Volume 17 Number 1
Lighting a Lamp for Our Earth
01 February 2004

Alan Channer's visit to India for an environmental and cultural festival launched him on an inner journey.

'You don't rehearse life', he said. 'So we won't rehearse with the groups carrying the lanterns. They'll just flow down the hill onto the playing field and we'll see what happens.'

Te Rangi Huata looked out over the green-brown hills on the Indian horizon as he told me about his approach to the finale of the Apni Dharati ('Our Earth') festival at Asia Plateau in Panchgani last October. 'Each person carrying a lantern will have their own story-and the most important thing to convey is that "it's better to light one candle than curse the darkness".'

Huata, a New Zealand Maori of formidable build, was the artistic director of this remarkable international festival 'to recognize and celebrate tribal and indigenous knowledge of the environment'. He spoke with an enigmatic mixture of softness and certainty as he described the climax of ten days of performances, seminars and workshops.

'At the end of the evening we will burn the lanterns, because it's not the physicality of the lantern that's important, it's the positive memory. A butterfly is beautiful only for a short time and when it's gone you remember it.'

I told Huata that I thought my wife, Mary, might like to carry a lantern. 'The night you are talking about happens to be the anniversary of her mother's tragic death. And Mary was six months pregnant at the time. When our daughter was born we called her Aili: we chose the name because it means light.'
Huata was moved without looking surprised.

Over the next few days there were heavy, post-monsoon downpours-local people call them 'elephant rains'-which turned the venue for the finale into a field of sticky, red mud. Then we heard that Huata had been taken ill and rushed to hospital for urgent tests. The organizers of Apni Dharati had not rehearsed for this eventuality, and their spirit was not buoyant as the last day of the festival approached.

lantern procession
Yet the dawn broke cloudless and clear. Huata was up and about, near the workshop where 300 lanterns had been made especially from paper and bamboo.
That evening, Mary and I found ourselves standing in a circle of girls from a nearby convent school, each holding a lantern. Just beside us was a Maori from the Kahurangi Dance Theatre (see p11). I told him our reason for joining the lantern procession and in the semi-darkness I saw his eyes moisten. 'Come to the front,' he said.

Next thing, we and our two small children were trailing down a hill in the dark, trying to keep up with the barely visible tattoos and head feathers of our Maori leader. And all around us a myriad lanterns, accompanied by a myriad shrieks of excitement, began to fill the darkness. The different lantern groups converged on the playing field from all sides of the compass, watched by a large local audience, under a rising full moon.

Only the leaders of each lantern group, either Maoris or Nagas from Nagaland in north-east India, seemed to know where they were going. Huata was booming down a microphone-something about all the lanterns forming patterns that represented the four winds, the five races of mankind, the tree of life. We didn't notice. We had just become part of a bigger, spontaneous human moment; a gathering of the nations under the sky.

The lanterns were eventually placed on the field to form the shape of the sun-and this marked out the stage for the final performances. The arrangement was the idea of CR Rajagopalan, a professor of Malayanam folklore from southern India. 'We don't walk our talk, we dance our belief!' he said.

Dance, whirl, leap, sing, yell, enthrall-and it didn't stop. After the last emphatic 'Good Night' had boomed down the PA system, the drum strains of the Karinthalakootam fire dancers reignited the general festivity and the audience joined Maori, Naga, Kenyan, Nigerian and Adivasi (tribal) Indian performers in a general dance which only faded away in the small hours.

The next morning, there was a meeting to evaluate the festival. I walked up the hill to it in a daze of impressions from the preceding days. How could one speak of the spirit of the blind girl who performed the Indian 'rope trick', or the energy of the Chhau dancers from Jharkand? How might one make any synthesis of the seminars, speeches, drama and painting workshops, films, walks, visits? How could one sum up the value of all the one-to-one encounters?

The meeting swirled from 'what could have been done better' to 'what went well' and 'what has all this achieved anyway?' Its highpoint came when the leaders of some of the indigenous groups began to speak. I wrote down the words of the Naga:

'We would like to thank the organizers. We are at the danger point of losing our culture. After the coming of Christian and western influence, our people hardly care about their culture. Here, we have learnt a lot from the Maori. We are going to go back and find our culture. And we are going to set up a cultural troupe. We need to revive what we are losing. We can preserve our environment and revive our culture.'

The organizers were feeling their way towards an appropriate closure of the meeting when all of a sudden a couple stood up and said they were moved to sing a song in Urdu.

'We wrote this song after the visit of a group of Pakistani students to India. We experienced such joy at their welcome from ordinary Indians. As they were leaving, we sang this for them:

When dew drops come upon the dry leaves of the tall trees,
When, with the first rain, the fragrance of the soil enters our hearts,
When dreams of hope come into the eyes of our children,
Then we must light the lamp of love.'

A week later, we left for Mumbai. There, unexpectedly, we met another Naga, a friend of my family called Niketu Iralu, who was exploring possibilities for the rehabilitation of drug addicts, in which he is involved back home. He gave me a book about his village, Khonoma. 'It mentions the battle where my people were defeated by the British,' he said. Your great-great-grandfather, head of the medical corps of the Indian Army, was at the battle.'

The words did not pass easily from his lips.

'Today we have a psycho-spiritual crisis in Nagaland,' he went on. 'We have drug addiction and alcoholism. We even have "foetal alcoholism syndrome", where babies' brains are damaged by the alcohol consumed by their mothers when they were pregnant. In the face of globalization and satellite TV, there is so much despair.'

I was surprised and disturbed to discover that I had a personal connection with the fate of the Naga people. I felt stirred to look more deeply into my own attitudes and identity. I recalled the response of an Anglican Mother Superior in Oxford to a question about the negative effects of Christian mission: 'Often we didn't take off our shoes at the holy places of others; I'm afraid there were times when we trampled upon other people's dreams.'

I sensed that I was prone to such blind spots and that I could hurt people by acting out of a flawed perception of my righteousness.

mumbai bazaar
We went to the bazaar in Imam Bada, an area of Mumbai, to buy a kite for our elder daughter. We wandered past dozens of stalls selling booklets of Qur'anic instruction, past a mosque, a small Hindu temple, past hugely crowded blocks of flats and children playing near open sewers. I used my few Arabic greetings and Hindustani phrases, and at every turn we were met with warm smiles and courtesy.

At the time I was satisfied with my inter-cultural fluency, but afterwards, in some moments of quiet reflection, I realized that I had been using Muslim greetings in Imam Bada partly because I was anxious not to stand out as a white foreigner. Moreover, I was flattered by the courtesy shown to me by ordinary Indians, because they did not expect a white person to be culturally fluent, and I was becoming quietly attached to the easy benefits which this combination of characteristics conferred.

Knowing the pain caused by attachment to identity, understanding the illusion of self, recognizing that humanity is one family, noticing that the light of God shines through the whole of Creation-all this is given to humanity in the spiritual wisdom of India. It points a way towards lessening the trampling upon other people's dreams-and upon our Earth.

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