Sunday, May 16, 2010

Adhi Raati Des Chambe De - Loona 1

The Chorus Of The Chambavali Women

At the midnight hour
in the land of the champa flower
the champa flowers
o the champa flowers
its flagrant fragrance
sweeps out in the direction
of the palace

In the palace
the queen lies awake
upon her bed
her eyes bereft of sleep
She tells the king
I must have a hundred flowers
of champa
I must have them soon

The king he gathers her
in his arms and says
Take heart, my heart
Let the morning dawn
And I'll bring them to you
But the queen she cannot wait
The king is in a dilemma
If he is gentle she may cry
If he is firm she might die

At the deadly midnight hour
in the land of the champa flower
the champa flowers
o the champa flowers
its perfume runs amok
causing a havoc of desire
in the land of the champa flower.

As Natti and Sutradhar are planning to leave they are held back by the sounds of a sweet song - the women of Chamba are heading that way, singing together in chorus.

Eh Kaun Su Des - Loona I

What Is This Land?

What pleasant land is this
And which this river
That like a snake of fire
ravishes the pale valley
lying softly here?

This is Chamba, my beautiful
And Ravi is the river
Known in the heavens as Aravati
Daughter to the sage Pangi
Sister to Chandrabagh
On earth the daughter was suspected
And into a son made
Bitter was the price paid
for this silver river
by the queen, her mother
and the valley she named
Chamba after her.

Listen, my love
How lovely is the birdsong here
As if a lover is calling out
To his loved one
As if the hollow of a bamboo flute
Has struck the perfect note
As if a ripple of laughter has flown
From lovers upon a couch
Lovely like the first sigh,
of first time lovers
on their first mating
Or like the dying notes
of a sad song
steeped in melancholy.

Come, let’s fly heavenwards now
Come, for the sun has risen
It is time for us to go
To dissolve in this fragrance
And find our way back home.

This song is from the opening sequence of the play. Natti and Sutradhar, heavenly beings from Indra's court, introduce the readers to the beauty of the Chamba valley.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Loona: The telling of it here (Opening Notes)

Loona is so multi-layered and nuanced that I have been wondering for sometime how to organize the material as I begin unfolding this story for myself (and for the few readers following this blog). I have not read the original in Punjabi so I cannot do a direct translation. What I am attempting here is simply a partial re-telling buttressed by a commentary. For a commentator there are many beguiling ways of presenting Loona, so for a while I was confused. But finally I have decided to stick to a direct and linear approach. Loona is written in eight parts – we’ll just take them sequentially one by one. To do anything else would be at the cost of the main story. Also although I have begun today I don’t know at what pace I will continue and over how many months this particular journey will be completed – in the circumstances it is best that the parts follow each other systematically.

For this discussion on Loona I draw upon two principal sources. Segments of the play have been rendered in song by Bhupinder and Mitalee Singh. I will be posting original transcreations of these, along with the audio tracks. For the rest of the commentary I draw upon Dr. B M Bhalla’s English translation of the work. Here and there, I have taken very minor liberties with Dr. Bhalla’s version only to make it more accessible to myself. For instance, in Dr. Bhalla’s version Loona is spelt as Luna. It is only a matter of spelling but Luna is close in spelling to the word ‘lunar’ and conjures up in my mind the vision of an ethereal moon maiden. ‘Loona’ on the other hand, due to its proximity with the Punjabi term for salt, loond, captures better the earthiness and vitality of Shiv's heroine.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Loona: Exploring Desire (Opening Notes)

What fascinates me about Loona is the theme it sets out to explore. Nowhere is the consummate ease with which Shiv can inhabit all 360 degrees on the desire and suffering axis more apparent than it is in Loona. From the opening sequences in which Natti and Sutradhar, heavenly narrators from Indra’s court, make love in the forests we know that desire and yearning are the underlying theme of the narrative. The opening sequences are dense with metaphors and imagery. The Ravi river is a snake of fire, its forked fangs, ravishing the pale, moonlit valley below. The valley of Champa, is a riot of champa flowers blossoming in the deadly midnight hour, unleashing impossible desires. We are introduced to desire as the impulse hidden inside nature, the source of all creation.

And then there are the characters each engaged with his/her own tryst with the nature of desire. There is the old king Salwan battling his loss of libido and seeking a way into the sun of his own being through a new mating. There is Loona, reckless in her anger at being yoked to an older man and yearning for a love which can match hers in ardour and youthfulness. There is Ichran the unceremoniously abandoned wife of Salwan seeking to come to terms with no longer being an object of desire. And then there is the lofty Puran, who desires a love that transcends the physical and seeks a union only with infinitude.

It is very clear that the underlying theme is extremely important to Shiv and he has tried to be totally honest and sincere in his exploration. “It is difficult to walk naked,” he writes in his Introduction. “I have presented the characters in this book in their stark reality. I can’t detach myself from these characters. I leave it to readers to judge their frank reality and truth as they think fit.”

Loona: A New Look At An Old Story (Opening Notes)

Loona, an epic play written in verse form, is perhaps Shiv Batalvi’s single most significant work. It won him the Sahitya Akademi award for literature at the age of twenty eight. The story of Loona was not a new one. It had been around forever, an integral part of the kathas and kissas of Punjabi folklore. Only it wasn’t the story of Loona – it was the story of Puran Bhagat, a prince turned yogi. In the story of Puran, Loona is the vamp, the beautiful and evil young step mother who attempts to seduce him and who when thwarted wreaks terrible revenge.

Shiv’s motivation for re-telling an oft told story was to cast it in a new light, to remove what he identified as the distorting prisms of gender and class discrimination. He writes in his Introduction to the play that stories written by court poets in the pay of the ancient rulers should not be taken without question. Aging kings unable to satisfy the young wives they brought home were likely to be victims of doubt and suspicion, while the multiplicity of progeny from different wives was also likely to lead to intrigue over property and inheritance. And in all these histories and stories it was inevitable, that the king be rendered in the most favourable light by the court poet. “How” asks Shiv “can a modern poet follow that tradition blindly when there is no finality about any issue? There is always another aspect....”

Not only does Shiv question Salwan, the elderly king’s right to treat the beautiful but low born Loona as his property and appropriate her as his wife, he also questions why in popular tradition yogis were always high born and their temptresses of the lower castes. He elaborates, “The condition of high birth was needed even by Rama, Buddha, Charpat and Puran. Not only this, in order to prove that they were really great, lower caste women like Loona were depicted as the embodiment of deceive the high born righteous followers off the spiritual path.” It is this two-fold discrimination against women and against the depressed classes that Batalvi takes on in his version of the epic.

In many senses Loona is a feminist recasting of the old story. In it we see not only Loona making a bold case for the right of the young woman to make her own choices and express her sexuality, but we see the different women characters whether it is Loona’s girlfriends, the old queen Ichran’s maid, Queen Ichran herself explore the many ways in which women were disenfranchised in the old orders (That their songs and words resonate still in less choate ways in the psyche of the modern day woman are another story). Loona is more wonderful for having been written by a man, for while the feminist point of view is strongly put across Shiv Batalvi retains complete empathy with the male characters in the drama. In Shiv's words, “I have tried to assuage the pain from the deep recesses of my soul where my feminism lay dormant. Also my manhood.”