India - Craddle of myths
(In Convorbiri Literare, Annual number 1987, Iasi, Romania, pp 61-62)
Country of contrasts - that is how the foreigners characterize India, and perhaps they are right. Even the geographical features of the country offer a series of contrasting aspects. When the deserts of West burn under a blazing sun, the forests of East become greener in monsoon rains. Drought in one part, floods in another. While the oceanic currents keep the South for ever in spring, the snows of the North do never melt.
If these contrasts surprise the Indians, they are so customed to accept them as variations, like a wide range of notes harmonized into an uninterrupted melody. Thanks to the unifying effects of the cultural tradition of India, neither the diversity of Nature nor that of the popular customs from one side is totally strange to the people of other parts.
From olden days Indian literature assimilated elements of folclore from different zones of the country and spread them all over. Myths and legends from the epics and the Puranas - mythology blended with hystory - were circulated in every corner of the country, after which they were taken as new sources of folclore. Which is why the difference between literature and folk tale, between folk art and fine arts in India lies in the grade of refinement, of aesthetic rigour. Their contents are the same, same are the messages. The love of pastoral couple Radha and Krishna, the greatness of the benevolent Shiva and her consort Shakti - the divine energy - the glory of the epic heroes are told in all languages of India, from North to South, from East to West.
Yet, in spite of the respect for tradition, Indian culture was never a closed one. Numerous peoples that crossed Indian territory in historical ans prehistorical times enriched her culture with elements brought from their places of origin. Islamic culture left deep imprints in Northern India, its influence being prominent in music, dance, picture and above all in architecture of that part.
Archaic aspects of civilisation are, however, better preserved in South. The southern culture itself is an outcome of the synthesis of the autochtonous Dravidian culture and the Indo-Aryan one permeated from North in ancient times. The epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, especially the former, narrate the story of the Indo-Aryan expedition in South.
If Ramayana treats the conquest of the South by Rama, the hero of the North, that does not make it less popular in South. For, it does not describe any war invasions or racial conflicts, but praises the triumph of the good over the bad. In the war, the population of the conquered region, depicted as monkeys, serves the conqueror Rama, who was born to reestablish peace and order in the world.
The epic tells us that the army of the monkeys built a bridge over the sea from India to Sri Lanka. A series of submerged rocks, known in Europe as Adam's Bridge, is believed to be its ruins. The point on the Southeast coast of Indian peninsula, where the "bridge" starts, is called Setubandha Rameshwara, Bridge of Lord Rama. This is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus.
Through the ages the Rama legend inspired popular bards as well as classical poets, including Kalidasa, who re-told the story of Ramayana in his famous Sanskrit poem The dynasty of Raghu. Characters and ideas of the epic appeared time and again in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, poet of our times.
One particular day in spring, believed to be Rama's birthday, is celebrated with great festivity in North and Northwest of India. Popular plays based on different episodes of Ramayana, called Ramalila in general, are staged on this occasion. These musical plays, accompanied by popular instruments, are presented on streets or in market places. Puppet shows on similar themes are performed sometimes. Events from Rama's life form the basis of a number of classical dance pieces in Kerala, a region in Southwest.
The southermost point of India, Cape Comorin, where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocea meet, has a special importance in Indian mythology. The presinding deity of the place has been engaged to the great god Shiva. When he started from his abode on the Hymalayas for the wedding, god Vishnu appeared before him as a beautiful maiden, and enchanted him with Mohini dance. The beauty of the dance made Shiva forget about the bride.
The goddess waited for him all night by the sea, and finally as daybeak threw away all her ornamemnts on the sand. The jewels were changed into coloured grains which are seen on the beach. Since then the goddess is called Kanyakumary - Virgin - and since then she is her eternal wait for her divine bridegroom. The place bears the same name as hers, which has become Comorin in English.
Though the marriage of the goddess of the sea with the god of the mountains did not take place, the folklore of South has brought mythological characters of both sides together. The South has assimilated northern culture, but it did not forget its own heroes. The beautiful region of Kerala, adorned with luxuroius vegetation of rice fields and orchards of coconut - the golden palm - and gifted with a highly cultured people, dedicated its greatest feast of the year to her own king Mahabali, the Powerful-One.
The legend has it that the fame of Mahabali's generosity has reached the heaven and made the gods jealous. For, his pious acts gave him great spiritual power, through which he was able to complete with the gods. To put an end to his aspiration, Vishnu was born on earth as a dwarf, this being the fifth incarnation of the god. At a harvest festival, when the great Bali fulfilled all the desires of his subjects, the dwarf asked him for three paces of land. After Bali promissed him the gift, the dwarf assumed his cosmic form. He covered the earth with one stride, and the sky with another. Then the king offered his head so that Vishnu could make his third step. The god put a foot on bali's head, and pressing it hard, sent him to the depts of the abyss. From that time Bali lives in the nether regions. But once a year, at the harvest festival, he comes back to meet his people.
This festival, named Onam, is celebrated in autumn. On this day, the entire population, Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, celebrates the symbolic meeting with the patron of the land. The children get up early in the morning, before sunrise, and pluck flowers wet with dewdrops. Popular motifs are drawn with those petals in the yard or the terrace of each and every house. A lamp is put at the centre of the design as a sign of welcome. The traditional water sports and rowing competitions start several days before. Boats ornamented with special designs are made on this occasion.
Women of all ages dance and round in a circle, as in a Romanian Hora. The specific harvest dance is Sari, in which young girls dressed in white stand in a straight line or in a square and sing harvest songs.
With the beating of the popular drum - madala - their feet start moving at a slow rhytm. The tempo of the music and the dance rises gradually up to a culminant point, and then slows down to the initial rhytm. This marks the end of one cycle and the begining of the next one.
According to some specialists, the typical classical dance of Southwest, Kathakali, has evolved out of this popular dance, Kathakali dance-dramas, based on episodes from the epics, combine
the footwork of Sari with the gestures of hands and expressions of eyes from the classical choreography indicated in Natyashastra, the Sanskrit treatise on aesthetics.
Traditionally, Katahakali is performed in open air - in the fields or on the seashore - in daytime, or in pavilions constructed for artistic shows in temple yards in the evening. One of
the best known Kathakali pieces is performed every year at the Padmanabha temple in Travancore. This treats the great war of Mahabharata, including the philosophical discourses of Krishna in Bhagavadgita. With appropiate gestures and panthomime, the artists demonstrate all movements, even those of horses and chariots.
Make-up plays an important role in Kathakali. The artist's face is painted in different colours in such a way that it appears like a mask. The colours are selected according to the significance ascribed to them in Indian aesthetics. Thus, every mask suggest the nature of the person, In this aspect, Kathakali differs from other classical dances of India.
The dynamism of Kathakali is based on its philosopical significance, It must be mentioned that Indian classical dance is something more than artistic show. Like every other form of Indian art, it opens with a way of finding out one's inner self. Ina Kathakali show, the stage symbolises the world, and lights represents the sun and the moon. The drum-beats announce the creation of the Universe, and the songs that follow suggest the formation of human speech.
No backdrops are used, because the creation arises out of the void. At the begining of the play, two actors dance behind a screen, which is a symbol of the darkness that separates the heaven and the earth. The dancers represent Shakti and Maya - the cosmic energy and the creative power; their acts are invisible to human eyes.
The play starts after the screen is removerd; it represents a part of the cosmic sport - lila. The begining of the play marks the first moment of creation, and then rolls on the eternal drama of life.
(Translated from Romanian by the author)