Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, June, 1962, pp. 3-7
The inauguration of the first issue of Lalit Kala Contemporary magazine is a suitable occasion for raising the question of aesthetic theory and such other considerations from which we look at the objects produced in our time.
For there is no doubt that in the ancient and mediaeval period art, mostly, served religion, even though the concept of Lalit Kala or fine art, as individual self-expression, was fairly well known and the craftsmen were mostly secular within the framework of the caste order. But, after the European impact, specially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though the temples and shrines still continued to patronise the craftsmen, many talented men and women, outside the craft brotherhoods, and belonging to the intelligentsia, began to practice the arts for secular ends. And, today we aspire to live under a non-denominational socialistic democracy. ‘Destination Man’ is the ideal of our culture, and art is likely to be used, more and more, not to seek union with the gods but to express man’s aspiration towards his own needs and interests. The new creative art is not born of social or personal sentiments, but from the subtler, more intellectual, organisations of ‘Form’, which is compelled by deeper experience of a universe in flux, where the mechanical mass of the 19th century has been broken up into energies, atoms and molecules, and where rhythmic expressions flows from the organic vision of the artist. The aesthetic theories of the past may, therefore, have to give place to new modern concepts for judging creative works, in terms of the experience they may afford to individual aesthetics, who look to technical skill or the pictorial and plastic situation that introduces a new imaginative presence in art. Thus we may have to re-define and reintegrate traditional concepts and provide fresh hypothesis for the present day contingencies.
This is a task which may well occupy our whole generation, face to face with the revolutionary changes in the sciences and the availability of hitherto unknown new materials of the industrial civilisation.
But, immediately, it is important to analyse some of the concepts involved.
In the first instance we may ask:
What was the point of view of the ancient Indians about art?
In order to answer this question, we have to see what were the works created by these people.
As everyone knows by now, the earliest remains of art objects to be found on the soil of India are the toys, terracottas, pottery, implements and ornaments found on the sites of the ancient cities like Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, now located in the new state of Pakistan. These cities, which have been dated at more than two thousand years before Christ, were probably built by people, known as Proto Dravidians, who may have had links with the Sumerian civilisation. The hieroglyphs found among the ruins look like the pictograph of Pharaonic Egypt and the old China, but have not yet been deciphered. We cannot tell, with any degree of certainty, what was the faith of these people, but the presence of the bull in their seals points to the prevalence among them of the bull sacrifice cult to secure fertility of the earth. From the presence of the images of the mother goddess, it has been speculated that they believed in the conception of Magna Mater which was then current in the whole of the then known world, ranging from the Indus valley across the Mediterranean to the North Sea. But, apart from the exquisite charm of the remains found in Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Rupar, Luthal and Maheshwar and the skill of man in those remote times, which we can appreciate, we cannot say very much about the point of view of Proto-Dravidian man.
The next wave of civilization that seems to have flourished in India was, undoubtedly, the creation of the Dravidians, the early inhabitants of India, who may have been one of a series of waves of peoples who came down through the northern passes or even the original neolithic inhabitants of the country. The culture of these people is known to us through the ideas and images of Dravidian creation, which the latter arrivals took over and absorbed into their own culture. And there is enough evidence of this kind to prove that it was by no means a minor contributions to the making of what has so far generally passed for Aryan civilisation. Apart from the idea of Moksha, release from the trammels of existence, which was later taken over by the Aryan, and the concept of the transmigration of the soul, according to Karma, good or bad deeds done in this world, the Dravidians elaborated an enormous anthropomorphic culture, based on the belief in spirits of all kinds, tree spirits known as Yakshas and Yakshinis, snake spirits known as Yakshas and Yakshini fauns, fairies, jinn and bhuts. From the Yaksha and Yakshini images of later times, it is conceivable that the Dravidians may have carved wood or stone images, though there is no authentic evidence, from any known documents, of this kind of creative activity.
With the Vedic Aryans we are on firmer grounds, because we have the extant body of the four major Vedas, the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Athavrva. Images are mentioned in the poems and spells which constitute this literature. And the orientalist, Oldenberg, even compiled a list of Sanskrit words, which may approximately be translated to mean what we nowadays understand by the term ‘beautiful’.
About the time of the writing of the forest books, known as Upanishads, and the Epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, we begin to have enough evidence, from literature, of the exalted culture which had already arisen in India during the thousands of years before Christ. The arts of painting and image-making had certainly begun to flourish, though again, there is no document which has been identified as belonging to this long period. The Kama-Sutra of Vatsyayana, which was culled from earlier Sanskrit texts of the centuries before Christ, refers to the sixty-four arts and defines Sadanga or the six limbs of paintings. And other texts of this period describe how colours were prepared, wall surfaces treated with plaster before paintings, and how a design was carried out.
All the concepts, which were to dominate Indian art of the next two thousand years seems to have been more or less established in this vast epic period. And amid the bewildering multiplicity of thoughts and deeds of the various peoples, who constituted the amalgam of the Indian population of that time, and of their various cultures, there is already visible a united common culture. And the basis of this unity lies in the Upanishadic principle of the essential oneness of all life, since the creation of the universe by the supreme Brahman (who constituted a unit) of dualityor the multiplicity of experience: As desire in the One led to the creation of the many, so there arises desire in the many to achieve oneness with the Supreme God.
The universe was thus conceived as in the process of incessant change or flux, the various energies creating an essential rhythm, which was the balance of the world. And from this point of view, any small part of rock, or wall surface, constituted a small microcosm, symbolic of the vast macrocosm, seemingly static but full of the dynamic of lowing energies of colours and lines. Pictures or sculptures or paintings thus involved the method of continuous narration, imbued by a linear rhythm contained and yet free, the unworked part of rock beings so much potential sculpture - the spatial continuum from which only a small area has been carved out and released by the human imagination.
This exalted idealistic thought of the Vedas and Upanishads was to dominate the various strains of literature, philosophy and art for the next two thousand years, although it was modified by many other ideas which arose from the clash of peoples and cultures. Even the revolts led by Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, the Jina, against the Hindu Supreme God could not destroy the substratum, of this philosophy of the universe as the illusory unfolding of the Real One. And the ambiguous fundamental concepts remained deeply imbedded in the caste order of Brahminical India, which absorbed most of the other tenets, as well as persons, into the elaborate ritualistic worship of the thousands of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, incarnation of the Supreme, and which took over all the magical cults of the suppressed peoples.
When this basic philosophical ideal began to lapse, through its unconscious acceptance of all the varying cultures and superstitions of India, it was reinforced by a reformation, which resulted in the establishment of three great cults of Hinduism: Vaishnavism, based on the worship of Vishnu the blessed one as the Supreme God; Shaivism, founded on the adoration of Shiva as the Lord; Saktism, built around reverence for Sakti or Parvati, consort of Shiva, the Divine Mother.
Until this day, these three forms of Hinduism have pervaded the landscape and have supplied myths, legends and stories for illustrations to the writers and artists of the country. Except that it must always be understood, that, in actual practice, the illustrations or craftsmen, who knew the subject matter by rote, were often more concerned to realise the meaning or intention which emerges from the interplay of colours or lines, without literal addiction to the context of the story they were telling. As a contemporary has put it: ‘the picture no more illustrates the verse than the verse describes the picture: both express the sentiment, Rasa, of the movement chosen.’
Only the Muslim conquest seemed to introduce a new Unitarian monotheistic philosophy and religion, as against anthropomorphic Hinduism, and it led to a different kind of culture, because most of the converts to Islam were indigenous peoples, through the sciences of West Asia, and many of the forms created there through the advance of knowledge were brought into India with many new symbols and techniques.
Later, however, the impact of Western European thought, both of the renaissance and the reformation periods, finally introduced a completely new set of values, which were to pose an almost final challenge to Hindu civilisation, through the emergence of secular, democratic ideas of the age of science, rationalism and machine civilisation.
In art, the West brought, at first, the photographic naturalism of eighteenth century, and later, the theories of colour as energy, which resulted from the late nineteenth century revolution in physics.
The continuity in our midst of the ancient and mediaeval Indian cultures, based on the persistent idealistic philosophies of life, cannot be denied. So much so that, at first sight, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that in India today all art still derives from religion.
Such a generalisation, however, can only pass muster in superficial conversation. For when one studies the creations, even of the various past historical periods, there is visible a diversity of forms as multifarious and complex as life itself. And although the deeper principles of tradition are taken on from one phase to the other, (because no artist can begin de nova as though he is at the beginning of the world), every new phase reveals seizure by the artist of the departure points, which make for new art traditions or the formation of distinct schools, whose special characteristics are the very qualities which make them really interesting. Not only do we find many of the well-to-do practising the Lalit Kala, or Fine Art as talented individuals, but the craftsmen seem to concentrate mainly, their techniques and materials (subject of course to canonical injunctions passed on from father to son) frequently giving play to their imaginations, thus showing the capacity to invent tremendous diversities or expression and movement in extremely individual styles. The scope for the diversity of shapes is as wide as the Mahabharata itself and allows for the full play of the capacities of an inventive artist. Thus Buddhist art is quite different from the Hindu or Jain arts, and the works associated with the many phases of classical renaissance of the Gupta period are vitally different in different centuries and different places, as also from the older traditions, insofar as the art forms of the later periods represent secularised religious impulses, when thought has become memory and part of the racial unconscious.
The patronage of the many dynasties, which ruled in different parts of the country afterwards, whether these were Hindu or Muhammadan, produced techniques which owed not a little to the genius of the peoples of the localities in which they sprang up. The various foreign forms, Greek, Central Asia, Mesopotamian, Persian and Chinese, also entered the various indigenous traditions, in so many ways that they were transformed from period to period and present a bewildering multiplicity of styles or schools in each workshop of each area.
And there is, further, implicit in each great work of art, of all the periods, an individual approach on the part of the artist which is distinctive, even when he is merely the anonymous member of a school, though the bulk of the work of the apprentices is naturally repetitive and impresses us today merely by its stereotyped acceptance of the formulae and its bulk or massiveness.
While it would be true to say, therefore, that the highest art of India of the past was produced in the service of the expressionist thoughts and images of the various religious sects and reforms movements, it was not even then the abject handmaiden of the dominant religions. Puja Path or mere ritual, as it istoday, apart from a certain amount of meretricious and vulgarised folk art in pilgrim centres, creative work has nothing very much to do with religion nowadays.
The fundamental error of Raja Ravi Varma and of Abanindranath Tagore and his school, was in spite of their genuine technical school, was in spite of their technical genuine skill, to seek inspiration in an aesthetic based on the romantic retrospective rehabilitation of the gods and heroes of ritual Puja Path, without any real faith in them. And it was because the symbols and myths of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, or the feudal grandeur of the Mughals, had really no meaning for these artists that they could not create an integrated art for their time.
Of course, it must be emphasised clearly that the Hindu did not attempt a separate aesthetic system, a science of beauty, as did the Greeks. For the concept of Rasa in Indian poetic and dramaturgy, is only a variation of the basic idea of Brahman, who is Ananda, as well as Rasa, the source of pleasure.
And yet the theory of Rasa (flavour) exists in various intricate formulations and can be applied to the ancient and mediaeval works. Also, it is possible to contemplate the most important of the varied past artworks from the point of view of the skillful execution or elaboration of forms by gifted craftsmen, who had eyes and hands and whose sense of design, of the pictorial situation, though often different from the modern is inspired by technical intentions which arouse directly from the meanings and beliefs intended, from the material available and the improvement of tools which became possible with each wave of civilisation.
As the character of the old Indian and modern European civilisations was governed by quite different means of production, we have always to concede that art in India and art in the modern world have been produced, by and large, under quite different conditions. In India, it was ordered by the priest-craft, or devout worshippers, and created artisans, dominantly engaged in the pursuit of a social functions. In Europe, it was produced, after the post-Byzantine phase, by the artist, who pursued a personal intention and considered his work as an act of self-expression, even when he was commissioned to paint a picture by a rich patron. In India, one may have to use the modern European word ‘art’ in talking of artworks with several reservations. Equally, the concept of deign in the two traditions has often been different in the past, because the philosophical principles, the materials and the social needs, were different.
But, all the same, we have a sufficiently comprehensive basis in the theory of Rasa as a measure of good taste. And in the ancillary theory of Dhvani or resonance in creative art, we have a concept which enable us to emphasise the coherence and the vitality of one work or another and see the integral quality of a piece through the imagination and the skill that has gone to the making of a particular piece, rather than judge works with generalisations about whole historical, religious or social periods.
The shift of emphasis from theorising about historical periods, (as, for instance in dubbing the whole of Gupta art of three centuries as ‘classical’) to concrete works and their aesthetic character, is, thus inevitable.
If the term Dhvani can be reinterpreted, and organisation of form be accepted as the underlying principle of modern art, then let us see how far the philosophical basis of our ancient aesthetic hypothesis can be relevant in terms of the contemporary situation, in which the India of the past is fast disappearing, under the stress of an industrialism based on science, and when man has to face, here, as elsewhere, the challenge of mastering machine forms, or being mastered by them of using new materials or hankering after the ‘Classical’ past as did the pre-Raphaelites in Great Britain of the late nineteenth century.
The pioneer critic, Ananda Coomaraswamy, pointed out many years ago that the instinctive hypothesis about the physical universe, of the Aryan-Dravidian peoples, has found exact confirmation through the new discoveries of science. As a rough and ready generalisation this would seem to be so, though the theories of the physical world of Einstein, Eddington and Schreodinger are extremely complex and vary a good deal from the old Indian intuitive hypothesis. All the same, the vague hunches of the ancient Hindus, and the general trend of revolutionary physics today, have uncanny similarities, provided we always keep in mind that the new sciences are built on continuous experiments and take nothing for granted, thus rendering it possible to argue, from the concrete to the universal rather than from the universal to the concrete.
The dominant view of Indian metaphysical thought, indicated above, was that there is a cosmos, complete and one, of which any part is representative of the whole universe. Thus what appear to be bits, or independent parts, without any relation to each other, are, in fact, bound together by an interior rhythm or harmony. From this point of view, just as the worshipper finds harmony in everything around him, because everything suggests the Unity of the One, Brahman, so the artist senses the rhythmic harmony which runs through all experience.
This account for the visible or invisible thread which sought to unite each work of art into a harmonious, small microcosm representative of the bigger macrocosm. The linear rhythm was, therefore, intended to be the basic tissue of most ancient and mediaeval Indian works. And the energy, flow, or movement, in each figure, was typical of the energy which went through the multiple universe, and which tended to reach its culmination in the One. The harmonious relationship of lines, surfaces and figures, showed the life movement, almost as if the artist had sought to infuse vitality or life breath (prana) into everything in his position as the Supreme Creator. That is why sculpture was spoken of, in Indian tradition, as ‘breathing stone’.
The philosopher Abhinavgupta (tenth century A.D.) summed up the aesthetic based on the concept of harmony fairly arises from the imaginative grasp, through the senses and emotions, of the transcendental reality. The artist brings about the condition of this reality in his creative work by freeing objects from the limitations of space and time and by bringing them together. The appreciation is always through contemplation of what is suggested in the physical presentation, as though by alliance of the divided being with the flow of harmony presented. The aesthetic experience is not merely the agitation of nerves, or stimulation of faded appetites, but a reposeful state of exaltation, through alliance, not necessarily useful in the practical sense.
As modern science proves that the total universe is in flux, or in astate of becoming, the creation of works of art seems also to become the organisation of forms through the raw material of colours and lines, by the imaginative transformation of sense experience. The tendency of much contemporary art to incline to the Zen doctrine of intuitive understanding and creative action suggests a parallel with the Indian view. Except that in contemporary European art, which has come from a naturalistic tradition, with a progressive historical view of man’s development in time, there is still much regard for the tension of violent drama, which was absent from the old Indian sense of harmony as the ultimate goal of art in the eternal universal order of continuous flow created by the Supreme God and reverting back to him.
In so far as the contemporary Indian artist resorts to his own individual imagination for the transformation of sense experience, he is not really in direct descent to the ancient Indian craftsmen, who had to submit to the canon, even when acting freely and the basis of whose creative work, even though unconsciously, was mainly the fundamental idealistic hypothesis of Indian metaphysic and with his Western counter-parts, the attempt to create disruption rather than harmony, he is subject to the new dynamic view of life produced by science and modern knowledge and tends to include disharmony as well as harmony into his universe of discourse.
In my opinion, if our contemporary pictures and sculptures are to be endowed with life, ‘as if breathing’, the accretion of tension and drama from the West has to be accepted as the necessary corollary of existence in the contemporary world. On the other hand, the works of the West are only a stimulus, because the contemporary Indian artist, when he is genuine, will believe in self-induction, through a synthesis of the few things relevant for him from the past and the revolutionary techniques brought by the machine civilisation.
If, then, instead of taking over the idealistic philosophy of the Vedanta, we accept the central role of imagination in the creation of artworks as the most important principle of a new aesthetic, then the nomenclature of Rasa (flavour or taste) can be retained as the ideal of good taste with the poetic metaphor and amphiboly implied by the concept of Dhvani, or resonance, as a measure of appreciation of creative works. Of course, the European term ‘Form’ will increasingly be used by artists, until revolutionary physics promotes ‘formlessness’ as the ideal of art, as it increasingly tends to do..
The apperception of life movement through the disposition of colours, forms, lines and other materials (all part of the stuff of becoming), lifts the permanent works from the transient products of mere sensationalism, or cleverness, to the level where the artworks intensify human consciousness and increase the areas of awareness of the sensibility, affording that flavour, balance or calm, which results from the alliance of personal rhythm with the rhythm of the universe revealed to us by contemporary science.
In the unique expression of feeling, mood or experience, through the imagination, there is involved the principle of suggestion. The contemplation of a work of art objectifies the feelings of the Rasika, or onlooker, confirming the vivacity of the representation, the immanence of feeling in the work and suggestions of deep meanings beyond the object of art itself.
It is not possible here to go deeper into the significance of this approach towards the new definition of the word Rasa or flavour, its old ancillaries Dhvani and of its new affiliate ‘form’. As the experiments in the various styles of creative art proceed in our country, it may be possible to evolve outlooks commensurate with the achievements of our talented artists, in different techniques. Design in the new sense is subject to no canon. Therefore, it depends on the genius of the artist, in the light of all the experience available to him as a human being living in our own time, and with his unique sensitiveness, his inventive and diversifying capacities, to shape his intense feelings, so that we are compelled to say in Ruskin’s phrase, ‘there has been a great power here’, an ambivalent or many winged presence, suggesting ever deeper worlds of faculty and experience.
There cannot be much significance in any artwork of the contemporary Indian civilisation, which does not serve human needs and interests, at a time in which we have appointed ‘Destination Man’, as the ideal of our socialist, secular and democratic society, based on the agro-industrial five year plans.
The philosophy of humanism, however, supplies the area for all the manifold experiments, subject to a humanist aesthetic, valid according to the highest aspirations of man’s intellect, insight and sensibility, not according to the broad ‘sing of man’ slogan, but from an objectivity in which the personal and outer elements have been organised and fused into self-contained microcosms, symbolic of the bigger moving changing macrocosms.
Of course, many works of art will cancel each other out, if the technical achievement of particular works does not rise to the highest standards made necessary by the discovery of new materials, and by the surpassing of many works of the past by quite a few of the great works of the present, or by the surpassing by one contemporary talent of the productions of the others. And no merely formalists conceptualist system of aesthetic theory can be more than a convenient yardstick for measuring responses or judging works of art. Thus, nothing can pass for a great work of art in our country, which is not only uniquely itself (and thus devoid of imitation), but also universal in its achievement, through the struggle to realise in a concrete work infinite suggestions from the most intense levels of consciousness, feeling and technique.
In shifting the emphasis from religious or ideological content to aesthetic and technical developments, rooted in the sense of ‘form’, (and even the breaking of form) the use of the phrase Lalit Kala is a fairly convenient way of summing up all the creations of contemporary Indian art. I do not think that we should distinguish Lalit Kala or ‘Fine Art’, from the other arts and crafts in too rigid a manner, as we do not know how far new architecture and industrial design may not claim to become part of Lalit Kala, but we use Lalit Kala as a comprehensive enough term to include all the efforts to introduce quality in all the works of art.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, June, 1962, pp. 3-7