Mythology for the Millennial
Mythology is one of the recurrent themes at the Jaipur Literature Festival and many other literary gatherings around the world and as I also discovered, at backpackers’ haunts. Last week on a visit to Mumbai, I heard someone playing music in the style of Zorba the Greek and followed the sound into the smoking zone of a certain hostel. The musician said his name was Onisiforos. He was a theatre actor who lived in Athens and was on a yoga tour around India. When I asked him if they still enacted the Greek tragedies, he looked at me as if to forgive me for asking the most obvious question and pulled out his phone to show me a photograph- It was a bird’s-eye view of an ancient amphitheatre carved out of a cypress-clad hillock, leading the eye to the stage by which lay fallen limestone columns. It was none other than the famed amphitheatre of Epidaurus, built in Greece in the 4th century BC.
“Jason and Medea,” he said, “Do you know Euripides? We performed it here for the festival last year.”
I would be exaggerating only slightly to say that hearing the name of Euripides gave me goosebumps - that a play written 2400 years ago could resonate with present-day Greeks and that no wind, no rain, nor the debt-crisis could keep people from coming back to the amphitheatre of Epidaurus for their myths was a notion I was happy to end my 2019 with. But what could explain the enduring success of these myths?
It might well be that the digital age has placed a high premium on objective facts, somewhat relegating myths to falsehood. It would be an error, however, to think that myth-making has run its course when TV series like the Black Mirror serve cautionary tales on the abuse of technology. Or rather more disconcertingly, when images of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are routinely photo-shopped on the classic Perseus and Medusa; or closer home as the Hindutva forces distort the image of Hanuman, the ultimate devotee, now morphed into an ominous figure to stir violent passions.
An apt definition of the word ‘myth’ is “a story or a narrative that does not exist in a definitive version”. In the beginning of history, myth perhaps came to man’s aid as he sought explanations for natural phenomena around him - why did the sun rise? Why were the oceans blue? His intuition, fears and observations converged to form a corpus of origin myths, which are seen across cultures of the Hindus, Greeks, followers of Abrahamic faiths and Native-Americans. Myth helped create a set of shared beliefs to allow groups of people to collaborate, organise and defend themselves, and eventually lent itself to the development of social order and religion.
In India, myths are resurrected not in tragedies but often in religious festivals. Where I come from, the most popular one is the nine-day-long autumnal festival of the goddess Durga and her annual descent to establish the triumph of good over evil. It is a special time for Bengalis everywhere; whether you identify as religious, spiritual or atheist, you will most likely use the holidays to buy new clothes and visit family. I went to visit my uncle in Bengaluru and planned to use the time to take a writing break.
The morning after my arrival, I sat down to work when my uncle came bustling into view. “We offer prayers at noon,” he said decisively, “Must leave in half an hour.”
“But,” I protested, looking up at him from my seat, “I have to work...”
“It’s ashtami,” he said, meaning the eighth day of the festival, “No one works on ashtami”, he insisted, as if it was assumed knowledge, before walking away.
What a sheer waste of time, I thought, the ritual of going to the pandal (tent-like temporary structures erected for the festival) and waiting for an hour to get a fleeting glimpse of an idol through multitudes of people. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually less opposed to Eastern religion and make a point to argue against the blanket condemnation of religion as opium for the masses, or a certain school of thought that insists that Durga Puja celebrates an Aryan goddess slaying a Dalit demon. I have never felt so strongly nor thought so deeply about it, but it is the myth aspect of it that gets me excited.
The myth side of it is rather fascinating: the gods summon the goddess Durga, as they find themselves at wits’ end on how to defeat the ever-powerful demon Mahishasur, who is ironically made invincible only by boons bestowed upon by the gods themselves. Durga rises up to the task and to help her, the gods present her with a dazzling array of their mythical weapons which she accepts and clutches in her ten arms. Riding her war vehicle, the lion, she confronts the shape-shifting demon on the battleground. For the next few days, she struggles, mystified by his rapidly transforming appearance and military strategy; and finally slays him on the tenth, when he assumes the form of a buffalo. There are innumerable variations of the myth; the most recent impulse provided by concerns about a rising Hindu supremacy, violence against women and issues of the caste system. My aunt once told me that the success of the Durga Puja rests on the fact that the goddess resonates with people in all possible forms of a woman: the mother, the daughter, the lover, the wife and the sister. In that sense, the modern-day versions of the goddess as a female coloniser, a manipulatrice and a caste supremacist serve to expand the myth to reflect our society’s ills today, and only testify to the power of this particular imagery formulated at least a millennium ago.
When I was a child, my second favourite day of the festival was the tenth, which was called ‘shindur khela’, or the play of vermilion. On this day, women would dress up and mourn the departure of the divine (the idols to be submerged in water) and anoint the splendid, doe-eyed face of the goddess along with those of her companions, her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh. The tent is devoid of the usual festivity and drum-beating and there is an air of despair in the expressions of people. By the end of the melancholy ritual, you’d find every idol stuffed to the roof of its mouth with sweets, including the still, snarling face of the demon Mahishasur. It was the day when the demon would rise to equal the goddess herself in the bestowal of prayer, gratitude and ritual, as if to suggest that without him no call would have ever been issued from the heavens, and no goddess would have ever been forged.
On the eighth, for which I was in Bangalore last year with my uncle, we joined a queue. It was so long that if unfolded, it would probably circle the city of Bangalore twice. We inched along with the others and finally entered the pandal - it was modest in size and lacked in opulence or design, unlike the ones in Kolkata that artists often employ as a marvelous canvas to their pent-up creativity. This one, miles away from the nerve centre of the Durga Puja was conscious of its short career of nine days, and merely served to conjure up the essence of Bengal in a foreign land. It was where migrants would become Bengali once again, where they showed up with withered pages of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works, or sang songs of the Bauls, recited Tagore and read out loud passages from the Kabuliwala and allowed themselves an emotional sniffle.
A draught carried the heavenly whiff of the Kolkata kathi-roll into the pandal and a young man wearing a kantha-stitched kurta stood across the table collected offerings for the idol. Since they were too many, they were no longer piled up at Durga’s feet. Instead, the flowers, the boxes of sweets and dry fruits, fabrics and kindle e-readers are conveyed to the goddess in batches and returned to their owners after they have been blessed.
At the other end of the pandal stood the goddess draped in shimmer, and the sight held the same power as all these years - the goddess’s piercing eyes look straight at you as her silver trident impales the snarling demon at her feet. The lion emerges from underneath and pounces on the offender, enraged by the affront to his goddess. The distorted face of the demon portrays a sense of violence and helplessness at the same time, as he falls under the weight of it all. The goddess’s many children stand surrounding her, unfazed by the terrifying scene, all the while keeping an air of dutiful calm radiated in their attires and clutching their instruments elegantly, riding their vehicles and blessing their devotees.
On the same stage was a priest chanting into a microphone, with Bengalis repeating his words imperfectly.
“Jayanti... Mangala... Kaali... Bhadrakaali… Kapalini…”
I shut my eyes and pressed the flowers between my hands joined in prayer, when I felt my uncle shaking me, “Let’s slip away before the prayer ends! We’ll be caught in a stampede.”
Reluctant to leave the prayer unfinished but wary of the jostle of worshippers at the end, I turned around nimbly to snake my way out of the crowd. The scene I saw then will remain etched in my memory for a long time: it was a room full of people from all age groups contemplating the resplendent face of the goddess - hands joined in prayer, eyes illuminated by faith. Their faces wore an expression of deep bliss and it was as if each soul in the room was moved by a reminder of all that is great about mankind in this simple ritual of welcoming a goddess who triumphs over a necessary evil. After all these years, yet another myth from my childhood emerged with renewed importance and the case for faith was somewhat made.
Mythology is set to enjoy a flurry of revived interest at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2020 at the sessions ‘Mythology for the Millennial’ with Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Anand Neelkantan and Malashri Lal and ‘Kathasaritasagar’ with Rohini Chowdhury and Deepa Agarwal in conversation with Ranu Bhattacharyya. Ashwin Sanghi will walk us through the exciting realm where myth and history blend together in the session ‘The Vault of Vishnu’.