Kanden, Kanden Sithayai Kanden, Raghava
Andarum kaanatha Lanka puriyile
Aravinda Vedhavai tara vandha Mathavai
I saw, I Saw, I saw Sita, Oh Raghava.
In the city of Lanka which not even the devas have seen,
I saw the mother, who was given by the Goddess Saraswathi,
-Arunachala Kavi Rayar
These lyrics taken from a popular Tamil krithi speak of the moment that Lord Hanuman tells Sri Rama he has found Sita. He has found her deep in the forests of Lanka. Sita has been kidnapped by Ravan, the Evil King of (modern-day Sri) Lanka, and has held her hostage. Obsessed with her beauty, even though she belongs to another man, he must have her. She wards off his constant advances and rejects his love. How terrified she must have been, already in exile in the forest with Rama and Lakshman, and now kidnapped to a far off land as a hostage. How did she endure? Where did she find peace? What was her sanctuary?
We look at these characters of the Ramayana as god-like. How Rama is the ideal son and husband. How Sita is the best woman, wife. Hanuman, a dear friend. Do these characters provide a higher standard for mankind? Perhaps, but perhaps not. So many aspects of these characters in the epic are idolized yet, we must remember they are in human form. They too seek a place to find peace. Their sanctuary.
Today, given the pandemic, and the revolution brewing from Black Lives Matter, so many have been isolated, far from family and friends. There is so much pain and anger from the realization of a whole race being denied basic rights. So many are in hospitals recovering from the Coronavirus. So many are struggling to make ends meet. Where do we find our Sanctuary? Does Sanctuary have to be a place? Can it be a feeling? I think that as many of us shelter in place and the numbers of Coronavirus continue to climb, the feeling of calm and peace are harder to feel. Much like Sita, nothing feels good, nothing feels right. How did Sita endure those long days?
I imagine she found her sanctuary in Rama’s love for her. Regardless of where she was, the palace at Ayodhya, the forest in exile, or in Ravana’s palace, her sanctuary was always in Rama’s love. Her safety, peace, and calm resided in her heart, full of his love for her. While many of us are enduring a time like no other, where we are isolated, sad, and under attack, the meaning of sanctuary can seem complex. Sanctuary can be our homes, shelters.. But Sanctuary can also be a feeling, our heart, or a hope that things will get better. With our community, family, and friends, I believe we can all rise out of these times as better humans, kinder, and compassionate. In our Sanctuary together.
The past couple of weeks have been painful for us to see as events have unfolded over the death of George Floyd. It has put into perspective the countless deaths of innocent lives. It has instilled distrust with government and law enforcement. It has brought up critical questions I ask of my leaders, of myself. How did it get to this place? How did we fail so badly as a society?
I struggle to find my activist place. I’ve had countless conversations with my friends and artist-colleagues. The questions that keep arising are, what can we do? Activism doesn’t have one shade. There are many ways of activism that are effective. I chose to donate to the NAACP and the Color of Change organization. I chose to talk about it with my friends and family. I felt it was important to encourage and ensure that the people who are best equipped to handle finding the solution are well funded. I chose to sign my name on petitions and to write my local politicians. I feel that is making change. I feel that I am helping the movement. But I can do more. I can use my art to continue the mission.
As cultural artists, we engage in the art of our heritage and strive to connect our culture with our American identity; Art that is Indian-American. How do we incorporate the context of the world outside our window into the art that we make? Where does art live?
Out of the civil rights movement, some of the greatest works of art, literature, and film were created. Out of despair, hope was renewed. The Indian arts inherently teaches mindfulness, intense concentration, and focus - and with that comes clarity. We can be inspired to create and utilize our art to emote the feelings of anguish and renewal.
Ultimately, to create the change that our society seeks requires that we listen and have conversations about the movement. We must be mindful. We have to continue to educate and advocate whether through or art or otherwise to create change.