Mahasati: Portraying philosophy of Jainism
- Vijay Shanker

April 28, 2017

Sangeet Kala Kendra and Nupur Zankar Academy of Performing Arts and Research Centre (Mumbai) presented ‘Mahasati’ dance drama portraying the story of Chandanbala, an ardent devotee of Lord Mahavira, at Nehru Centre Auditorium on March 25.

Chandanbala, a true devotee of Lord Mahavira, occupies a unique place among the leading 16 satis of Jain religious history. Besides being learned, virtuous and devoted to penance, she became the first sadhvi (nun) of the sadhvi sangh (order of nuns) founded by Bhagwan Mahavir. She was the first sadhvi-president (head of the order of nuns) of 35000 sadhvis. Her life sketch conveys the message that virtue is greater than caste or creed.

Daughter of King Dadhivahan of Champa and Queen Dharini, she had imbibed the virtues of tolerance, renunciation and religious faith. Meanwhile, Shatanik, the king of Kaushambi, attacked Champa and Chandanbala was sold as a dasi (a female slave). But Dhanvah Sheth paid adequate money and saved Chandanbala from becoming a courtesan. He treated her as his own daughter. Once Chandanbala was washing Dhanvah Sheth’s feet after he had returned from a tour. In order to save her loose hair from falling into the dirty water, he lifted it up. Mula Shethani, Dhanvah Sheth’s wife happened to see this and became immensely jealous and furious. When Dhanvah Sheth went out again, Mula Shethani cut off Chandanbala’s hair and she was imprisoned without food or water but withstood the suffering due to sheer devotion. On returning, Dhanvah Sheth gave her some boiled unsplit black beans or bakuda, kept there for the cattle, in a winnowing basket.

Bhagwan Mahavir, fasting for 5 months and 25 days, arrived in Kaushambi. He had certain conditions to observe for breaking his fast. These included accepting only boiled unsplit black beans, and that too if they were lying at the corner of a winnowing basket, only from a person having one foot inside a threshold and the other one out of it. The person offering him this should be a princess subjected to slavery, her feet should be chained, head be fully shaved, eyes full of tears, she should have undertaken aihtham (continuous three days fasting), penance and should be a virgin or a sati. He had resolved that food be accepted only if such a woman offered her alms at lunchtime i.e. when Mahavir went from door to door for his gochri. Chandanbala met all these conditions and thus Bhagwan Mahavir, accepted alms from her. As soon as he did, her chains broke miraculously. She regained her beautiful hair. There was a divine shower of flowers. King Shatanik and Mula Shethani begged to be forgiven for all their misdeeds. Chandanbala became the first female disciple of Bhagwan Mahavir to be blessed.

The role of Chandanbala was enacted by Kathak dancer Shila Mehta. Blessed with a face which has a girl like innocence and being a fine dancer, Shila could easily transform herself to the various shades of the character from a young girl to a princess who is forced to become a slave, her sufferings and tribulations while being imprisoned and her ultimate devotion to Lord Mahavira by practicing severe penance and starvation and how she regains her original charm and beauty forms the crux of the dance drama. With the usage of suitable music that has the qualities of classical and folk tunes, the audience gets to watch folk dances and creative movements too, complimented with visuals and suitable commentary narrated by Anand Singh.
The role of Mula Shethani was well enacted by Lalita Soni. The role of Dhanvah Sheth was enacted by talented dancer Mayur Vaidya. Besides the students, the other male dancers included Ayan Banerjee and Vishal Payal.

While the whole production was quite interesting and elevating, the scene that showed how Chandanbala regains her original beauty, was distracting when huge placards were placed in front of the audience and suddenly emerges the beautiful Chandanbala. Instead the dancer should have appeared on the stage after the transformation, which would add grace to the performance and not disturb the continuity. By and large, the production succeeds in spreading the message that human virtues and true devotion ultimately pays off which pertains to the core of Jain philosophy.

Vijay Shankar is a Kuchipudi and Kathakali exponent, teacher, bilingual journalist, arts critic and actor.