It’s a bird, it’s a plane … it’s a vimana!

Shiv: Did you know that Indians invented the flying machine?

Gerard: I know that they didn’t.

Shiv: It’s in the Ramayana. Which I’m pretty sure predates your entire country. 

This weekend was a great opportunity to discover an insider’s take on the DISPLACED HINDU GODS TRILOGY — Aditi Kapil visited for a marathon day, including a pre-show chat with audience members. A fascinating part of the conversation was Aditi’s take on the Easter eggs connecting all the plays. She said that some were put in for her own amusement while others served as “big themes” that tied the plays’ worlds together. Aditi mentioned that she is often surprised about which Easter eggs audiences catch and that they have caught many that she had not consciously hidden throughout the plays.

As I watched SHIV with new eyes after listening to Aditi speak, a new Easter egg revealed itself. Though Bapu’s poetry, with its references to spaceships and aliens, seems futuristic, his work actually reflects a centuries’ old tradition of writing about vimanas — or “flying machines.” This “re-mythologizing” is a structural Easter egg for all three plays, but within them, the characters rewrite their history through the lens of the traditional myths of their culture. The emphasis on flying or traveling by fantastical means is also a neat example of a thematic Easter egg within a play. Bapu’s kites, the laundry line at the lake, the cosmic ocean, Shiv’s loot-powered ship — all these traversing objects help the characters explore the unknown land of their own desires.

The word “vimana” means “to measure out, or traverse” and the name was first used to mean a flying machine in the Ramayana, as Shiv boasts to Gerard. In the epic, Rama rightfully claims the vimana after defeating Ravana, who had previously stolen it from the demi-god Kuvera, who had received the vehicle as a gift from Brahma himself. The Ramayana states:

“The Pushpaka Vimana that resembles the Sun and belongs to my brother was brought by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent Vimana going everywhere at will … that chariot resembling a bright cloud in the sky … and the King [Rama] got in, and the excellent chariot at the command of the Raghira, rose up into the higher atmosphere….”

In the epic, another vimana is described as “shaped like a sphere and born along at great speed on a mighty wind generated by mercury” and is able to move up, down, forwards, or backwards.

Ravana steals the vimana.

Vimana became a common term for the opulent, floating palaces of the gods as well as crafts made for a single man. Ancient Sanskrit texts unearthed in Tibet suggest that a man could fuel his own vimana using his inner power of laghima, or becoming light, to counteract gravity. These documents propose that using this power, men could visit distant planets.

Towards the nineteenth-century, as technology slowly began to catch up with dreams of flying, vimanas became even more futuristic, and their cylindrical and saucer-like shapes wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Star Trek. A man named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade described designing and flying a mercury-engine aircraft in 1895, though contemporary aeronautical engineers debate the veracity of his claim. Scholar William Clarendon translated Talpade’s blueprints for such an aircraft: ‘Inside the circular air frame, place the mercury-engine with its solar mercury boiler at the aircraft center. By means of the power latent in the heated mercury which sets the driving whirlwind in motion a man sitting inside may travel a great distance in a most marvelous manner. Four strong mercury containers must be built into the interior structure. When these have been heated by fire through solar or other sources the vimana (aircraft) develops thunder-power through the mercury.’

A vimana design from Shivkar Talpade’s book on aeronautics.

In his love of sci-fi, Bapu sees an escape from his disappointing life in Illinois; he uses the power of his imagination to visit distant planets, and, in teaching his daughter to fly kites and dream on the cosmic ocean, he gives her the same power to fly — even if there’s no mercury handy.

Check out Company One’s Events page soon for video of our talk with Aditi and stop by the Plaza to tell us what your vimana would look like.

Flying machines carved on the walls of temples dating back 3000 years ago.

“Ain’t Nothing But A Cosmic Ocean….”

 

“… then a flash of light, and the cosmos unfolding, stars and planets and nebula ….”
— The Cop, THE CHRONICLES OF KALKI

 

What does the universe look like to you? A mobile of crystal spheres? A jester’s hat? The face of a blue-skinned god painted with blood-red lipstick? A fishbowl? A forbidden planet? And the heavier question — what is humanity’s place in it?

B., Shiv, Girls 1 and 2, and even tough-as-nails Kalki, all try to figure out their places in the world by looking to the cosmos. B. looks up to Galileo as a hero who refuses to believe that he is wrong about his convictions, while Shiv sails an sea made of stars to make sense of her past and take ownership of her future. Kalki — trapped in human form and longing for the cosmic ocean — shows the girls that the most awesome power comes from within oneself. She hangs out in Girl 2’s bedroom, decorated with ceiling-stuck glowstars, and compares it to sacred space: “Your room is deep. Your room is like where people go to pray. It’s a temple.” This theme of displacement is one of Aditi Kapil’s Easter eggs in the trilogy — almost none of the characters are sure of where they stand in a world that seems to demand the mathematical impossibility that all of us are #1.

Bapu and Shiv sail the cosmic ocean.

To feel displaced is to be human, Kapil seems to suggest, and Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time by “astrovisualist” Michael Benson backs up the outsider feelings of B., Shiv, and Kalki’s girl crew with a millenia’s worth of evidence.  The book features artists’ and scientists’ renderings of the universe going back centuries, and this review by Maria Popova gives a sneak peak into some of the illustrations, as well as links to further reading about Galileo, William Blake, and the history of miracles. Be sure to check it out and see if your vision of the cosmos matches up to a seventeenth-century Italian’s!

One of the drawings from Cosmigraphics.

These Ape Paintings Are Gangsta: The Mewar Ramayana

The Ramayana — “Rama’s journey” in Sanskrit — is one of the oldest written epics and a prominent pillar of Hindu literature and Desi culture. Most children grow up hearing tales of Prince Rama, either through books, comics, movies, or, like, B. in BRAHMAN/I, from relatives. The Ramayana is one of the Easter eggs in the DISPLACED HINDU GODS TRILOGY, and each play bears thematic links to the epic.

The Ramayana deals with the Hindu concept of duty, dharma, and, through the adventures of Prince Rama, readers or listeners learn how to behave virtuously and fulfill one’s duty. Rama himself is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, and thus displays the decorum and leadership expected of a warrior king, heroically defeating the ten-headed demon Ravana. The supporting characters include Sita, Rama’s devoted and faithful wife, Lakshmana; his loyal and brave brother, Hanuman; the Monkey King and Rama’s ally; and the hijras, who are rewarded for their fealty to Rama after waiting fourteen years in the forest for him to return from exile.

Each play in the trilogy either directly references or is inspired by Rama’s story. In BRAHMAN/I, B. resents identification with the “genetically stupid” hijras despite Auntie’s enthusiasm for them and instead prefers the “gangsta” Hanuman. But B.’s path to self-discovery includes fulfilling their duty to themselves and accepting that they are don’t have to fit into the dominant gender binary. B. casts their back-up musician J as Odysseus from the ancient Greek Odyssey, and at the end of the play, both characters have returned from a kind of outsider’s exile and learned to accept each other and themselves. Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu, struggles in THE CHRONICLES OF KALKI to come to terms with her present humanity and its attendant emotions that are an obstacle to fulfilling her duty to vanquish evil. She remembers her past incarnation as Rama and being “loved for doing so little.” Though SHIV’s direct reference to the Ramayana passes quickly (listen for the conversation about Vimanas — ancient flying machines), Shiv’s conflicting duties to honor the memory of her father while pursuing her own happiness reflect the Ramayana-inspired struggles with responsibilities in a world beyond binaries.

Aditi’s trilogy incorporates riffs on the Ramayana story, but hundreds of versions of the epic exist dating from the eleventh century to the present day for those wanting to read the original tale. One favorite we discovered is displayed online in the British Library’s virtual rare books exhibit. The Mewar Ramayana is a lavishly illustrated copy prepared for the Maharana Jagat Singh, who ruled the western Indian kingdom of Mewar in the seventeenth-century and whose family traced their lineage back to Prince Rama and the sun god. A team of artists created the book for the king, and it features over 450 full-color illustrations. The British Library digitized the manuscript and has created a clickable folio that readers can browse through.

The Mewar Ramayana has Easter eggs of its own: multispectral imaging during the digitazation process revealed multiple layers to the paintings that show the techniques used by the artists, as well as revisions and corrections painted over later. Below are some scans of the battle between Rama’s army and Ravana and include a secret appearance by the Trimurti. Check out the rest here!

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“We are fighting kites.”

BAPU: Should we reel in our ugly kite, or cut it? It’s probably against the rules here to cut the string, it would disrupt all those other pretty store-bought kites. It is your decision, what do you want to do? Come now, Shivratri. We’re not dainty little decorative kites, you and me. We are fighting kites. What do you say?

The fighting kite serves as a touchstone image for Shiv’s journey throughout the play. Kite battles are a popular sport across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, as well as areas of Brazil, Vietnam, and Korea. Made of lightweight paper, their strings are coated with a paste of rice flour and ground glass, making them sharp enough to damage and fell competitors’ kites.

Check out the images of kites and kite festivals, below, as well as a great documentary short from the NYT about the migration of the fighting kite to America.

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A Primer on Post-Colonialism

Playwright Aditi Kapil talks about the Trilogy as a whole as an immigrant’s encounter with the psychic residue of post-colonialism. These themes are most explicit in BRAHMAN/I and SHIV, but serve as a unifying thread weaving all three plays together.

Below, find a basic primer on the major ideas of post-colonialism as they appear in the Trilogy. This is just a jumping off point to larger and more detailed conversations in the rehearsal hall.

 

A Primer on Modernism

Here’s a primer on Modernism to help frame SHIV in particular, and the Trilogy in general.

In SHIV, Bapu is a struggling “science fiction modernist” poet, whose work has trouble translating from Punjabi into English.

One of my favorite excerpts from the play…

SHIV: We’ll take my ship.
GERARD: Yours?
SHIV:  (re. the mattress) Get on.
GERARD: Ok… funny ship…
SHIV: It’s modernist. No structure, no rhyme, and the reviews are suboptimal.
GERARD Are you sure it’ll float?