The Golden Gayatri
A beautiful, well-dressed young woman with four lustrous braids, to whose words two celestial birds in a tree listen attentively… That’s how the old Sanskrit verse makes an elegant mind-picture of the Vedas:
chatush kaparda yuvati supesha
kruta prateeka vayanani vaste
tasya suparna vrushana nishedaduhu
The four braids of course denote the four Vedas, personified as adorning an eternally fresh and bright young woman, whose highly attractive wisdom wings through the ages for all time. Such a dazzling vision…how can one not like the ancients, at least for their apt ways with mind-pictures?
It’s like by their words shall you know them, isn’t it? The ancient Hindus left few other clues. They seem to have condensed their thoughts into riddles. It’s the stuff they leave unsaid that offers endless interpretative scope, just like a line of song in our classical dance which the singer repeats while the dancer uses it to tell many stories.
As to which, I had the incredible good fortune this Monday of hearing modern India’s greatest ever dancer (other dancers say it, too!), Yamini Krishnamurti, screen a couple of her old videos and answer questions in an open chat at the India Habitat Centre. The mood was beautiful with young dancers, critics and older people who remembered her glory days. Said Romi Chopra, a Delhi aesthete, “We in Delhi knew nothing about Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, but Yamini was our turning point. She took us right up to the gods and we were hooked to Indian classical dance.”
Writer RK Lakshman said after watching her dance “Lalite simhaasana-sthite” (“O Tender Goddess on Your Lion Throne”) about Devi that “It was as though Devi herself had descended.” I saw this note written in the early 70s, rootling around in one of Yaminiji’s old files.
That’s because I interviewed her for one whole year, dug around her papers and wrote her life story for her (Viking, 1993). It was their first artiste’s bio and it was at Khushwant Singh’s behest that we connected.
But we had a history already, besides her knowing my mother back in the year dot.
Though my mother had been a dancer and taught me my first steps, and I was taking Bharata Natyam lessons in Bombay then, Yamini was the first dancer I “saw” properly in my “conscious” life. It was as a little girl when she danced in Bombay, this blue flame moving with such smooth energy, those luminous arms moving like butter, lifting in perfect arcs. (I think it was the sheer beauty of her movement that overcame me. Like, I am not into cricket but I remember stopping despite that to watch oldtime spin bowler Waqar Yunus run up to bowl on TV in someone’s house because he ran with such grace).
Watching Yamini, I believe I clawed my mother’s arm without realizing it for I was that mersmerised. And she bore it patiently like Karna bore the insect-bite because she saw that her daughter was in the total grip of magic and couldn’t bear to break the spell. I lost my mother some years later and consequently built a private shrine to Indian classical dance in my heart.
Knowing how catty the scene had become, I refused to write on dance for years, resisted critic Sunil Kothari’s offer to set me up as the Times of India’s dance critic in 1992 and even the offer by the late Mr Pattabhiraman, founder of the highly-esteemed “Sruti” magazine (Chennai) to write on dance from Delhi.
But there was no way I could resist doing the Yamini book. (And then the dance caught up with me finally as a journalist in The Indian Express, where I had to become Arts Editor, and again in the gigantic paper that is HT).
To see Yamini dance and delve into her amazingly focused life (she burnt herself like camphor for the dance) is to realise the real wealth of India. North India adored her through the 60s, 70s and 80s and openly acknowledged that it received a lost part of its soul back from her.
Her erudite father would introduce the dance thrillingly, her sister Jyotishmati would sing and Yamini would dance, with a well-synched team of musicians. She danced every year at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi and only for her shows would the huge convention hall be thrown fully open and was packed from the first row to the last (otherwise its gigantic side spaces were partitioned off).
Yamini made history as the first person to dance Vedic hymns and slokas and put them into the public domain for all to experience.
It tied in perfectly with their purpose as instruments of general good.
Take the Gayatri Mantra. Its sadhana or practice is supposed to lift sorrow and benefit both the individual and society at large. Each syllable in it is a “palimpsest” – bunch of layers – of meaning.
So what are its benefits, according to that otherwise unlovely creature, Manu? He says that of all the mantras, there is none to match the Gayatri.
A person who recites this mantra regularly cannot be cowed down by any threat. Nor is this person scared of kings (those in power), asuras (those stronger), rakshasas (malefic forces), fire, water, air or snakes.
Manu also upholds that a person who makes the Gayatri part of his life (and we now add “her”) will become Brahma himself. The house in which the Gayatri is a habit will never catch fire and its children will never die. Let’s try to figure this out, knowing what we know about how our ancients think cryptically!
Obviously, it’s daft to take these observations literally. Mere mortals do not become Lord Brahma. Nor is there any physical guarantee possible for either property or life. So what could Mr Manu possibly mean?
Let’s look at the Gayatri itself.
Tat savitur vareniyam bhargo devasya dhi mahi dhiyo yo na prachodayat
“That Sun, who inspires our minds to action, we mediate on that luminous creator.”
In modern words, surely it means our lives happen through our mental attitude? A positive attitude will help us transform “bad” luck into “good” luck. See the Pushkara Mahatmayam, the legend of Pushkar in Rajasthan, which is famous as North India’s only living temple to Brahma (the South has Uttara-Ramar-kovil).
In the Pushkara Mahatmyam, Brahma conducts a big yagnya or sacrifice for the world’s well-being. But several times, something goes wrong to mar its successful completion. But each time there’s a problem, Brahma uses the opportunity to create something else, including, by the way, the Gayatri. Thus, by positive thinking, our personalities (“houses”) will never be destroyed. Nor will our dreams (mind-born “children”) ever die. Isn’t that supposed to keep life fresh and interesting?
The Mahabharata, a war book, says that reciting Gayatri establishes peace in society. It figures. Chilled-out individuals don’t quarrel. They prefer conflict management and resolution.
Truly, there’s a coded lesson in there if we find it, in fact how else could the ancients pass on values except through stocking fabulous stories in mental libraries?
It was Brahma, by the way, who is said to have culled the essence of the four Vedas into the “Natya Shastra” (Principles of Theatre) from which our classical dance comes, just as our classical music comes from the Sama Veda chants (the Saman is the Rig Veda set to music).
He did so, says Bharata Muni, who put the Natya Shastra together, “For the upliftment and betterment of all people.” So Yamini and India were being true to themselves and their ancient rhythms when they put select Vedic shlokas out for all.
And Brahma seems to have invented the Gayatri bang in the midst of a serious yagna-breakdown at Pushkar just to give us this important lifecode:
“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!”