Friday, June 12, 2015

A Divine Form So Tasty!

Sri Tyagaraja Swamy is revered, even today, as Sadhguru. And it is not just because of his prodigious musical creativity or for being a great Rama Bhakta. He is a Sadhguru because, like all great gurus, he has shown boundless compassion without restriction (avyaaja karuna) and taught great spiritual truths in simple krithis. He taught them in such a way that even a lay person could understand easily and follow. We shall examine one such krithi in this essay - anuraagamu leni, composed in Saraswathi ragam and Rupaka talam.

anuragamu leni manasuna sujnaanamu raadu
ghanulaina antar jnaanulaku eruke gaani .. anuragamu leni ..
vaga vagagaa bhujiyinche vaaniki trupti yau reeti
saguna dhyaanamu paini soukhyamu tyagaraja nuta .. anuragamu leni ..
The literal meaning is like this:
Real knowledge (sujnaanamu) does not arise (raadu) in the mind (manasuna) which does not have love (anuragamu leni)
This is known (eruke) to great (ghanulaina) beings who achieved inner realization (antar jnaanulu)
Just like a fellow who eats a variety of items (vaga vaga) in a meal (bhujiyinche) is satisfied (trupti), such is the great pleasure (soukhyamu) to be gotten from meditating on (the Lord with) form (saguna dhyanamu).
At the outset, this sounds like a conundrum. Why is Tyagaraja advocating love? Isn't love a form of attachment? Isn't it binding and therefore, limiting?

All the great philosophies glorify the paramatma, the Universal Soul, as nameless, formless and characterless. "It" is beyond all bounds. The great Upanishads exhort the spiritual seeker to develop detachment (vairagya) to attain the inner realization (jnaana) that is liberation (moksha). So, it sounds like Tyagaraja is advising us to go in the opposite direction - why?
The answer lies in the very tasty and down-to-earth simile he uses in the charanam. For a seeker, trying to practice vairagya is like fasting. To paraphrase local idiom, it is like eating air. What sort of fulfillment does one experience by eating air? One has to eat something substantial to be fulfilled. If he eats a laddu, he says I've tasted sweetness. If he eats pulihora, he says I've tasted salt and sour. Yet, after such single item meals, some craving still remains, that he hasn't experienced other tastes.
Now, let us say, he is served a full meal with a dozen items, representing a variety of tastes - how does he feel? He is so completely satiated .. experiences trupti at such a level .. that no expression is sufficient to describe it.
Similarly, the seeker's mind is full of spiritual cravings. If you try to feed it with air, with the nameless and formless Paramatma - forget about achieving jnaana or moksha - it will just remain empty and will continue to crave this or that. Instead, firmly establish a (divine) form in your mind's eye and meditate upon it. Nurture your love towards it. Countless are the ways in which one can rejoice - you can chant the divine name - you can describe the divine form - you can sing the praises and glories. How wonderful this practice is! How satisfying! Such is the power of saguna dhyaana, worship of a form. Such is the power of love (anuraagamu).
Alright, we accept that love is powerful. It is one thing to say ‘love is one powerful method to realization’, and it is quite another matter to say ‘without love, there is no realization.’ Why does Tyagaraja proclaim so emphatically that love is a necessary condition to achieve realization? We only have to look up to Sri Adi Sankara for this answer. The greatest vedantin and proponent of advaita, not only composed prodigious amounts of devotional poetry, but also preached ‘bhaja govindam’ – the ultimate call to prayer and the substance of all Vedanta. Without devotion, people only get twisted up either in physical knots of yoga asanas or in the mental knots of logic, but do not advance even one inch in their spiritual sadhana.
Essentially, giving a form to the limitless divine helps the seeker to anchor the wandering mind. It is the right kind of attachment to the right kind of form - that is love, that is anuraagamu. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, in the modern times, taught the same approach of love and devotion, in the form of Divine Mother.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hema's Bharatanatyam Arangetram

First appeared in
PriyaLasya Dance blog 

Hema Karunakaram - Bharatanatyam Arangetram

An Appreciation

30- May -2015
Venue: Towsley Auditorium Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor, MI

The normal story of an arangetram in the US goes something like this: Girl attends Bharatanatyam (Or Kuchipudi or whatever dance) classes. A few years later, girl is in high school. If she is sufficiently interested and if the dance teacher decides she is sufficiently talented, and if (and this is a big IF) the girl's parents are sufficiently well funded, they do an arangetram. Then the girl goes off to college and forgets all about this. This has been pretty much the norm for the last 20-25 years.

Hema's arangetram story was as different from the norm as possible. During all the time Hema has been learning and performing Bharatanatyam with her guru (and my dear friend) Roopa Shyamasundara, she did not nurture the idea of an arangetram particularly. She finished high school, she finished college - she continued to dance at every opportunity all this time. At the end of it all, before she sets off into the corporate world, Hema decides - let there be an arangetram! When Hema decides, it happens, and boy, what a show it was!

The show followed standard Bharatanatyam Margam, staying true to tradition, with small touches of innovation here and there that added some sparkle. Hema's alarippu in misra nadai gave a good preview of what a solid dancer she is. Jatiswaram in Vasanta ragam was crisp and clean. The traditional Shabdam - Gokulambudhi chandra, was handled with delicacy and the liveliness of little Srikrishna. The Varnam she chose, Maye Mayan Sodariye, in Todi ragam, is also a traditional item. The mood is mainly devotional and Hema performed the complex jathis with clean lines and perfect execution. They could have avoided the isolated delineation of the navarasas in the choreography.

After a brief intermission, the program resumed with an Annamacharya composition, Brahma Kadigina Padamu, in mukhari ragam. Hema enacted the Vamanavatara - Bali story as well as Kaleeya mardanam as part of this. The Javali - Muttavaddura Mohananga in Saveri ragam was a pure delight and showcased the mature grasp Hema had in depicting various characters and various moods in a dramatic setting. This was followed by another keertanam - Chandrasekharam Bhajami Satatam in the raga Chandrakauns, in which the story of Markandeya was enacted. The program concluded with a Tillana in Valaji and Mangalam.

I should mention a beautiful subtle touch Hema added in her aahaaryam .. she decorated her hands and feet with real marudhaani (gorintaaku, mehendi, henna) in the traditional way .. did not use the usual red marker pen or other red stain! Not sure how many in the audience noticed it. A lot of care and thought were put into the production, from the decorations in the lounge that greeted the guests upon arrival to the stage design and decoration - everything was arranged tastefully and in harmony.

Hema's arangetram is a prime example to show the superior product that emerges when the dancer is not only committed to the art, but also superbly talented, and more importantly, mature in age and stage experience to bring out the bhava of each composition. This is what is usually lacking in many arangetrams where the young lady is usually in a hurry to wrap it up along with other high school activities before pushing off to college.

Babu Paramesvaran's majestic voice elevated the mood of the show a couple of notches. The supporting instrumentalists were good. Guru Roopa ran the show efficiently.

Hema graduated from University of Michigan recently with a degree in Engineering and will start working for IBM's Watson Project soon. I should also disclose here that Hema's father, Krishna Karunakaram, was my classmate during undergrad days, and we rekindled our friendship some 15 years later in Michigan.

I wish Hema all the very best in her future. Keep dancing in grace!!

Full album at Hema's FB Page