The foamy surf laps gently on the shores of Mahabalipuram. I visited there when I was a little girl just as so many tourists visit there. The rock sculptures were beautiful and expressive but that was all they were to me. Beautiful sculptures cut in rock by the sea side. Till I read Sivagamiyin Sabatham by Kalki. A story of romance, art, valor all woven together like strands in a beautiful cloth, it captured my imagination like few other things have. In that immortal classic, Sivagami is a dancer non pareil and Narasimha, the heir to a powerful throne. Narasimha Pallava invades Vathapi, capital of the Chalukyas, and razes it to the ground primarily for the sake of love for Sivagami and her unequalled prowess in dance. I thought it pretty silly at that time. I’ve changed my mind since then about love and art.
Art seems to have a mysterious, irrational and irresistible sway over people. The striking chords of a song, an energetic dance executed gracefully, a life-like painting all have a way of arresting one’s attention and transforming moods like nothing else can.
5000 BC. Cave men returning from a day of perils and sheer terror draw stick figures on the walls of a cave depicting the day’s events. Time passes by. The rudiments of an agrarian, river-based civilization begin to appear. The ancients slave under the hot sun and fight nature’s vagaries in the sheer will to survive. Yet, they find the time to paint pots with bright colors depicting scenes from daily life and expressing their feelings. Time continues its unrelenting march. And today, we find an explosion of art forms, a variety of ways to express our innermost thoughts and feelings.
It is not very remarkable that today, we devote more time to music, art or literature. We have the leisure, the assurance of a long life and the technology to aid us. But in the Darwinian struggle for existence, what relevance did painting a pot or carving stones have to daily survival? Of what use was decorating cave walls with bright colors when your very life is in question everyday? Yet humans have from time unknown devoted time to such things. Perhaps the human eye innately craves symmetry, balance and aesthetic sense? I don’t know.
I happened to watch Chandramukhi on Saturday. In the movie, there’s a painting of Chandramukhi. I am no art connoisseur or judge of great art, but that painting attracted me irresistibly. There was a glow to the face, a grace to the mudra struck, a speaking quality to the eyes that imprinted itself on my mind. As I write this post, I can still see the painting in my mind’s eye. That day, I found myself wishing that I had learnt to dance!
The foamy surf laps gently on the shores of Mahabalipuram. I visited them again on a moonlit night after a gap of many years and this time, I had a strange appreciation for the Pallava’s art and Sivagami’s dance. I do not know if Sivagami’s father was indeed a sculptor or if he modeled those incomparable statuettes on his daughter or if Narasimha Pallava did indeed love Sivagami or even if Sivagami was real or not. But I do know this: that night as I roamed around the beach amongst the rock-cut sculptures, I felt that they were talking to me, telling me stories of the days when Narasimha Pallava enjoyed Sivagami’s timeless dance; of their creators; of romances and tragedies; of mortal desires and immortal creations. How many people who go there know of the history that lies behind them?
I am still mesmerized when I think of that day. The Pallavas are long gone and so is their kingdom but art lives on.
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. “
I think I understand why Narasimha Pallava reduced Vathapi to cinders.