I am somewhat intrigued by Meera, I mean the one and only Meera, the queen who left home to become a sage. I knew of a grand sage called Meera who wrote songs which the kirtanayas had sung when they came to our house on the evenings during the mourning period after my grandmother’s death but I was really introduced to her through Amar Chitra Katha which I read during my stay in Nirole. Nirole is an obscure village in which my mother’s ancestral home is located and as children we we had to be there during the Durga Puja. On one of the Puja days, after having stuffed myself with Prasad, in a super elated mood I opened my bag full of reading materials. In it there was an Amar Chitra Katha, most probably gifted to me by Namama and Namani because they were the ones who had introduced me to every kind of children’s literature. The particular volume I had with me was on Meera. As I read through the trails and travails of Meera, the one thing which struck me was her courage; she had walked alone out of the palace to become a wandering sage. In days when Dida would scold us when we went anywhere beyond the Thakur Pukur, the largish pond just behind the house, Meera’s long and lonely walk seemed outrageous. I could understand Gautam leaving home at the dead of night, but Rama who was ordered to be exiled had two very concerned human beings, Sita and Laxman go with him. Roads have never been safe for women in India, it must have been much less safe in the days of Meera and yet she went, went away for good. As I lifted my eyes from the pages of the comic book, the long winding path that led away from the rear door of the house past Thakur Pukur, past bokshi pukur far into the oblivion where the taal trees formed a natural horizon rose before me. I imagined a lonely figure, young, thin, oily and smelly with sweat and covered with dust walking towards the end of the fields, to dip right into the edge of the earth where it met the vaulted sky. Meera was set in the eyes of my mind. I know she never lived in Bengal, but whenever I think of Meera, I don’t know why I always sense her walking down that path in Nirole.
Last Sunday, Shukladi, my cousin invited to a series of recitals on Meera’s compositions. Meera wrote prolifically, set them to tune abundantly. She mixed ragas, talas, dissolved the classical into the folk, twisted the folk to become a classical raga, played on words which sometimes portrayed her as one helplessly in love and at other times into a demanding royalty. Meera was born a princess, married to become queen and when she did relinquish her world, she was to become the Sage-Empress, Rajarshi. This is why folk accounts remember her not only as Meera Dewaani but also as Meera Rani. Even in her abstinence, her selfless devotion, her shameless expression of helpless love, Meera never unseats herself from the fact that she is born to rule. Meera is an Emperor, albeit without a seat, but more so because her Empire has no walls. Meera’s greatest follower was none other than our great Akbar who used music as a thread to sew together an Imperial Unity. No wonder he relied so much upon Kabir, the thread maker. I can sense imperial unity in Meera, her songs range from the aridness of Mand, the swamps of Banaskantha, the rocks of Chittor and rings right through the woods of the Narmada Valley to reach the lush of Madurai. Then she walks towards the sea, in a way that the originator of Vaishnavism had done, to immerse her into the sea never to rise or to be seen again.
Meera’s bhajans must be sung in many ways; sometimes they are in desperate strains mingling with the sands of the desert, sometimes they are calm and non chalant sketched upon the rocks of denuded old mountains; but at other times they grow sultry with sorrow, heavy with desire. But in the compositions which are sung in the heavier tonalities of the early morning or the late night ragas, Meera only chants her own name, Meera, Meera, Meera. In such moments, we know that her Lord is only her alter ego, she rules in the name of the Lord, in her moments of utmost silence, when she is at one with the night and its jasmines, she bares her soul only to herself, it is only her and her. She sings Meera, Meera, Meera.
All the students of Alaap sang her bhajans very well. Some sang with the elan of classical singers, some tried to overpower the listeners with her craft, some were conscious of their training, some sang out of devotion for their teachers and their faces glowing as they renditioned the guruma’s compositions. But there was one singer who I thought was genuinely suited to sing Meera’s bhajans. She was called Ratan, strange because Meera’s husband was called Ratan as well. Ratan was the Guruma’s mother’s maid and the song she sang was the one which Guruma’s dead mother used to sing. When Ratan sang she was beyond herself; in her voice there was only devotion, the tunes seemed to follow her devoutness, her consecration led the song through. She was beyond herself, she invoked her deceased employer with every ounce of gratitude that she had. It was also her gurudakshina, the ultimate gift to her patron. I thought of congratulating her myself.
As Madhusree and I were walking out of the auditorium after the show, I saw Bidisha, the star singer of the group with Ratan. Ratan was talking on the phone; Bidisha said that it was her son calling for Ratan. The little boy was crying profusely because Ratan was leaving Delhi and going away to her village. Ratan seemed unfazed with the boy’s wailings; she was neither happy, nor sad. There was no reaction to this pathetic entreaty. Are you going back to get married? No, no plans she told us. Then why you are going away, I asked. She did not seem to be even aware of the fact that she has a choice but not to go. Where are you from, I ask. She names a village in Bengal. Suddenly I see in my buried memories, that long winding village path, past the Thakur Pukur, past the Bokshi pukur into the ends of the earth and sky where the taal trees are lined up where I first saw Meera.