The all-embracing and omnipresent goddess tradition offers wisdom and inspiration to believers and non-believers. Cultural curator, poet and author Arundhathi Subramaniam gives a rundown of what to expect at GODDESS: A Celebration of the Divine Feminine, which will be presented at the NCPA this month.
A couple of decades ago, I might have dismissed the notion of the Divine Feminine as fluff. Of course, goddesses make for arresting iconography. And yes, they appeal to a feminist need for a less male-dominated theology. But that, I might have argued, is ideological window dressing. It has taken time (and a deepening engagement with poetry and spirituality) to uncover the deeper mainsprings of the Goddess archetype.
The most significant thing about goddesses is their ubiquity. Behind every successful male god, one might say, there is a woman. Dig just a little past the mythological topsoil of every culture, from the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, South Asian and African to the Middle Eastern, Norse, native American and aboriginal Australian, and a torrent of goddess names pours forth. Cultures everywhere have celebrated the life-sustaining aspects of creation as goddesses. But centuries of prejudice and accretions of patriarchy have a shared planet. As we awaken to the imperative of collective ecological responsibility, her earth-nourished wisdom becomes more urgent than ever. The Goddess returns to remind us of our interdependence. Of our plurality. Our inherent equality.
For her devotees, she is divine creator and protector. For those who seek self-realisation, she is guide, mirror and key. For those who seek a more just, gender-balanced, environmentally sustainable world, she is inspiration and metaphor. For a humanity seeking to recover from a brutalising history of skewed power equations, she is equaliser and balancer. For those seeking to repair psychic wounds and ancestral pain, she is healer and harmoniser. For dreamers, seekers, artists, she is a reminder of the ultimate mystery. For the lost, she is home. She is timeless and topical. She always has been.
And so, GODDESS—a tribute to the Divine Feminine by a gamut of creative practitioners.
When I envisioned this festival, I knew it had to be experiential. For the Goddess is always an invitation to turn thought into thinginess, idea into incarnation. She invites us not merely to think—but to feel, to trust the innate intelligence of body and heart. I did not want us to merely talk about Goddess-lore; I wanted us to participate, if possible, in some of her delirium.
And so, a tapestry of metre, melody and movement in multiple modes—encompassing performance, reading, lecture, discussion and workshop—began to unfold.
It was fitting to open the festival with a talk by Devdutt Pattanaik who has written extensively on gender in Indian mythology. He discusses the Goddess as metaphor in the cultural and mythic traditions of the subcontinent—a means of imbuing an idea with gender, infusing a philosophical concept with glorious particularity.
We move seamlessly from context to text. The tantric poem, the ‘Saundarya Lahari’, is both a panegyric to the supreme Goddess, Shakti, as well as a key to self-transformation. It represents an interesting weave of geometry and poetry, of yantra and mantra, as it were. Poet-translator Mani Rao introduces this poem to Shakti, the supreme Goddess, without whom Shiva is incomplete.
Recently, as I worked on an anthology around women in sacred poetry, I grew increasingly fascinated by goddess poems from various parts of the country. Poettranslators, Sampurna Chattarji and K. Srilata, graciously agreed to try their hand at translating these. In a spirited panel discussion, they join Rao to discuss two fascinating poets, Ramprasad Sen and Subramania Bharati. The session traverses wide chronological, linguistic and sacred terrain, journeying from an eighth century Sanskrit text to Shakti to 18th-century Bengali poetry to Kali and 20th-century Tamil poetry to Mother Parashakti and the little girl, Kannamma.
The session at the Experimental Theatre opens with a powerful invocation by Kathak dancer Aditi Bhagwat (choreographed by Sanjukta Wagh)—an exploration of the Goddess in and through the body. The focus then zooms from the archetypal to the local. After the earlier encounter with canonical figures, it is now time to meet a fiercely non-mainstream folk divinity. In a performance of storytelling and music, Shilpa Mudbi introduces audiences to a larger-than-life figure, Yellamma, who embraces all classes, castes and genders. Her ancient hilltop shrine in Saundatti still draws the faithful in hordes. The wildly inclusive deity of devadasis and transgenders is breathed into life by an electrifying performer.
Indian goddess traditions cannot be invoked without an acknowledgement of Tantra—a worldview that sees all physical reality as inherently sacred, an emanation of Shakti. On Day Two, actor and dancer Anitha Santhanam conducts a body centred workshop of exploration and discovery. Inspired by an unusual contemporary book, The Tantra Chronicles, this unique workshop is rooted in her deepening engagement with the body as a site of living wisdom.
American performance poet, Annie Finch, then steps in with her session, ‘Metre, Magic, Mother’, in which she introduces audiences to a gamut of global goddesses— from Inanna to Astarte, Demeter to Diana—reminding us of the many ways in which the art of poetry is linked to sacred female mystery.
The focus now draws closer home. Two wonderful stage actors, Shernaz Patel and Anahita Uberoi, join me in unleashing a hectic medley of poems, translated from languages as varied as Pali, Khasi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati and Marathi. This is our homage to an avalanche of local and pan-Indian goddesses, some celebrities, others relatively unknown.
The finale is a grand double-bill concert. Hindustani vocalist Anol Chatterjee takes us into the diverse tones and musical flavours of the classic Bengali panegyrists of Kali—Ramprasad Sen, Kamalakanta Bhattacharya, Kazi Nazrul Islam, among others. This is followed by a joyous explosion of Gujarati garba music by Manasi Parikh, Parthiv Gohil and their ensemble.
She is auspiciousness and terror. Light and dark. Benevolence and fury. Youth and dotage. Beauty and horror. The beginning and the end.
The faces of the Goddess are many. Collectively, they anchor us in a less hierarchical, more plural, more inclusive experience of life itself. What the Goddess represents is not an aloof, dispassionate creator. She represents the muck and magic, the heartbreak and beauty of creation itself. In honouring her, this festival adds its voice to the rising chorus that seeks to reclaim a more balanced, less one-sided approach to our creative, cultural and spiritual inheritance.
Welcome to GODDESS—a celebration of she who can never be understood, but who is somehow, unfailingly, recognised.
This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of the On Stage.