What do I make of her?
I, a 21st-century modern woman, and she, a 16th-century swooning piya-ki-daasi? I – who would like to think of myself as resolutely in control, assertive of my rights and choices, and she – who talks of submission and surrender of will to a male Lord? What sense do I make of her, this – Mirabai?
And I might add, living as we do, in a world of wars and conquests, of victories that "shock and awe", is it really respectable to talk of – surrender?
Mira ke prabhu girdhar nagar,
Mein to janam janam ki daasi, she sang…
What do I make of her then, this epitome of feminine submission? Whose entire being yearned helplessly for the sound of her Bansidhar – Holder of the Flute?
And then, I am reminded of the words of a friend of mine, Vidya Rao, a thumri singer and writer, who says that the flute is a symbol of the human soul.
A simple instrument, the flute, she says, is made of bamboo – a humble reed. It is earth-born. And yet it contains air, the breath of prana itself, bringing together the heaviest and lightest of elements – that which is most rooted, most visible and tangible, and that which is imperceptible and inexperiencable, except in its absence.
Like the nature of the flute, we too are earth-born aren't we? Made of humble dust. And yet flute-like, we hold within ourselves the emptiness that is the playground of prana – of truth, beauty, of life itself. It is only when we are empty – emptied of all our vanities, our ego-driven aspirations, our identification with objects, relationships and positions, emptied of all the baggage that we so assiduously and nervously accumulate – emotional and material – it is only then, that we begin to resonate with a higher truth, we begin to make music, as it were.
How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup? The emptiness of the flute resounds in this Zen story in which a disciple approaches his master asking to understand Zen. He holds in his hand a cup that is full to the brim. The Zen master smiles as he pours fragrant tea into the already full cup. "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" he says.
So – when we are empty, unencumbered by the baggage of the past, free of the fearful burden of the future, we become simple, unadorned, pared down to just – our – self. And it is this emptiness isn't it, that allows us to be creative? To make art, to sing, dance, paint, write or simply, to live our ordinary lives beautifully, as if our life itself were a song.
It is then that we realise the richness of the flute's simplicity, the completeness of its empty space, its elemental paradox of earth and air.
And quite suddenly I do begin to make sense of her. Yes, this was Mira's surrender, wasn't it? She let go of things that I cling onto. She made herself empty, so empty that Hari walked in and filled her very being. She had the courage to be out of control, rather to recognise how little really is in our control. And to meet that realisation not with fear, but with abandonment, vulnerability and surrender.
And so she begins to speak to me. Mira, who could hear the call of the flute, who yearned to be one with the holder of its emptiness, her emptiness – her Murlidhar. This is the God at whose feet she worshipped. The Rana Sanghas of this world were important but easy victories for Mira. But they were the side-shows. The bigger battle was one she waged within and won, through surrender.
And as the immensity of her struggle, the magnitude of her humility, dawns on me, I am humbled, and for a brief moment – a tantalisingly brief moment – I too can hear the call of the flute.
Written & performed by Shabnam Virmani in 2003, as part of Bhava Yatra, a musical narrative by Sunaad, an Indian classical choral music group based in Bangalore
(Excerpts from Vidya Rao's "Lightness of Being and Bearable Joy", Times of India, The Speaking Tree)