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The annual Tata Steel Literary Fest is a feast for the soul of those who enjoy the written word.  Rubbing shoulders with writers, authors and film makers and listening to diverse perspectives makes it quite an enriching experience.  A particularly inspiring is listening to Devdutt Pattnaik, with his different takes on the Ramayana, Mahabharat and other works of ancient Indian literature.  He appears to be a regular feature at the Kolkata Literary Festival, and never fails to enthral the audience with his altered view of the epics.

This time the topic was “Black and White” which he blends into a fascinating weave of stories in mythology and the various stages of evolution.  These perspectives were intricately interpreted in music by the celebrated classical pianist Anil Srinivasan.  Pattnaik explained that unlike the theory of the Big Bang, which is essentially a western concept, in which there was a beginning, there is no such concept of a beginning in Indian mythology.  In fact, the journey of the earth is cyclic, coming back in cycles to where it began.  According to Srinivasan, even the word “rhythm” and the Hindustani word “Hritu” (season) are all about expression of the musical beat and seasons in cyclic form.  And “Black and White” is constantly present in various versions throughout mythology. Their expression of their understanding was quite fascinating and then Pattnaik and Srinivasan proceeded to describe the cycle of evolution.

The beginning as we see it is in the triangular form of Shiva sitting on top of the peak of Mount Kailash, another triangular form, with the white crescent moon on his head.  The mountain is made of stone and covered with snow, making it pristine white, and there is total silence.  Shiva is covered with snow, he is white and everything is white around him.  He is deep in meditation, in a state of “Shoonya”; a zero state, a state of nothingness, unaware of the world down below.  Then comes the goddess Sati and lures him to look at her, be charmed by her and soon they get married.  But Sati is dark and she is the daughter of the king of Kashi, the town at the bottom of the mountain.  Once she is married to Shiva, her struggle begins.  She wants to bring her husband down from the mountain, but he refuses because he sees that life as being pointless and sees no meaning in it.  On the other hand, Sati tries to convince her father to come to the mountain top to interact with her husband, but he too refuses, saying Shiva is nothing but a hermit and knows nothing of the yagyas and life in the real world.  Sati is torn between the two men she loves deeply and goes up and down the mountain trying to bring the two together until one day, she gives up, and in desperation, jumps into the fire and turns to ash; the same ash seen on Shiva’s face.  He is now enraged and extremely angry; he gets up and dances in wild anger, a dance we know as the “Tandav.”  And after some time of this strong expression of tremendous rage from a man who is the epitome of calmness, he goes back to the top of the mountain, sits down to meditate, and there is silence again.

This was expressed by Srinivasan in a beautiful piece of music on the piano, which he later explained in terms of the single note he used to represent the stability of Shiva on the one hand and the three notes he used to represent the movement of Sati, on the other.

The next stage is the stage of Ram-rajya; the time of the Treta-yug; the time of the righteous king Ram and his wife Sita.  It is the story of two people who deeply love each other but there is also unrequited love; of situations where their love faces all kinds of hardships.  It is also about Maharaj Purushottam; Ram as the representation of what is self-righteous and how it restricted and limited him. It is also the story of how God, who is infinite, when he comes to earth in finite form (Ram), he too has to face the rules of the finite world.  More interesting is the fact that Ram does not know he is God.  He thinks of himself as a mere mortal; and that is the way it has to be because Ravana had taken a boon that he would not be killed by someone who knew he was God.  And in all this, the only person who understood who he really was, was Sita herself.  There are various occasions when she could have opted out of her difficult fate; when Ram left for the forest, he told her to stay back in Ayodhya or go to her father, Janak; Lakhsman told her not to cross the line but she did, Hanuman told her to ride on his back from Lanka to Bharat but she refused, insisting her husband comes, Ram offered her not to return to Ayodhya as fingers would be pointed at her but she insisted and similarly when he asked her to return from the forest, she wouldn’t; all these were her choices to make. Life is a dichotomy between being in a gilded cage (where Ram was – in his cage of rules and righteousness which he couldn’t get out of) and being outside it (as Sita was).

This was also followed by a beautiful piece of music.

The next was the Dwapar-yug, the Yug of the Mahabharat, the Yug of Krishna, where unlike the Treta-yug where evil in the form of Ravana was overt, in this Yug evil was covert, and operated within the rules of the world.  Nothing was illegal; everything was above board, and yet there was evil within the framework of rules.  The Yug starts with silence once again and moves to the story of Krishna as a baby, his mischief and his watching his mother, Yashoda, and learning from her as she churns butter.  He learns from her that life is not a tug of war where two forces come into play simultaneously, but a churn; a churn where when one force exerts, the second is passive and vice-versa.  From this stage, the dark complexioned Krishna moves into youth and charming the fair Gopikas with his flute and Rass Leela.  However, after the killing of Kans, the Yug moves into a terrible war.  It has moved from silence, to music to cacophony.  At the end of the bloody war when the Kauravas have been defeated, even then, Bheem and Arjun are arguing amongst themselves about who is the better warrior.  Krishna tells them to go to the head on the top of the mountain for an answer.  The head says he doesn’t see any winners or losers, just stupid kings fighting amongst each other, spilling blood and the earth lapping it up (signifying Kaali.)  At the end, we are aware of the futility of it all; the meaninglessness of it all. And once again silence returns.  The cycle continues.

The closing piece of music to this was breathtakingly beautiful, particularly in the way it culminated in the fading of a single note, the single silence, the single eternity.