Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
SIGNS : January 14, 2001
In a new light
The author is a film-maker, whose latest work includes two documentaries on Indian music, Rasikapriya and Lokapriya.
We are used to bright electric lights and are now getting used to laser and other kinds of lights. The ability to control light with a flick of a switch is one of modern man's great sources of power. It is precisely this power that makes us blind to other ways of making light into a deeply moving experience. We need to re-discover darkness to see the stars in the sky.
Sandhikal is the word in Sanskrit for the period that joins darkness to light. The time before sunrise, when the world becomes gradually visible, and the time after sunset, when it becomes invisible again, are both described as sandhikal. This is the magical hour when the world loses its harsh concreteness. It is the hour when darkness does not threaten us with the unknown. It is an hour tinged with joy and pining, with melancholy and expectation. It is the hour in which the imagination grows wings and soars over the concrete. It is the hour when the artist within every man is awakened. It is the hour in which the mute begins to sing and the deaf begins to hear the music of the spheres.
You are in an old church now, which has stained glass windows. You are in Chartres. Or you are in Notre Dame de Paris. Or you are the Koeln Cathedral. The building has followed the ancient design of solar worship and is built around the East-West axis. The sun is about to set. The rose window is infused with its golden glow and its stained glass fills up the church space with multicoloured lights. The rainbow, the covenant of peace between man and God, is reborn in a different form every day to strengthen the faith of the believer. It envelops the unbeliever and softens his arrogance, which assumes the mellowness of the twilight.
You are in the desert of Rajasthan. Through the day, blinding sunlight has been scorching the land and all the living creatures on it. Man's day's business is carried out in this light. Man fights against this harsh reality, which allows no illusions except the mirage. In the evening, the dusk and the coolness that comes with it are a welcome relief. Dusk is settling. The day's work is over. It is time for entertainment. One of the most colourful entertainers of Rajasthan is the traditional narrative scroll painter. The scroll is called Pabuji-no-phad, which means the scroll of Pabuji. The performer tells you the story of the adventures of a legendary hero called Pabuji. He holds an oil lamp in his hand as he sings and narrates the story. He stands in front of a huge scroll and, with a swift gesture of his hand, throws light upon a relevant detail, which comes to life for a split-second. All the colours of Rajasthan, its brilliant yellows, saturated reds, lush greens and various shades of shocking pink come to life. The world of adventures, of sagas of chivalry, heroic deeds and magic spells finds its body in the flickering flame of the painter-performers' moving lamp.
Traditional lighting for Indian dance and theatre, although poor in technological resources, is rich in the magical effects created with the aid of an imaginative spectator. As opposed to the light that reveals all, is the light that partially conceals. Instead of the shadowless light of the modern television show, it is a light that creates deep shadows. It is the light that retards the pleasure of consumption of the image. It challenges the imagination of the viewer and asks him to weave a net of his own fantasy to catch the image of the god or the demon played by the actor. The twilight zone of the conscious and the unconscious is the area in which these images are born. The creator needs a co-creator to reveal himself.
The use of light in dance and theatre is just one aspect of the vision of the world that culture has. Each vision of life has a corresponding version of light. In the Indian philosophical tradition, the two schools of Shaivism and Vaishnavism have battled with each other for centuries: each has claimed its vision of the world as the ultimate truth. All my reading about these conflicting views of the world had not made them as clear to me as did two experiences that I underwent when I travelled in the South and visited a Vaishnavite and a Shaivite temple.
Manoj K. Jain
In the Vaishnavite vision of the world, Lord Vishnu is the Protector. He is benevolent and loving, and so his avatars are human and loving figures. The experience of the darshana or revelation of Vishnu turns this vision into a tangible experience.
As you follow the priest who holds the oil lamp into the dark sanctum, what you see first is only moon-like highlights from the polished marble surface of the idol and a sun-like shimmer from the gold on it. Gradually, you begin to see the huge black-marble Vishnu, the Preserver lying peacefully on the divine waters protected by the golden hood of Shesha, the Serpent. All is illuminated by a single flame of the lamp, which burns steadily in the cool air of the sanctum.
The temple music fades out as you walk in, and is barely audible. It floats gently in the still air of the sanctum and adds serenity to it. As you long to see the gentle smile of Lord Vishnu and experience its bliss a little longer, the light is withdrawn by the priest, who exits, leaving the sanctum in near darkness. If you want to have the darshana again, you must see it with an inner light. You must hold fast to the vision through concentration and vivid recollection.
I have never seen a more peaceful image in my entire life. The opposite pole of this experience was the darshana of Lord Siva. It is given to you in three stages, each stage being more abstract than the other.
The path to the Shiva image is all smoke and fire. The dancing flames surround the image of Nataraja, the Destroyer, who is seen performing the dance of death. This is the first form in which you see the Destroyer.
As the priest moves the flaming torch that he is holding, your eyes discern the immense black marble lingam. It is as if darkness has decided to reveal itself in this erect form. Then with a swirl, the torch-light flashes upon the Yantra that stands for the formless Siva as the ether that fills up the universe. The dancing flames, the smoke-curtain, the din of the temple bells. The entire experience is just the opposite of the revelation of Vishnu, the Preserver.
You do not have to be a Hindu or a believer to recognise that these visions, phantoms, spectres, whatever you call them, touch you at the very centre of your sensuous existence. We need to discover light in a way that goes beyond technology and style.
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