Book Name- Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess
Author- Priya Sarukkai Chhabria & Ravi Shankar
To translate or interpret Andal in an academic sense is to define, hold and contextualize her outpouring — an attempt in the realm of when (8th-9th CE), why (what brings the scholar to her) and how (the mechanics of word choice). But what does it mean to let Andal “be”, to embrace her with the same passion and awakening as she did her Narayana? Andal is a river that is grand, hidden, swift, placid, calm, violent, intense and docile, her every expression a nuance. This simply means that any retelling is a creative endeavor. Priya Sarukkai Chhabria and Ravi Shankar have gifted us poems that do precisely that, and in that process bring alive the metaphoric Andal in their intriguingly titled Andal – The Autobiography of a Goddess.
The Naalaayira Divya Prabhandam (4,000 divine hymns) are the collected works of 12 Tamil Vaishnavite saints (6th – 9th CE) referred to as the alvars. These works are one of the earliest compositions in the Bhakti movement, inspiring similar expressions across the subcontinent for centuries. These hymns were collected and compiled by Nathamuni (9th- 10th CE).
Among the 12 saints, Andal occupies a special place. She is the only women among them and her Tiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumozhi are without doubt more part of day-to-day Vaishnavite culture than the poetry of any other alvar.
Andal (Kodhai) was born to Perialwar, a revered alvar whose collection of 473 hymns are first in the Naalaayira Divya Prabhandam anthology. Andal is said to have attained unison with her beloved, Lord Narayana, as a young woman. Meera of Mewar was the Andal of the north and not the other way around, as it is so often said — not that they are in competition.
Two gifted poets who envision form and experience very differently, working in concert, bring to this book unusual possibilities in feeling.
Chhabria has re-created Andal while Shankar has re-imagined her. She uses the play of image, experience and thought (that Andal miraculously bundles into a word or two) to excavate Andal. She enters her source through the membrane of Andal’s imagination, only to subsume herself within it. The body itself is lila (play), which Andal envisions as the site of the eternal play. Shankar, on the other, hand places himself within the ull arthham (the inner meaning) directly. He lets the descriptive emerge from what appears to be an intellectual ecstasy born of an understanding of Andal’s spirituality. In this reversal, he at times inverts and subverts Andal.
As a musician, I have listened to and rendered many Tiruppavais set to tune exquisitely by the maestro Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. To my surprise Chhabria’s Keesu Keesu was just as musical, making me wonder if her re-creations can be sung too. Maayanai, Thumani Maadatthu and Maale Manivanna are great examples of how Chhabria peels every context and imagery to touch upon the inner essence. Her nuanced interpretations give Andal a present aesthetic reality.
I must confess that reading Shankar’s Tiruppavai after Chhabria’s was unsettling. I was looking for a verse-to-verse correlation. Shankar demolishes that relationship with great élan, though he too writes in a consistent four-line verse form. His poetry brings the descriptive of many Tiruppavais together, slowing picking up pace as we move towards the last one. A wonderful technique that not only mirrors Andal’s imaginative speed but also brings into the reading movement in time, light, sound, life itself.
But it is in the Nachiar Tirumozhi that the poets truly become one with the protagonist. Toying with erotic and sensual stereotypes, they give Andal a renewed voice, Varanam Aayiram (I Dreamt this Dream My Friend) is stunning. Chhabria and Shankar make the dream simultaneously a possibility, reality, illusion, truth, lie, anchor and release.
And when you go back and forth between Chhabria’s and Shankar’s poems, all of a sudden they come together, not in singular unison but in multitudes. Andal’s Telliyar Palar (Circle O Circle) where Chhabria uses “circle O circle connect and complete” as a recurring end-rhyme to every verse is playful, and says so much more than a literal translation would have. Shankar’s Karkotal Pukkal (Dark Flowers) is deeply moving, he makes it his own, expanding its interiority. Marruiru Nachiar Tirumozhi (Take Me to the Land of My Lord) is offered by both the poets, but I was struck by Chhabria ’s version that shimmers in the tension between the inner and the outer; the inner — Narayana — and the outer, her mother and society. The last song Patti Meyntu (The Song of Questions and Answers), a hymn with two registers, questions and answers that transcend binaries, has been written by the poets together. It left me wondering if Chhabria and Shankar’s had each become one of the two voices.
Whose autobiography did I just read? Andal, through Chhabria and Shankar’s telling, is a realization. Not of some unattainable, mystical profundity, but an actualization of that vital contained within the physical — the body does not vanish into the sublime, it is the sublime itself.