Sep 18, 2020, 22:08 IST

Woman As Poetry

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Indian tradition has enshrined the beautiful in the woman. In body and mind, through adornment and anticipation, in longing and belonging, on temple walls and in opulent havelis, on railings of stupas and in stepwells, on victory towers and in paintings, the surasundari embodies and represents what we consider beautiful.

In her, we not only have the poetry and sensuality of the beautiful, but even more, the serenity and spirituality of ultimate beauty. Surasundari is first and foremost prakriti, materiality, endowed with sensual beauty, and like prakriti, she is also the abode of growth and fertility which she shares with the world of nature around her.

The beautiful woman is also saubhagya, good fortune, and in representing her in temples and havelis, she performs an apotropaic function, of averting bad luck, and confers grace and auspiciousness on them. A variation of the surasundari is the shalabhanjika, the tree nymph, and in this role she makes the Ashoka tree blossom with the kick of her left foot.

Sensuous women are an integral part of temple architecture and railings of stupas.

As early as the 2nd century BCE, sensuous female figures in the form of yakshis, shalabhanjikas and vegetation spirits were depicted on Buddhist and Jain monuments at Bharhut, Sanchi, Bodhgaya, Mathura and elsewhere.

The concept of shubha, auspiciousness, underlines these beautiful figures of art, as shubha and saundarya, beauty, were equated. One of the most sensuous aspects of Indian art, in poetry, painting and sculpture is the depiction of lata, creepers. Metaphorically standing for the sensuous woman, the creeper also represents jivatman, the questing human in search of the divine.

Vastu texts specifically prescribe the carving of auspicious surasundaris in temples. The Shilpa Prakasha, composed between 9th12th centuries, enjoins the depiction of alasa kanyas, indolent maidens, on temples and gives typologies of 16 maidens in various moods and activities such as darpana, holding a mirror; torana, leaning on the door; dalamalika, making the gesture of touching a branch of a tree; padmagandha, enjoying the fragrance of a lotus; ketakibharana, wearing ketaki blossom; matrimurti, image of a mother; chamara, holding a fly-whisk; nartaki, dancer; shukasarika, playing with a parrot or maina; nupurapadika, tying ankle-bells; mardala, drummer, and so on.

Surasundari is a beautiful embodiment of prakriti and makes the understanding and affirmation of prakriti an essential part of the realisation of ultimate reality. While remaining supremely and elegantly sensuous, surasundaris point and lead the aesthete to spirituality, and once again make the point that the secular and sacred are not bipolar opposites, but a continuum. What is noteworthy is that vastu texts emphasise that surasundaris should be shown with adhodrishti, their eyes looking down. They are not looking at anyone and, unlike the romantic nayikas, do not lock their gaze with the onlooker. Surasundaris are an important part of the treasure of akritis, forms, in Indian tradition and remain an inspiration to poets and painters alike for centuries. Thus it is that poets, and we with them, exclaim, “Woman thou art poetry.” ■


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