Describing two Nataraja icons at the Asian Pavilion of the Rijks museum in Amsterdam a few years ago, Liesbeth Pankaja Benink says the dancing Lords here are placed in uncluttered silence with art as the centre of attention.
However, these icons would have originally been part of “large complexes, buildings, pavilions, shrines and temples, where every surface and space would have been covered and filled with beautifully designed and executed reliefs, sculpture and painting, where there would have been a multitude of colours and sounds, music and dance, chanting and scents. Here we are far removed from this context and in this clean space there is nothing that reminds us of the original meaning, except the objects themselves,” she writes.
As art is often celebrated for arts sake, she says at the centre of the first room was a Nataraja dancing his Cosmic Dance. “The balance, harmony and dynamics of his still movement, captured with his locks flying wildly, have made the image of the Divine Dancer one of the most recognised Indian icons.”
There is another Nataraja, opposite this impressive one. A tiny one, just 10 centimeters tall,” not drawing the attention of the larger masterpiece,” says Liesbeth.
"Where the larger Nataraja's locks are spread sideways from his head, reflecting the sculptor's intention to suggest the wild gyrating movement of his dance, called Ananda Tandava, Wild Dance of Bliss, the small Nataraja's locks fall on his shoulders and down his back, suggesting a much softer, quieter movement. Two diminutive figures sit at his feet, accompanying his dance with percussion instruments. The one on the proper right plays on what looks like a pot, the one on the proper left is holding cymbals. Less obvious differences can be found in the divine dancer's headdress,” she adds.
Most art lovers assume that all the icons of the dancing Nataraja are essentially the same. Liesbeth, having lived in Chidambaram for over several decades knows well that the smaller one is the replica of the Chidambaram Nataraja, not the one with the flying hair.
In this interview, Liesbeth Pankaja talks about her life in Chidambaram living with the Deekshitars as well as the need for preserving this rich legacy. Watch the video interview here: https://youtu.be/u5Suz7ajgcE
How did you make the shift from being a Bharatanatyam dancer to becoming an student of Indian art history and traditions?
I was already studying history at Utrecht University before I started learning Bharatanatyam. I studied the history of classical ballet, but that was purely as a hobby. I was interested in ancient civilizations, in the history of humanity. In a way, it was a spiritual interest. Ofcourse that interest was not fulfilled and I was quite disappointed with the kind of knowledge university had to offer me. At that time I came across my Bharatanatyam teacher Rajamani who was teaching in Amsterdam.
My guru was a fantastic lady, who was one of the greatest dancers of her generation, but she was not an intellectual. As I was/am an intellectual, I started asking questions that she couldn't answer. At the time, there was a very famous Indological Institute at my university and Professor Jan Gonda was there. There were other famous Indologists before him too. Holland was quite famous for Indologists for over a century, but that's all gone probably due to mismanagement. We had Frits Staal too, but then he moved to the States, because there was no way to do his thing in Holland. There was no money and you have to lobby in academics.
So I started reading academic books and that was quite frustrating because the India that I came to know through my Guru learning Bharatanatyam was a very different place from the India that academics wrote about, and that created some confusion for about decade.
Who was right - my guru, the arts and the people I met in India or these academics who were intelligent people holding prestigious posts and wrote books? After about 10 years when I started working with my Deekshitar in Chidambaram, I concluded that it was the academics who didn’t have a clue what they're writing about because of their preconceptions.
Could you reconcile this difference to some extent through your work?
I know there's no reconciliation. Indology has got stuck in the Aryan Invasion theory, which in my humble opinion is a ‘bullshit’ story. I think we're going to find that out. Now Indians are doing the research themselves. I know they will never give me a PhD in the academic world because I cannot support the Aryan Invasion Theory. There is no conflict within the Indian civilization, within the whole setup of Agamas, Vedas, temple even tribal traditions. All the layers of the Indian civilization are basically in harmony with each other. It is all from the same root, it is from the same sense of spirituality, taking different shapes in different ages in different parts for different reasons.
I find harmony there and not conflict. As long as all the research - anthropological and historical research - in Indian civilization is predicated on the Aryan invasion theory and a concept of a conflict between an invading culture and an existing indigenous culture, we are not going to find out anything really.
Around 25 to 30 years ago, when I started spending more time in Chidambaram with my Deekshitar family, there was no proof. Later I found the work of Dr Frawley and there was at some point a research study on the Saraswati river done by Indians. What began as intuition for me, can now be supported.
What was Raja Deekshitar’s specific area of work that you participated in?
He was the only Deekshitar in his generation who spoke English. He had studied English literature. His life was a lot of struggle because he was very different, both from the other Deekshitars and also from the Indians of his generation. He would fit in with your generation, but he didn't fit in with his generation.
At that time, he was the only Indian I had ever met who asked Why. ‘Why is my temple like this. Why do we have this tradition. Why is the ritual like this.’ What was behind it all, and he felt that science was behind it and not superstition. That is what attracted me to him. That is what we had in common.
For about 10 years Raja supported many people who had come to Chidambaram - students, seekers and devotees and also a whole bunch of academics - Westerners and people from outside Tamil Nadu. A few books were written around the time including Paul Younger’s book (The Home of Dancing Sivan). Raja worked with Paul Younger for six months. Every other day, a couple of hours and the book was basically more or less written based on Raja’s information.
Raja was also in contact with David Smith, who also wrote a book about the temple. He had contacts with people who wrote articles. He had a wide academic circle. Everybody ended up with him, because it was the 70s and early 80s and he was the only English speaking expert there.
I met him in about 1988-89 and by that time he was terribly frustrated because all these people would work with him, praise him but would not pay him. Also they would go home and write their books and. forget everything he had told them.
Many of these academics kept challenging Deekshitar’s assertion that the temple is a Vedic temple, Advaitic, and not agamic. And that is a different philosophy and that it is more ancient than more or less every other temple tradition in South India.
Raja Deekshitar would never publish anything until and unless he had atleast two independent confirmations of his insight. So a lot of the things that he was working on have never been published, because he couldn’t support his theory.
Around the time I met him, he decided he didn't want to work with these academics anymore. And he wanted to do his own research and publish his own own work. He was very angry, very upset and he didn't trust them anymore. Rightfully so.
I hate this word - informant, the term academics use to describe Indian scholars. They go to the great scholars and artists of India and they sit at their feet. They write everything down and then go home and put themselves above these great scholars.
I never wanted to do that. I'm part of the sampradaya. I'm responsible only to my gurus and to my parampara. I can never have a seat in academia. Maybe it would have been easy to have a job and resources. Raja’s life, my life, our life was very troubled. So we did far less than what we set out to do.
He wanted to decode this temple, and he decided to concentrate on a few elements that were eye catching like the sphinx. So he focused on the sphinx and did a lot of work and got it published. He was able to make it his own because he hadn't told any of the academics about it.
I came to him as a student and stayed as a partner and I have no regret having shared that life with him. My only regret is that this knowledge is not there anymore because an enormous body of knowledge has disappeared with him.
What can we do from here?
You have this as your heritage, as part of your being. Unfortunately, when somebody is in the middle of something you don't see the beauty. You don't see how special it is. You don't realize how unbelievably great a treasure you have. Then it takes people like me to tell you, ‘Come on, you know, there isn't anything like this anywhere in the world.”
We have the Mayans, the Egyptians, but all those civilizations are dead. The flow of knowledge has been cut off. There is no oral tradition left or very little. Only specks here and there that are difficult to interpret. In India that river is not yet completely cut off.
It is such an unbelievable treasure of things that one can learn from. It is also important to not always to take it literally. It is a code built on many layers. There is the astronomical layer, which reflects the yoga layers, which reflects the teaching about consciousness.
I personally think there were more ancient layers of human civilization before the Ice Ages. Traces of that can be found in the Indian traditions. As since there is a continuous oral tradition in India it is more likely that we can find traces of that in India through the Puranas, than in other parts of the world.
How has the world of academia come together with the world of the performing arts in the recent past?
There was always this balance between the individual path and the path of society and the path of humanity as a whole. We are not bits and pieces anymore. We are all interconnected. That is a miracle that has happened in the past 30 years and it's never been like that before at least not in our memory, not in historic memory.
What I did was my personal quest and I'd like to share the fruits of my personal quest, but in the end, it's my personal quest. There is also the cosmic push, life itself has this cosmic intent - the intent towards higher consciousness.
What are your thoughts on the role of the Deekshitars in preserving this?
Who else. Do you have any idea of the sacrifice they make at a personal, individual level. I've lived with my Deekshitar for nearly 25 years, with his family. They have a great pride in the tradition but as individuals, they have no choice of partner, or in career.
Raja often complained with sadness. He said in his father's generation every Deekshitar was a scholar. In this generation, there were no scholars, except him. They have a modern family, with just two two children and that is not enough to preserve the community. This modern life with a lot of temptations would be a challenge for them as a community. It is an enormous sacrifice by the person in the service of the tradition.
Raja had a Western mind and that’s why he asked why. I don't know if there's anybody else after him who's asking ‘why’ or doing anything with that and he never walked out.
He lived as a Deekshitar whether he was in the West, or in India. So he never walked out. He never had that freedom. I can decide whether I do Madi achar or not. He didn't have the choice.
I often see these discussions and books about how terribly Brahmins opress other castes. But to be a Brahmin and to keep that achara, and to do that, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed and and always be conscious about that, about the thousand and one things you are not supposed to do is a big responsibility. I don't think anybody would volunteer.
What does Chidambaram mean to you?
I came to Chidambaram partly due to academic interest and partly because of dance. I had heard about Padma Subrahmanyam’s research, but it was published much later. I wanted to see the karanas and photograph them.
I came to Chidambaram on my third trip with my Guru. We left Madras early on narrow roads. The bus driver was falling asleep and it was quite terrifying. We were told the temple would open at four o'clock . It was around 1988-89, just after the great kumbhabhishekam. There were no buildings in the courtyard (the outer prakara between the gopuram and the temple). It was January and already quite hot. So we stood near the door where there was a little bit of shade. At four o'clock the bells rang, and they opened the doors and I crossed the threshold. I stepped on the first of the 21 steps, and I had this unbelievable emotion overcoming me, a spiritual experience. I can't put it into words. It was like coming home. I started crying and couldn't stop crying for at least half an hour, maybe longer.
My Guru was like a second mother to me so we just walked down the steps and a deekshitar sent us to the nritya Sabha. We were sitting, when my guru asked me if I would like to dance there. I asked her if it was even possible. She got us permission. We went to Tanjore and returned with a group of musicians and I danced for the lord.
That emotion has never left me. Even now when the Temple festival was going on, I was here in Holland, and had this terrible diagnosis and I felt His dance. The whole temple is built to reflect that the Lord dances in the heart and that goes back to do Upanishads. That's why the two sabhas have been built and the two steps are there because they're like the chambers of the heart with the blood flowing in and out. This is the Chit Sabha or Chit Ambalam or the hall of consciousness.
I think these ancient temples are attractive as they applied the rules of sacred geometry and everything reflects this, embodies it. One of the reasons why these murthis are so attractive is because these temples reflect the cosmic truth about Phi and Pi, sacred geometry, pramanas, ratios in different ways and so different temples have different energies and the ancients knew that.
We have some texts, but we have lost lots of them and we have lost the oral tradition, so we are kind of half groping in the dark. At some point when people do a ritual because their ancestors did it, they will wake up and ask, ‘Why am I doing this’. And then if the Why hasn't got an answer, they will drop it and that's what's happening. We can find a way but it takes time, patience, dedication. It's a kind of gnyana yoga, a yoga of seeking knowledge, the truth.
By going through the rules and by absorbing them, and sort of becoming one with the rules creativity, one can go to a new level. Unfortunately, we have lost the soul, the spirit of enquiry. The danger about that is, when we lose the connection to the soul we also lose our conscience, So science is being weaponized. You can't weaponize yoga, you can sell it a bit, but you can't weaponize it. You can't harm people, you can't do what the Nazis did if you're really spiritually awakened. That’s what Ashtanga yoga is about. India’s concept of a spiritual conscience is a very important part of keeping science on the right track.
India is the civilization that gave us the concept of Dharma. Everybody in India knows what Dharma is, whether they keep it or not. You can ask anyone - is this the right thing, should you do this. Is this your dharma? And hopefully you will get the right answer.