Published in Kala Darshan (Complete magazine of Indian arts and culture volume 1, no.4 Oct-Dec 1988), pp.15-19
About Contemporary Indian aesthetics, there has not been much thought since the Seminar in the Institute of Advanced Studies.
Of course, there are appreciations depreciations of exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and craftworks in the leading newspapers.
There have been published books of art history, from the American style chronological point of view, about the major ancient and medieval creations, sometimes with bitter quarrels about exact dates, based on speculations from some rare inscriptions - (as the debates about Ajanta where only one inscription exists of Harisena’s time of the 4th century A.D. Gupta Period).
Actually, though there were major studies in the ancient and medieval periods of the aesthetics of Dance, Drama, and Poetry, like the Bharata Natya Shastra, the Mirror of Gesture by Nandikeshwara, there are only certain shilpashastras, notably Vishnudharmoltram mainly about the principles of artistic practice. The history of painting by Lama Tara Nath is descriptive. And the Six Limbs of Painting theoretically define the qualities of pictorial creations and provide a provisional aesthetic as in a Shilpashastra.
In the period of secular painting under the Sultanates and the Mughals, there are general appreciations by Abdul Fazal in the Ain-i-Akbari, and praise of masters like Bhizad and Mansur and a few others by Emperor Jehangir, and stray comments by Sir Thomas Roe on Shah Jehan’s preferences. But in the past periods, no critical appreciation, or depreciation, or evaluation, about any particular monumental sculptures or paintings seems to have been written.
There have been a few serious interpretations of contemporary artists in the series of Lalit Kala books, and independently as the monograph by Geeta Kapur from a personal point of view.
But since Rabindranath Tagore’s writings on his aesthetic theories and the critiques by Dr. Chaudhri of Shantiniketan and Dr. S.R. Nandi’s dissertation ‘An Enquiry into the Nature and Function of Art’, in 1962, we have no confrontation of the confusion about the aesthetic of art creations, from which we may appreciate artworks.
Our own theorists, have tended to prefer the theory of one or the other of the Western philosophers and seldom evolved theories integral to our own creative art in the new kind of social set up, in which we are emerging from feudal, theocratic hangovers into a sharing society for which Jawaharlal Nehru appointed Destination Man as the ambitious secular humanist ideal.
I would like, then, tentatively to put forward some of my hunches about the Aesthetic of Humanism, as I do accept with some sanctions of my own, the fact that we are groping towards a view of man, and that he may become truly human through development of his consciousness in ever new situations. The copying of old images for yoga contemplation in the ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, obeys ritualistic sanctions. The feudal nobleman is no longer the patron for portraiture. The ambivalent Vaishnava Krishna-Radha love play myths of the Hindu courts is now under patronage of modern Gurus with sanctions in free dance. Lalit Kala has been adopted through the vague acceptance of Fine art by talented individuals, as in the bourgeois west, to decorate drawing rooms of houses in imitation of Kensington and Bayswater, Mayfair, Fifth Avenue, Third Avenue, and the Etoile. And our Kala or the creative work, as in Madhubani folk paintings and the tribal images of Bastar, which still transform nature in mythical images, are left behind as ‘primitives’ with little or no relevance in the eyes of urban critics to aesthetic experience.
I suggest that we are in a similar situation as faced Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century, when he asked the fundamental question: ‘What is Art?’
Converted from an aristocrat to a peasant, he gave up his inherited estate to the villagers, and accepted the compassion of Jesus and Gautama. And he felt that western art and science had become ‘falsities’. They were lying to the masses. They were depriving them of what they wished to propagate. He presumed that ‘true science and true art have always existed’. We suppose he meant that creativeness was a spontaneous human urge, to renew the body and the soul, and to provide the means of production. Such production has to be suitable for its purpose and therefore skillfully made by the craftsmen. When early man made a flint knife, he made it well. The peasant’s plough was not only adequate to its purpose but took shape from the way it was held, while furrowing the land. The wheel which revolutionized communication was the product of high skill.
So, when Tolstoy wrote to Romain Rolland that he was ‘not anti-art’, but leading a crusade against the egoistic individualistic artist, who had replaced man’s conscience by asserting the supremacy of his unique genius, he was denouncing ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, as the snobbery of a new professional class, which placed itself above the craftsmen who once made cathedrals. The sage of Yasanya Polyana was for ending the emerging rift in the west, between ‘Art’ with human concerns, which latter he thought, might be the basis of morality. He was for invoking Jesus, even as Romain Rolland had felt in his youth, for the ‘satisfaction of the spiritual hunger of people’. Christ had said: ‘May all eat and drink of it: Take it: for it’s my blood.’ Thus Tolstoy invoked sanctions in the human conscience for appreciating the creations of the hands and the heart.
May be Tolstoy knew of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which that romantic had asserted: ‘ The poet not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers the laws to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present and his thoughts are the germ of the flower and fruit of latest time. To him then, the poet was the ‘unacknowledged legislator of mankind’.
In India, in the early 20th century, Ananda Coomaraswamy, influenced by the socialist English bard, William Morris, had asserted the primacy of the craftsman, who, as a member of the guild, worked on the creation of the monumental temples of the ancient and medieval ages.
And, rejecting the art for arts sake of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and George Moore, and of the galleries which catered for the elitist middle sections of Europe and America, Coomaraswamy interpreted the great traditions of Indian sculpture and painting and the allied crafts, in terms of the total background of religious metaphysical, social and technical considerations. The essence of the creative process, he said, was the contemplation of the mythical image. He gave the examples of Lord Shiva as Nataraj, dancing in the circle of fire (after crushing snake-cunning, tiger-fury and dwarf-evil).
The worshipper, he suggested, can through yoga contemplation, ally himself with the rhythm of the cosmos itself. The devotee, Coomaraswamy stressed, is not looking at a Nataraj bronze, as a ‘work of art’ in a drawing room, but penetrating through the meaning of the image, to ally himself with the myth of cosmos as rhythms which has been objectified. In effect, he asserted that the contemplator seeks release through the image of cosmos as anything created by the senses and mind, to the freedom of detachment from the image before him. The aspiration to freedom, in affiliation with the rhythm of the dance of Shiva, may not be the aesthetic delight which the sensuous forms of sculptures and paintings are suppose to invoke in the beholder, but may uplift man to become God as rhythm Himself. Such experience is kind of transcendence, in which man becomes aware of himself, at his highest potential of consciousness rising above mere mundane sensuous appreciations.
Frederick Neitchze has described such inspiration from dance as the highest moment of experience. ‘As ecstasy whose frightful tension is occasionally realized in a stream of tears… One is beside oneself. One is distinctly conscious of countless delicate tremors and thrills down to the very toes… As instinct for rhythmic relations… The whole process is in a large measure independent of the will, yet in that tempest, one feels free and entirely unconditioned, mighty and godlike….’
Like Nietchze, Coomaraswamy did not separate metaphysical ascent through sensuous aesthetic experience. And, according to him, creative works such as images of the Gods are purposive - not for sensuous pleasure. He asserted that Ananda, joy is the highest ideal of art. In so far as no image of a God cannot be badly made, every image has to be highly skillfully constructed. That is why perhaps the modern western aesthetic considers every Nataraj bronze to be a great ‘work of art’ and puts it in his drawing room as a work of art qua ‘Art’ with a capital A. and values it in a million dollar each!
As yoga contemplation both in the Hindu and Buddhist sense, is not the kind of looking which has become current, as from the impact of the west, in the Art Galleries, the metaphysical religious-aesthetic contemplation of our ancient and medieval mainstream of creative expression, cannot be the aesthetic of a society, which puts faith in God in the private hearts of men and women, but considers man’s aspiration to be whole man as the aspiration of all awareness. So we have to consider the problem of aesthetic de nove.
We may get some help from Romain Rolland, who, in the early 20th century, found himself in a similar predicament as Tolstoy.
At first he accepted, wholesale, the Russian novelist’s disgust of elitists. ‘Let us not’, he said, ‘blindly seem to impose upon the people of the 20th century the art thought of the aristocratic period of society.’ He did not want however, to lay down absolute rules of procedure. He said: ‘No laws are eternally applicable. The only good laws are for an epoch that passes and a country that changes. He wanted a tentative aesthetic.
Though he agreed with Tolstoy in the bias that the simple and elemental people may be kept in view as possible appreciators, he wanted to include the educated intelligentsia. In fact, he asked for a universalistic aesthetic.
Only, unlike Tolstoy, he said : ‘It is the artist’s business to lead the people, but not fear the public to lead the artist.’ Of course he wanted the artist to keep the people in mind always, as indeed, the great creators invariably did, like the Greek tragic dramatists, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Rembrandt, Balzac, Da La Croix.
He had in mind the fact that in the past periods, the folk had the elan vital, the capacity for joy, which the industrial revolution had crushed by substituting the work of the hand and the heart by the plying of the machine. The flow of life had been dammed up.
The worker had become proletariat up against the bourgeois owners.
How did he wish to resolve this crisis?
‘A great creation in art must contain’ he said ‘in its rich granary elements enough wherewith to satisfy the spiritual hunger of all?’ he asserted.
He found the answer in Beethoven. In the works of this tempestuous musician he saw the struggle of many elemental forces. There was no ‘divine inspiration’, the man Beethoven had urges to rise above himself, to attain intense awareness, to become God. Groping in the dark, enforced by loss of hearing, Beethoven labored alone to transform the raw material of nature into works of art.
Romain Rolland saw in this musician’s spirit the heroic effort to subdue form, to the will, through continuous struggle between various contrary forces, in the effort at self expression, without divine inspiration.
In so far as this new attitude of Romain Rolland emphasized self expression, he gave importance to the individual artist, the genius, though the creative work ultimately belongs to all people, including the elite. But he asks the egoist artist not to assert himself, except through his creative work. The earlier stress on the mass gives place to an aesthetic, which expresses the vision of the artist for humanity: ‘Only when the medium of art has been subdued to the will of the creator, has the raw material of life been transformed into a work of art,’ says Roman Rolland.
Of course, Roman Rolland includes the artist’s relationship with society as the test of his integrity. It was the common mould, which it is the business of the artist to express. His ideal should be living objectively, in which the poet should throw himself among those for whom he sings and denude himself of self, to clothe the collective passions which are blown over the world like a mighty wind. Thus, unlike those who emphasized the role of the individual artist as ‘Artist with Capital A’, Rolland asserts that the individual can only fulfill himself in society.
In our own country, apart from the fact that the prologue of every drama in the so called classical age, 3rd to 5th centuries A.D. invoked the Gods, and considered creation to be from divine inspiration, of course, the recitals of the late Medieval period, such as the Katha Saret Sagar of Soma Deva, and the renderings of Jataka tales, include intimate relationships between the teller of the story and his audience. In the folk tales the ‘I-you’ relationship is even more intimate.
Inheriting this relationship, Rabindranath Tagore, said, he owed his early poetry to the impact on him of the Baul singers, who were itinerant bards going from village to village, to recite their songs. Thus the first Modernist creative writer of our country rooted his aesthetic in human interrelations.
‘Men are never true in their isolated self: And ‘imagination is the faculty that brings before their minds the vision of their own greater being. We can make truth by actively modulating its interrelations. This is the work of art.’
This attitude, then, considers the creative process not as Yoga meditation for self-realisation, but as meditation, which includes not only comprehension of phenomena, as also release of passions through a creative fire, which shares the emotions of other human beings and thus makes communication of passion possible between the artist and other people.
Rabindranath Tagore has begun his early education at home under his father Debendornath Tagore, one of the original members of the Brahmo Samaj, founded by Rammohan Roy. In his early Sahitya lectures he had sought sanctions in ‘immortal joy’ which he said, is the ideal of all intense expression.
Ananda was the name given to the Supreme. So the aesthetic expression was to be the means of self- realization. This he allied art with Yoga meditation which aspires to freedom in the Absolute. Though, through sensuous representation. Man ascends from the personal view to the larger cosmic vision in a dispassionate manner.
In this view, Tagore’s first thoughts were akin to Hegel’s concept of the Absolute content in art. And the poet allied himself in the search for the supra-personal reality.
Later, however, in his Religion of Man lecture in Oxford, he recalled the sources of his creative life in the Baul songs and noticed that the artist often deals with miscellaneous situations, and knits them together with his will, through the moods of the dominantly subjective activity - and attains purposiveness without a purpose. Thus, content assumes form. In this sense, every intense expression aspires to aesthetic significance.
He wrote :
“The chief aim of literature consists in relationship with human life. Where does the mental life of a man reside? It is there where our intelligence, will and taste, work harmoniously together, in a word, where reside the essentials of man. It is there that literature is born. We humanize great nature by mixing with it our joys and sorrows, hopes and desires. ‘ This later strain of Tagore’s thinking then suggests a humanist aesthetic.
And, insofar as the personality of creative writers, or artist, according to him, gives real individuality to a work, the artist leaves his impression on the poem or picture.
Thus Shakespeare’s characters are his progeny and have the Shakespearean character.
Of course, in the emphasis on the importance of the creator, Tagore differed from John Keats, who had asserted the capacity for ‘de-personalisation of themselves by the artist, which he has called ‘negative capability’.
In a letter to a friend, Woodhouse, Keats had written:
‘As a poetic character itself it is not itself-it has no self, it is everything and nothing. It has no character - it enjoys light and shade. It lives in gusto - be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosophers, is the chameleon poet.’
Again, in another letter to George and Thomas Keats, he wrote:
‘And atonce it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature. And which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean negative capability - that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.’
There is a vital difference between Tagore emphasis on the individual artist, who creates art works characteristic of his human himself, and Keat’s view of the poet as the vehicle of all intensities.
Keats attitude becomes allied to a comprehensive view of the creative process, as Absolute, while Tagore’s view emphasizes the personal capacities of artists and brings him nearer the work of art in terms of contemporary psychologies.
And this importance of the person of the individual accords, with Tagore’s idea of ‘surplus energy’ or ‘sheer exuberance’ of the artist, which is the source of creation in the arts and poetry.
Originally, therefore, the creative artist is subjective, dependent on his probings into feelings, emotions, moods and ideas, and expressing passion in utterances, which aim, through expression of a theme, to communicate intensity of felt experience, of joy, pain, disgust, fear, or any one or the other of the Navrasas.
Tagore considers the personality of the creator then, to be synthetic, amenable to multifarious experiences, of which he expresses, words or images, through sheer exuberance, which often gives form to the expression through the extroversion of will, organizes sounds and colours in set forms or freely.
From this point of view Tagore decries the late 19th and early 20th century Western emphasis on Form. Thus, he follows the central Indian hypothesis that content is form.
As is obvious to those who have seen artists at work, no artist says to himself, facing a canvas or paper, or wall: ‘Now I am going to create beauty with my lines and colours.’ Often he begins from some instinctive urge, feeling or intuition, to let the hand move. The hand stirs from apperceptions to the flow, often going astride the artists initiatives, corrects and re-forms the material beyond the first approximations, to new beginning, in the midst of the process, which may be interrupted by the continuities and discontinuities, sometimes reinforced by subterranean uprushes. Thus emerges a possible finished work, suggesting the initial intention which had transformed materials, through dim awarenesses into a possible imagined form.
It is a highly complex process about which there is nothing certain as in logical expression.
As the sources of expression, then, lie in the human being, in the flow of feelings, their collision, their reference to the collective unconscious, from which the diverse lines or words may flow as energies, like when a magician transform nature into a contract. This may be suggestive of some of feelings of the creative which the seer may recognize some of his own familiar feelings.
Tagore’s probings into the creative process in our own contemporary interpretation, may then be the beginning of our essays in the possible quest for an aesthetics, which does not presume an apriori Absolute, as the source of creation, but goes to those human urges, which made the first tools, and later, all the tools, and the millions of creations for the needs of man. These makings, also extended men’s faculties and experience, and enabled him to contemplate creations, for awakening of consciousness and inspiring other people’s creative powers for the extension of life to more life.
The aesthetic of humanism has thus to remain a number of tentative hypothesis, with no final dictums in our society, where the creative arts have entered from Yoga contemplation of incarnations of the Supreme Deity, to areas of freedom of feeling in man may seek to be whole men, actualizing themselves into selves to the potential of the most intense insights and outsights.
Such an aesthetic may involve shifting of emphasis from personal salvation by fusion with the deity, to human relations, in the here and the now, in this world through activity of the individual in the group, as the immediate ideal, extending to further human relations.
Also, humanist aesthetic compels an ethics without God, insofar as human concern, is a moral concept, which implies compassion in action, reverence for all life, and the urge for kindling the dormant energies of people, decimated by death forces, into awareness of the incipient fire, smothered by ignorance of the potential for fuller existence. Every work, which inspires the flicker of light in a human being to shine as a flame, which strains towards stimulation of subterranean currents by which the vasanas are energized beyond fatigue, lassitude and decay, to the awareness of the inexhaustible concretion of being, in participation, with other human beings, which uplifts the bodysoul to face the human predicament of existence, may give one the courage to become in the area of growth of man - and thus become the exhiliation of euphoria which is aesthetic contemplation.
“ Art has the power to penetrate to the core of man’s being, which he recognizes itself in the creative act. Art represents its creators deepest understanding and highest aspirations; at the same time, the artist often plays an important role as the articulator of our shared beliefs and values, which he expresses through an ongoing tradition to us, his audience.”
- H.W Janson
Published in Kala Darshan (Complete magazine of Indian arts and culture volume 1, no.4 Oct-Dec 1988), pp.15-19