The Dichotomy of The Goddess

The Dichotomy of The Goddess

There is a dichotomy to life that makes it so intriguing. Dichotomy gives color, shading, nuance, complexity, and through all this- tremendous scope for creative/artistic exploration. There is dichotomy in everything and in us, and I feel exploring that helps provide insight, understanding, and acceptance toward the world, and toward ourselves.

Once many years ago, I was in conversation with a dancer – Shankar Kandaswamy about a composition, the Dharu Varnam “Mathe” (a composition of Muthaiah Bhagavathar) – and he pointed out to me the duality that exists within each descriptive line of the Goddess. The first line describes her as both Mother and daughter.  The second line describes her as both delicate and fierce.  The charanam line describes her as both dark and emanating light. I liked this interpretation and it stayed with me through the years. As I have experienced motherhood and other life experiences as a female, I see in myself and in all of womanhood the duality and a certain seeming dichotomy that characterizes the Goddess. Aren’t these Gods and Goddesses a symbol of life and spirit?

As artists, it is impossible to separate the world of beauty that we experience through art, with the world we live in and experience. Earlier, my world of dance was a utopian world. A reality of a different kind.

I felt, the world was the world, mundane and harsh; but Dance was a vehicle to experience and express another world: the esoteric – one of beauty and harmony, one in which all drama ultimately culminated in balance and upliftment. While that intention still remains strong, there seems new impulse in me to also use my dance language to negotiate my experience as a human of the world around me, and perhaps its connect or disconnect with the “other world.” Therefore, my thoughts about the Goddess, about femininity, about womanhood cannot but intermingle with what is happening in the world around me.

The Goddess is glorified as the symbol of auspiciousness. Sarva Mangala Mangalye Shive Sarvaartha Saadhike, says the first line of this verse from the Devi Mahatmyam. Who is the Auspiciousness in All the Auspicious, Auspiciousness Herself, Complete with All the Auspicious Attributes? How many times did the word auspicious show up in that first phrase itself?

Why then are female babies considered inauspicious? Why is in vitro gender ID revelation illegal in India but because of the danger of female infanticide? I shudder to think there are still rivers where female babies are drowned! Why is this horrible practice of Sati – burning of the widow with their deceased husband, or even the outcasting of widows still practiced? All of these in a culture that simultaneously glorifies and worships the Goddess as a symbol of auspiciousness and fertility.

She is often described as worshipped by all, including the most powerful Gods. She is described as Sakala Bhuvana Saarva Bhaume, ruler of the entire universe. Why then are women still considered second to the man? In the workplace – why are they not compensated equally for the same position? In domestic life – why is there such a thing as dowry? Why common usage of the phrase “Mrs.” which is derived from “Mr.’s”? Why this practice of the woman giving up her surname for her husband’s?
Sure, female infanticide and sati may be more prevalent in rural villages; but these above things are seen as completely normal in the most urban cities.

Sharanye – the giver of refuge. Jaya Jaya He Mahishasura Mardhini. Victory to she who is the destroyer of the demons!
Where is the refuge for she who is constantly looking over her shoulder for demons? Who has to rush to her car with her heart beating in parking garages, or clutch her phone tightly in a stairwell, or make sure she tells someone her whereabouts before going into a public restroom alone. These are our daily realities. A far cry from the fierce Goddess, wielding multiple weapons, with one foot on the chest of the power-hungry demon.

This week, I woke up to news of an 11-year old girl raped by 22 men from her apartment building in Chennai over a period of 7 months. Who is going to destroy these demons? I assuage my 3-year old daughter’s fear of monsters by telling her there is no such thing. Did that 11-year old’s mother tell her the same? That there was no such thing as lift-man monster, or water-man monster, or a neighbor-monster? Do I have to warn my daughter against all the monsters in disguise in her life? To be wary of even people she trusts, the music teacher who might take advantage of her, the colleague who might violate her, the family friend that she should keep her distance from…

The Goddess is described as Meena-lochani, the one with the fish eyes. Just as a fish never closes its eyes, her eyes are always open bestowing her devotees with her compassionate glance. Can the “woman” also be described as Meena-lochani, whose eyes are always open out of fear and vigilance for the monsters that lurk around her?

In the Charanam (second half of this piece), she is called “Shyame,” the dark-colored one. The Goddess being glorified as a “dark beauty” is too ironic in a country where skin-lightening creams are plenty, and being described as “fair” is a compliment. I think sadly of the lady who cooks for us in Chennai, who is embarrassed to show me her baby grandchild’s photo, as she says apologetically “she is very dark.”

Shyama/e also has a spiritual connotation as the dark blue color is a color the one experiences in meditation, and for that reason considered auspicious. In the context of this piece, I wonder if the dark color can also refer to a bearing of burdens. There is a myth that the Yamuna river took on the dark blue color when a mourning Shiva jumped in her following the death of his beloved wife. Yamuna absorbed his pain and turned dark in color. Could the same be for Shyame, who takes on the vulnerability, the stigma, the degradation, the inequality experienced by the Woman?

The line ends with Shashimandala Madhyaga – the one who exists at the center of the halo of light. What is light, but hope? Hope for the future. And where is hope without fresh starts, without birth, without future generations?

And where are future generations without the creative womb of the female?
The very womb that makes her vulnerable, that puts her in danger, that makes her a liability as a baby, that lessens her value in the workplace.

Dichotomy can be beautiful in its complexity. But also very very ugly in its hypocrisy. Sickeningly so.

And what role does art play in all this? As an artist, sometimes it just feels necessary. For myself. To negotiate the world around me through the language that I know best.

Art is a powerful medium.

The other day, I watched Nannette by Hannah Gadsby. I felt stunned, disturbed, and moved as a human being, and awed as an artist. The craft with which she had “transformed” her audience was so incredible and powerful. It made me think about Classical dance. When we think of “rasa” or “transformation,” there is a certain assumption of upliftment and transcendence. Yes, ABSOLUTELY. Ultimately that is the goal for both artist and audience. But dance and art are also about Human experience, which is not always uplifting.


Sometimes I wonder if compartmentalization is a downfall….

How can I dance about the “female principle of the universe,” as a far removed Goddess – pictured in sculptures in temples or pooja rooms, or drawings in comic books? Where does she live, but in the now? In me, in my mother, in my daughter, in my friends, in the people of the world.

We often speak of the fierce mythological battles as symbolic of the inner struggle – the fight put on by the “ego.” Yes, absolutely. But the battle is also a harsh daily reality around us. Mahisha exists, Chanda and Munda exist, not only within us. They share the world with us. And they’re not wearing demon horns and carrying swords…. they’re our fellow human beings.

Sanctuaries; part 1 – the creative process

The creative process feels strangely like dealing with my kid. Sometimes, when things are in flow – it feels magical and you want to jump for joy and show someone all the exciting discoveries. Other times, it is so frustrating you just want to scream loudly “I QUIT” and then binge watch TV undisturbed with a large bag of potato chips.

During periodic laptop cleaning, I always find scraps of jottings, clips of musical ideas, or lists of creative brainstorming, and think to myself, next time I work on something new, I should document the process from start to finish. I never follow through, so this time I am going to try. It’s not from the beginning beginning, but it is early on enough.

For me, an idea usually stems out of a personal experience, either an occurrence/encounter in my life, or something that I read or see that sparks a thought and translates into a creative urge.

Other times, the work is commissioned. The challenge in this case is that the concept is not as organic- naturally, as it has not come from myself. However, what I like about commissioned work is that it pushes me toward concepts that I may not necessarily have approached myself, and thereby broadens my body of work. I also love the challenge of finding that personal connection and universality in each topic, whether my own or commissioned.

In this case, Ragamala (Chicago) and the Festival of World Music has commissioned Aditya and me to create a production on the theme of “Sanctuaries” in honor of the fact that Chicago is a sanctuary city. (A sanctuary city is one that limits its cooperation with the national government to enforce immigration law, in the hopes of reducing fear of deportation and possible family break-up among people who are in the country illegally.)

Even aside from celebrating Chicago as a sanctuary city, the theme of “sanctuary” is so relevant in a world that is fragmented and cruel.

Our starting point:
Our idea was to find a narrative that reflects situations that have occurred time and again throughout history of oppression, cruelty, and also compassion and acceptance. Having been reading a lot of children’s books recently (thanks to Rumi), I love the way stories about animals, or even sometimes inanimate objects like vehicles (the little blue truck or the little engine that could) exemplify messages that reflect human conflict. Aditya and I thought this sort of exploration could be both creatively exciting and also universally communicative.

After a loooo-ooot of searching (a lot of the fables I came across had really strange and almost twisted messages!) We came across the story of the elephant and the mouse. In the traditional telling, mice have occupied an abandoned city and beg a herd of elephants not to trample them as they stampede through. The Elephant chief reluctantly agrees to take another route. When soon after, the elephants are endangered by hunters, the mice come to their rescue by gnawing them out of their nets. The message is essentially to treat everyone with empathy as everyone’s role is important. The mice seemed to reflect the marginalized, and the elephants were those in power.

A discussion with Mridu Shekar, our point person at Ragamala, was actually quite insightful as her probing and questions pushed us to give more shape and depth to our story. She pointed out that the message of the above story leaned more towards quid pro quo rather than compassion. That conversation was really a turning point for us in which the piece gained resonance, and transformed from a commissioned work to something that was more meaningful.

Re-Shaping our narrative:
Through research, Aditya and I learned of a small town in France called Le-Chambon Sur-Lignon that provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees escaping the holocaust.

“Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.”
Elizabeth Koenig-Kaufman, a former child refugee in Le Chambon

The residents of these villages offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and in some cases guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. These actions of rescue were unusual during the period of the Holocaust insofar as they involved the majority of the population of an entire region.

The unconditional compassion of this village and its residents added a depth that was missing in the traditional telling. Inspired by this, we re-wrote the story as follows:

A mouse and his pregnant wife are among the animals captured by a lab of scientists. Seeing the animals tortured and suffering, the mice fear for themselves and their to-be-born children. When some pandemonium strikes the lab, the mouse and his wife have a chance to escape. They encounter a herd of elephants and beg the Chief to take them to refuge in the wild. The chief elephant is arrogant and dismissive and refuses to help the desperate mice. An elderly elephant feels for the plight of the mice and secretly offers to carry them to safety.
The growing family of mice thrive in their natural habitat. But one incident of diminished resources leaves the chief suspicious and angry. The elderly elephant accepts blame and subsequent punishment.
Tragedy befalls the tribe when the chief’s daughter is caught by hunters. The Chief is torn by his instinct to rush to her rescue, and the warnings of the tribe that he too will be captured. Ignoring the warnings, he follows the sound of her desperate wails, only to see the mice gnawing at the net and setting her free. He is overcome with gratitude and repentance. The mice tell him of their story and the compassion of the elderly elephant. The Chief immediately realizes his folly both in dismissing the desperate mice and in punishing the elderly elephant. The new friendship between the mice and the elephants inspires compassion and communion in nature.

After making our storyline, came the writing of the script. This often feels like the most important step for me, as it is when the visualization of the piece begins. Once the script is in place, music composition flows, and once I have the music….its choreography time! I work best in response to music, and working with Aditya is usually a comfortable process as we share associations and I am really familiar with his musical style. Together we decided some of the ragams (melodies) that would represent our characters, namely the “oppressor,” the “oppressed,” “compassion” etc. And he moved forward with composition. So far, we have no lyrics; we are trying to communicate using swarams, sollakattu, and instrumentation.

Sanctuaries; part 2 – beginning choreography

The challenge in this piece is in both embodying the characters (most of whom are animals), and also in communicating what they represent. The piece opens with the “dance of the Scientist.” In creating this, I have to ask myself the following questions: what are the associations with scientist?

what is the role the scientist plays in the bigger picture of this story? I.e. What does the scientist symbolize in this allegory?

Generally, I have had no problem with science and research using animals, as I realize it helps finding cures to so many health issues and diseases.
But as I create this piece, my feelings are changing…..
My own research about treatment of lab animals, particular mice is what had given rise to this new narrative. The more I read (particularly one PETA article), the more I am convinced of the allegory where the poor lab mice are not much different to the tortured refugees.

More than 100 million mice and rats are killed in U.S. laboratories every year. They are abused in everything from toxicology tests (in which they are slowly poisoned to death) to painful burn experiments to psychological experiments that induce terror, anxiety, depression, and helplessness.

Mice and rats are mammals with nervous systems similar to our own. It’s no secret that they feel pain, fear, loneliness, and joy just as we do.

But even though these animals feel pain and suffer as much as dogs, cats, and rabbits do, they are excluded from the meager federal Animal Welfare Act provisions that extend at least some protection to these other species. Because mice and rats are not protected by the law, experimenters don’t even have to provide them with pain relief.. A 2009 survey by researchers at Newcastle University found that mice and rats who underwent painful, invasive procedures such as skull surgeries, burn experiments, and spinal surgeries, were given post-procedural pain relief only about 20 percent of the time.

Deeply disturbed, but increasingly invested in the context, I begin choreography.

The hardest part is not portraying the Scientists as “villains.” It’s hard when you have the “oppressed” to not turn the “oppressors” into villains. But in the case of the Scientists, they believe in their science, their purpose, and are so focused on finding answers, that they are not empathetic to the suffering they are causing. What do these characters share with their allegorical parallels…..the (*gulp*) Nazis?

A lot of Nazi belief in homogenizing their society had basis in Scientific racism, which employed anthropology to classify humans into superior and inferior categories. Though, this is not the MO of the “Scientist character”, there is a definite marginalization and classification of animals seeing as how mice are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act that does not require the animals to be given post-procedural pain relief. There is a word for de-humanization, but is there a word for de-living-creature-ization?

Now when it comes to finding movement to portray these Scientists, what are the things I have to keep in my mind? As churn out various drafts of movement choreography sequences, this is what seems to be coming: Structure, Linearity, Rigidity, and Superiority.

Also, since the Scientists are only oppressors when it comes to the treatment of the poor lab mice, they have to be portrayed in contrast to the emotions of the tortured animals. Therefore, the opening which I call to myself “ the dance of the Scientist” is actually “the dance of the oppressor and the oppressed.” The qualities of the latter are more emotional and fluid. It also would make sense that the movements of the two characters are linked so that the fluid movements of the oppressed are the reactions to the linearity and rigidity of the oppressor.

Sanctuaries; part 3 – embodying the oppressed

Before I had set the choreography, I just played the music and improvised to it. Aditya has set an evocative Abheri melody for the mice who are brought into the lab and observing the pain and torture around them. As I danced it, my body trembled the way a frightened mouse would. And I felt so much for the pregnant mouse who is so worried about the fate of her offspring. And in that moment it struck me as to how arts generates empathy and allows you to perceive the world with more sensitivity and understanding. In fact, the next day I ran the choreography through a few times, just to get flow, and after I was done, my body ached from the emotional stress of portraying the frightened mice!

Sanctuaries; part 4 – after a break!!

I write this blog entry after completion of the performance. It was not intended to be that way but…..sometimes dancing gets in the way of writing!

There was a break in my choreographic process as I was performing another production, Jwala. And the way it has happened, with every performance of Jwala, I’m working with a different team of artists, completely difference circumstances both in terms of venue qualities and audience types. All of this affects the production and requires the necessary changes for each show.  To add, it is a fairly new production – originally created as a 55 minute piece, and now extended to 90 minutes. Anyway, all this is simply to say my attention and focus shifted to Jwala, at point when I was completely in choreographic flow of Sanctuaries.

When I returned to working on the Sanctuaries, jetlagged and with two other shows that I was involved in, I had limited time to finish the piece, and everything that I had created felt……not right! It was frustrating and made me realize that so much of what is created comes out of where you are in that moment of creation. The material that I had created only 3 weeks earlier (!!) felt un-instinctual and forced.

My Scientist character changed completely. All the movement analysis that I had previously worked on was completely scrapped for something more narrative-based, and straight-forward. Maybe it was because of time-constraint, maybe it was because I just wanted to be dancing after days of travelling and doing everything BUT dancing, but choreographing became less thinking, and more just playing the music and improvising the piece at a stretch. In each run, some things would stick and I would find myself repeating them, and in some I would surprise myself at what came out. I didn’t tape myself, I didn’t analyze, (usually parts of my choreographic process), I just danced what felt natural.

Whereas the beginning of the week had seen me dragging my feet and groaning my way to the studio to start choreography, mid-week had me excited and at times even a bit emotional when thinking of the piece.

Then, one by one, each rehearsal had an additional member. Wednesday night, I was joined by Aditya singing (live, as opposed to on a super-rough multi-track garage band), and Kasi on nattuvangam. On Thursday, I had the absolute pleasure of having Rajna on mridangam, which totally added Oomph! And on Friday morning, Shiva rounded us out on violin – which gave the varying layers of emotion and sensitivity, and the music sounded great and felt lovely to dance to. Aditya’s score is completely Carnatic (except for the deshthillana at the end), with characters and dialogues in Thodi, Bhairavi, Sahana, Nattai, Mayamalavagowla, and Abheri. It’s classical and really feels like it lends itself well to the moods and the narrative.


As I stood backstage just before going on and heard the cheers of the audience to the Emcee’s “our Chicago is a sanctuary city,” I realized this is my first “political” piece. In light of the recent DACA repeal, and all that has been happening both in our country and in so many countries of the world, the piece felt so pressing and relevant.

I couldn’t help but think back to my first semester as an MFA student at UCLA, when our first choreography assignment was a political piece. I had done something on body image, but used post-modern technique more than I did BharataNatyam. I had felt strongly on the topic, but the choreography was unvested and forced.

Here, I stood with a piece that felt meaningful, connected to me and the people around me, and….. “political!”

How much I have learned of the importance of image, metaphor, allegory – and their power as poetic tools of communication!

As we performed the piece that day, the audience sat all around us. It was close to midnight, and the hall was packed. It was a simple-stage, no theatrical lighting design, but a beautiful space, intimate and charged. Sometimes the attention and investment of the audience is palpable, and this was one such performance. As I danced the characters, I felt the emotions they felt, and thought of all that they represent today.

In my choreographic choices, I have always been more drawn to content which is more abstract, philosophical, and spiritual. Dance allows expression of this magical realm of experience. My feeling was – we live the mundane, why dance about it too?

But Gowri Ramnarayan, whom I have worked with closely, always has told me that it is difficult to carry an audience with you if you leap straight into the “intangible.” It’s important to start with the everyday – she always reinforces. I did understand her point, but the impetus to create such work only came after some time. Jwala, was probably the first full length work that was in fact inspired by the worldly – personal events in my life.

After our US election last year, the impact felt on our nation as a whole, felt so perceptible and tremendous that I felt some sort of creative throbbing waiting to find expression. Maybe Sanctuaries was that….

Anyway, none of this is to glorify the piece. What we performed on Friday at the Chicago WMF was literally a first draft, a piece that needs to be chiseled, edited, crafted, and wrung out thoroughly. But it was a start!