Hands of Time, a story and music collaboration weaving histories and tales from Wales and Rajasthan was premiered at BtB earlier this summer, despite almost half our creative team being missing due to visa difficulties. Nevertheless, the show went on, and then transferred to Festival of the Voice in Cardiff. Last Saturday night, we took the story home to Mehrangarh Fort where so much of it is set, and performed to a packed out audience of some 400 people in the beautiful courtyard gardens of the Fort. What began as a creative collaboration became a profound communal ritual of re-membering forgotten souls and re-weaving a ragged patch of Mehrangarh’s history. The very walls of the fort listened, and I sense the standing ovation we received was as much for the lost stories we honoured as it was for our performance.
This Wales-India odyssey began four years ago. Supported and indeed encouraged by Wales Arts International, David Ambrose and I began a journey to develop a creative storytelling partnership between Beyond the Border Festival and Indian artists. A year later, we met Divya Bhatia, Artistic Director of Jodhpur Riff (Rajasthan International Folk Festival – JRiff), and a creative partnership between our festivals began.
On my first visit to JRiff at Mehrangarh Fort, the huge, red sandstone fort that sits like a brooding hunting hawk, overlooking the desert city of Jodhpur, I was intrigued by vermillion plaques depicting hands, placed at some of the fort’s seven great gates. I watched as women in jewel coloured saris pressed palms and foreheads to these plaques and kept them adorned with garlands and tinsel decorations. I asked one of these women about the hand marks, and she replied simply “They are hands of Sati.”
That first visit was part of a research trip to build a creative partnership between BtB and JRiff, which is held annually during the full moon of October. During that first visit, I learned that ‘Sati’ were women who immolated themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, or in the case of the Sati of Mehrangarh, women of the zanana or harem of the maharajas as well as their rani ~ queen. This ancient practice dating back to at least 3rd century BCE in the region was outlawed by the British in India in 1861, however, rare instances continue to be reported. Some consider it a decision based on honour, others consider it to be a mark of deep, abiding love, but clearly in some cases it was about coercion too.
The creative process is an extraordinary thing. I’ve learned that casting the net wide during the research phase works best for me, and simply to be open to what is caught in it. The first silver fish in the net was a Welsh nabob called Thomas Gruffydd, the third son of Jane and John Wynn Gruffydd of Garn estate in Denbighshire. He left Wales at just 15 years of age to join the 20thBengal Native Infantry, in the pay of the East India Company. All that is left of his 27 years on this earth are some 200 letters he sent home to his parents, siblings and grandmother, kept in the archives of the National Library of Wales. Other intriguing silver sprats caught the net included two stories gifted to me by storytellers in the desert villages on the far west of Rajasthan bordering on Pakistan, that I met with interpreters during a research trip to the region last year as we built the project. These weren’t easy stories to tell in the version I’d heard, but I worked with them to try to tease out a telling.
While I was working on these, the shades of the Sati of Mehrangarh were powerfully present in my thoughts. They tugged at me, demanding my attention. And so I dug deeper and contacted the Fort’s archivists. We batted emails back and forth and spoke over a couple of phone calls. What became clear very quickly, was that only the names of the ranis of the maharajas of Marwar (for whom Mehrangarh was one of their most important seats of power), were recorded by history. There are a few exceptions, in cases where the women of the zanana produced sons who became particularly powerful in some way. But other than that, the thousands of royal courtesans housed in the Palace of Glimpses at Mehrangarh had left no trace, other than those who committed sati.
The archival team were able to tell me more about the rituals surrounding Sati, and some preparations particular to those of the women of the Fort. The women of the zanana preparing to immolate themselves on the Maharaja’s pyre would don a red bridal sari, apply henna on their palms and while passing through the Zenani Deodi (Ladies Passage/Gate) would dip their palms in a platter full of henna-kumkum paste and make a handprint on the entrance of the gate wall. Earlier these handprints had been made on paper, wood, stone and silver slabs – sometimes later carved by the silversmiths, and placed in the royal temple at the Fort, alongside the shrine to the Goddess Nagnechiya, to be worshipped.
In time this tradition moved to the walls of the gates; this was first done during Maharaja Bakhat Singhji’s reign where handprints were pressed to the sidewalls of the Lohapol gate. On the left wall of Lohapol there are five Sati Handprints. Four are of the concubines and one is that of the queen of Maharaja Man Singh (1803-1843) who became Sati after his death.
I was moved by the thought of thousands of women who had spent their lives kept excluded from the world, most leaving no mark upon it, others leaving only their hand-print and their memories in the Fort’s walls before committing Sati. There are some 100 sati hands in and around Mehrangarh, none of their stories are remembered or told. As mentioned, I knew that five were the Sati of Maharaja Man Singh, the last independent Maharaja of the Kingdom of Marwar, who entered a treaty relationship with the British in January 1818. These dates tallied with Thomas Gruffydd’s time in India – just about. A story was gathering.
I wanted to create a story for one of the Sati of Mehrangarh. Re-member just one of these women to honour all those forgotten souls of the Palace of Glimpses– a story to honour their memory and give form and flesh to the gaping wound of anonymity. And from somewhere, somehow, Heera emerged from leagues of dust, desert and time. My work was simply to use knowledge and research to apply checks and balances to a character that manifested fully formed – almost too real, too vibrant and full of her own story to simply be a product of my imagination. Writers and creators the world over experience this, each culture has its own way of explaining it. For me, I know that I gave Heera her name – I chose it. It means ‘diamond’. The rest I cannot in all conscience claim….it is simply ‘her’.
Weaving Heera, Thomas and Man Sing’s story with the lush green, grey misted threads of Wales and the pale, sun soaked, jewel coloured threads of Rajasthan has been one of the keenest creative joys of my life. Moreover it has taught me a good deal and felt like a profound act of reclaiming something lost. It has been a privilidge to cradle the fragile fabric of their lives in my hands. I know that their story has moved audiences, and deeply touched the wonderful team of musicians I worked with on this project – Gwilym Morus-Baird, Smita Bellur, Dara Khan Manganiyar and Sawai Khan Manganiyar.
Last Saturday night as some 400 people settled to listen to us share Thomas and Heera’s story in Chokhelao Bagh, the Garden’s within Mehrangarh, there was an intense sense of listening, as though the very shadows and even the walls of the Fort were craning to hear the story unfold. Swallows feature a lot in it, and they swooped by the dozen diving around me as the sun set and the story commenced, before eventually retreating at dusk to their clay nests beneath the high arches of the fortress’ seven great gates.
My belief is that beyond simply telling the story, we re-membered something important that evening, and in so doing, healed a little of the ‘forgetting’, patched a few frayed pieces of the web of history and helped those like Thomas and Heera live beyond the fine, short threads of their lives.
In profound moments of life, I find that the universe speaks eloquently through synchronicity . Following the performance many people came up to us, wiping tears from their eyes to thank and congratulate us or ask questions. One mother and her daughter approached me. The mother said “I’m wearing a Rabari embroidered dress.” I looked at and admired the beautiful hand stitched designs that overlaid the silk and cotton of her kurta. I had described such stitching on Heera’s black dress and coloured Rabari chunari. Then I turned to her daughter. What they hadn’t noticed, was that the black fabric of her more western styled dress was covered in small, fork tailed swallows. It was veritable villanelle of synchronicity, and felt significant in some unfathomable way.
Stories are powerful things. They are used for healing by many cultures, used as ritual tools and as incantations to re-member the ancients. They are ways of communicating with the gods as much as with each other. On this Calan Gaeaf or Haloween, as we light the jack-o-lanters, let’s remember to tell the stories of our ancestors. That is, essentially what this festival is about: remembering ancestors, telling their stories and honouring them in that re-membering, because while we are remembered, we are never truly dead.