Tag Archives: mythology

Bay Area Poet Relives Oral Traditions

Divine Blossoms is the kind of book I might have never discovered if I was not the founder and host of a poetry group called the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. I am so glad that I agreed to review it and have had it on my bedside table for easy access for the past several weeks.

The poet, Anuradha Gajaraj-Lopez brings wholesomeness to the ordinary life as a householder. As a former journalist, she has a facility with words, using them to reach everyone, regardless of where they might come from. The 134-page book is more than a poetry book. It offers poems that are also prayer, a wide range of ways of worship, and several ancient stories from epics of Hindu mythology, as spiritual fables with lessons for young and old. These are all wrapped and delivered as short poems, with the cadence and essence of a bhajan, a devotional song, in simple English, that makes it accessible to everyone.

The book has two parts: the first called Murmurs from Beyond and the second called Whispers from India. The poems in the first part deal with faith in God and the metaphor of divine love. The latter part has poems in six sessions, on topics of devotees, folklore, epics of Ramayan and Mahabharta, gods Shiva and Krishna, Christ and Yogananda, women in India, and on death. The poems are rich in detail with the pathos of lived life in human form combined with a yearning for the inspiration from the deep faith in the divine, through the references that evoke not just the main characters that are highlighted in the index, but also the poetic traditions, with Kabir, Ramakrishna, Chaitnya Prabhu and others who were seekers in the same vein.  

Anuradha invites the reader into her world with an authentic and heartfelt outpouring of the essence of all that she cherishes. The Indian mythological stories have a living oral tradition such that retelling these timeless stories allows for making them relevant in contemporary times. Anuradha’s rendering does that. If you are not familiar with Hindu mythology, she helpfully provides a short introduction before the poem, to make the story be set in the context, and for them to be rendered in a poetic form. The poems are crystalized into the essence of the story, almost like a bhajan, an Indian devotional poetic form.

I will not be surprised if someone reading them decided to set them to music and create a musical or chant form for these in the future. As many of the stories were familiar to me, parts of the book took me on a journey to my childhood when I had first heard these. The poems leave a fragrance, and it makes sense that she called the book Divine Blossoms. While the poems are light reading, they offer comfort, surprise, hope, and the adventure of a story. The moral lessons are conveyed gently like what the poet believes, and not a lecture on morality. Her voice brings the easy access of an Amar Chitra Katha comic book version along with the message with the clarity of her spiritual guru, Yogananda. The deep convictions of the poet are what make this poetry transparent and luminescent. These are conveyed in an easy manner that makes it clear that the poet practices these effortlessly and speaks her mind genuinely, wearing her faith as easily as a well-loved garment, and releasing the poems with trust that they will find their own readers. 

The book is self-published and shows care in how symbols and images have been added to enhance the presentation. It will feel different from a professionally edited book since it has its own unique layout. This makes me wish that it will inspire others who are carrying their poems and stories within them to also be willing to create their own books. The creativity and fire of the work are best experienced, rather than described by me, so I have selected one of my favorite poems, reproduced with her permission.    

The Stone on the Temple Floor

It is so unfair

I am trodden on by hundreds

Who rush by without a thoughtless care

To seek a glimpse of your form

And yet,

I was hewn on the same old rock as thee

 

Here I lie on the temple floor

While you are daily worship

With honey, milk, curd and

Precious gems galore!

 

“Ha” laughed the divine statue

Standing erect and tall

And gently said,

“Brother, don’t you remember at all?”

 

The days when we lay on

The stone mason’s yard

With hardly a few blows you were

All set, and proudly carted afar

While, I cried each time,

The choice and hammer

Moved relentlessly on

On every inch of this form

You now see and envy from afar

 

And so, the Divine sculptor

Deals the hardest blows on those

He holds very close

Not to be discarded on an old temple floor

But to merge with Him and

Reach the coveted destiny that is His alone!


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association, and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.

California Nani: A Video a Day Keeps The Doctors Away

In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.

Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.

She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many. 

For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones! 

When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness. 

Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life. 

Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever. 

A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase. 

When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day. 

The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.

More details at YouTube channel – California Nani! 


 Anu Sharma teaches, travels, writes, volunteers and lives in San Francisco, CA.

Kecak: The Fire Dance of Bali

The barren arena has just a massive black lamp made of stone that dotted the center. No stage setup, no curtains, no extra lightings, no hint of any backstage music either. The arena of Pura Uluwatu in Bali, Indonesia is more like a mini open-air auditorium.

This is the stage for 50 dancers of the famed Kecak (pronounced as Kechak) Dance, a traditional art form of Bali in Indonesia. One is left wondering what kind of dance performance it would be!

A priest in a white garment walks into light of the solo lamp in the center of the circular place and you know the stage is set. The lighting of the lamp is a signal of commencement of the world-famous Kecak Dance of Bali. That stirs up all in their seats, craning their necks not wanting to miss any sight.

Chants of chak chak chak… faint at first grow stronger within seconds! Half clad men; more than 50 in number, dressed in black and white check patterned sarong, chanting chak chak chak, enter the stage. Slightly mind-boggling, it makes one curious – whatever does it mean?!

The men come in a disciplined rhythmic manner, take up their seats in concentric circles at the edge of this circular place chanting chak chak chak and swaying a bit. One by one the main artists make their entry dancing on their nimble feet. With expressive eyes and gestures with fingers, they convey their roles.

Pura Uluwatu arena in Bali, Indonesia.

Slowly the drama unfolds, the story takes shape and the characters evolve distinctly. The chant gets high-pitched whenever the scene climaxes and soon slows down to a murmur too and the men sway according to the same rhythm. 

If you are aware of the story of the Hindu epic Ramayana, you can name each character easily. No need for any lyrics, hymns, or dialogues. Just the mere rise and fall in pitch of the chant of chak chak gave us the overall effect of the drama including the climax and final closure.

The story, a small part of Ramayana: Rama goes hunting for a golden deer on Sita’s insistence. Lakshman stays back to protect Sita, but again on Sita’s insistence, Lakshman goes out to protect Rama. Meanwhile, Rahwana comes seeking alms in the disguise of a beggar. The moment Sita steps out to give alms, Rahwana carries her away to his kingdom.

Rama takes the help of Hanuman, the Monkey God. The drama is infused with humor with Hanuman’s entry. His tail is set on fire by Rahwana’s men and he keeps jumping around spreading terror; albeit with little humor. The dance takes the name Fire Dance from this scene.

While Kecak Dance can be seen in other parts of Bali too, it is at Uluwatu Temple the experience seems exceptional. With the sun setting in the background, the sun’s final rays created amazing silhouettes, and the torches borne by the artists reflecting their dramatic actions and gestures cast a magical spell! 

Chak chak chak… the sound haunts your mind long after the show is over. So, it meant the chatter of monkeys! A story told by the monkeys with no words or lyrics, just chak chak chak, hence sometimes known by the name Monkey Dance too.

Lord Ram in the Kecak Dance retelling of the Ramayana.

How Ramayana reached Bali

Hinduism reached Indonesia from India in the 1st century. The religion crossed seas from the Indian mainland through traders and Hindu scholars.

Ancient Chinese records of Fa Hien of 414 AD mention two schools of Hinduism in Java. Additionally, Chinese documents from the eighth century refer to the Hindu kingdom of King Sanjaya as Holing, describing it as exceedingly wealthy.

Another widely believed reason for the spread of Hinduism in Indonesia is that Indonesian royalty welcomed Indian religions and culture. The rulers first adopted the spiritual ideas of both Hinduism and Buddhism and soon the masses too adopted them. Hindu epics are part of the country’s culture. They believe Hindu epics promote values like loyalty, courage, and integrity of characters.

History of Kecak Dance

Kecak Dance was first developed in Bona, Gianyar during the 1930s. For the people of Bali, dance is a medium of expression of cultural values; they use it to convey their folk history and mythological stories. It is an important part of rituals associated with life, cremation, and death. They perform while praying for the prosperity and health of their community.

Kecak Dance is one of the nine popular forms of dances of Bali. The older version was more a kind of trance ritual. Male performers chanted chak-chak in chorus with different rhythms and pitches. Sanghyang Dance, another traditional dance of Bali, has chorus singers and girls dance in trance. It belongs to the broader classification of Wali Dance, a form of the sacred dance of Bali. The present-day Kecak dance version is a mix of Sanghyang dance and the original form of Kecak dance-themed on the mythological story of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

It was the joint effort of an artist named Wayan Limbak and a painter from Germany, Walter Spies, that put Kecak Dance on the world map of dances. Their goal was to put up a performance for the public. 

Interestingly, since the 1930s, Kecak Dance has been performed by only men. It was until 2006 that women too began to perform this dance. Today Kecak Dance is performed not only in temples but also in cultural parks and in international theatres. However, it is most mesmerizing to watch in Pura Uluwatu in the evenings with a dramatic sunset as background!


Indrani Ghose is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India, and is passionate about travel, culture, cuisines, life stories, and bird watching. She blogs at isharethese.com. 

Bite-Sized Ramayana On Your Phone!

The re-run of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, the late 80s hit serial, during the lockdown managed to engross diverse audiences.

However, this popularity is of no surprise since it began running again on the most widely available TV channels while the world was in lockdown, and the production of new shows and episodes came to a halt.

This time around, Ramayana was watched on the individual or even multiple TV sets in each household and some even watched it on their smartphone screens. Adding to this, the digital revolution has allowed for the Ramayana to go online.

TheRamayana™, a Virtual Museum of Indian Epic, Ramayana with 350+ written and audio short stories, perspective polls, and quizzes in Hindi and English.

The app contains a collection of comprehensive and illustrative guides and gives you multiple filters to select stories. Instead of proceeding in the story through a traditional narrative, the app gives the user freedom to explore various stories from unconventional and different narratives which can further be explored with the help of tags and lets the user eventually get engulfed by the universe of Ramayana.

It has 90+ of your favorite characters, 100+ essential landmarks and locations mentioned in multiple versions of Ramayana from Valmiki, Tulsidas, and Kamban which have been accurately connected to the current map of India for ease and to inform you about their historical significance and the 7 Kandas, all of which have a deep-rooted meaning and learning to obtain from.

The Ramayana has been designed in such a way that it is easy to use, it can be explored anywhere and anytime. The portability of this platform gives it an edge over other mediums such as books which allows the user to experience this epic saga while keeping up with technology. 

Pictorial representations have also been used along with the texts to keep diverse audiences engaged. With the expertise of creating informative and fun bite-sized stories has been used in the historical domain this time. The Ramayana transcends the boundaries of religion as the stories and guides in it have been entirely curated with an unbiased viewpoint. The content is backed by authentic sources and has been created after extensive research.

The team has also created and integrated audio versions in English and Hindi for pleasurable use and further plans to launch bite-sized guides for scriptures such as the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Quran, the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and more to reach out to a wider set of audience in the future.

The Ramayana is extremely easy to use due to its simple user interface. It will be available in both Hindi and English language. The mobile application is available on both Android and iOS platforms. 

Please visit http://www.theramayana.com for more details!


Bhuwan Arora is the founder of TheRamayana App. 

The Fearless New Normal

This pandemic is the most collective experience we have been through as a generation. And yet, it is also one of the most uniquely individual experiences. Its effect on certain people, families, or businesses, and even countries is so particular to their circumstances, responsibilities, responses, and coping mechanisms. In spite of the stimulation of endless input from technology, this time has caused people to look within, into deeper places where they have not been before. A feat that was unthinkable in the old normal where we had no time to breathe, let alone reflect.

And if we have listened, within these deeper places we humans have found a playground of emotions and revelations. For me, the biggest observation has been of my own fears.

Fear is one of the most private emotions. Unlike sadness, anger, and grief it is not a very visible one. We rarely see a physical display of this deep-rooted emotion. But during this time, we have seen fear on a large and collective scale. With its seed in the fear of the virus, this mass unfolding of fear became a mirror for my own garnered fears that were unrelated to the pandemic. Shocked at this discovery and its parallels with the current world situation, I realized that if I did not address them in a healthy way, I would be paralyzed from moving forward just as the world currently is. And worse than outer lockdown is inner lockdown! In the case of my own latent fears, there is no medical research or promised cures, I had to find my own solution. Propelling me to realize that solutions even if supported by external forces, must come from within.

I have always looked at the wisdom of Indian philosophy to provide answers. As a Vedanta student of many years, when in doubt one turns to the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita or the Divine Song is known to be a text that can answer any questions. The Gita is a sermon of courage to the despondent, a manual of duty and dharma through which one can get to the goal without incurring any bondage. The Gita takes place on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra where the cousin armies of the Pandavas and Kauravas face each other in the battle to claim the throne of Hastinapur. The Pandavas have Krishna, while the Kauravas have the royal armies and all the skilled and respectable teachers. On seeing his kith and kin: uncles, brothers, and teachers, the illustrious warrior Arjuna sees the battle as pointless, he starts to think in the moment that it would be better to live on alms than to murder those that are his own. He drops his weapons and says that he will not fight. To his utter surprise, his Lord and friend Krishna says, “Yield not to this unmanliness, O Partha, it does not befit you. Casting off this mean weakness of heart, arise O Parantapa.” (Chapter 2, Verse 3, Bhagavad Gita, translated by A. Parthasarthy)

The profound message of the Gita is not to freeze, not to be paralyzed by the circumstances but to stride through them with courage, fortitude, and a sense of duty. Duty is higher than the envisioned concepts of right and wrong, likes, and dislikes. This would of course mean different things to different people according to their dharma in life. This time as I read the Gita, once again it did not fail to pick me up from the shambles and inspire me to arise against my inner obstacles.

In the same thread, I was reminded of Swami Vivekananda’s messages on courage and fearlessness. Swami Vivekananda was the first ambassador of Vedanta in the West and he became known for the bold messages that evoked a sense that we are full and complete because we are part of Atman, therefore all is well and we have nothing to fear. He said, “Freedom can never be reached by the weak. Throw away all weakness. Tell your body that it is strong, tell your mind that it is strong, and have unbounded faith and hope in yourself.”

If it were not for the pandemic, I could not have dwelled deep in my fears and allow myself to be inspired by the great leaders of my culture and faith. While we all continue to stride through the storm, may we remember that how we face this in our own lives is a choice. While being informed and precautious, may we approach our unknown New Normal with courage, acceptance of what we cannot change, and most importantly, without fear.


Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Times of India, Yoga International, Khabar Magazine, India Currents, and anthologies of poetry and fiction.

Featured Image by Mahavir Prasad Mishra 

Mercy, Oh Microbes!

Tigers killed the prehistoric animals, man killed the tigers, and now microbes kill the man. This sequence has been a part of our planet. Our mortal enemy is historically shrinking in size but the destruction caused by IT is getting progressively more devastating because of our lifestyle. A sweeping annihilation of human beings was neither unprecedented nor entirely unexpected.

I remember the words of our Previous Dean at Emory Medical School, who joined us from the National Institute of Health some years ago, that our most threatening enemy is going to be microbes because they have been on this planet far earlier than us and we can never compete with their rate of reproduction.

The only advantage of their vicious visit this time is the lessons they are leaving behind. I do not want to enter the details of the devitalizing vital statistics of this pandemic. Everyone knows them beyond our choice. They will be talked and written about for decades to come.

Some Lessons To Be Learnt: The tragic toll of life that the pandemic has taken will not go entirely in vain if we draw some harsh but needful lessons therefrom.

Lesson 1 – Microbial World

We are surrounded by and inhabited by a microbial world. We have to recognize the good ones from the bad ones. Giving them names such as “evil”, “monsters”, etc. makes no difference to them. They are totally blind to gender, nationality, race, age, and any such outer epithets. We saw how this pandemic eclipsed many royal members, politicians, and physicians. They have no respect for Churches or other religious places either. Many churches were their starting places. They besiege and kill indiscriminately. To keep such Bacteria at bay with the help of scientists is our only available recourse.

Lesson 2 – Indian History and Mythology

I find our Indian History and Mythology to be very instructive in this regard because we have survived many diverse disasters and catastrophes. When we find our disassociation from society so unbearable, remember that Lord Buddha, Shankaracharya, Lord Swaminarayana, Shree Rama, Pandavas have had all their share in living a secluded life. If we are talking about deaths of human beings en masse, we have witnessed many grim tragedies of smallpox, cholera, plague that frequented our country. AIDS still lingers in our memory.

If we are talking about the sudden loss of wealth, India has seen it perhaps more than any other country. I specifically think of Rana Pratap who lost everything he had and was in an exile when his wealthy businessman Bhamasha offered all his wealth and rejuvenated his spirits. I mention this particular episode to remind us that we should follow such an example to support the rebuilding of our adopted country. I believe this is a splendid opportunity for us to pay back our dues to this country by helping restore our sagging economy.

Lesson 3 – Social Distancing

I stand corrected if I am wrong, but we needed to reaffirm our familial cohesiveness. Let us evaluate how we handled our continued togetherness while in seclusion. How cohesive, supportive, and mutually fulfilling were we as a family. 

Let us create a scoreboard of self-assessment. Did the familiarity breed conflict or care? I was so happy to see children playing and couples freely walking on the street…People talked to each other while walking. I rarely saw this before. Maybe we need to restructure our life to promote togetherness.

Lesson 4 – PTSD

 Watch out for PTSD Post Traumatic  Stress Disorder. During and after this excruciating experience, our deeply felt exhaustion is bound to come on the surface.

Many of us would be compelled to recognize the loss of lives and jobs that we sustained. Wounds often bleed later after the trauma is inflicted. Depression, suicidal thoughts, addictive tendencies, a lingering fear may push us to a state of psychosis. We may need to nurse each other with kindness and compassion to promote our combined healing. No social distancing at that time!

Lesson 5 – Nature

Let us also have a critical look at ourselves. There is a precise and piquant Indian saying that when one points one finger at others, three fingers are automatically pointing at him. We have violated the fundamental Laws of Nature over the last several years. From the time of Rigveda on, we have stressed the five elements of Nature, which deserve to be respected as our basic constituents – water, wind, fire, earth, and sky. These should be maintained in harmony to retain our planetary homeostasis. We have thoughtlessly violated the respectful restraint that we should have exercised over them. This is not a superstition but an obvious proof of our violation of the Laws of Nature. There is a rising Global outcry to revert our course and trace our steps back from this grievous misdemeanor. We are OFFLINE now but need to be ONLINE to secure our future. Recognize our faults and repair them. 

Our slumber has been long enough. Let the dawn break.

Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit scholar, philosopher, and a priest who has conducted about 400 Weddings, mainly Interfaith.

Yoga Mythology: 64 Asanas by Devdutt Pattanaik and Matthew Rulli

Bestselling Indian author (53 books and counting), celebrity, media personality and self-styled mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik has partnered with American yoga teacher Matthew Rulli to produce his latest book. The book opens with an Authors’ Note containing the disclaimers: “This is not a book on the practice of yoga. This is about the mythology that nurtured the idea of yoga” and “This is not a manual for asanas.” Reading on, we are told: “This book uses various yoga postures as inspiration to leap into the world of Hindu mythology with occasional detours into Jain and Buddhst mythology.” (17)

The book is organized in four sections, dedicated to the Devi, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, with 64 asanas and related stories distributed among them. (The number sixty-four, we are told, indicates infinity). Stories are drawn from Buddhist and Jain sources, though those from Hindu culture, not surprisingly, predominate.

Clearly, the authors have done their research. They include some poses familiar to the average yoga student, several that are probably unfamiliar to all but advanced practitioners, a handful (crocodile, vajrasana, dandasana) that sound familiar but are presented in unusual and challenging versions, and poses largely named for sages. A good number in this last category, known as “party poses” in some yoga circles for their flashy “Look at this!” quality, involve bearing weight through the arms while doing something complicated with the legs, such as wrapping one leg behind the head. As a yoga teacher, I know that arm balances come more easily to men than to women, due to the superior upper-body strength and higher center of gravity of the average male body. I think of these as these definitely “guy poses” even though they can be and are also performed by women. I also know that the majority of students in most classes are women. So the inclusion of all those arm balances made me go “Hmm,” and I found myself wondering just who the intended audience was. Given American yoga’s emphasis on asana, and the challenging nature of the “party poses,” will this selection really inspire readers to “leap into the world of Hindu mythology”?

The book has much more going for it than the poses. Don’t be put off by the ones you find obscure or too challenging. Let the stories and their values enhance your appreciation of India’s rich culture and yoga’s diverse nature. The stories are engaging and the line drawings are charming, energetic and plentiful. (In fact, I wished for drawings to replace the small black and white photos which don’t always show the poses to best advantage.) The inclusion of Jain and Buddhist tales expands our habitual notion of yoga as “Hindu” while the concluding section, “Metaphors of the Yogini”, forces us to confront the image of the yogi as a male ascetic bent on controlling or escaping the natural world. “Yoginis are the food for the hungry, the power for the frightened, and the knowledge of the ignorant…They are all things uncontrollable that we want to control…The yogi looks within; hence shuthis eyes. The yogini makes him open his eyes, look at the sky…” (322-323)

I’ve been a fan of Devdutt’s since I chanced upon his Shiva: an Introduction (1997) in a Mumbai bookstore. I was eager to see how he would handle yoga mythology.  I find that what I like most in this book is not so much the connection of stories with asana, but his discussions of the feminine, through the figures of the Devi and the yogini. Fan or new reader, I am sure you will find things you like too.

Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.

A Life Crafted with Grit and Grace

 

One of my earliest memories of my mother, outside of the home, is on a badminton court. My father’s job as a doctor with the Indian Railways allowed us the use of the Officer’s Club. It was the norm for us to troop down to the club every evening, where we spent several hours actively engaged in the various sport facilities it offered. At the time, we did not realize how unusual it was for a woman of my mother’s generation in India, to be considered a sportswoman of some merit. Of course, I realize that there have been many celebrated Indian sportswomen through the ages. But it was certainly not a traditionally accepted role in a small town.  Draped in her sari, hitched up and tucked at the waist, bare feet, racquet in hand, long braid flashing behind her – she proceeded to vanquish a young man in a singles match while my sister and I watched from the sidelines. I will never forget applauding with everyone else, and the pride I felt when she collected her trophy.  We pored over scrapbooks she had filled with newspaper clippings of her victories going back through her high school and college years. And slowly, the idea that there was more to the woman we called ‘Amma’ – more than just someone who cooked our meals, and cared for our every need – took hold.

My mother Gita was born on March 26,1948. Maybe it was her birth amidst the exuberance of post-independence India that imbued her with the gumption to buck the established notions about the ‘proper qualities’ in a conservative, middle class girl. It blessed her with a stubborn streak. She was determined to pursue her innate talents as a skilled sportswoman, much to her dear father’s disapproval. We were often regaled with a story narrated by her aunts of the time when she was eight years old. In an effort to get her to practice music, they locked her in a room with her violin – which was of course, considered a proper skill for a girl to master – and she proceeded to break the bow to make her feelings clear.  Needless to say, this incident ended any chance of a bright musical career! Her older sister was born to fill that role. My mother was simply exercising her right to choose something else.

Although she has since hung up her racquet, the sportswoman in her has helped chart her course through the most trying time in her life – her separation from our father. Divorce among her peers is a rarity, and yet, she has managed to retain her essence through all of the heartache. She has, with grace, held on to another aspect of her identity – her creativity. Just as the tanpura or tamburi was synonymous with her older sister, the sewing machine is my mother’s personal crest – her very own coat of arms!

Her passion to create marvels of “upcycled” products never ceases to astound us. On each of her visits her one request is that I help her design the next in a line of beautifully crafted creations. Our favorite outings are to craft stores, and our discussions are usually about how she can embellish her latest project. From the minute she wakes, right up to dinner time, she is consumed by her need to create. And her greatest reward is when we share her creations with friends and family as gifts.

She has used her unique talent in creating memory quilts for each of her grandchildren. Painstakingly piecing together fabric from baby clothes I had saved, she spent hours making my daughter a patchwork of love sewn together with her strength and courage. It is a brightly colored legacy, and will be cherished for all of time.

My mother did not choose to be a career woman. She chose instead to devote her life to bringing up her daughters instilling in them her firm notions of right and wrong. And she led by example, that being female did not make us feeble, or less in any way. Her single minded devotion and support was the backbone of my sister Divya Raghavan’s singing career when she first started. She was, and remains ambitious for us hoping that we scale every path we traverse to achieve the things that she could not.  But the biggest lesson she has taught us, is in accepting her shortcomings while continuing to live with grace.  The label she affixes to every piece she creates speaks volumes:  “Crafted with Love”.

Much has been said about the bond between mothers and daughters. Having experienced nearly half a century savoring the many nuances of this relationship, I can only say that my respect for my mother has deepened with every day that passes. That much is true. On the cusp of her 70th birthday, it is only fitting that I acknowledge her fighting spirit, her creative passion and her ability to stride ever onwards – changing, evolving and nurturing.

This is a tribute in words during Women’s History month for a woman I cherish.

Happy 70th Amma!

The Changing Woman: Women’s History Month

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month has been on my mind.  There are a lot of empowering stories that buzz about. We read, share, and celebrate these messages. While we applaud these “others”– we often miss the ones that are closest to us. Examples of enduring strength, love and courage surround us, even though we don’t stop to recognize them.

There are legends which form part of the mythology of cultures world wide, deifying and honoring the “female” – as a creative spirit, as the “giver of life” – and as goddesses. India has its pantheon of  “Devis,” worshiped for the roles they play in her ancient and plentiful mythology.

The correlations between such legends and myths crisscross and resonate. As does the concept of “Changing Woman” – who is one of the most revered of deities among the Native Americans of the southwestern United States. For the Navajo people, Changing Woman is central to their way of life. She is a benevolent figure, giving people their abundance and teaching them to live in harmony with all things. She is part of the initiation ceremony of Navajo women, imbuing young girls with the values of love, hospitality, and generosity. She teaches that within each woman is the source of food, creation and harmony.

Her  most important quality is that she can change at will from a baby, to a girl, young woman, and age into an old woman – repeating the cycle, performing roles within the mythic framework as needed. Changing Woman is part of the Navajo spirit, and lives through them as a nourishing goddess, who teaches the wisdom of nature and the cycles of birth and death.

My upbringing was full of such stories of goddesses. Much like the Changing Woman, they colored my life through the voices of my grandmothers. They were celebrated as Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Durga, Kali, Parvati, and many more as I discovered for myself as I grew older. Worshiping them I gradually accepted that they each had qualities I could identify with – as the woman I was becoming.

In an attempt to acknowledge, and applaud the creative female spirit, I have created a series of “portraits” of women I have the privilege of knowing personally. This series celebrates the ability of women, to hold on to their creative identity while they “shape-shift” and evolve to fulfill the many labels and roles in their lives.  It is the only way I know how to walk with them – to join in their journey, and learn from their stories.