Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Samudra Arati in Puri

ELEMENTS AT PLAY The Maharaja of Puri (in white) and the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math at the annual 'arati' festivityOn the evening of Pausha Poornima, a unique prayer rose from Swargadwar on Puri Beach. The Bay of Bengal provided a majestic natural backdrop for the resplendent arrangements made by human worshippers. As dusk fell, the beach glowed with lamps, lights, and the holy fire. Chants and devotional music filled the air. Hundreds of Hindu saints from all over the country, the Maharaja of Puri, and other dignitaries gathered for the grand annual Samudra Arati, to be performed by His Holiness the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math, Puri Peeth.

Behold the beauty

The Samudra Arati is offered to the sea according to vedic rituals. Hymns and chants rise up with the clang of gongs to blend with the eternal rhythm of waves rolling on the beach. Colourful flowers and other ritual offerings surround the holy fire. As lamps spread light through the descending darkness, the Samudra Arati presents a scene of immense earthly beauty.

This prayer to the sea is also infused with deep spiritual significance. It is done to spread the message of peace and harmony among humanity, and the natural world around us. The sea is the abode of Lord Vishnu. Life on earth originated in the sea. All living beings are sustained by water. The sea is attuned to the cosmos, its tides influenced by the pull of heavenly bodies. The vastness of the sea reminds us of the Divine Creator of this infinite universe.

The holy kshetra of Puri in Odisha holds great spiritual significance for all Hindus. Lord Vishnu abides here as Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. As such, Puri is considered to be ‘Martya Vaikuntha’, or the abode of Lord Vishnu on earth. Puri, along with Rameswaram, Badrinath and Dwarka, are the most holy Hindu Char Dham or four divine sites. Through the ages, saints and sages have come here seeking divine enlightenment. The Adi Shankaracharya came to Puri in the 8th century C E.

Guru Nanak, Kabir, Tulsidas, Ramanujacharya and Nimbarkacharya also visited Puri. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, prayed here for 24 years. Srimad Vallabhacharya visited Puri and performed a seven-day recitation of Srimad Bhagavatam. The maths and meditation spots of many of these saints continue to exist in Puri.
Samudra Arati is performed daily after sunset by the young disciples of Shankaracharya of Puri. It’s a serene and dignified ritual evoking peace and tranquillity. Every year on Pausha Poornima, the Shankaracharya of Puri himself performs the grand Samudra Arati. Pausha Poornima, which falls in January, is considered auspicious for worship, especially at sacred water spots. The sea at Swargadwar (gateway to heaven) is considered most holy, and no pilgrimage to Puri is complete without a dip at this hallowed spot. Guru Nanak and Shree Chaitanya sang devotional hymns and prayed here.

The Samudra Arati was first performed here in 2008 by the present Shankaracharya of Puri as a prayer for the well-being of this beautiful world of nature. At that time, the strange restlessness of the sea terrified local residents. They feared a tsunami may come. Since the Shankaracharya began the tradition of evening prayers to the sea, the sea is considered to have calmed down. The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati Maharaj, is the 145th in the line of apostolic successors of Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya, to head Shree Govardhan Math, Puri. The Govardhan Math was established by Adi Shankaracharya. It is associated with Lord Jagannath’s temple, and is one of the four cardinal maths. The Adi Shankaracharya himself had installed the deities of Govardhananatha Krishna and Ardhanareeshwara Shiva here.

The Adi Shankaracharya’s original meditation seat is preserved with care in the math. The spiritual territory of Govardhan Math spans the entire eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. It extends from Arunachal and Meghalaya in the east, to Allahabad, Gaya and Varanasi in the west, and Andhra Pradesh till Rajahmundry in the south. Bangladesh, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are considered to be within the spiritual jurisdiction of the math.

Great contributions
The Shankaracharyas of Puri have nurtured a time-honoured tradition of scholarship. The 143rd Shankaracharya, Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha (1884-1960), made valuable contributions to mathematics. Before being anointed as the Shankaracharya, he passed the MA examination for the American College of Sciences in Rochester, USA, from the Bombay centre. His book Vedic Mathematics is the best-known among his many works.

The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri is also a renowned mathematician who has authored over 20 authoritative books on the subject. He is currently working on a textbook of mathematics for high school students. He is as adept with computers, as he is interpreting ancient religious texts and their relevance in today’s world.
The Samudra Arati is itself a wonderful blend of the ancient and the modern. Timeless Vedic rituals have been incorporated into a recently-launched tradition. The prayers to the sea for universal peace and harmony also touch upon present-day concerns about sustaining our environment.
This is published in Deccan Herald

William Dalrymple, an interview

man of many talents William DalrympleWilliam Dalrymple is a writer, traveller and historian, and one of the co-directors and founders of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Return of a King, White Mughals and Nine Lives. His latest book, The Writer’s Eye, revolves around a collection of photographs.
Curated by bestselling writer and Sensorium Festival co-founder Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, The Writer’s Eye photograph exhibition opened at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, on March 18; and will be followed by shows at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi on March 29; and at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in June.

How did you start writing?

My writing happened in college, and my first book came about when I was 21. I saw an announcement about a fund for research travel for the college’s medieval historians. I looked up in the library for the longest and most ambitious medieval journey I could think of following. So I applied for following the outward journey of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application.
A month later, I received a letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700. The expedition remains the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has equalled the thrill of that 16,000-mile, three-month journey — walking, hitchhiking and bussing across Asia. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever. My first book, In Xanadu: A Quest, was the result.

You’ve written on the history of art in India and in other Asian countries; on religions, and on travel and history. Which topic fascinates you most? Among your own books, which is your personal favourite?
I’m a man of many talents (laughs) and interests. Archaeology, history, various art forms, travel and many other subjects fascinate me. What I enjoy most is testing my artistic talents. Artists have the freedom to move and play around; to try and test things.

My most recent book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, is my favourite. It is about the First Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the 19th century.

Which has been your most challenging project?My biggest challenge has been raising funds for the Jaipur Literary festival.
No doubt the festival has grown, and writers are ready to support and participate. But getting adequate sponsors is an ongoing challenge.

The Writer’s Eye is your first book of photographs. You’ve taken photographs since a young age, and your photographs have accompanied the text in several of your books.

Apart from the convenience of your new Samsung Note, what made you return to photography in a major way?

My wife is an artist, and has been an encouraging influence. The idea for this book began from a casual conversation with my friend Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who suggested an exhibition of my photographs. I posted some of these photos on Facebook and
Instagram, and the response was great. The project took on a life of its own.

I’m a micro-manager for my books. But this book was not pre-planned. I was between books. These photographs are a record of my travels during that time. My camera phone freed me to just concentrate on the images. With it I could do things that were difficult with a big camera. With its complicated attachments, a big camera is too cumbersome and obtrusive. It makes you and your subjects self-conscious. The cell camera has this sneaky quality, letting it catch your subjects unawares. I captured whatever struck me, like the wild landscapes of Scotland; my home which I visit every year.
These are random images from my travels, from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna; some of the world’s most remote places, especially in Central Asia. I’ll never forget the astonishing flight last year over the rib-cage of the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, the dark slopes all etched in ice, each river valley white against the black granite of range after range of folding mountains. In the centre of the Pamirs, on the roof of the world mid-way from Kabul to Bamiyan, there are no signs of any habitation — it is a clear, empty, silent landscape lined with frozen crevice-skeletons of unmelted snow.
Certainly they have been inspired by the same travels and there are common themes — Mughal architecture, the ruins of Afghanistan, the domes of Golconda — but the photographs show, I think, a taste for the dark and remote, the moody and the atmospheric. My writing isn’t bleak or dark at all. I’m quite proud of the finished product.

Do you have any advice for budding art photographers?

Simply do it, go ahead and shoot what you like. Camera phones give you so much freedom. Photography should always be about the eye, not the equipment. It is the vision that counts, not the camera. The Internet is a democratic forum where you can post your photos and get spontaneous feedback.

Have you considered writing fiction?

No. I’m clear about my choice to continue with non-fiction. My talents are not of a novelist, and I’m happy with what I do. I’m interested in the real word, in giving order to chaos in photographic images; of discovering and artistically conveying the threads that bind facts together.
This is published in Deccan Herald

Shashi Deshpande's Strangers to Ourselves; Book Review

Shashi Deshpande weaves a memorable story about human relationships, the ties that bind people, sometimes stifling or tearing them apart, and occasionally uniting kindred souls. The novel revolves around the ongoing jugalbandi between Aparna and Shree Hari Pandit; two people, quite different, yet having more in common than they could have ever imagined. Through their relationship they explore themselves and the eternal enigma; what really is love?
That Shree Hari Pandit “is a singer, is the main thing about him. That’s his life. He was born with music in his genes, he grew up with music in his ears.” Aparna is captivated by his music, and by him, after witnessing a performance. That mutual instant attraction grows into a deeper relationship, as Shree Hari pursues Aparna with boyish spontaneity. Aparna soon learns that he idolises his grandparents. His grandfather was his first guru, he learnt Tukaram’s bhajans and the Geet Ramayan from him.

She is charmed by his old-fashioned ways, of addressing her with the quaintly courteous tumhi. “I could listen to him all day,” Aparna confides to her cousin Madhu. “Both the language and the voice are so wonderful. And he speaks English with a Marathi accent.” She realises that she’s smitten, because far from judging him from the standpoint of her superior education and command of English, she admits she loves even the way he speaks.

US-trained cancer surgeon Dr Aparna Dandekar comes from a world far from Shree Hari Pandit’s. The only child of a once-renowned Marathi playwright, she has carved a place for herself in a demanding profession. Yet she finds herself seeking common ground with Shree Hari. “Hari’s singing reminds her of a surgeon at work, a precise meticulous search for the place he has to get to, finally getting there with marvellous skill and finesse.” Aparna is also haunted by the tragedy of her late parents, of “their togetherness which had so abruptly ceased. Ended without dignity...”
How can she believe in love, when even her own marriage to a colleague ended because she had mistaken the counterfeit for the true thing? Yet Aparna feels an emptiness in her life, living as she does “in homes that belong to others, among the possessions of strangers.” It’s “so easy to say yes... so easy to submit, to stop thinking,” and go along with the man she loves. Yet she can’t wholeheartedly. Perhaps “it is not marriage, but love itself that Aparna distrusts.” Aparna’s inner struggles are portrayed with delicate nuances, endearing her to the reader and lending dramatic tension to the story. Will she? Won’t she? And will he continue to wait for her?

Shree Hari has also suffered, coming up the hard way, and refusing help from his father. Yet his passionate love for Aparna is almost boundless. “I was singing Tuka’s words, I was addressing Vithala, but I could only think of you. Bhakti, Ajoba said, is another face of love... I’ve sung these songs all my life, but I understand what they mean only now... You are my light, my world, my music.” He would be in his late 30s or older, yet he follows Aparna like a lost puppy, and won’t take her rebuffs for an answer until that last straw cools his ardour. He cooks for her, and is solicitous about dropping her home. He seems to have all the time in the world for her, and he’s exquisitely delicate and hesitant about getting into a physical relationship with her.

Adorable as Shree Hari is, one wonders. More than a flesh-and-blood man, he seems a projection of what a woman like Aparna would want her man to be. This is, after all, a woman-centric story. Shree Hari’s role is clearly secondary to Aparna’s. Other men do make brief appearances. Aparna’s father and her first husband, or rather her memories and impressions of them, surface occasionally. But the women dominate, and their relationships with Aparna throw light on the many aspects of affection and emotional connections.
Jyoti plays a major role in the story. Her relationship with Aparna evolves from patient and doctor, to friendly neighbours, into soul sisters. Ahalya appears as a mystery woman from the past, whose memoirs are found among Aparna’s father’s manuscripts. Jyoti begins translating it to distract herself from her own terminal illness. Soon, Jyoti is drawn into Ahalya’s account of her unusual life, struggles and loves. Jyoti comes across as a positive woman who supports Aparna with her fading strength. Ahalya’s story throws fascinating light on the trials women faced in days gone by, and how they too dared to love, despite all social constraints. She also unveils fresh truths before Aparna. “Jyoti, in getting back Ahalya, has reclaimed the Baba of my childhood... I no longer see him as the suffering, bitter man he became in his last years.” Ahalya’s memoirs in the archaic style of her times, slows down the narrative though. And the revelation that she is a common ancestor to both Aparna and Jyoti seems like a convenient plot device.

Overall, this is beautifully crafted story, a slow and melodious symphony with memorable characters, who stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Strangers to Ourselves
Shashi Deshpande
Fourth Estate
2016, pp 322, Rs 450
This review is puiblished in Sunday Herald