Gods through syncretic prism
July 13, 2017
India has always encouraged peaceful sharing of its social space by multiple denominations. Its people and its culture have evinced tolerance of the loftiest order in matters of spiritual belief and innumerable instances occur where the village communities have participated in rituals and festivities at neighbourhood shrines of other faiths and enjoyed genuine bonhomie. Indeed, having nurtured many religions of the world, our land has evinced some sterling examples of shared belief systems and created performative practices around them. Raskhan in the North and Salabega in the East are two such personae who are immortalised in our folklore for their devotion to divinities transcending religious barriers.
Many bhajans recur in Brijbhasha and Gurmukhi in upper India, which depict Raskhan – also known by the name of Momin -- as an Afghan nobleman from Kabul. He was fascinated one day by the portrait of child Krishna at a local betel leaf shop. Having noticed the little one’s bare feet, he enquired solicitously if he could buy the boy some footwear, but got no appropriate answer, except being generally directed towards Vrindavan. Raskhan apparently travelled all the way to that holy town, but, dishevelled as he was, he was debarred by the priests from entering the Balgopal temple. The distraught believer spent long hours on the temple stairs till he dreamt that the little god had come to pacify him.
Salabega, on the other hand, is more established as a historical personality as the son of a Mughal subedar, Lalbeg, who had rescued a hapless Brahmin widow and married her. Once mortally wounded in battle, Salabega got well by ardently praying to Krishna, at his mother’s advice. Completely transformed, he sought his lord in the deity of Jagannath in Puri temple. On his way to the annual Rathayatra, he fell ill and apparently Nandighosh (the chariot) stalled awaiting his arrival. His bhajans are still popular among the devotees of Jagannath. Salabega composed numerous devotional songs, most of which are prayers and hymns to Jagannath and Krishna. A good number of these deal with the romantic dalliance of Krishna with the gopis and Radha, while a few are inspired by the vatsalya rasa, eulogizing the sweet, motherly feeling Yashoda had for child Krishna.
Odissi Parampara, presented by the petite Muslim dancer Arnaaz Zaman, all of 22 years old, on the occasion of Rathayatra in Kolkata, was a perfect illustration of the deep cultural amity that the likes of Raskhan and Salabega have established and sustained in this country. Beautifully groomed by the Odissi stalwart Kavita Dwibedi, Arnaaz followed the usual margam of Odissi. Beginning her program with a Mangalacharan following the Jagannath Ashtakam, she went over to an elaborate Saveri Pallavi which was well delineated. Switching over to an ashtapadi from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, she rendered soulfully the song “Sakhi he keshi mathana mudaram…” in raga Pahadi. Although less than a year old on the stage from her Rangapravesh last year, she showed commendable dexterity in depicting child Krishna’s Kaliya Damana, but Govardhan Dharana should have been paid a little more attention. This was followed by yet another ashtapadi “Srita Kamala…” in raga Misra Khamaj. In a short recital, her concluding item was a delightful Moksha in the scintillating raga Bhairavi.
Extracts from interview with the dancer:
Have you seen a Rathayatra?
I have seen it many times in Delhi where I have grown up. I have also participated in it. But I have not yet been to Puri Rathayatra.
How do you feel about the Sufi movement?
Yes, I am aware of the Sufi movement and its intimate link with Bhakti movement in India. Its mysticism attracts me a great deal. Both disregard rituals and directly appeal to a man’s heart. It is a direct connect to God and forges ethereal relationship.
Do you think one day you would like to create abhinaya based choreography around Salabega bhajans?
Yes, I would love it. But, on the whole, I think religion does not matter. It should firmly remain in the background.
As you learnt Odissi, did you find support from your family?
My family has always been very supportive. This is a very personal matter anyway.
Absolutely right, but did you find any problem in conceiving the Odissi gods and goddesses?
Not at all, they are my reference points to create my mental images. I have always attempted to internalise them, in order to understand them. I think it is very important to do so to create an outward, aesthetic experience.
Very well said…How do you feel about future?
I am still learning from my guru. Over a period of time, I would like to do experiments and explore other areas. I have a beautiful art form at my disposal and I would like to make my own contribution. Fusion is one area that interests me and I would like to work on it for experimentation.
Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.
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