Friday, August 17, 2012

Power of Myth

KaliPainting by Tyeb Mehta

Recently a European curator asked group of artist in India "But why are Indian artists so obsessed with myths?" Everyone turned to me as if I was the culprit. As if I was the only artist who was so parochial still dealing/ speaking the language of myths. Not knowing how to deal with her question ( was it a condescending one? was it a genuine curiosity? or was it  meant to suggest Indian art has not moved beyond gods and goddesses and demons) I just asked her to clarify what she meant by 'obsessed'.

Now put on a back foot she said I am genuinely trying to study Indian art for a while . But all I find that every contemporary artist at some point in time has touched upon the themes of mythology. Hussain for instance one of the India's greatest artist has major body dealing with themes of mythology. Tyeb Mehta another great artist painted themes of death and destruction through motif of Kali. And it is not just old generation even new generation is still dabbling in mythology take the case of Pushmala and her themes.... 
"Ok I just interrupted her mid way. "I get your question" 
Silence prevailed as I began to grope for the right words. "Good question " I said to her. I recollected an incident in my life.
When I came to Mumbai, in order to make a living I worked as freelance  illustrator with Times group. Times group one of the leading publishing house in India has various publications under its roof. For instance beside political journals, they have science magazines, women's, film economic magazines . So as a freelancer one always got some work or other.  Economic Times one of the leading business journal paid well for single illustration but illustrating a business story was one of the difficult tasks. At least I did not like much. But for the sake of money I picked up the stories.

Rule is every illustrator has to read the story before illustrating it. A thousand word story was about business expansion plans of a prominent business house in India. Write up was equally boring.
I turned to good old mythic imagery. I drew a man in three piece suit lying like Lord Vishnu and through his navel lotus various products such as TV, washing machines, computers emerging out. The illustration was meant to show that company was diversifying into consumer goods such as televisions washing machines etc. Thats it. The illustrations was published. I took my money and forgot about the illustration.( unfortunately I never preserved this illustration of mine. But I am sure  if I look into  ET archive I will find it).

After almost a month while walking on the footpath of Mumbai I noticed this very same illustration neatly cut and pasted in a cobbler's shop . I got curious. why a humble cobbler who can hardly read and write would understand a business story. “sir, can you tell me why have you stuck this picture in your shop” I asked him. “which one this one?” He asked back without much interest as if I was wasting his time. “I cut it out from the news paper that came wrapped with some old shoes” He explained. “But why this picture? What is there in this picture?” I was getting little impatient with him. “I liked the idea” he was still not ready to open up “what Idea?” I asked.  He looked at me for a moment  and said "I liked that bhagavan (God) comes in all forms. In old times lord Visnu wore dhoti today he wears black suit. Today god appears through Televisions, computers...... and takes modern form. He is still present among us.......” words faded as he went on explaining. I had never imagined such an explanation was possible. But the humble cobbler had derived some profound meaning from the image. At least that is what it meant to him. I never told him I drew that picture. 

What happened was, cobbler was referring to the mythic image of Vishnu which he was familiar with  and reinterpreting the new image with new context.  That is the time I realized the power of myth.
It allows an open ended interpretation. Meaning/s that might be personal and metaphysical. When Tyeb Mehta painted figure of Kali in his painting, he left the possibilities of interpretation to the viewer who could be a cobbler on the street or an astute art critic of contemporary art. And every interpretation is valid experience.

To understand the power of myth you have to live the myth. Or shall I say you have to Believe it. only than the meaning/s  are possible. Without the knowledge of myth it is just a story the way curator was understanding  Mehta or Hussain's art.

To return to the question of why Indian artists are 'obsessed' with mythology.  Answer could be sheer  power of mythic image and  its reach and possibilities of interpretation available to its people.

I turned to the curator and said, Honestly, I have no answer to your question” .

Monday, August 13, 2012

Back to blog

I have returned to this blog after a very long absence.
My apologies for this  long gap.
When I started this blog I took more an academic view on myths. But I did not feel motivated to write in this fashion as there is lot of academic literature on myths available.
Not knowing how to proceed with  this blog I just kept silent.
But I think I am now ready to write on myths as it comes to my mind, without being academic and preachy.  Hopefully that will give me enough freedom to express myself freely on the topic.
I still want to assure you that this blog is only for the myths and symbols and related topics of mythology. I will be more regular on this more now on..... hope this time is going to be a fun ride..

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Types of myth

There are various types of myths. Creation myth or cosmogonic myth is just one of the type.
For instance you have 1. Fertility myths, 2. eschatological myths, , 3 hero myths, 4, etiological myths, 5 myths of a deluge or destruction, nature myths so on and so forth.

Classification of the myths may remain more or less stable across the civilizations, but mythic narratives changes depending on the topography of the land , sociology ,economic, geographic historic etc.,conditions of the people. For instance myth from agricultural people will be differ from plains and plains people's myth will differ from Island or people who live in the snow capped region . So is the case of the people who live in deserts. Narratives depends on the topography, people's living condition, customs behaviors and beliefs.

However, the basic questions dealt in these stories remain more or less same.

And what are these questions?

How did this universe came into being?
what is the role of man in this universe?
Who is god? Or is there any god?
what is the role of God and his relationship with humans?
What is sex? Who were the first couple?
How a child is born? and why?
how does a man pass through the stages of life from birth , childhood , adult, old age and death?
What is society? What is the role of man and woman in society?
How to survive on this earth? Will earth be destroyed?
Is there anything called immortality? and how can one find it?
what is death or disease? What happens to a man after he dies?
Is there any other world besides this world?

And many more....
Look at the type of question. These are not simple questions of amusement or entertainment but a very serious deliberation on human existence and condition on earth. Some questions can be answered through philosophical deliberations, some are psychological and some are simply sociological conditions and yet some are pure metaphysical issues.

Most of the questions deal with rites of passage... All religions consider them sacred tales and preserve in their holy texts. In short myths defines the world view for you.

This answers our first question how myths are different from other traditional tales such as fables, legends, folk tales, fairy tales, or moral stories for that matter.

Does myth deal with truth?

Next blog...

(About Image: a Tantric representation of Purusha myth as described in the last blog. It shows various parts of the gigantic man who was sacrificed to build this universe)
(Image source

Friday, October 14, 2011

Making a myth , using a myth.

Can you make a myth?

sure! All myths are made by humans.
Then who makes a myth? and who uses them?
Can I and you make a myth?
That is a much more complex question to answer.

Let us see who makes myths?
Having said that myths are made by humans, it is still not clear who is the author of any single myth that we know so far. Authorship of a myth is a problem becasue myths and beliefs were practiced by humans much before they developed language. Before such stories were recorded in an any textual form humans practiced them and transmitted these stories and beliefs orally. Secondly myth is just not a story that we can cook it one fine day and next day it becomes myth. For any myth to get accepted into a social belief it needs years of acceptance by the people. so making a myth is a very slow process, sometimes dating back to paleolithic era of human race.

In India most ancient myths are found in the Vedas. And it is believed that Vedas are a-paurisheya meaning not written by any human intellect. But the hymns that have been gathered through the meditative vision of the ancient seers. Certain types of myths are prominent, specially the cosmological or myths of origin or more popularly known as creation myths. Seers who contemplated on how this universe might have originated have recorded their visions in hymns.

For instance:
It is said in the beginning there was only waters. And there was nothing but a golden egg lying in the womb of the watery universe ( hiranyagarbha) . As the heat began to generate this egg opened and upper half of the egg shell became the sky, lower half became the nether region and the center / or space in between was created through the space occupied by the hiranya-nabh or the sun himself( later on he is identified with lord Visnu). From this self generating being the universe were formed. Thus the myth tries to build an imagination of the universe that is formed from sun. In other words myth tries to suggest, Sun was the first self creation (autochthon) from whom the universe was created. Creation myth gives you an idea how space, air, water, sun atmosphere came into existance.

Take a look at the second example:
In the beginning there was nothing but a gigantic being called Purusha or first man. God decided to sacrifice this Purusha. and thus various elements of the universe emerged out of this gigantic man. Such as from head came the sky, from his navel the air,from his feet earth. from his mind sprang the moon,from his eyes came sun, from his mouth came Indra, and Agni(fire), from his breath wind. so on and so forth. every element element of universe was generated.

Both examples speculate on how universe came into existence. Is universe created through Sun? Or is universe created through sacrificing the first Man. Or universe was created to copulation like human do? There are many more examples which give various possibilities how this universe was created.

There is one common theme underlines all creation myths, even if the narrative may differ from tale to tale. These tales classify three categories. 1 Creation of Universe. 2. Organization of universe. 3, creation of man and his place in the universe.

Considering the abstract nature of creation myths it is generally accepted that creation myths are written by seers or priests, philosophers, thinkers or poets and artists. Such myths are intrinsic part of the ritual practices of that civilization. In the beginning of any sacrifice one has to define your space in the larger universe and then call upon the gods to enter that space to intervene in the human act.

Next blog what are the different types of myths.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Understanding term myth.

Scholars of 19th century, misconstrued the term myth , connoting , primitive, barbaric, uncivilized and even falsehood. Thus linking cultures which followed the religious and mythic systems as backward , unscientific and non-progressiveness civilizations . Thanks to scholars like Strauss, Bathes and other Post Modern thinkers whose works have shown that myth or mythology is not just a primitive thought but part of the human consciousness irrespective of primitive or modern world you inhabit.

However the confusion over the meaning is still far from over. And in my understanding, this confusion is mainly because of the self styled mythologist, and media pundits who have used and abused the term myth loosely to connote any traditional tale. General perception in India is Ramayana , Mahabharata or even Panchatantra and other traditional tales are all myths. In short if the tale has been quoted in ancient text then it is a myth. So WRONG! Ramayana and Mahabharata are epics not myths. (Of course one finds mythic narratives embedded within these epics but that does not distinguish these texts as myths or mythological text ). It should be made clear onset that not all traditional tales are myths.

I often encounter people who tell me how much they were inspired by reading myths from Amar Chitra Katha.For many the stories they read in Amar Chitra Katha all qualify to be myths , because that is how they encountered the ancient Indian culture through the comic books. Well in-spite the comic series classifying the series under various types of tales such as historic tales, Jataka tales, Birbal tales etc. public perception tends to ignore such classifications to call them under a bracket term of MYTHS.

So what is a myth?

Mythologists from ancient times have realized that myths are a 'special' kind of tales. They differentiated them from other types of tales such as folk tales, fairy tales, didactic tales, legends, historic tales, parables, fables etc. Like most of these tales mentioned above myths are traditional tales and yet unlike other traditional tales, which functioned primarily as entertainment , these class of tales were considered "sacred" because the purpose of these tales differed from other tales.

It was also observed, that all ancient civilizations preserved these tales along with their most revered literature, rites and beliefs of the society. And for this reason many of the myths were found within the religious texts. But it is not necessary that these tales were religious in nature. Or myths have to be part of any religious text.I will try and explain this in later blogs. Many scholars believe that mythic tales were incorporated in the religious texts much later by priests and other religious authorities so that people should not forget these tales. Such was the power of these tales over its people.

In ancient India , Yaska a great philosopher and sage of 7th Cen B.C.had identified these tales in his book Nirukta as 1. Aitihasika( relating to history); 2. Mantra Brahmana vada( eulogy relating to prayer and ritual); 3. nirukta (relating to etymology). Since then many thinkers , philosophers and scholars have tried to analyze these tales and understand the role and function these tales called myths to the society that created and preserved such tales.

Many travelers missionaries and philosopher have recorded myths in ancient times but rarely have these tales have been studied under academic systems. It is only in late 19th century German Indologist, F. Max Mueller initiated a branch to study the similarities between Greek and Vedic myths which re kindled the interest in study of mythology especially of Indian mythology . Anthropologist who also undertook the study of foreign cultures which were conquered and colonized nations provided opportunity to bring out various facets of mythology of different world civilization.

In the next blog I would like to elaborate on the myth and process of myth making.

Image Copyrights
Ramayana: The Epic
An Animation movie by Ketan Mehta


I call myself Kali! Deadly Kali!!
and this blog is dedicated to all that is connected to mythology.

Why mythology?
Simply becasue that is what I read, learn and teach!
I have been formally initiated into the study of comparative mythology back in 1994.
We all know myths becasue that's what is given to us from our child hood but there are very few opportunities to learn it formal ways.

I decided to blog about myths becasue there is so much curiosity among people in general about myths and there is so much confusion out there. Mostly becasue there are so many self proclaimed gurus in media, who want to make fast name and money by calling themselves mythologist. But most of the times what they are trying to tell and entertain people by narrating traditional stories under the guise of Mythic tale. Let me say this onset, all traditional tales are not myths. For instance, Ramayana and Mahabharata are not myths.( which is general perception) Ramayana and Mahabharata are epics. There are many myths embedded within these epics, but that does not qualify Ramayana and Mahabharata as mythic tales. So it is important to know if the story is a myth or not. Why we call some stories myths? what is the difference between a myth and other stories? and why do we need myths after all?

I intend to put across my own understanding of these questions I raised,and try and analyze it in this blog.

Hope you enjoy this blog!