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The Undying of the Light

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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On the remarkable deaths of two folk artistes while performing in Kerala

AT THE BASE of Indian philosophy’s superstructure is the negotiation of death. What Buddhists call ‘nibbana’ and Hindus ‘moksha’ is in theory the ability to arrive at a state of death whilst conscious. Why would a culture think that the extinguishing of the senses and the elimination of the mind is the ultimate objective of life? Because of fear obviously, but also ambition. If death is by definition unknowable, then what can be a bigger search than to know it? It is not a rational quest, but since life is essentially meaningless, anything can have meaning. To die meaningfully is a paradox. If you are not there to appreciate the meaning, then what is the point? But to die meaninglessly is still being in the same trap.

In Kerala, over the last two weeks, there have been two remarkable deaths, both of folk artistes. On January 28th, Kalamandalam Geethanandan, a 58-year-old exponent of a dance form called Ottan Thullal, was giving a performance when he suddenly seemed to stagger and then right himself, as if it was part of the routine. Then he moved towards where the musicians were playing, and going down on his knees, bent his head to touch the ground in supplication before collapsing and dying. It almost seemed like he had timed the end of the show to his own passing away. This February 6th, yet another noted folk artiste, the 88-year- old Kathakali performer Madavoor Vasudevan Nair, too collapsed on stage in a temple and passed away. He had first started learning Kathakali at the age of 12 and so that made it 76 years practising the art. What could be more appropriate after a lifetime of serving it than dying in the act?

It tells us something about the manner in which a good death should come about. How should it be? Painlessly, if possible, but pain is intertwined with the body’s reluctance to give up. External means, like morphine, can reduce it but here too the body keeps raising the threshold. If you are afflicted by just age, then the pain is both of the body and the spirit and there is no medicine for that. The will and ability to die is stronger in the young, which is why more of them commit suicide. The older you get, the closer you are to death and the less you are ready for it except in helplessly watching the turning of the clock. Only by actively engaging with it can this impotence be surmounted. Facing death must be an act of both acute awareness and courage. To know its presence, not like a shadow behind you but as a part of one’s being, like a limb or a heart.

To that extent at least, the thinking of Indian civilisation got it correct. They went overboard, however, in making a necessary obsession the only obsession. The transition from life to death must be a flow, where the will only has minute freedom but which is exercised in full. Like Kalamandalam Geethanandan’s final moment, when he chose the posture he would die in, announcing his victory even though death can’t be won against.