In search of the spiritual in modern India
July 3, 2010
Park Avenue, New York City, June 18
"I'm an unreconstructed orientalist" declares a laughing William Dalrymple very early in the entertaining lecture he brought to the Asia Society last week. Unapologetic too - this Anglo-Scots aristocrat, whose early interest in India was prompted by tales of ancestral exploits on the Eastern frontiers of the Empire, sees no reason to apologize for his fascination with the exoticism of the East. With infectious, child-like delight he tells us of a skull worshipper from Bengal, who feeds his skulls whisky and rice every day. ("Very Rider Haggard" he says gleefully before, perhaps mindful of his American audience, modifying this to "straight out of Indiana Jones.")
Barefoot, kurta-clad and with the relaxed and jocular manner of a natural performer, it's hard not to warm to Dalrymple as he sits cross-legged on a carpet to the side of the stage. He chats affably with us, an audience of several hundred, before removing his specs with a flourish to read elegantly from his book. It's hard not to admire his work, too - already, at only 43, he is a 20-year veteran of the travel-book trade and an undoubted superstar of the genre. From 'straight' travel writing in his early twenties and thirties, he graduated (if that's the word) to bona fide historian with his more recent work, performing some widely-praised primary research on the uprising of 1856 for his Last Mughal (published 2006).
So there he sits, the great orientalist, reclining on a silk cushion, chuckling conspiratorially at the delightful exoticism of some of his experiences (you guessed it: "straight out of Indiana Jones…."). Throughout, he holds a rapt audience in the palm of his hand. It's a wonderful performance, and one that Dalrymple has chosen to share, this time, with the subjects of his book - or at least those that were allowed to enter the US by the Department of Homeland Security (the Obama administration cops some heavy flak from the great writer throughout the show). The "Nine Lives" of the title refers to nine individuals - none of them famous or particularly distinguished in the context of the Indian subcontinent - whose stories Dalrymple has chosen to tell.
He is, the book's subtitle tells us, "In search of the spiritual in modern India": each of the nine is in some way a representative of, or seeker within, an ancient Indian spiritual tradition. And (the "modern India" bit) he has selected subjects who balance their seeking, their devotion, with the demands of contemporary Indian life. Sometimes this balance is not achieved, with tragic consequences - such as the modern day devadasis, or temple dancers. Self-proclaimed heirs to a venerable tradition, their grace immortalized on countless temples and statues (not to mention the classical dance-form now known as Bharatanatyam), these once magnificent devadasis are today treated as common whores. Many die of AIDS, untreated and abandoned: Dalrymple tells of one who, when diagnosed with HIV, was literally taken to a ditch and dumped. By her family. At other times, Dalrymple finds subjects who succeed in juggling multiple 'avatars' with the ease and adaptability that is, in so many respects, the hallmark of life on the Subcontinent. The Theyyam dancer who is, at festival time, worshipped as a literal incarnation of the god Vishnu, is one such: off-season, this god-in-human-form finds work as a prison guard and well-digger.
And so here they are, Dalrymple's subjects, in person (some of them, at least). Beckoned from the wings by their benign concert-master, they are introduced to us in latitudinal order, North to South, and dutifully present us with mini-performances of their transcendent spiritual practices. And here is where the difficulties begin: a mini-performance of a transcendent spiritual practice is a self-defeating oxymoron. How can you achieve transcendence in a 20 minute slot? And if you can't, then what's the point (surely a slideshow, or maybe a video or two, would do the job better)? It seems an obvious pitfall - and, strangely, it's one that Dalrymple himself is at pains to point out. In introducing Hari Das, the Theyyam performer, he reads a passage from his book, quoting Hari Das himself: "[Possession] is like a blinding light […] a sudden explosion of light […] the God comes alive and takes over […] If it even once becomes routine […] the gods […] stop coming."
With this, Dalrymple lifts his eyes from the text and fixes the audience, as the lights dim and the bare-chested Theyyam drummers emerge from the wings: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome….the living incarnation God Vishnu…!"
OK, Dalrymple does not quite say this, but he may as well. Why not? After all, this is what he's here for, this Hari Das: he's incarnating the god Vishnu, isn't he? Well, not exactly. Certainly, the drummers having attained a cranium-splitting climax, the performer takes his place under the spotlight, his face caked with bright orange turmeric as he spins and wheels about the stage, strapped to what looks like a gigantic bedframe. But as one watches this spectacle - which is indeed awesome, in its way - it's hard not to feel that one is at a kind of orientalist freak-show. On the cold stage of the Asia Society, Park Avenue, this man is going through the motions. He, like the Baul singers and Sufi devotees who preceded him on our programme, has 20 minutes or so to titillate and intrigue this well-heeled uptown audience. Once his allotted time is up, Dalrymple applauds warmly - and there's no reason to doubt his sincerity. But for a man whose raison d'être is to bring us unvarnished India, this has seemed an oddly sanitized affair. It is 2010 - one assumes that these village performers came voluntarily, and have been well-paid for their 20-minute turns. Indeed one hopes that they have enjoyed the experience, and they have certainly been applauded appreciatively from London to Sydney, and now New York. But out on the avenue after the show, under a warm midsummer sky, there is a strange feeling of having been short-changed. Perhaps even of exploitation. Has Dalrymple found the spiritual in modern India? Maybe. But in bringing it to us, in the manner of this show, he has stifled its significance, and neutralised its power.