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Mayur - The Bird of Paradise

Perhaps in no other civilization had the depiction of seasons accompanied with its birds, fragrances and flowers taken as formalized a shape as in India. It has become an integral part of Indian life, literature, folklore and art.

The rains came pouring down. The roar of the elements was truly frightening. I panicked momentarily. In the distance, I could hear the peacock calling as if inviting me to join in its joyous revelry.

The peacock is truly a beautiful bird. As it walks throught the bushes my thoughts wander to our rich literature. Sauntering in and out of our poetry are these peacocks, with each poem they reveal a separate emotion. So it is not just a pictorial image – the peacock is an entire technique.

The word peacock points to a specific season – varsha ritu, or the monsoon. Monsoon ragas (melodies) contain beautiful description of the rainy season. And most of these compositions mention the peacock.

The peacock, then, is unusual in at least two respects. Although it often denotes the basic emotion – shringar or love that is universal in its appeal, it also symbolizes pain – the pain separation from one’s lover. Samyog or union on the one hand has the peacock calling in a celebratory manner, heralding the advent of the rains. And in a totally different manner, the full-throated call of the mor (peacock) establishes the viyog rasa (separation) where the call of the peacock reminds the nayika (heroine) of the absence of her lover. There are texts which mean “go away, O, peacock, do not call. I, a mere viyogini, do not want to be reminded that I am in separation.”

Establishing a permanent mental and emotional bond with her music, is Shubha Mudgal, wan eminent vocalist. Commenting on the usage of the peacock in Indian music, Shubha remarked that each composition is sung differently as it evokes different emotions. I did not want to go away without listening to her earthy, melodious voice. And she sang two compositions in Raag Kedar and a traditional bandhish (form of singing which is bound by a framework) in Raag Des to prove her point. I could clearly see the contrast – the Kedar composition portrayed feelings of sorrow and anguish and the Des composition had a joyous, springy quality to it.

Folk dialects, like Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri have used the world peacock in myriad ways – mor, morla, mayur. Folk-texts related to the monsoon are in plenty – yet the lyricism or the poetic quality mainly nurture the viyog rasa or the pain to separation. Since the men-folk migrated to the cities for work, the women often waited with abated breath for months on end for union with their lovers. Bihari literature has the Barahmasa from of poetry that usually describes the woes of these separated ladies. Here, addressing the peacock, the women request it not to call, lest it remind them of their men who are away.

On reading the Vrindavan texts, one finds this emotion predominantly illustrated. Shubha also mentions that the Pushtimargis of the Bhakti movement have a vast amount of literature that dates back 5000 to 7000 years. They have created brilliant padas (verses) for every time of the day – the ashtayam leela – since each day is compartmentalized into eight blocks. The Pushtimargis have also invented verses for each season and festival. So, the verses for varsha ritu or the monsoon season are unique and vibrant in its quality with the peacock taking on a very dramatic flavour.

An absolutely textual image of the peacock is that it is part of the flora and fauna that serves the divine. Vrindavan the divine land, where lord Krishna, adorning a peacock feather, danced, played and teased the gopikas (milkmaids), has fine examples of poetry that portray the image of this beautiful bird.

Reverberating with the sounds of his musical genious, I listen to late Kumar Gandharva’s composition – brindavan, kyon na bhaye hum mor (I wish I were the peacock roaming the by-lanes of Vrindavan).

What is fascinating about this evocative songster, the peacock, is that it has been differently used in our texts. It denotes a woman’s lissome neck in one poem and in the next is rapturously describes her gait or what Pandit Birju Maharaj, the Kathak maestro, terms as mor ki chaal (the walk of the peacock).

Very early in Indian thought, literature and the arts, the peacock began to be used as a motif to describe feeling. This fascinating bird became a symbol of psychic states.

The Junagadh Rock Inscription of Skandagupta gives poetic descriptions of the rainy season with reference to the peacock. In fact, the first Ritu-varnana, about the rainy season is in the Ayodhyakand. Here varsha (rain) has been used by the poet to aggravate the state of Rama’s love-lorn condition – “seeing the sky bereft of clouds, with their mates, the peacocks devoid of festivity, seem to be in contemplation.” Kalidasa’s Meghadootam also extensively uses the peacock as a motif to describe human emotion, particularly that of anguish and separation.

In most texts, be it poetry or prose, the peacock specifically signifies an expression that is all-comprehensive and pervading.

The Dhola-Maru Ra Doha, one of the most popular poems in Rajasthan contain vivid narrations of the peacock. And it is used to depict Viyog. But in Beli Krisan Rukamani Ri, composed in Dingala dialect by Maharaj Prithviraj of Bikaner, the peacock is a symbol of joy since it projects union of the nayak and nayika (hero and heroine). No amount of Rajasthani literature can be complete without the mention of the great poetess – Mirabai. In her song of eternal separation, she summons the peacock to hunt for her beloved, Lord Krishna.

Indication of the usage of the peacock is evident in Gujarati and Kannada folk literature. Here, the peacock is dancing in gay abandon, suggesting rejoicing, or Samyog.

Alternating between the two deep emotional states of you and sorrow, the peacock’s cry in Prithviraj Raso of Chandvardai is synonymous to Prithviraj’s pangs of sorrow since he longs for Shashivrata – his beloved.

In the poetic compositions of Ritikal (17th century), that are in Braj and Avadhi, the usage of the peacock purely denotes shringar rasa – the love existing between the nayak and nayika.

Truly a magnificent bird~ Used in myriad expressions, evoking moods of devotion, loneliness, love and separation, this bird has attained pride of place in our literature.

Proof that the peacock was the focal point of many a musicians becomes absolutely certain when one hears the Thumri (style of singing) of the late Bhaiya Saheb Ganpat Rao. His exquisite compositions conveyed the usage of mor that attained extraordinary heights. I have fond memories of listening to dhuns (rustic melodies) bringing out the moods of the village maids in Sawan (rainy season) through the peacock.

Our repertoire of music includes innumerable rain-invocation songs where this colourful bird features to portray love that is philosophical and ethereal.

And as I walk up the ridge, early in the morning, I see a peacock, perched upon a tree. I perceive not only its wonderful plumes and delicate grace, but am also instantly reminded of the Thumri I heard a couple of years ago – Dekho Nachat Mor by Begum Akhtar. Her mellifluous voice begins to echo in my ears, and my pace slackens.

The appeal, the magical aura of the peacock is an exalted personal expression of union with the infinite.

A cool breeze carrying with it the fragrance of flowers leaves me intoxicated. This seemingly simple bird, unmatched in elegance becomes a symbol of the divine. I bid adieu to the peacock in the morning mist.