A crowded tent at the Maha Kumbh, everyone is passively stoned on a baba’s chillum, contemplating his latest feminist deconstruction of the divine. “The three prongs of the ‘aum’ represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. But the chandra-bindu,” the baba pauses, priming his audience for the punch, “is Laxmi. The goddess must bless them all for the symbol to be complete.”
In a corner of the tent, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman was unimpressed. The past two weeks at the Kumbh had convinced her that there was a pattern to these conversations — the babas’ stories were all pro-women; most babas, however, were not. What had begun as a vacation, had turned into a mission — Shilo was determined to retell the stories of women in Indian mythology. She drew her images of girls gripped by wanderlust, women being stoned by men, mothers giving birth and goddesses dancing, in a red notebook already on its third visit to the Kumbh. It held in its cloth-bound pages the stories of the three women who had owned it — Shilo’s mother Nilofer Suleman, her godmother Navina Venkat and now Shilo herself.
Exactly 24 years ago, when Shilo was born, Navina sat on the banks of the Ganga, holding the notebook in a similar moment of flux. She was in Kumbh Nagri on an assignment to produce a coffee table book on the largest gathering on earth (the Kumbh hosted nearly 15 million people in 1989). Over these following years she had travelled “through a sea of bodies in search of the perfect frames”, when a news bulletin from Ayodhya changed everything. “Once the Babri had fallen, I realised I couldn’t do the book anymore. It would mean something entirely different in that political atmosphere, it was as if the air around us had turned threatening,” she says.
At the time, Navina had taken to writing and collecting images in the red cloth book. Navina, and her closest friend Nilofer, had bought the notebook in Indore. Since the two of them had lost touch over the years, the notebook had become an artefact freighted with sentiment, a keepsake locked in a trunk once Navina abandoned her project on the Kumbh.
Twelve years later in Singapore, Shilo opened a trunk she’d found in her mother’s cupboard. It was full of jewellery — old, chunky silver with bells and stones — nothing like the kind her mother wore. The trunk was also full of photographs of Navina and Nilofer. As Nilofer began recounting their adventures to her daughter, Shilo remembers this as the moment she unlocked her mother’s happy past, as the moment that freed them forever: “My mother was in an unhappy marriage. I realised that she was nothing like her former self when she was in Singapore. She had stopped travelling and creating altogether.” (Shilo’s early art was a much darker version of her currently vibrant work, full of anguished, naked women giving birth to snakes.) Soon after, Nilofer separated from her husband and moved back to Bengaluru with her children. By 2001, she was painting. Meanwhile, not content with just wearing the jewellery she’d found in her mother’s trunk, the 12-year-old Shilo decided she would go looking for Navina in Mumbai. All she had to go on was an address for an old apartment in Mumbai, where Nilofer spent half her college years painting handprints on the wall, while Navina adorned John Lennon posters with bindis.
That same year, Navina was about to step into the holy river for a second time. “On my first visit to the Kumbh, I had just received my PhD on tantra and tantric art. I was all head and no heart. In 2001, I was married, I was full of love, my priorities were very different. I wanted to see how I would receive the information differently,” she says.
While Navina’s first visit had been coloured by the events that followed at Ayodhya, the recurring theme in 2001 was the massive commercialisation of the spiritual. “The discernment between satya and maya in 1992 had been filtering knowledge from propaganda. In 2001, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw babas handing out shampoo as prasad.” She found herself moved by the nameless, faceless widows of Varanasi, but did not find that the Kumbh forced her to confront questions of gender. “There were some very young widows that I met, some of whom had encountered terrible abuse, living like beggars, dressed in white, but even so, I could not feel any more for them than I did, say, for a man who had been standing on one leg for the last 40 years.”
By the time Shilo finally found Navina, she was 17. A naturopath, Navina was living between Goa, Mumbai and Denmark. Shilo describes the day the two friends were reunited, an emotional meeting by the sea, as “full of giggles and whispers in secret languages”. Nilofer, now an artist, acclaimed for her delightful detailing of Indian idiosyncrasies, was thrilled to discover that Navina still had their old notebook. Going through its pages, she relived what Navina had seen at the Kumbh, and realised she was finally home.
2012 was an important year for the three women. Shilo had graduated from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology as class valedictorian, designed a beautiful and imaginative app for the iPad, given a talk at the TED series and come into her own as an artist. Navina was assisting her mother, the nutritionist Vijaya Venkat, with her food-healing movement, and helping more women give home births and lead a “medicine-cabinet-free” life.
Nilofer’s solo exhibition, Bombay Bioscope, was doing spectacularly well and she had just created a tribute to Amitabh Bachchan for his 70th birthday. As the year drew to a close, Shilo decided to ride from Goa to the Maha Kumbh with her partner Avijit on a motorcycle. Navina couriered the notebook to her as a birthday present. “It was time for her to tell her own story,” she smiles.
Arriving in north India, Shilo and Avijit heard about the horrific gangrape in Delhi. On her visit, Navina had slept alone on riverbanks and on trucks. Now, Shilo found herself very afraid. “Suddenly, we became hyper aware of my clothes and body, whenever we were on an isolated stretch at night or surrounded by trucks,” Shilo recounts. At the Maha Kumbh, she got into arguments with mahants and religious heads, who insisted the physiotherapy student should not have been out with a male friend, and was responsible for what had happened. She’d thought the Maha Kumbh was the most patriarchal spot on earth — the rituals involved penises and weapons, the only small group of female sadhvis were Nepali, the most serene sadhvi Shilo met was driven away by men crying “pagal aurat”.
Still, there were stories at the Kumbh that defied the patriarchal narrative, stories that are now in Shilo’s notebook, soon to be turned into a graphic novel on goddess mythology. There were sadhus who believed in womb-worship, male Krishna-bhakts who spoke in the feminine gender because they believed only gopis can truly love god. Before Parvati becomes Annapoorna, the mother goddess, she is just Parvati, the annoyed. Tired of her husband’s trances, and his negation of reality, she storms off Mount Kailasa. A forlorn Shiva asks after her, “Honey, was it something I said?”