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Different Registers

Songs of a mystic

By C.S. Lakshmi

PHOTO: Priya D'Souza/ SPARROW COLLECTIONS

Striking a chord: Mita Vasisht as Lal Ded.

VIOLENCE against women has to be dealt with in many different ways by individuals and groups. Some women's groups have been regularly organising workshops and campaigns on this issue so that the issue and its urgency is not forgotten. Akshara from Mumbai is one such organisation. In November and December 2004, Akshara organised a series of events. These events were planned from November 25 to December 10, 2004, to stage an international campaign on violence against women and girls. The 16 days of activism involved formation of a human chain from VT to Hutatma Chowk, a public meeting, a music concert, and workshops and activities. It concluded with a rally on December 10. On December 10, in the evening, Akshara organised another important event: a theatre performance by Mita Vasisht called "Performing Lal Ded".

Lal Ded's name is familiar to those who yearn for peace and communal harmony in the Kashmir Valley. People also know her as Lalleshwari and Lalla but lovingly refer to her as Lal Ded. She was a mystic poet from Kashmir who was born in 1320 and lived 70 years in the valley of Kashmir, spreading her philosophy of love. P.N. Kaul Bamzai writes that this period was a period of religious and moral fermentation in Kashmir when Buddhism had practically disappeared from the valley. In this troubled period of political uncertainty and changing social values, the people of the valley felt the impact of Islam. Both the Hindu and the Islamic traditions deeply influenced each other and there was a need for a new approach to religion and from this need emerged what people normally refer to as Medieval Reformers or Mystics. Lalleshwari or Lal Ded was the forerunner of these medieval mystics. People believe that "her sayings echo and re-echo to this day".

As a realised soul, Lal Ded had shed her clothes and moved about naked, mocked by some people and worshipped by some others. She accepted both mockery and worship with equanimity. People have called her a saint and a Sufi singer. One does not know how she looked. But it is said that she walked about with her hair let loose and utterly naked with her belly hanging down, covering the lower parts of her body. In fact, Lal Ded means Hanging Belly. During her lifetime and later, both the Hindu and Muslim communities have claimed her as their own. Her extraordinary life and the vachs that she sang have transcended time. The extraordinary love for others contained in her vachs has the power to move one even today. Deciding to revive the memory of Lal Ded during these troubled times is an attempt to see different possibilities of peace and co-existence.

"Performing Lal Ded" was not a regular theatre presentation. The name itself was unusual, clearly stating that the script would not detail her life and works but recreating events and illustrating her poems. The events of her life may seem dramatic to us considering she chose to give up a family life and decided to seek self-realisation in her own way. In one of her vachs she says that she decided to move from without to within and gave up her veil to walk in freedom. Her life story is filled with magical happenings like the water remaining even after the pot is broken and similar events. In a theatre presentation of her life there is the possibility of getting tempted to highlight these events and make them seem more dramatic than what they would have been. But both Mita Vasisht, who conceived the idea and Vishnu Mathur, a filmmaker who designed and directed the performance, stayed clear of such temptations. In a very unusual, subdued, non-dramatised performance, Mita Vasisht was able to capture the essence of Lal Ded's poems and her personality. Her languid movements filled the stage like the quiet flow of a river. The script for the performance was in Hindi, Kashmiri and English, flowing from one language to the other smoothly and with ease. It had multiple voices but only one performer and the voices changed in a slow, almost imperceptible manner and the body moved in a similar manner, soothing in its movements and creating a sense of peace that filled the hall. The sounds of water and wind occasionally swept across the hall along with the sound of bells, making the performance stretch into a kind of timelessness.

Extraordinary experience

Mita Vasisht sang some of the poems of Lal Ded without the usual musical embellishments that enhance the rendering of a song. The songs were as naked as Lal Ded herself had been but they carried a resonance, rising and falling like a wave — a wave of peace and not destruction. Feeling that resonance was an extraordinary experience that was both like listening to a lullaby and an awakening song. Imagining and expressing peace in this unusual manner made one feel that this is also a valid way of encountering violence in our lives. If there is a need to tackle it physically, at times, there is also the need to look for peace within. The vachs of Lal Ded were in the air a long time after the performance was over.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).

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