A remarkable event that is sure to captivate the soul is being presented by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in the heart of Mumbai’s cultural hub. The distinctive, multidisciplinary festival ‘GODDESS: A Celebration of the Divine Feminine’ is organised and curated by Arundhathi Subramaniam. Gathering together a tapestry of Goddess poems from many eras and places, it honours the Sacred Feminine in all her guises. We are privileged to have the curator, Arundhathi Subramaniam, share her insights with us today as we explore the core of this incredible celebration.
Excerpts from the interview:
Can you tell us about the concept of ‘Goddess’ and the process of curating the event?
The immediate impetus is a Penguin anthology around the female presence in sacred Indian poetry that I’ve been working on. It is one of the reasons why I’ve been immersed in goddess poetry these past five years. Hopefully, the book, Wild Women, will be out early next year.
But why this anthology? There is a deeper impetus. I think we all sense that old paradigms based on power and conquest are looking more fallible than before. A new story seems to be emerging. On the one hand, authoritarian impulses are intensifying, but, on the other, women’s voices are being heard across the world more than ever. A wisdom associated with the feminine seems emergent—one that sees the need to combine empathy with empowerment, sensitivity with strength, and assertion with responsibility. The physical and spiritual ecology of the planet could well hinge on this wisdom. Not surprisingly, then, goddesses are returning. We need them to.
Personally, it felt like it was time to invoke some of these radiant female icons, their mysteries, and their wisdom traditions—to celebrate them rather than engage in lament for what has been lost or simply battle with those forces that have long suppressed them. In a poem, I once wrote about how life is about mastering ‘the trick to turn rage into celebration’. I think, too, of Emerson, who said, ‘Life is a festival only to the wise.’ Hopefully, this festival is a small collective step in the direction of that wisdom!
How important is gender representation in spirituality and literature?
I used to believe that gender was irrelevant to spirituality. But when women and men inhabit their bodies, their societies, their cultural contexts, and their very worlds differently, how can their spiritual journeys not be different? The destination may be the same, but the journeys have their similarities and differences.
Also, while this subcontinent has a wonderful unbroken tradition of goddess veneration, for many, this is a mere matter of decorative iconography, and little else. Also, if you scratch the mythological topsoil of any culture, a wellspring of goddess names comes pouring forth. How did we lose these figures? It is time to explore the inspiration and wisdom they represent. If we dig deeper, we begin to find that the goddess archetype is increasingly speaking to many, across ideological and religious persuasions. It is time to ask ourselves why that is the case.
As for literature, that’s an old story. I’m not going to rehash the issues we know so well: a patriarchal literary canon, the consignment of women artists to the periphery, or, to erasure, the many insidious ways in which old boys’ networks still operate. That skewed power equation is well known. I believe all of us, whatever our gender, feel the pain of living in an unbalanced world. There is a collective thirst for a new, more inclusive paradigm.
How do you think art, culture, and spirituality are related in the past and present?
People everywhere want to a sense of belonging to a past, but don’t want to be burdened by that identity. I don’t personally subscribe to a deep-freeze approach to culture or spirituality. An inheritance should be dynamic and fluid and responsive to a changing context. This subcontinent has a staggeringly rich cultural and spiritual heritage. Regrettably, for various historical reasons, some of it has been lost, or trivialized, or sidelined, or distorted. But there is much that is still alive. And it is important to reclaim those aspects that seem valuable or relevant to us today.
Personally, I have written a fair amount about Bhakti poetry, for instance, because it is a powerful literary inheritance — anti-hierarchical, spiritually audacious, creatively stunning. The goddess archetype also has a deep resonance for me, as I believe it does for many others. It is a powerful way to reclaim spine, to inhabit one’s own cultural and spiritual skin with strength and grace, to celebrate cultural plurality and individual uniqueness, and to heal the ancient pain caused by lopsided power dynamics. It is time to honour that legacy.
What is in store for the audience? Share your thoughts about the event and the line-up?
We have a vibrant lineup of scholars, poets, translators, musicians, theatre actors and dancers. All of them will explore the goddess archetype in their own very personal ways. From 8th century Sanskrit poetry to a performance on the Karnataka folk goddess, Yellamma, we have a sweep from classical to folk traditions. From the Garba of Gujarat to the Shyama Sangeet of Bengal, from the Tamil poetry of Subramania Bharati to a Khasi poem to the Earth-mother, we have a linguistic sweep as well. From Demeter to Durga, Artemis to Abhirami, we will meet a fabulous pantheon of goddesses, too. A festival like this is intended to be experiential, not merely cerebral. So, what can the audience expect? Hopefully, a rich sensory experience And maybe a little madness as well!
(The participants include Devdutt Pattanaik, Mani Rao, Sampurna Chattarji, K Srilata, Sanjukta Wagh, Aditi Bhagwat, Shilpa Mudbi, Adithya Kothakota, Anitha Santhanam, Annie Finch, Shernaz Patel, Anahita Uberoi, Anol Chatterjee, Manasi Parekh and Parthiv Gohil.