Eclipse

Through spreading ink stars / pierce the sky’s / sleight of hand
Poems photographs and dance appear

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Why sing the eclipse? It is invariably considered disruptive and ominous; in Hindu mythology it belongs to the calamitous and chaotic utpata aspect of the cosmos; in metaphysics it’s associated with maya, the veil of illusion that traps individuals in delusion and doubt. 

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… as the Sun and Moon were sipping the nectar of immortality they noticed the demigod Rahu, disguised as a god sitting between them, his lips smeared with ambrosia. Immediately they told Lord Vishnu who immediately beheaded him. But Rahu’s cleaved head had already turned immortal, and chased after the Sun and Moon. When Rahu catches up and swallows them, they are eclipsed, but slip out of his slit throat and continue their celestial revolutions, while ravenous Rahu, now a chhaya grahan, shadow planet, relentlessly races after them.

This gruesome Sisyphean narrative replicates with minor variations in world mythologies. In China, a celestial dragon eats the sun; in Vietnam, a frog; in Viking myth howling wolves; in Thailand, a Rahu clone does the same; in the sci-fi series The Transformers Unicron, a colossal sentient cyber-planet becomes a head that consumes other planets; the first video games featured rampaging gobbling heads. Eclipse is also a free open-source software which supports a rich selection of extensions including Android.

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The disembodied head embodies desire, camouflage, vengeance, pursuit, escape.

Almost universally, people were told to abstain from food during its reign, to abstain, as it were, from living. Women, especially pregnant women, were warned to shun its hushed brief darkness. After I send invitations to contributors I realized most of them were women. I wonder if this was an unconscious bid to break traditional taboos on women’s bodies and mentation. Perhaps. More, I admire each poet, photographer and dancer: their adventures with language, movement of thought and their questing heart. I saw each one as a planet on a singular path, and each poem became a gravitational body that revealed surprising alignments and conjunctions with others: some of moonlit crystal, some with hissing trajectories, some obtuse, many mongrel in their trail. The invitation was to write, shoot, dance eclipse as tangle of light / shadow / darkness / unknowness / celebration / orrery and occultation / passage through inner and outer geographies or visions, as lifting of a veil or.

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Anita   Anupama    Arshia    Arundhathi    David    Ellen    Menka    Naveen   Rizio    Sumana 

Anita Rantam dances her vision of eclipse as fugitive equipoise though which the body returns to itself as sinewy and shiver, movement and its quest for quiescence in blood, throb and elation. Being both a classical Bharata Natyam and contemporary dancer-choreographer Anita amalgamates multiple traditions in this three-minute clip. Darkness shudders, the hush of reflection deepens, breathing slows, life-sap renews and rises. Light begins its glow.

Anupama Amaran. What happens when the quotidian comes as ellipses that dance on the threshold of the imagined? Travel an unknown path. Ascend. we have set our minds on fire/so that we can be suns too. Anupama’s sparky generous poems pare to the minimal so the reader, equally, becomes poet. As meditations on eclipse, their tangential orbits surprise like the sun becoming crescent by the moon’s transiting shadow, creating a becoming other than itself, disguise in open play, an other wonder. 

In Arshia Sattar’s ravishing translation from the Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana we transit passages of beauty and wreckage, lust and its annihilation, mercury and jet. The pleasant breeze, carrier of the fragrance of honey and pollen from the flowers, increased Ravana's desire. The Ramayana was composed primarily in the simple 2-line verse of the slokha meter but since it is regarded as a poem, more complex meters like the anushtubh are also frequently employed. Arshia weaves these into a prose-poem in shot-silk language that shimmers with the damask eloquence of classical Sanskrit, beneath which shifts exposed marrow. This is accompanied by a brilliant Translator’s Note.

From Arundhathi Subramaniam comes a whispered prayer that resonates in the heart’s cave. In this updated version of medieval bhakti poetry—which sings devotion in a voice that’s intimate, beyond caste hierarchies, and urgent—we overhear her dialogue with the divine. Here’s what I’m good at // When you’re around, / marinating in you //  When you’re not, / remembering. Time ricochets between past and present while language, like long lotus stems rooted in mud, climbs towards light. The eclipse hints at being a curtain, vested with lifting.

David Need, a Vedic scholar, alludes to the Rahu myth in Lost Head. His exhilarating 4-part poem is cast in a parallel universe that connects with ours like dark matter birthing stars. Meteor showers of allusions from mythology and language’s double speak—as veil and betrayal, pun and pantomime—burn passage through the mind’s cloudiness to a clearing. The shifting terror of the eclipse that’s either felt or imagined passes, the way the sun and moon sail on past each other and past that moment. So God says too: what’s underneath — // impossible radiant earth — / is as easy. / Let there be light   was birch. / Breath, Binah     between battered us, the // two in the coin, the skirt’s flip.

Ellen Komibyil dialogues with the theme like a fan rippling open to reveal paint on silk and rip along its ribs. Sleek, pliant and elegant, Ellen’s poems visit from varied worlds and, wonderfully, even extend to a submerged creature. All day watching sky. / It’s like breathing // you say, lost / in the mangroves // tentacles untangling / from vines or // the petrified remains / of invertebrates. A profusion of voices and forms create an expanding space in imagination’s library.

Menka Shivdasani’s poem streams as a dream over a parched riverbed that writhes along a bank where memory’s fingers read Braille. This is powered womansong. Mud eddies remembering flood, remembering the swaying gait of village women, recalling harvest, menses and hands seeding wet earth. Somewhere there must be a sea / waiting for this river to flow. / But the chain stitch runs / across the embroidered dress, / loops along the border, dry. Menka inverses the significance of eclipse; its iron shadow becomes bloom. However fungacious.

Naveen Kishore presents photographs taken in London that reverse the notion of eclipse: dark sky cradles an eye of light, negative space. An excerpt from his haunting work-in-progress does the inverse: two voices spiral around each other, mirroring the willed eclipse of the self in love; a transit of Venus, echoing suppleness, a roomy aloneness, and transforming perhaps into a single voice commemorating, and yes, consoling itself. I am trembling. / Yes. / Hold me. / Yes. / Hold my body. / Yes. / As if. / Yes. / As if it is the last thing. / Yes. / You will hold before. / Yes. / You die. Remember what you said. / Yes. / To me. Once. After we had loved each other. / Yes.

rizio yohannan raj’s Crossing the Ecliptic is audacious as a prizewinning pole-vaulter’s leap. It arcs its back to cover the integral spatial and temporal universe of this phenomena. Her 3-part poem invokes with grandeur the three stages of an eclipse, from blotting darkness to diadem while evoking other journeys in incantatory homage. Penumbra, Princess of the Peripheries, / my semi-blind Comrade, Sheer Thought / treading my mind’s distancing magic, / you let me be an insider to darkness, / and an outsider to luminescence, at once. Rizio pulls childhood, leather puppetry, the Tamil Ramayana and the Isha Upanishad’s most mystical verse into this occultation.

Sumana Roy draws on Indic civilizations’ reverence of the yakshi fertility tree guardian-- who is ancient cousin of the caryatid. Sumana explores her mutable woman-tree through lucent, startling enquiries that are as beauteous as the inspiring figure. This alterity shifts between shadow and light calling to mind the charged state experienced during an eclipse. The poems root cosmic event in earth, the umbrageous tree is set against the movement of an eclipse. The loneliness of light, of spies of beauty – / the museums inside our eyes, / the breastless trees inside them. / Where do their shadows live at night?

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As the sun and moon spin more and more time out from my life the idea of eclipse is coupled with the removal of darkness, revelation and thanksgiving. Perhaps this began long ago, in Mumbai. As I peered though half-light the eerie cry of mendicants ‘de daan, chuta grahan’ ‘give alms, the shadow’s lifting’ would rise to my eighth floor balcony. Perhaps in a sense we could call ourselves mendicants, craving cosmic harmonies.  

It’s considered doubly auspicious to gift after an eclipse. Come, share in these gifts.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria
November 2016

Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s books include poetry collections, translation – with Ravi Shankar - of sacred songs from the Tamil, non–fiction and novels. Awarded by the Indian Government for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature, her work is translated into six languages. She edits Poetry at Sangam (www.sangamhouse.org). More at www.priyawriting.com.