Monthly Archives: May 2011

When You Chose Me

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I found this beautiful poem just as it was about to be retired from the Poetry Daily archive. I found it just when I needed it. And because I have always been better at saying to the world what I cannot say quietly, I share it with you.

When you chose me

By Pedro Salinas
translated from the Spanish by Willis Barnstone

When you chose me—
love chose—
I came out of the great anonymity
from everyone, from nothing.
Till then
I was never taller than
the sierras of the world.
I never sank deeper
than the maximum
depths marked out
on maritime charts.
And my gladness was
sad, as small watches are
without a wrist to fasten to,
without a winding crown, stopped.
But when you said: you,
to me, yes, to me singled out,
I was higher than stars,
deeper than coral.
And my joy
began to spin, caught
in your being, in your pulse.
You gave me possession of myself
when you gave your self to me.
I lived. I live. How long?
I know you will back out.
When you go
I will go back to a deaf
world that does not distinguish
gram or drop
in weight or water.
I’ll be one more—like the rest—
when you are lost.
I’ll lose my name,
my age, my gestures, all
lost in me, from me.
Gone back to the immense bone heap
of those who have not died
and now have nothing
to die for in life.

The Mucukunda Murals

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Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.

Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.

He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.

Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.

Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.

The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.

In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.

At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.

Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.

In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Mira Sundara Rajan: Moral Rights

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Your new book, Moral Rights, deals with the issue of intellectual property in the digital domain, which is a new area of concern. Can you give us a brief introduction to moral rights and their doctrine?

Basically, moral rights protect an author’s non-commercial, personal and cultural rights. The expression comes from the French – droit moral – which means “personal rights” or “intellectual rights”, but doesn’t have the same connotation in English. Attribution and integrity are the two rights that are protected: attribution is the right to be named and identified as the author, and integrity is what protects the work from harm (for example, preventing a moustache being painted on the Mona Lisa!). The moral rights aspect of creative work in the technological context has not been addressed. Discussion of copyright issues, especially at the international level is focused on the economic rights and how much money an author can make from his or her work. My interest is in the cultural side of things, not the economic side. And I think it’s a serious concern in the Internet age. To give you an example, a person could find a poem online that is attributed to Subramania Bharati, He or she would suffer the harm of false knowledge; this would affect how someone understands his or her own culture.

You’ve explored moral rights in various global contexts in your book. Do you feel that the concept, or the understanding of it, varies based on the cultural and historical framework?

The short answer is: it does, yes. Each country has its own perspective on moral rights, depending not just on legal factors but also on cultural factors. The law is really an expression of the culture. I’ll give you two examples – in England, they have moral rights in the Copyright Act, but they are bit skeptical about authors’ personal interests, so they don’t really embrace the concept. And in contrast would be India, which has a very strong understanding of moral rights, and even more than the government, the courts really feel they have a mission to protect India’s culture.

But the protection of culture is also something that has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, communalists, misogynists and the like. How do you see this in relation to moral rights?

Actually, moral rights are a very important way of fighting against that. The whole concept of moral rights is to protect the special relationship between an author and his or her work. So think of the implications for censorship for example – no one can interfere with that relationship if the moral right is upheld. For example, Anand Patwardhan sued because parts of his film had been reused by filmmakers who had misrepresented his secular perspective, and the Mumbai High Court upheld his right.

How are moral rights placed in relation to the Copyleft movement, and movements like Creative Commons?

The common wisdom is that moral rights and Copyleft/Creative Commons don’t get along. But if you look more closely, they actually do protect moral rights. My observation is that they are highly compatible. In the US, apart from one very conservative federal law that only covers visual arts, they have no legislative protection for moral rights. In this sense, the Creative Commons might be the only protection generally available there for moral rights because the Creative Commons system of licenses is based on attribution. The Creative Commons community is really interested in protecting the quality of the knowledge that is disseminated, protecting it from adulteration. But, these movements – Open Source, Copyleft, Creative Commons – the question of how authors are supposed to earn a living from their work, and I do criticize them for this in my book. In order to write the book, I had to take a year’s sabbatical, and I question whether any serious author could have done otherwise. There has to be a way to provide financial support for artists and writers.

What are your thoughts on censorship, which is also connected to creative rights and freedoms?

I think censorship is a very bad thing, to put it very simply, and I think moral rights are a very important legal mechanism to protect people from censorship. And remember you are protecting both the author and the reader, because censorship distorts the truth, it distorts what was created, and that is just as bad for the reader as for the writer.

Intellectual property law is only one aspect of your work – you’re also an acclaimed classical pianist. How does your academic research lend itself to your creative life, and vice versa?

They have quite a natural relationship. I got interested in this aspect of law because I am an artist. And the artistic community is interested in me because of my knowledge of IP rights. I think it’s much easier, or even necessary, to have an understanding of art in order to have an understanding of IP law. And that’s a deficiency a lot of IP lawyers have – they don’t understand the psychological impact of how an artist feels when something is done to his or her work.

I don’t mean to embarrass you, but do you feel genius can be inherited? You’re a great-granddaughter of Subramania Bharati, after all.

No, I don’t think so. I think genius is the most unexpected thing in the universe. It can come up anywhere, and that’s why it is wonderful. In the US there are a lot of parents who think they can educate their children to be geniuses from the age of 2! But the factors that make a person a genius are so complex – it has to do with historical circumstances, the environment and many other factors. I don’t want to discredit my great-grandfather for my own accomplishments, whatever they may be, because of the access to education I had because of him, and my family background. My mother was the first Bharati scholar, and my father was an English professor and Bharati devotee, so I had a parallel education in addition to school. The environment in which I grew up was completely shaped by Bharati’s writings and his ideas on education and the development of the human personality. But Bharati’s own example is a case in point of the unexpectedness of genius. Why would this man coming from Ettayapuram think that he could singlehandedly get rid of the British empire, which was then the most powerful entity on earth? And he did, in a sense.

You also write poetry, but have only published your academic work so far. Can you tell us more about your poetry, what inspires it, and why you haven’t yet shared it with the world as you have your compositions and legal research?

I write poetry and prose (short stories and non-fiction essays). I’ve been writing since I was about 7 years old and the prosaic answer to your question is that I just haven’t had the time to do anything with it because of my education and what followed. But I have plans. In terms of what it’s about, there are lots of different themes; I am interested in all aspects of human experience. Bharati is definitely an inspiration because his writing is very comprehensive and deals with aspects of life. His optimism as an artist and thinker is also unique, and a tremendous inspiration.. The classics are important to me – I’ve read a lot of French literature in the original, and because of my interest in Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are also influences. Reading bad writing can be like eating junk food.!

Having grown up outside of India, in what ways – if any – do you remain connected to this cultural ethos?

It is important to me and my connection is really through Subramania Bharati. That’s everything.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu.