“Just as flow is a prerequisite for mastery in a craft, profession, or art, so too with learning. Students who get into flow as they study do better, quite apart from their potential as measured by achievement tests.” – Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence
In October 1939, while the “storm of war was gathering in Europe”, Maria and Mario Montessori set off to India to deliver a training course and lecture tour. When Italy became involved in the war, the British rule of India did not give the Montessoris permission to leave; they were to spend close to seven years in India, which would become a defining period in Montessori’s outlook on life and education.
The letters Montessori wrote to her four teenage grandchildren in Holland give a completely new, private insight into that compellingly interesting period. We see a woman who is deeply connected to her family and friends. We also see her strong commitment to bringing progress and fighting illiteracy in India, which grew into an enduring love for the country and its people. Montessori’s colourful descriptions of her journey and life in India, her worries about her grandchildren in war-torn Europe, and her son’s imprisonment make a fascinating read.
Already at first glance its sheer scope is impressive: 1341 hand gestures rendered in minute detail. As “non-specialist” I feel free to explore it from various angles, some interrelated in surprising ways. Much looks familiar for someone like me having seen several of the productions it discusses. To a degree this also applies to the teaching methods even if in need of being adjusted to the talents of individual learners.
These factors sensitize us to universal principles that connect the arts beyond language, creed, or social status. As for the challenges involved, let me refer to a publication that addressed my own doubts as a beginning student of Carnatic music in Chennai: in Beyond Culture, anthropologist E.T. Hall describes how and why he “developed a cultural model that emphasised the importance of nonverbal signals and modes of awareness over explicit messages. These insights proved invaluable in studying how members of different cultures interact and how they often fail to understand one other.”1
What struck me then was an observation that seems self-evident only in hindsight:
“In a sense … man’s relationship to all the art forms is much more intimate than is commonly supposed; man is art and vice versa. There is no way the two can be separated. The whole notion that the two are separate is […] probably an aberration of Western culture.”2
Hand gestures would naturally have been the first choice for overcoming this separation from time immemorial.
Venu G has been a pioneer in this regard, as witnessed by many (including myself) during intercultural symposia and a research project on Kerala’s cultural practices, widening our respective horizons in unforeseen ways. This would have been impossible had he sacrificed his freedom as independent researcher and practitioner, ever since he and Mohiniyattam expert Nirmala Paniker founded Natanakairali at Irinjalakuda, then still a semi-rural environment.
While reading this new book it dawned on me that their collaborative efforts may be compared with an ancient custom locally known as kāvu (“sacred grove”)3. Formerly widespread, it provides multiple blessings including that of a biotope.
All over the world similar places are now endangered due to urban sprawl even as scientists have demonstrated how indispensable they are from the point of view of biodiversity – safeguarding water supplies and providing clean air in harmony with local conditions. In other words, such places ensure food security and the possibility to develop new, often lifesaving medicines.4
As for the cultural equivalent of a kāvu which I now associate with Natanakairali, we see references to the natural world as part of new productions, research and documentation projects; and also in the daily practice as mentors for those who (like myself) have marvelled at the infinite possibilities of exploring our relationship with forces beyond our control, namely by artistic means. No doubt this is food for thought, an unmeasurable but real contribution to social development in times of ever increasing uniformity.
Without development and cultural participation entire communities become alienated from one another, leaving rural communities behind while prompting their youth to leave in search of new opportunities.
Fortunately these trends are being noticed by scientific minds and educationists calling for new priorities; so also the United Nations as part of its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” programme. Such heritage needs to be fostered within and beyond the communities to whom credit is due, an approach long advocated by Venu G. As evident from his new book, a “born researcher” gladly acknowledges exponents for their part in a precious heritage in need of being passed forward.
If this is a cause for celebration, it is because here we become aware of two realms that flourish in close proximity; and this not just as “resources” as they cannot be gauged in terms of monetary value or prestige alone.
We owe this new awareness to a wealth of details and their systematic presentation: several specialized branches of the arts are mutually connected, marvelling at their diversity from multiple perspectives like ecology, psychology, history or other disciplines; and as a result, we realize that an art – any art – needs to be rediscovered, protected and redeveloped by each new generation.
Nobody to my knowledge has expressed this more succinctly than Rabindranath Tagore:
“A most important truth, which we are apt to forget, is that a teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.”5
Yet going by a letter to his Dutch translator – the writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden – Tagore was weary of vanity:
“The superconscious self of mine which has its expression in beauty is beyond my control. […] The body of the lamp is dark, it has no expression, only its flame has the language.”6
As evident from Venu G’s writings, lectures and personal communications, an artistic education is not merely a question of authority, success or entitlement but one of sensitivity to social development and dignity that must not be taken for granted.
His new work also demonstrates the scope for reaffirming such values and – equally important – provides a context that emboldens readers to seize every opportunity to convey a sense of purpose through their chosen art.
To illustrate my personal interpretation on these lines, let me point out a few mudras rendered in notation as found in this book.
The Glossary is equally helpful as it includes brief synopses and information about the characters figuring in some of the plays covered; this in addition to glimpses of the situations or dilemmas they face within a given scene – details local audiences would have been familiar with not so long ago.
There is nothing vague or mysterious about the language of gesture when applied to the function of specific subsets of mudras; now shown in a handsome work of reference wherein each gesture conveys moods, actions and even memories; some relating to daily life (though in kutiyattam as if mirrored rather than projected).
This differentiation resonates with a rhetorical question posed by Marcel Marceau, known as the world’s “Grand master of mime”:
“Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?“7
In this sense, Kerala’s “shared vocabulary” is more than suited to engage in the intercultural dialogue to which Venu G has contributed consistently for half a century:
doing justice to “the most moving moments of our lives” requires universal (mundane) just as stylized (culture-specific) vocabularies effortlessly travelling between the present, the past and possible futures that depend on choices made as part of a given story.
While contributing to Festivals of India held all over the world Venu G discovered:
“Like spoken language, Kathakali gestures offer a complete vocabulary for communication. It is very often possible to express our thoughts and emotions more forcefully with mudras than through words.” ((Mudra the language of Kutiyattam, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, p. 10))
With Abhinjana Sakuntala, his critically acclaimed Kutiyattam adaptation, Venu G could test this premise in India and other countries. The tension between urban civilization and communities devoted to alternative lifestyles may be viewed as a theme that connects our time with the ancient world inhabited by Kalidasa. And, as convincingly put forward by Professor Romila Thapar, the inherent tensions from which the famous poet derived inspiration, have resulted in a tapestry of cultural relations that has inspired artists from antiquity:
“In writing this play Kalidasa selected a theme from the epic, but the sub-themes may well have come from folk literature. […] Elaborating on the origin myth of the Bharatas constituted a deliberate turning to the past, possibly with the unstated thought of drawing some parallels with the present“.8
Viewing Venu G’s creative and scholarly work from this angle, and taking note of the rich store of experiences on which it is built, makes me confident that it will continue to facilitate opportunities for a dialogue on eye-level wherever needed; within and beyond India as envisaged by Tagore who anticipated the modern idea of “resilience”.
Educationist Maria Montessori, who spent more than seven years in India during and after World War 2, pondered and acknowledged the insights she gained from young children and their parents. These may well be the quintessence of all transformative experiences as part of lifelong learning. So I trust that her belief in the future of humankind was not misplaced:
“Only the collaboration between the children and the adults will be able to solve the problems of our time.”9
Much of the media contents included in the present video clip were created for educational purposes, partly in the course of an interdisciplinary research project titled “Sam, Reflection, Gathering Together!” hosted by Natanakairali in collaboration with the Bern University of the Arts. Music, dance and drama lecture-demonstrations and performances were presented by many artists and students of Natanakairali and Natanakaisiki as well as visiting artists during the “Sam” workshop held in Kerala in 2006. The name of this research project points to a common denominator in the otherwise differentiated teaching, interpretation and performance practices of South India’s music, dance and drama traditions. As for the events during which many of the photographs and audio recording were created, see “Sam, Reflection, Gathering Together!” https://sam.mimemo.net >>
“Despite their decline, they still serve the purpose of reminiscing the past where people worshiped nature together with their deities, conserving biodiversity along with the culture. They exist even today, amidst human settlements and urban areas and are rich in biodiversity that has been protected by local people for their religious and cultural beliefs. The groves have different deities and varied legends associated with them.” – Haritha John in “Sacred groves of north Kerala: The last refuge for biodiversity amongst urbanisation”, Mongabay, 29 January 2019 <https://india.mongabay.com/2019/01/sacred-groves-of-north-kerala-the-last-refuge-for-biodiversity-amongst-urbanisation/>[↩]
“Though Harsh Berger used the term Ethnobotany only in 1895 this was the practising knowledge of the tribals and aborigines from time immemorial. Traditionally transmitted knowledge about plants, their medicinal and other uses and also their cultural significance are the three levels of ethnobotany. Now this branch has grown to the level of collecting and codifying the knowledge traditionally transmitted through centuries by the tribals. Ethnobotany tries to study the relation between human beings and nature. Ethnic people are knowledgeable and their world view about the sustainable life practices is now studied in modern context. […] The granaries of the knowledge in the memories of the indigenous people, in folk forms, should have patent rights for which people all over the world are fighting.” – C.R. Rajagopalan in “Indigenous knowledge – The CFS Experience”, Summer rain: Harvesting the Indigenous Knowledge of Kerala, Thrissur: Centre for IK/Folklore Studies, 2004, p. 12 <https://worldcat.org/en/title/255522477>[↩]
Between these two seemingly unrelated dates – Tagore’s lecture tour in 1920 and liberation from nazi rule in 1945 – lies a period of immense suffering all over Europe and beyond: the emergence and fall of the “Thousand-Year Reich” whose leaders propagated a nationalist-cum-white-supremacist ideology (Aryanism). For twelve long years its leaders coopted others in an insane scheme whereby countless “righteous” people were first enticed into condoning, even facilitating the oppression and persecution of their fellow citizens, then to “sacrifice” their lives for the greater glory of the “nation”. Among the political and business “elite” of that period there were many who condoned the systematic extermination of millions of people for no fault of their own, without ever being held to account even when nazi rule had ended.
The fact that some still do – all over the world – makes it all the more remarkable that long before his 1920 lecture-cum-fundraising tour of Europe, Rabindranath Tagore had foreseen the catastrophic potential of nationalism, be it for India or other countries. 4 This is evident from several lectures published under the title Nationalism in 1917 and still in print: “And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion – in fact it can feel dangerously resentful if it is pointed out.”5
Revisiting Europe in 1920, so shortly after World War I, Tagore had rallied support for peace and cooperation among peoples independent of prevailing notions such as “race” or “creed”, being convinced that “there is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. 6 He knew from experience that the only way to achieve a lasting change of hearts and minds was progressive education on all levels and in an atmosphere that allowed these issues to be addressed in an unprejudiced manner. This is evident from the theme chosen for one of his two lectures at Amsterdam University: “Ideal of Education”, held on on 27th September 1920. 7
Being Asia’s first Nobel Laureate in 1913 did not delude him into thinking that a more peaceful and just society could be achieved merely by agreement on an intellectual plane or diplomatic means. So as a poet and song writer he reached out where others had failed in search of intercultural understanding, as evident from the title of another lecture, indeed the very first one on Dutch soil (23 September 1920): “Some songs of the Village Mystics in Bengal”, delivered at the Church of the Free Christians: a virtual homage to the baulsingers credited with inspiring some of his most beloved songs to this very day. 8
Time and again his “silver voice” left a deep impression among large audiences 10 with whom he shared a will to overcome divisions, be it within societies or between nations, and the ensuing hostilities echoed by misunderstandings prevailing in our own time. He was convinced that these would eventually resolved by resorting to unconventional means, such as the realisation of a shared, non-sectarian legacy available to all, and later summarized as follows:
When our self is illuminated with the light of love, then the negative aspect of its separateness with others loses its finality, and then our relationship with others is no longer that of competition and conflict, but of sympathy and co-operation. 11
During lectures delivered during the First World War, Tagore urged his audiences in Japan and the United States “to eschew political aggressiveness and cultural arrogance.” Noted Indian historian Ramachandra Guha believes that “it was by reading and speaking to Tagore that these founders of modern India, Gandhi and Nehru, developed a theory of nationalism that was inclusive rather than exclusive.12 Tagore’s Nationalism should be mandatory reading in today’s climate of xenophobia, sectarianism, violence and intolerance. 13
By the time of Tagore’s visit to the Netherlands, his favourite play Dakghar had been translated into English and Dutch (as The Post Office and De brief van den koning, in 1912 and 1916 respectively). Beyond the enduring success of several western theatre productions based on these and other versions, its themes remain relevant in the context of peaceful resistance in the face of despotism in all its manifestations, past, present and future:
Its themes of liberation and transcending difficult situations through imagination, creativity and love of life made the play a favourite during the Second World War, with famous productions in Polish in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Paris radio production on the eve of the Nazi invasion. 14
Dakghar is one of many works, including several plays, wherein “Tagore uses the notion of freedom to decry narrow nationalistic boundaries, governed by myopic ambition and greed […] which bring out different facets of his broader abstraction of freedom.”15
Rabindranath’s idea of samaj [society] is closely related to the idea of Santiniketan. He was growing more and more against the idea of Nation and seeing the formation of samaj as the only solution to social problems in India. In one of his lectures delivered during his trip to Japan and the USA in 1916 he says, “This time it was the Nation of the West driving its tentacles of machinery deep down into the soil. […]
A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. It is an end in itself. It is a spontaneous self- expression of man as a social being. It is natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in cooperation with one another.”16
“Tagores bezoek maakte diepe indruk en bracht in Nederland een ware rage teweeg.” – Read the post published by the Amsterdam city archive (in Dutch). Critical voices were not wanting either, as summarized by the English periodical La gazette de Hollande with reference to a Roman Catholic cleric’s view that “we do not believe Dr. Tagore’s appearance in the body answered the high expectations which had been cherished”, referring to an earlier article in the patriotic Vaderland “which says that the prophet from India has only repeated what the prophet of Nazareth expounded centuries ago.” https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=MMKB19:000104236[↩]
“Around 250,000 Dutch people died in World War II, including around 100,000 Jews, according to figures from the country’s Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide studies.” – Reuters, 5 May 2020[↩]
“Tagore songs which are correspond to Baul style […] contain ideas with double meaning and the style of the tune pertaining to a homeless minstrel. They are fit for singing with modest or even without accompaniment. Rabindranath had combined this style with other formats of Hindustani classical music in order to suit his compositions.” http://www.geetabitan.com/raag/light-classical-and-regional-forms/baul.html[↩]
“‘Met zilveren stemgeluid leest dr. Tagore de rede, die hij te voren op papier heeft gebracht. Hij vertelt van de dorpsmystici ginds in Bengalen, van mannen en vrouwen wier godsdienst het Hindoeïsme is en die in religieuze devotie het dagelijksche gebeuren rondom hen vertolken in liederen van zeldzame bekoring.’ Tagores bezoek maakte diepe indruk en bracht in Nederland een ware rage teweeg.” – Press report cited on www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief, the official Amsterdam City Archives” website, on 20 May 2020[↩]
Read the full commentary by Ramachandra Guha Nationalism on Worldcat.org.”[↩]
“In 1901 Tagore founded an experimental school for boys and wrote plays to be performed by his students. Arguably the best known of these is “Dak Ghar” (The Post Office, 1912). This play, written in just four days, is from his “Gitanjali” period (‘Songs of Offering’), which had among its dominant themes death and passage into the next life. In this one-act, Amal is a sick child watching life pass, seeing the construction of a modern post office and imagining that he might someday receive a letter from the king. The play was first performed by and for schoolboys at Tagore’s school in Santiniketan. The first western performance was just two years later in 1914 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It has subsequently been translated into many languages and performed throughout the world. Its themes of liberation and transcending difficult situations through imagination, creativity and love of life made the play a favourite during the Second World War, with famous productions in Polish in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Paris radio production on the eve of the Nazi invasion.” – Summary on Worldcat.org[↩]