I have been absent from the blogosphere for about three weeks now: this is what happens when life intrudes on the virtual world, where many of us who pursue the intellectual pleasures are more comfortable! However, we have to come down to earth once in a while. The reason for the hiatus was our College Alumni annual get-together, which took place on Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February: my wife and I were in charge of putting up two stage shows for this themed event (the theme was Love, as can be easily guessed). Most of my creative energies were channelled in that direction. Afterwards, my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and their daughter visited Abu Dhabi for five days, and we were having great fun gallivanting all over Abu Dhabi and Dubai, so the blog took a back seat again.
I thought I will signal my return with some thoughts on the significance of Valentine’s Day. This is a controversial subject nowadays. In conservative theocracies (Saudi Arabia for example), Valentine’s Day is attacked with a ferocity which is surprising. Even in a country like India, where sex is traditionally celebrated as an art, both Hindu right-wingers and leftists have targeted this poor saint as being against Indian culture and a consumerist import from the capitalist West, respectively.
Why this anger against love, when it is an essential ingredient for the propagation of the species on earth?
Love is unconventional. It is against the status quo. It does not respect the state institution of marriage: as Joseph Campbell said (quoting the example of Queen Guinevere and Lancelot), the emphasis in mythology is on amorous love. St. Valentine himself is a legendary figure shrouded in mystery. Most sources state that his identification with romantic love was an invention during the Middle Ages. In my opinion, he is a product of the unlikely marriage of a mostly celibate Levantine religion with a pagan tradition rich in amour. This is why Valentine’s Day upsets the powers that be, the minions of organised religion and the totalitarian state: it allows the soul to rebel in its own mythical space.
So it was fitting in a way that the themed dance choreographed by my wife was based on Krishna, the ultimate rebel.
The image of Krishna is multi-faceted. Even though he has been appropriated by the Hindu establishment as a spokesperson, he is too mercurial a figure to be concretised thus. As M. T. Vasudevan Nair once said, Krishna is the child every mother wants and the lover every girl wants. Across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent and psyche, this dark god with his mischievous smile strides like a colossus. The poet Yusuf Ali Kechery wrote: “Even though countless writers have dipped their quills into the inkpot that is you, you still remain full!” True.
Krishna is the ultimate lover: sixteen-thousand and eight wives, apart from the unnumbered gopis (cow-maids) whom he cavorted with during his teens. Most of these girls were in amorous relationship with him; some were elder to him and some were married. The Rasa-Kreeda (literally, “sex-game”) celebrated by Krishna and his loves in the sylvan landscape of the mythical Vrindavana is a Bacchanalian revel which has no comparison anywhere in world mythology. No wonder the puritanical West initially saw him as a lecher, a proponent of sin. No wonder the flower children of the seventies adopted him, in part at least. There is something heady about Krishna’s no-holds-barred sexuality.
But there is also something inherently spiritual about Krishna: I am reminded of the old story, told to me by mother, about the jealous Indra, who went to see Krishna cavorting with the gopis. It seems Indra saw a Krishna with each of them! Thoroughly confused, he looked again, and saw one Krishna in the centre, eyes closed in meditation. Apparently, this was the real man, aloof and untouched – the others were illusions.
The gopis’ love for Krishna, in metaphorical terms, is interpreted as the longing of the atman (soul) for the brahman (the universal soul): this is epitomised in Radha, Krishna’s favourite lover, whom he is always pictured with. Many a time, he is known as Radha-Krishna (contrast with Sita-Rama, where Sita is Rama’s wife). Radha loves Krishna with a careless abandon, expecting nothing in return; rather like the troubadours with their lady-loves, whose faces inspired them to hopeless battles. It is this giving without any intention of taking that gives love its spiritual strength: here, the boundary between the physical and the platonic is erased. This is the Indian tradition, where god is love in all senses of the term and nothing but.
In Indian aesthetics, vatsalya (love of a child), prema (amorous love) and bhakti (love of god) are considered to be different forms of the same base emotion – Meera Bai, the sixteenth century devotional poet who sacrificed herself for the love of Krishna is thus considered an incarnation of Radha by many. Keeping this in mind, the dance was split into three parts – the first showing the mischievous child Krishna with his doting mother Yasoda, the second, the teenage Krishna in the company of his loves and the third, showing the starry-eyed devotee Meera singing a famous hymn to her celestial lord. It was well received, but I do not know whether we succeeded in conveying the whole message to the audience.
But a dance about Krishna on Valentine’s Day in an Arab country – being a fan of Joseph Campbell, I could not help feeling thrilled at the mingling of cultures and mythologies.