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REWRITING THE SCRIPT

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

From her take on the narrative on the Kama Sutra to the art of perfuming, Jeet Dalvi talks to Seema Anand about her recent work

Seema Anand, a mythologist and storyteller specialising in women’s narrative from London, has a different take on several scriptures that are usually taboo for us. We watched Seema’s TedX video on YouTube and couldn’t agree more with her interesting take on the Kama Sutra and Tantra. As part of the UNESCO project for endangered oral tradition, Seema is an acknowledged authority on Indian mythology. She believes that the stories of the ancient Indian texts have been told in a way that degrades the experiences within them. She aims to retain the stories that were simply a beautiful depiction of humankind, love and life. We caught up with her about her outstanding research and work in the field of mythology.

Tell us about the UNESCO project for Endangered Oral Traditions and your contribution to it.
Most academic work is geared towards the preservation and storage of oral literature. My work is focused on oral traditions that include folklore and indigenous storytelling. Stories change as they travel. Language also changes to include multi-cultural audiences. But, we need to retain some measure of authenticity to connect it with its cultural roots. I am currently working with the Kaavad traditions from Rajasthan and focusing on how travelling storytellers of Essex in England can use the Kaavad boxes in a cross pollination of narratives.

Tell us about your take on the narrative and the motive of the Kama Sutra?
The Kama Sutra was written as scientific treatise on ‘kama’ or the art of love. The author says that for the formation of a perfect society, dharma, artha and kama need to coexist. You cannot have one without another, and similarly you cannot do away with one at the expense of another. A modern reading reveals a degree of emancipation and a level of respect towards women that even amazes our so called ‘advanced’ society. The text deals with issues that are so relevant today that it seems almost unbelievable that it was written two centuries ago.

What is it about the Kama Sutra that we don’t like to talk about, even as we refer to other famous narratives such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for moral development?
Most people think that the Kama Sutra is just about sex. In fact, the book doesn’t discuss the act. They have spoken about positions, but not as many as people think. When it was written, it did not have pictures. There is so much ignorance, stigma and embarrassment attached to it that the subject is shrouded in a fog of silence. The only way it comes out is in coarse jokes and ribald innuendo.

What do you focus on during the art of perfuming?
It was believed that different fragrances affected each part of the body differently because each fragrance has its own chemical reaction with hormones. For instance, wild mint was rubbed on the arms while citrus was used behind the knees and between the toes. It is a wonderful study, but largely incomplete because of a lack of material. There are a couple of surviving texts on the perfuming of the body. One of them — a Persian manuscript from the Mughal era — is in the archives of the British Library. Another is at a famous museum in the US. I don’t know of any work in the public sphere in India.

What’s the difference between the concept of beauty now and as it was in ancient times?
Today, the idea of beauty has become homogenised and is based on a western viewpoint. In older societies across the world, the idea of beauty was localised. For instance, in Africa, a large bottom and thick lips were considered beautiful; in China, it was about tiny feet. Ancient Indian texts talk about the beauty of large hips, pendulous breasts and thighs like the trunks of a banyan tree — a time when a woman was appreciated for her fertility. Her capacity to create life is what made her worthy of worship. And all these features denoted a strong woman capable of motherhood. As time went by, the story changed and the goddess became important for her chastity.

Have you faced criticism during your career in storytelling?
Actually, I have been very fortunate. I haven’t faced any criticism so far. In fact, we received a great deal of support and encouragement.

GET IN TOUCH
Check out Seema’s YouTube channel, which is updated every week with the work that she and her team does. You can get more details about her work here: http://bit.ly/2cxvMzz
 

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