Monday, August 17, 2009

An essence of Indian art

It is well known that sharing impressions of a work of art with friends will reveal that each of them had perceived an entirely different "story" from the experience. Inevitably, this will lead to a discussion of what the artist really had in mind when she responded to the creative impulse. It will also raise questions as to whether or not a codification system could be discerned. Codification is very obvious in Indian temple arts as instruments of worship, where devotional sculptures for example offer a powerful religious experience through their aesthetic and symbolic authority. The codification of art-making is reflected in medieval artists' manuals (sastras), which dictated both the form as well as the emotional authority and aesthetic experience (rasa) of a work of art. These manuals are responsible for maintaining over the centuries the principal iconographic forms in the three traditional religions of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The response to the created forms is explained through rasa, the "organ of intuitive feeling/ perception". Rasa is an aesthetic pleasure and a "gustative process", both the substance, vibration or quality of what is apprehended/felt and the body/mind system that apprehends.

Historically, the adherents of rasa theory believed rasa, to be the meaning of a creative statement, even though they may have had different ideas about the definition of art. Rasa is roughly translated: "as emotive aesthetics". It is one of the most important concepts in classical Indian aesthetics, having pervasive influence in theories of painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, and drama. Rasa theory argues that the presentation of emotions is the proper object and domain of artistic discourse no matter what the medium of expression. Bharata, an Indian sage from the first millennium set out a theory of art and its philosophy based on rasa. In 'Natyashastra', his pioneering work on Indian dramatics, Bharata mentions eight rasas. He says Rasa is produced when 'Vibhaava', 'Anubhava' and 'Vyabhichari bhava' come together.

Vibhava is the medium through which an emotion arises in an actor e.g. a child riding a stick and enjoying it as if he were actually riding a horse.

Anubhava comprises all the physical changes arising due to the vibhavas e.g. changes in facial expression and body language.

Vyahicari bhava encompasses the transient emotions eg.weeping with joy.

We respond to all the arts with feeling. The language of feelings is not a private language; it is more a social system of symbols, a language game that is understood by those who have learned its conventions and usages. For example, emotions treated in a poem are neither the projections of the reader's own mental states nor the private feelings of the poet; rather, they are the objective situations abiding in the poem as its cognitive content ready to be extracted by the educated reader. Rasa is understood as residing in all the situational factors presented in an appropriate language.

A poet chooses to express a theme because he sees a certain promise for developing its emotional possibilities and exploits it by dramatizing its details.

In general, viewers ignoring the codification system of a work of art have the impression that because they cannot grasp the explicit meaning of the piece they are certainly missing its aesthetic content. In fact, both contemporary and traditional arts become coldly "exotic" when they rely too much on explicit meanings.

According to Indian theorists of performing arts, expression may be literal, metaphoric or metonymic and suggestive, the latter being the domain of "pure poetry". A theory of suggestive expression was elaborated in the context of Kashmiri shaivism, a complex philosophical system at the confluence of several religious trends, among which are tantrism and sufism. The theory was initiated by art philosopher Anandavardhana during the 9th century and fully developed by Abhinavagupta in the early 11th century.

Anandavardhana's premise states that artistic production is primarily a recombination of existing elements. However, novelty is not so much a matter of finding new primitive objects or combinations. Even the same performance watched several times may be perceived as "new" if certain conditions are met. A necessary condition for experiencing rasa is a sufficient degree of imprecision, an incompleteness of the codification triggering the imagination (kalpana) of each auditor, thereby yielding a "second creation" (bhavana) within the field of the "unspoken". Anandavardhana makes it clear that this process is not the outcome of a semantic operation.

This ancient Indian theorising on aesthetics is centred on the psyche of individual artists as a counterbalance to the categories of caste from which they come. The latter deny the existence of anything like humanity. But art is produced by individuals who share certain traits in common although belonging to different castes. They are individuals defined arbitrarily by emotions such as Shringara (erotic), Hasya (comic), Karuna (pathetic), Raudra (furious), Vira (heroic), Bhayanak (terrible), Bhibhatsa (odious) and Adbhuta (marvellous). These are spelt out by Bharata in his Natyashastra as they refer to performance art.

Clearly, such a scheme required elucidation. And that came with later theorists, such as Anandavardhana in the 9th century, who stressed the vibrations of a work (dhwani) as the basis of its aesthetic appreciation. The word 'dhwani" literally means "suggestion in an aesthetic sense' and was developed into an elaborate theory by Anandavardhana. Dhwani thus became the celebrated classical focus of Indian literary criticism, dealing with the aesthetic significance of words and their subtle undertones. Later, the 11th-century writer Abhinavagupta related dhwani to the activation of remainders of past experience called karma. Karma itself is the accumulation of "life roots" (vasana), a profound dissatisfaction linked to every action in itself. This quality of vibration in art brings us closer to penetrating the objective nature of the aesthetic qualities of an artwork, on the one hand, and of the changing impact of its rhythms over time on the other. It is precisely these vibrations, our assessment of them and the manner in which they are produced that basically reflect not only our individual aesthetic appreciation and taste, but also its evolution over time and space. Anandavardhana's theory ought to have replaced Bharata completely but the reverential nature of thought in a stagnant Hindu society has simply superimposed the one on the other.

A good model for analysing the impact of an Indian dhwani experience in a contemporary Western setting are the pictures in a recent British Museum exhibition (Garden & Cosmos, 2009) from the court of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. A highlight of dhwani at the end of the exhibition was a set of seven one metre long painted folios representing 'cosmic oceans' composed in a narrow landscape format. The paintings are attributed to the Muslim court painter Bulaki and dated to 1823. They display a novel arrangement of ancient iconography, part of a project in which, from the 1750s, the Maharajha's painters set out to convey the cosmology written in manuscripts by Nath scholars that had never been previously illustrated.

The basis of Nath religion is various systems of tantric yoga, which are aimed at the transubstantiation of the human body into a divine immortal form. The word Nath is derived from the name of god Shiva and its literal meaning is 'lord'. The folios depict vast swirling waters upon which are floating three Nath adepts (mahasiddhas) who have reached the highest level of meditative attainment with one hand raised in the gesture of explication. Their repetitive god-like iconography consists of jewelled kundal earrings, triangular black hat, golden halo, and orange patterned robe. They are arranged in a 'hidden' inverted triangle that signifies the female principle in yantra diagrams. They gaze into this triangle

The adept to the left always sits on the shoulders of a strange green, scaly-skinned figure riding a black antelope. Animals, symbolizing or complementing the energy or character of deity, came to be integral to Indian iconography and were always depicted with the deity. In this context, Vayo, the wind god, sits astride an antelope. In Vedic times Vayo formed the Hindu triad of nature gods together with Agni (fire) and Surya (sun). In later Hindu times he was degraded to become an atmospheric god restricted to the north-west quarter of the compass. He is the King of the Gandharvas, spirits who inhabit Indra's heaven and sing and dance there to entertain the Gods. One of Vayu's many exploits include breaking off the head of Mount Meru, a mythical mountain, and creating the Island of Lanka, now Sri Lanka.

On five of the picture folios, beneath the lower central mahasiddha, are the symbols "om," fish, snake, swan, and tortoise. "om" is the ultimate sacred syllable; the mahasiddha Matsyendranath was born as a fish; the snake stands for the latent female energy (Kundalini Shakti) which the mahasiddha must awaken to achieve omniscience; the swan (hamsa) represents release from samsara (the cycle of rebirth) and is the vehicle of the goddess Saraswati; and the tortoise is the support of the earth. The triad of figures may represent the spiritual development of a mahasiddha from priest to god.

The Baluki folios, in which the figures occupy only about a quarter of the picture area, have a striking modern look and without a storyline they also have an air or mystery, which the large expanse of a turbulent calligraphic cosmic ocean and the slight variations between the figures and their symbolic labels tend to reinforce. However, despite this diverse iconography, in the absence of the reference text the overall compositional code cannot be revealed. It has been suggested that artists may have listened to Nath stories to produce the folios that were subsequently sequenced as manuscripts. In which case it is unlikely that the literary context will ever be known. Without a script we are left with Picasso's claim that a painting is never done, and we find here, too, the deep roots of our own peculiarly modern and pervasive sense of the mystery of art, the sense that it ever eludes us, and that our own obsessive detective investigations of it will remain incomplete, they will never be finished.

As a postscript it must be added that dhwani is too important as a social idea to be confined to the art world. For example, we cannot perceive the full significance of the Anglo Indian art historian and critic Ananda Coomaraswamy's philosophy of Indian nationalism without perceiving the aesthetic impact of the theory of "dhwani" on the cohesive role of Indian art. Coomaraswamy reflected on the significance of art motifs and their symbolic meanings which emanated from India's cultural craft base. In this respect it has been said that Coomaraswamy's approach to nationalism combined the patriotic spirit of Mazzini, the intellectual freedom of Emerson, and the aesthetic insight of Anandavardhana.

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