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Seema Biswas in 'Scribbles on Akka'












Review

Can you peel away nakedness?

Ilaiyaraja snatches Akka Mahadevi away from classical musicians, and attempts to give her blazing genius to a pop generation

Scribbles on Akka (Film)
Directed by Madhusree Dutta
Music by Ilaiyaraja


You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body's glory?

Or peel away every strip
you wear,
but can you peel
the Nothingness, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?

To the shameless girl
wearing the white jasmine Lord's
light of morning,
you fool, where's the need for cover and jewel?

Akka Mahadevi

Respectability is a veneer. It can hide dishonesty, hyporcrisy, superciliousness, caste and class prejudices... Akka Mahadevi, who lived in the 12th century, struggled to peel away this veneer, both in herself and in people around her.

Scribbes on Akka, a film by Madhusree Dutta, is an effort to see how Akka survives in contemporary times. Madhusree, a documentary film-maker who has won many national and international honours, is an activist of the Mumbai-based women's organisation Majlis.

Madhusree creates a collage of impressions on Akka -- ranging from women devotees at a fair who see her as a village deity, through women who sell papads with her picture on the cover, to a modern painter for whom she is the touchstone of feminism. Leading us through these perceptions is Seema Biswas (she played Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen), who is the sutradhar.

Akka's blazing intensity can scandalise "respectable" people even today. She cast herself as a "shameless girl" in love with her god Channamallikarjuna (A K Ramanujan translates the name as "lord white as jasmine"), and questioned, among other things, male dominance and the ideology of marriage. She shamed great mystics like Allama Prabhu into accepting her dazzlingly brilliant insights. Basavanna, who founded the Veerashaiva faith, Allama Prabhu, and a galaxy of other poets held her in high esteem.

Akka asserted her feminine individuality, but for her male and female were again veneers, for in a vachana she speaks of the spirit within that is neither male nor female. Akka was a more daring poet than, say, a Mira, and her explicit images glow with a luminosity that 900 years haven't been able to dim.

People in Karnataka revere Akka, but her poetry wasn't sung till a few decades ago. That was because the vachana, the form of poetry that took shape during the 12th century Veerashaiva movement, is not set to any metre. Vachana means that which is uttered, and vachana poetry quite easily joined the oral tradition. Not all vachanakaras were religious leaders. Many plied small trades, and came from the low castes.

Legend has it that Akka spurned king Koushika, who was smitten by her beauty and wanted to marry her. Forced to marry him, she can't take her mind off her spiritual pursuit. "A husband for the mundane world, and another for the spiritual world?" she asks sarcastically in a vachana. "But for my Channamallikarjuna, all men are mere dolls".

Unable to live with Kaushika, Akka abandoned everything, including her clothes, covered herself in her long tresses, and set out on her quest. She walked from her village Udutadi near Shimoga all the way to Kalyana at the other end of Karnataka, through forests full of wild beasts, and streets peopled occasionally by leering louts.

At Anubhava Mantapa, Akka, a single woman, faced hundreds of learned men, won an argument, and proved her intellectual mettle.

The radicalism that marks Akka's poetry has inspired generations of women writers. She uses the female body as a powerful metaphor, and this has in modern times come to be read as a voice of feminist assertion.

In Madhusree's film, Ilaiyaraja sets the vachanas of Akka to music, while Shantanu Moitra scores the background.

The vachanas came into the Hindustani classical style sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Aa Na Krishna Rao, the Kannada writer, demonstrated to Mallikarjun Mansoor how vachanas could be set to music, and the great vocalist of the Jaipur gharana then took up a couple of poems and sang them in ragas like Todi and Pahadi. Akka kelavva naanonda kanasa kande, in raga Pahadi, is now almost a standard concert item, sung by almost all Hindustani musicians in Karnataka.

Others, like Basavaraj Rajguru, Siddarama Jambaldinni and Sangameshwar Gurav, made more tunes for Akka's poems and popularised them.

Madhusree's film deviates from this tradition, and Ilaiyaraja interprets Akka in a pop style that uses synthesizers and drums.

Ilaiyaraja, an admirer of Akka's poetry even before he took up this film (read interview with Madhusree Dutta), succeeds in infusing contemporary meaning into a vachana like Kaisiriya dandava ('You can confiscate'). He sets it to a fast-paced tune (sung by the Tamil singer B Jayasree), and Madhusree shows shots of fisherwomen and women travelling in a Mumbai suburban train.

But the subsequent vachanas don't touch the same high mark, with Ilaiyaraja sounding repetitive. Little attention is paid to clarity of words, often leaving one wondering if the language is indeed Kannada! Frustrating for those familiar with the language.

The one exception is Indraneelada giriya which is not sung but recited (by Vanamala Vishwanath, writer and professor at Bangalore University) to a rhythm. Shantanu Moitra, the man behind Shubha Mudgal's tunes in Ab ke Sawan and Man ke Manjeere, is brilliant when he uses an operatic score to go with the strokes of Neelima Sheikh's paintings of Akka. That's a passage of music that stays in the mind.

B Gautami

Interview: Classical music is elitist, pop is not, Madhusree Datta tells The Music Magazine


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