishnananda. Embarrassed the sudden gentleman intruder, she stuck out her tongue in shyness (a reflex action still done by village girls in India). Krishnananda, who had been trying to understand how best to comprehend the many varied forms of divinity, had a sudden and powerful mystical experience, he felt that the skies had opened and he had obtained a direct vision of the primordial female principle. He viewed this tribal girl as a living Kali, and took the "vision" of her naked dark body, long disheveled hair, extended tongue and skull in hand as a new and especially potent icon. The tribal girl symbolizes the hitherto marginalized animism in this story. For the rest of his life, Krishnananda evangelized this special form of Kali far and wide. Around 1580, he wrote the Tantrasara, an 'Essence of Tantras', in which he gave the following description of the Dark Goddess and which forms the basis of the typical Bengali Kali icon:

Possessed of complexion like the color of sapphire, blue like the sky, extremely fierce, defeating gods and demons, three- eyed, crying very loudly, decked with all ornaments, holding a human skull and a small sword, standing on the moon and sun.

Krishnananda also described other forms of Kali, named Dakshina Kali, Guhya Kali, Bhadra Kali, Smashana Kali and Maha Kali - meaning Right (or Southern) Kali, Secret Kali, Civil Kali, Cremation-ground Kali and Great Kali, probably thus synthesizing different regional/aboriginal/tantric cults. For instance Dakshina Kali is described by him as:

Loosened hair, garland of human heads, face with long or projecting teeth, four arms, lower left holding a human head just severed, upper left holding a sword, lower right hand posed as if giving a boon, the upper right hand posed granting freedom from fear, deep dark complexion, naked, two corpses or arrows as ornaments in the two ears, girdle of the hands of corpses, three eyes, radiant like the morning sun, standing on the chest of Mahadeva (Shiva) lying like a corpse, surrounded by jackals.

The dark goddess Kali also became known and revered in Tibet. Known there as Lhamo (God Mother), several different forms of Her are in the Tibetan pantheon. As the Great sickle-wielding all-powerful Queen Mother Goddess (dPal ldan dmag zor rgyal mo), She is the Guardian Goddess of Lhasa. She is also the Chief Protectress of the Gelugpa sect of Lamaism, of which the Dalai Lama is the supreme leader. She is the wrathful Protector of the Buddhist Dharma in Tibet, visualised at the base of the trunk of the lineage tree of several sects. She is the only feminine deity among the Buddhist Dharmapalas, the Defenders of the Law of Buddhism and one of her names, Sri Devi, tells of her Hindu origin. A two-armed form of Lhamo/Kali is described in a Tibetan text as follows:

The goddess is of dark blue hue, has one face, two hands, and rides on a mule. With her right hand she brandishes a huge sandalwood club adorned with a thunderbolt and with her left hand she holds in front of her breast the blood-filled skull of a child. She wears a flowing garment of black silk and a loincloth made of rough material. Her ornaments are a diadem of skulls, a garland of freshly-cut heads, a girdle of snakes, and bone ornaments, and her whole body is covered with the ashes of cremated corpses. She has three eyes, bares her fangs, and the hair on her head stands on end. She carries a sack of karmic things and a pair of dice. Among her retinue are countless black birds, black dogs and black sheep.

In various Tibetan Lhamo sadhana texts her names are given as Kali, Maha Kali, Dhumavati Devi, Chandika Devi, Remati, Shankapali Devi, and of course Tara, all of which are found in Hindu Tantra.

Just as Buddhism accommodated the rise of Kali, so, over the next two centuries, did Brahminism; Kali was slotted into the pantheon as a consort of Shiva, just another form of Durga. Perhaps in this she regained her place – both Shiva (Pashupati or Lord of Beasts) and Durga (Fortress Goddess) are immensely old and had had to be Aryanized for the religion of Indra and Mithra to make headway into the subcontinent. The seeds planted by Krishnananda thus gestated and seem to have blossomed in the early eighteenth century. One of the reasons scholars give for this upsurge in Kali's popularity is that she was the protective deity of the thugee robbers who held sway over large parts of the Bengal countryside in an era when central Mughal power was weakening. Kings like Krishnachandra Ray of Krishnanagar induced their subjects to worship Kali as well.

Thursday, October 5


Atisha Dipankar Srijnana's ancestral village Vajrajogini is in the historical Dhaka-Bikrampur (currently Munshiganj) district of East Bengal. My oldest uncle's wife, who came into our family as a teen-bride in the 1930s, had her ancestral home here. The site of Atisha's family home is a mound now, locally known as Nastik Panditer Bhita or the Atheist Pandit's Homestead, where government ministers vie to erect pillars and locals to dry clothes or graze cattle.

Monday, October 2


On a day that intersects Durga Puja, Ramadan, Gandhi Jayanti and Yom Kippur, I am reflecting on live-and-let-live; but one must say that living on top of everyone else as one does here, the comic possibilities arising from intersection in everyday life are considerable. In spite of some of the cosmopolitan classes in evidence, Bangalore is still a small-minded town with the typical regional spats; the non-Kannadigas are up in arms over the de-certification of schools which do not offer instruction in Kannada at the primary level, and every morning at the entrance to PG D'Souza layout the Sawhneys stare down the Pillais as part of an ongoing 4000-year North-South cold war.

One is reminded of Padosan, the 1968 movie based on Arun Chowdhury's Bengali story Pasher Bari, about the three suitors of fire-and-ice-maiden Bindu (Saira Bano). Bindu is described by one of the characters in the film as "Ladki modern aur forward hai, par hai thori khandani." The crew of the enamored consists of a besotted-though-married Kunwarji (Om Prakash), his simpleton nephew Bhola (Sunil Dutt), and Bindu's dance master Pillai (Mehmood). Bhola has taken a vow to act according to the shashtras, which dictate that a man must marry when he is of the right age (25), and he finds he is running late. Foutunately, he meets the lovely Bindu and falls head-over-heels in love. When Bindu moves in next to his house, Bhola is at first thrilled, but soon despairs when it appears that the strongest suit is held by Master Pillai, since the maiden will only yield her heart to someone who can sing. Bhola's friends Vidyapati aka Guruji (Kishore Kumar), Banarasi (Mukri), and others belonging to an acting troupe assist in hoodwinking Bindu through lip-synching to get attracted to Bhola; but there are twists and turns, and finally Bhola's lies are exposed, making Bindu return to her plans to marry Master Pillai.

(In case these don't play properly in your browser, try here and here.)

Sunday, October 1

Window, Office