Saturday, January 19, 2008

Season of Passion

It is winter in Delhi. Children shiver as they dress for morning school. Women bring out their embroidered shawls. In the markets, men huddle together sipping hot tea. The bonfires of the Lohri festival burn brightly, and the heat is very welcome. The city waits in longing for warmer days.

But I guess it takes a poet like Kalidasa to see winter in a different light. To Kalidasa, winter isn't something to grit your teeth against - it is the season of passion. It is the season of long nights in warm scented beds, of beautiful curvaceous women and amorous husbands.

In the 5th Century, Kalidasa wrote Ritusamhara (The Gathering of Seasons), a richly descriptive, evocative and sensuous description of each season in the year. Here's the section from the Ritusamhara on Winter:

Stacks of ripe rice and sugarcane cover the earth
the air rings with the hidden call of curlews
love grows exuberant: Dear to lovely women,
winter is here now; listen my love

Cold, cold, with heavy dews falling thick,
and colder yet with the moonbeams' icy glitter,
lit with ethereal beauty by wan stars
these nights give no comfort.

Wives eager for love, their lotus-faces
fragrant with flower-wine, enter their bedchambers
aromatic with the incense of black aloes
taking betel rolls and garlands and hot perfumes

With breasts held tight by pretty bodices
thighs alluringly veiled by richly dyed silks
and flowers nestling in their hair; Women are
the adornment of this wintry season.

Young women in gay abandonment drink at night
with their fond husbands, the choicest wine
most delicious, exhilarating
heightening passion to its pitch:
the lilies floating in the wine deliciously
tremble under their fragrant breath

At dawn when the rush of passion is spent
one young woman whose breast-tips are tight
from her husband's embrace, carefully views
her body fully enjoyed by him
and laughing, she goes from the bed-chamber
to the living apartments of the house.

Another loving wife leaves her bed at dawn
elegant and graceful, slender waisted,
With deep navel and curved hips;
the splendid mane of hair with curling ends
flows loose; the wreath of flowers slips down.

With faces radiant as golden lotuses
and long liquid eyes; with lustrous red lips
and hair playing enamoured around their shoulders
women shine in their homes these frosty mornings,
resembling the Goddess of Beauty.

This wintry season that abounds with sugarcane
and sweet rice and palm sweet dainties
when Love waxes proud
when love's sport is at fever pitch;
when the anguish of parted lovers is intense;
May this season be to you ever auspicious.

Ritusamharam is not simply a description of Nature. As Chandra Rajan says, "it is an interweaving of the beauty of nature and woman, with the emotional response to both". Kalidasa sees nature, not as a backdrop, but as an active participant. Breezes consort with lotuses, the moonlight and stars kindle passion in men, the sight of green fields and the call of the winter birds awaken love.

If you'd like to read Ritusamharam, try Kalidasa, the Loom of Time from Penguin Classics. It is a selection of his plays and poems, including Meghadutam and Abhignyanasakuntalam.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Kada Seller at Sees Ganj

Outside the Sees Ganj Gurudwara, I saw this woman selling iron bracelets. The bracelets are kadas, worn by the Sikh community as a symbol of strength and self-restraint. All Sikh men wear them, and I've seen women wear them too.

Sikhism is among the world's most progressive religions, with respect to women's rights. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, stated quite clearly that all men and women are equal. Sikh women are expected to participate in daily and religious life in the same way as men. All occupations are open to a Sikh woman, including participation in congregation, academics, healthcare and military.

But what fascinates me about Sikhs, actually, is that they have gender-neutral first names. Sikh women use the same first names as men. Further, Sikh women dont have to take their fathers' or husbands' name. In 1699, the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh gave all Sikh women the last name 'Kaur' which means Prince. So Sikh men and women have similar first names, and Sikh women add Kaur to signify that they are female (men add Singh', which means Lion).

Since traditional Indian surnames reveal a person's caste as well as community, the common surnames were Guru Gobind Singh's attempt to end the social stratification and caste apparatus of Hinduism. The Kaur was also an attempt to give women an identity independent of their fathers and husbands.

And while there's a difference between intent and reality, you gotta hand it to the Sikhs for standing up and making the effort!