Love, Separation and Unity
Damayanti Joshi describes Krishna Leela (1934) as the first production of Menaka, which she choreographed together with dance maestro Pandit Sitaram Prasad. Menaka had recruited a group of performers for the dance-drama: men from the hereditary dance communities and young girls; amateurs whom she trained herself. 1 Walker underlines Menaka’s dance-dramas, or ballets, are an essential element of the dance revival of the 1930s. 2 Although the form can be considered innovative, thematically Menaka didn’t depart from the traditional dance repertoire with its strong emphasis on Krishna.
Krishna as the thematic thrust for dance is rooted in the rise of devotionalism in North India. In contrast to religious practises concentrated on Vedic scriptures, the authority of Brahmins as religious specialists and the observance of caste regulations, bhakti (devotion) was a religion of the heart.
Communities, cults and sects arose where devotees (bhaktas) from all strata of society choose self-surrendering worship of either Ram or Krishna; two different forms of Vishnu. Abundant devotional poetry evoked a divine romance between Krishna and his beloved disciple Radha, a milkmaid – a metaphor for the love between God and the human soul. This metaphor was articulated in terms of an ardent love (shringara, madhurya) or a tormenting seperation (viraha). 3
An early poem that expressed the devotee’s longing for God through the idiom of love, was the Gītagovinda (Song of the Cowherd) by Jayadeva (12th century). From this poem the genre of krishna lila developed 4; stories of how Krishna lived as an earthly being.
Joshi writes Menaka’s inspiration for her choreography was the poet Vidyāpati Thakur (ca. 1352-1448). Said to be born in the village of Bisphī, in the current Madhubani district was a courtier in the Tirhut Kingdom. As a brahmin ritual specialist, he authored Sanskrit treatises on ritual and ethical topics. Being a versatile writer, he also composed between two and three hundred lyrical poems. These padas were written in the vernacular Maithili, spoken in the Tirhut region. In the sixteenth century, bhaktas introduced Vidyapati’s work in Bengal. His padas were meant for the common people, and they are still sung to this day. 5 Therefore it is entirely conceivable Menaka became acquainted with the bhakti repertoire whilst growing up in Bengal. On the other hand, Indian intellectuals attributed profound significance to bhakti poetry.
Artists and poets
Scholar Stratton Hawkey examined the narrative that the Bengali intelligentsia developed in the first decades of the twentieth century. The term bhakti andolan expressed the idea of a movement that originated in southern India in the eighth century and gradually engulfed the entire subcontinent. The notion of a movement that included different regional cultures and castes advanced the cause of national unity. It refuted the colonial claim that only the British Raj had succeeded in unifying a people divided by differences of caste, religion and language. Furthermore, according to the nationalists, the bhakti andolan burst forth during the eighth until the sixteenth century; a period that coincided with the ascendency of Islamic, Mughal rule in India. Hence bhakti epitomized a spiritual domain where a dominant, foreign rule was resisted.6
An energetic advocate of the idea of bhakti andolan was Rabindranath Tagore. who as a teenager wrote in the style of Vidyapati. Tagore’s associate Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877 – 1847) published an English translation of Vidyapati’s padabali’. The Tamil-British Coomaraswamy would make his mark as the curator of Asian Arts of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the foreword of his translation, Coomaraswamy idealized Vidyapati’s era: ‘[…] these were days when peasants yet spoke as elegantly as courtiers, and kings and cultivators shared one faith and a common view of life.’ 7
His thinking was focused on art history and aesthetics, although he did connect Indian art to the notion of Swaraj (self-rule). He argued the adoption of western culture had been undifferentiated, resulting in corrosion of their national identity. ‘[…] Nations are made by artists and by poets, not by traders and politicians. Art contains in itself the deepest principles of life’, 8 therefore nationalists were to concentrate on building a cultural autonomy. This included all the arts, as he wrote: ‘of the dance you never weary; there is eternal wonder in the perfect refinement of its grace, and the mental concentration to control each muscle so completely, for this is […] the elaborated art of three thousand years [it] idealizes every passion, human and divine, for it tells of the intensity of Radha’s love for Krishna.’ 9
1. Damayanti Joshi, Madame Menaka (New Delhi 1989) 12.
2. Margaret E. Walker, India’s Kathak dance in historical perspective (Farnham; Burlington 2014) 125.
3. Patton E. Burchett, A Genealogy of Devotion. Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga, and Sufism in North India (New York 2019) 2-3.
4. Kapila Vatsyayan, Indian Classical Dance (New Delhi 1974) 85.
5. Christopher L. Diamond, ‘The Strange Afterlife of Vidyāpati Ṭhākura (ca. 1350–1450 CE): Anthological Manuscripts, Linguistic Confusion, and Religious Appropriation’, Manuscript Studies: A Journal of the Schoenberg Institute 4/ 1 (2019) 72-92, here 75-76 and 81.
6. John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Cambridge 2015) 13-14, 19.
7. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Vidyapati: Bangiya Padabali. Songs of the love of Radha and Krishna translated into English by Ananda Coomaraswamy and Arun Sen with introduction and notes and illustrations from Indian paintings (London 1915).
8. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Essays in National Idealism (Colombo 1909) ii.
9. Coomaraswamy, Essays in National Idealism, 212.
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