Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: Forging a bond over abhangs across countries

Jan 28, 2018, 06:10 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

A religion and gender scholar from London and a Pune-based musician bond over the 700-year-old poetry of female saints of Maharashtra

London-based gender scholar Jacqui Daukes and Pune-based musician-educator Shruthi Vishwanath bond over centuries-old poetry of Marathi saint women. They have conducted sharing sessions in Mumbai, Pune, Panchgani and London in which they jointly celebrate the worth of the compositions which are not often quoted in contemporary devotional practice. Pic/Mandar Tannu
London-based gender scholar Jacqui Daukes and Pune-based musician-educator Shruthi Vishwanath bond over centuries-old poetry of Marathi saint women. They have conducted sharing sessions in Mumbai, Pune, Panchgani and London in which they jointly celebrate the worth of the compositions which are not often quoted in contemporary devotional practice. Pic/Mandar Tannu

Thirteenth century saint-poet Namdev is revered for his kirtans and extensive travels as far as Panjab to propagate the Bhagvat Dharm. But he is not particularly remembered as member of a tailor's joint family which had seven scintillating women who expressed themselves in soulful poetry, often deriding Namdev's neglect of household chores.

Except for Namdev's househelp Janabai, who achieved sainthood and has compositions to her credit in the Sri Sakal Sant Gatha compendium, hardly are the women in his home - mother Gonai, wife Rajai, elder sister Aubai, daughter Limbai, daughter-in-law Ladai and niece Nagari - cited in contemporary devotional practice. Although their imagery offers a unique quotable search for life's meaning - Roga ani vyadhi vyadhi ani roga / deha ani anga kaya dona; illness and disease; body and form, what's the difference? - no one references them with high regard. Their courage in taking on the male head also goes unsung - Gonai mhane namay he navhe pai bhale/vithobane kele apana aise/Gonai says, "Nama, what's happening isn't good; Vithobai is responsible for our state.

A poster of the film Sant Janabai
A poster of the film Sant Janabai

It is this absence of women saints from public memory that troubled London-based gender researcher Jacqui Daukes, 47, who decided to bring them to life in a doctoral thesis. Little did she know that by the time she documented the female voices (special focus on 17 women bards; 150 translated abhangs) from the Varkari Bhakti cult, she would be sharing stage with Pune-based musician-educator Shruthi Vishwanath, 27, who will compose tunes for 20 abhangs (including Kanhopatra's Jeeveeche Jeevalage; Aubai's Shunya Sakarle; Janabai's Doicha Padar and Muktabai's Aho krodh Yaave Kothe) before exploring alternative raags and idioms for newer gems. This, she is doing under a project funded by the India Foundation for the Arts.

Daukes and Vishwanath, who has worked on the mystic poetry of Kabir, have had four sharing sessions spanning Mumbai, London, Pune and Panchgani since February 2016. Here, they celebrated the santkaviyatris' literary corpus, and encouraged the audience to explore the lives of radical non-conformist women who questioned the linear notions of bhakti. The idea is to see if these women can become a present-day resource to voice resistance; and can they offer a social vision to those fighting discrimination and economic exploitation?

Saint poet Namdev who is the most remembered in his joint family, which had seven relatively unknown saint women as well
Saint poet Namdev who is the most remembered in his joint family, which had seven relatively unknown saint women as well

"We live continents apart and have different vocations. But physical distance doesn't matter in this super-connected age," says Daukes as she prepares to leave India for London after month-long interactions with academics, performers, saint poetry enthusiasts in and Mumbai and Pune. Her stay at the Asia Plateau in Panchgani, which hosted the center of Initiatives of Change (India) global network reunion, also holds promise because she met a cross-section of people who work towards building trust across linguistic and religious divides. The venue has cultural resonance for Daukes because her father held monthly industrial conflict resolution seminars at the same venue in the seventies, during the movement called Moral Rearmament. During this time, her family was based in Pune. And so, little Jacqui's first brush with Marathi started in 1975 when she attended a kindergarten in Erandwane before moving to St Helena's for further education. The only "foreigner girl" in class, she imbibed local etiquette and lingo out of everyday exchanges. She recalls learning to read and write the Devnagari script, which she reconnected with 20 years later while pursuing a Masters in Indian Religions, thanks to the Hindi teachers of SOAS University of London.

At the root of Daukes' thesis lies her interest in the women across castes and regions of Maharashtra who composed ovis (orally transmitted folk genre; some of which got lost before written texts arrived in the 13th century) while going about their grinding, cooking and cleaning. Their daily lives are obviously reflected in the quotidian and domestic imagery - Deva hate bucada sodi/uva  maritase tantadi/ God unties her hair, crushes the lice quickly; Deva khate deva pite/ devavari mi nijate / I eat God, I drink God; I sleep on God).

It is also evident that these women are not accorded a separate gender identity, slotted in the grander context of their male family heads - Muktabai is the youngest sibling of Saint Nivrutti and Dyandev; Soyarabai is Chokhamela's spouse whose low-caste status is underlined in the Sri Sakal Sant Gatha; Kanhopatra is recalled as a courtesan's daughter who sang well; Bahinābāī (17th century) is the only one remembered particularly for her spiritual autobiography, which details her marriage at four, to a 30-year-old Brahmin widower. The memoir describes her husband's verbal and physical abuse. Interestingly, only three women saints (Janabai, Sakhubai and Kanhopatra) have been celebrated in popular Hindi and Marathi films.

Just as Daukes is deeply interested in the gender equations evident in the Varkari corpus, she also sees the thesis as a good platform to conduct a dialogue with current stakeholders, men and women. In fact, she set out on the road to Pandharpur because of a deep urge to hold inter-religious dialogue. In 1996, she was inspired by His Holiness Dalai Lama's speech on his vision for a peaceful 21st century, where dialogue rather than violence was used to resolve conflict.

"I decided to engage in peacebuilding from a place of awareness rather than ignorance," she says. Daukes shifted base to Pune and continued to learn Marathi. She lived with a Marathi speaking family which attempted to avoid English in daily conversations to refine her translations. She carried out extensive field trips to Alandi, Dehu, Saswad and Pandharpur to experience the geography of the Vari. The thesis has excerpts of fluid and frank conversations on whether the Varkari cult is a truly egalitarian and democratic bhakti tradition which treats all living beings with equal respect? Daukes contends that the householder (grahastha) nature of the tradition, may have relegated women bhakts to familial duties (as against men whose mobility shows they are not bound by a strict code), which is also why social history customarily associates women with their male mentors. She points out the unacknowledged but rigid hierarchies within the varkari sampradaya that puts four male saints (Dynaeshvar, Namdev, Eknath and Tukaram) on a higher pedestal. Daukes has quoted historians while quizzing known biggies - V N Utpat, Baba Maharaj Satarkar, Dada Maharaj Manmadkar - on tricky issues of women empowerment. She has stuck her neck out in noting the obviously unequal status accorded to present-day women kirtankars like Alandi-based dindi leader Muktabai Maharaj. Muktabai has been quoted as saying that her male followers find it below their dignity to touch her feet.

It is interesting to note that women's voices hushed by history have resurged after decades, and that too through the collaboration of a British academic and a Kannadiga performer, both not Maharashtrian in the strict sense of the term. In fact, Vishwanath, who was part of an all-women abhanga mandali at seven in Pune, feels their 'outsider' status gives them an unusual entry into the lives of the daughters-of-the-soil. She intends to compose music for many more verses highlighted by Daukes. "I am in this for the long term, not just for one project or a couple of years," she declares, somewhat in Janabai's vein: Hati gheina tala khandyavari vina/ ata maja mana kona kari-- I'll take the cymbals in hand, the vÄ«á¹Â‡Ä on my shoulder. Who can stop me?

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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