Saturday, 26 September 2009

Nine Lives, the Barbican

As a promo for his new Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple had arranged an evening of readings and music last night at the Barbican Centre. There were the wandering, God-intoxicated minstrels from Bengal, the bauls; then Pakistani sufis singing the rapturous poetry of the 18th century saint, Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit Shah; then dalit Theyyam dancers from Kerala; and then finally Anglo-Tamil singer Susheela Raman singing traditional and then reworked hymns from Chola-era Tamil Nadu. The fabulously talented Raman was, I suspect, the main draw for most of the westerners in the audience.

Dalrymple's book, which I currently have on the go, is an attempt to examine the current situation of the great spritual traditions of the subcontinent at this time of huge change and economic growth. (India's economy is set to overtake that of the US by 2050, completely reversing the last century's world order.) Dalrymple accordingly tells the stories of nine people---the 'Nine Lives' of the title---including a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a possession dancer from Kerala, a devadasa or sacred prostitute, and a tantric skull-feeder. The story of the latter is a striking instance of the cultural and economic changes which Dalrymple examines: from an American academic journal, he had heard of a Tantric adept in Bengal whose role was to take the skulls of restless suicides and wandering virgins and to calm them by feeding them rice and dhal, thus setting their unhappy spirits to rest. After much searching, Dalrymple found the skull-feeder, and interviewed him. Initially happily forthcoming about his mysterious and grisly calling, the skull-feeder eventually clammed up. When Dalrymple asked why, given that the tantric had spoken at length about his work to an American anthropologist twenty years previously, the adept replied sheepishly that both his two sons were both ophthalmologists in New Jersey, and had warned their father that talking about feeding skulls might be bad for business. Thus speaks the New India!

The audience were strikingly divided. In the main, the westerners were shabbily-dressed old hippies, the women in beads and faded, shapeless garments Fiona McKeown-style, the men in jeans and T-shirts. Those of Asian origin or extraction, on the other hand, were without exception beautifully dressed---I was sitting next to a man of about my age in a three-piece suit of herringbone tweed---with the women in particular showing that luminously graceful, well-draped elegance and ability to wear bright colour that only Indian and French women seem to possess. In the jeans and T-shirt brigade myself, I felt awkward, realising that this was potentially a rather formal and indeed classical evening for many of the Indians in the audience.

The bauls---which means 'madmen' in Bengali, and rhymes with 'cowls'---were wonderful. An eclectic group of wandering spiritual minstrels combining elements of many faiths, they were dressed in multicoloured, harlequin-like patchwork, their devotional songs haunting and energetic at the same time, with very long, microtonally ornamented vocal lines. There was some gender thing going on too---these middle-aged and elderly men stepping and prancing with subtly, sweetly feminine gestures of yearning. Two great bauls were present: Debdas Baul, and the blind minstrel Kanai Das Baul, who is described in this article in the Guardian. Both performed near the end of the bauls' set, sitting for the first part on a low raised platform, crosslegged, absolutely still. Here are some bauls:

The audience loved them, but like Colonel Gadaffi, they overran their session, meaning that the fakirs of Bhit Shah in souther Pakistan who followed them had to do a a shortened set of only two songs. (Dalrymple, visibly sweating with relief, announced that the fakirs had only received their visas the day before, and had arrived at the Barbican at 7.25 for a 7.30 concert.) As the bauls represented a kind of Hinduism blent with mystical Islam, so the Shah Jo Raag fakirs represented Muslim mysticism syncretised harmoniously with Hinduism. Sitting in a row, the five musicians each played a damboor, slapping the resonator and plucking the strings whilst singing the verses of the their revered saint, who died in 1752 and at whose tomb their order has sung every day and night ever since. Their sound was frankly difficult for western ears, with moments of enormous beauty but also an unexpected roughness; it was like a three-way cross between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's ecstatic qawwali (without the French bistro-esque accordion), the massive, sinuously cumulative power of dhrupad chant, and the noise of tomcats fighting in an alleyway. Here's the late, great Nusrat sahib by the way:

After the interval, we had the theyyam dancers of north Malabar, and this is one of the few occasions where I really can say I've witnessed something absolutely incredible. Theyyam (from Skt. daivam, 'god') refers to a Keralan custom of spectacular trance-possession, in which dancers drawn from the lowest caste, the dalits, are dressed in astonishing costumes and masks; possessed by the divinities and drummed up into ecstasy by a trio of percussionists, they dance, and are worshipped as gods, even by the most bigoted of brahmins. For the period of the theyyam, the rules of caste are reversed, and position and power are miraculously tranferred to the powerless. The custom---which is extraordinarily similar to Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian possession practices---seems to be a rare local survival of pre-Indo-European, non-brahminical Dravidian religion, later absorbed into Hinduism. Here's a theyyam dancer:

Under the red stage lights, the vast masks and costumes were seriously weird and very powerful, the dancing really quite amazingly primordial and violent, with nothing of the fluid, precise courtly grace one associates with kathak, for example. At the end, the dancer incarnating the Mother Goddess (?) blessed us all (I think) by flicking his/her fingers at the audience. Wiser readers than I will have to tell me if this is right: my ability to analyse the symbolism of the masks was hampered both by my ignorance of the art-form and by having lost a contact lens on the tube.

Finally, as the theyyam dancers were helped off to a roar of applause, we had the magnificent Susheela Raman, slinky in a red dress, presenting her version of ancient thevaram hymns from Tamil Nadu. These are devotional songs written by Tamil saints during the great Hindu revival of the Chola period, famed also for its exquistely delicate and sensuous bronzes. After winning a Mercury Music prize nomination in 2001, Raman moved to Tamil Nadu and studied the Thevaram tradition with one of the last great masters. She has an extraordinary voice, gauzy and delicate in the higher registers, very deep and resonant in the lower; she is also highly trained in south Indian classical singing. Dalrymple was lucky to get her, as her high profile undoubtedly was a draw for many in the audience. However, I felt as I watched her that her inclusion might have been a mistake. I personally loved her set, ancient Thevaram hymns gradually being accompanied by electric guitar and inflected with a full-blooded rock sensibility: but this non-traditional---and loud!---reworking was too much for many of the middle-aged and older people in the audience, and I saw numerous people get up and leave in something like disgust, including the couples on either side and in front of me. (You can hear the song Raman began with, a hymn to the deity Murugan, here.) As I left, one of the aging hippes was remonstrating aggressively with the unfortunate Irish girl on the door. 'I wouldn't have gone to a pop concert in England, why would I go to one in India?' I heard her asking, obviously so addled on nagchampa and rough dope that she hadn't realised she was in fact in central London. I felt like telling the silly cow to get her head out of her asana.

To round off, there's a fabulous hymn to the tamil divinity Murugan here, in which the mystifying imagery---six babies appearing in a puff of smoke in six lotus blossoms?---can be explained by the wikipedia article on the deity here. (Who'd have guessed that the six women who collect the six lotus-babies are the Pleiades?!)


Fionnchú said...

How'd'ya like Dalyrmple's book? I found his NYRB and New Yorker pieces respectable, but stolid. He reports dutifully, but I want his prose to take more fire. Does he do this in "Nine Lives"? Your reading it, I admit, makes me think I'd like it. Great post, as usual, on the dramatization of its contents. (Word verification fits: "taxies"?)

Bo said...

I was moved by it. I thought it was rather good, but perhaps the effect of the general strangeness (as perceived by this white westerner) made it seem more involving than it otherwise would be. I didn't think it had the density of 'From the Holy Mountain', but it's still a fine bit of writing IMO.

Sue said...

I've just been reading a book by Mark Tully where he comments on how folk living in the West like to see things in black and white... I saw white folk in suits and their best frocks at the Barbican that night and South Asians wearing jeans. If you look a little closer it's usually not black and white! Thanks for your article though - thoroughly enjoyed the youtube clip of Nusrat

Bo said...

It certainly was where I was sitting!! Glad you enjoyed it :)

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