“Without its own rasa (sap, juice, animating flow,) how can the work come alive?”
- Maithili painter, recently -
“And what compounds that which is wellmade, well-crafted or well achieved (i.e. Sukritam) it is rasa (its own essence of being)”
- Taitt. Br. 7:2 -
“Juice please” - James Joyce: “Finnegans Wake” -
If looked at simply, it is a simple thing, this common chance of birth or accident of environment. We may decide the signs lie in certain innate patterns of function and response or psychologically in a deep-lying sense of origin. We know that there are as many way to be Indian as there are Indians themselves. Then where is the clarity and confidence we were led to expect? It after 30 to 35 years of independence the question of identity is still raised, there must be reason for doubt. Perhaps we should look at the question again.
Who is it raises the question?
Not the tiller, artisan, not even the factory-worker, though these may most directly feel he economic pressures of change. Not the dukandar or petty shopkeeper who stacks newer goods, quick foods and substitutes. If the new industrialist o exporter raises the question, it is largely one of style and of being “with the times”. He has his oleograph and murti, his almanac and muhurat to remind him of who he is. Times and fashion change. We are speaking of another level of doubt.
Methods and materials aside, modernism is that which challenges our assumptions. It outs an older world-view under question. It is the leap into the unknown. Yet at the forefront of modernism lie the same problems. Who has the courage to live without ideology? The conjecturing of today turns into tomorrow’s givens. The summation to any experiment lies somewhere between its specific results and the inductions to which it gives rise. Each speculation ends in a question. Yet we are pursued and overtaken by the pragmatic question of applicability.
This is of course the borderline of creativity: this fluid area between the actual and the speculative. It involves problem-solving. And something else. We shall return to this again. Meanwhile perhaps it would be more precise to view modernism as a deeper and more testing faculty of integrity under change. Rather than an entity static in itself, an exercise towards a greater acuity and wholeness of perception.
When the artist or the writer raises the question of identity however, it may be because he feels himself to be caught between two opposing traditions, on one hand there is the vitality of an Indian tradition that no longer seems applicable; on the other, of Western tradition of contemporaneity represented by a restless international market-situation where the pace is keener, more competitive, and change continuous and highly visible. He may perceive himself as hovering between a lost audience and an insecure sense of self. This tension frequently expresses itself overtly by hesitation, resentment, or defiance. The centre is unsure.
Whether it comforts him or not to know it, he is not alone. The policy maker is stranded between the question of “appropriate technology” or the necessity for future planning and more extensive communication systems. For him the question is pragmatic. And whereas directions in pure science have changed radically over the last 50 years, it is interesting that the social and medical sciences begin to reconsider the necessity for low-cost, indigenous solutions at the local level. Here again the motive is pragmatic rather than intrinsic. For as any housewife knows, when you put your household in order you start with what is already there.
“Whether publicly or privately then, those who are most nearly touched by the intrinsic question of identity are a small urban minority who have the leisure or the professional responsibility to reflect and to look ahead. Undoubtedly they have access to a wider range of choices. Yet it is significant that as Indians, these links to orthodox lifestyle, a live tradition of classicism and to familiarity with a particular vernacular culture has already become to attenuate.
We can watch this process at work in the cities, as it moves from generation to generation. From orthodoxy into iconoclasm into a hybrid mix of confused motives, and then - if we are lucky - into a readiness to investigate origins. At its finest, it is a move towards liberalism and lack of prejudice, a wider social and humane concern. Yet it carries the hazard of a culture hiatus. And entire perceptual language needs to be relearned. And the clues lessen.
Context to identity:
Undoubtedly it was an irony of history that our first encounter with an alternative culture took place through colonialism. Yet it is increasingly apparent over the past thirty to thirty five years since we have had the opportunity to look back at it, that colonialism itself was not the main problem. The better part of culture and the Indian way of life survived intact. Undoubtedly political dominance is not the ideal climate for cultural change. Yet long before the British appeared we had been familiar with overlords. Signals from vernacular culture (Bhil murals, Kalighat pats, Baluchari weaves, among others) indicate that the ordinary, Indian soon came to his own conclusions and viewed the strangers - who had come to stay with a certain irreverence, even a touch of mockery. The urban nationalist, meanwhile, soon learned to counter the moves of the colonial “master” with the very thing on which he most prided his own civilisation: social conscience. It has a shrewd move.
If anything, the empire put us on the periphery of a development whose centre lay elsewhere. Sooner or later this would have had to happen. We would have had to look out towards the world. Meanwhile, it is inaccurate to blame colonialism for our present insecurities.
This development that we call the alternative culture came from the fact that Britain was already into the final throes of the industrial revolution. The agronomic pattern was disrupted and there was an inflow of manpower to the cities. The handover of political and fiscal power to the upwardly mobile business and trading classes led to an inhibited public admiration for “Progress”. Yet, by mid-century the drums were rolling and the cry for social reform at its height. By the turn of the century, Malthus & Marx had come and gone. And William Morris - spokesman for a slender minority, had perceived the consequences to art and aesthetic of the drain from artisan-skills into factory-hands.
The conditions of the working classes, the culture of technology and the psychology of mass were not of course unique to Britain; each country was attempting to deal with it, we were already confronting choices. It is significant that the art most visibly affected by the first signs of sociological fracture was the art that was commercially the most vulnerable to change. The Raj did nottouchritual arts, image-making or performance. Our music was no use to them, our vernacular and oral forms too local for anything but observation. If the scholastic or Sanskritic tradition was turned west-wards to investigation by the building of a few slender but significant bi-lingual bridges, it was an advantage rather than otherwise. What suffered most were certain kinds of craft-skill and product design. The general’s trophy or the District Collector’s souvenir became the industrial sample. This was imported, examined, mass-produced at ‘home’ and sent back to us, leading inevitably to hesitation, confusion and the decline of specialised skills. It was the thin end of the wedge. For at what point does the cultivation of skills, the system of craft-community and person-to-person training, support “fine-arts” in this country? And what came of their separation?
The nationalist response to industrialism was more divided and ambivalent than its response to colonialism. Every Indian wanted independence. The question was: how? On one hand the culture of technology was felt to be un-Indian and threatening. Others viewed mass production as a “boon to the common man”. It would put us on par with the rest of the world, it was felt. It was “progressive”. There was no putting clocks back, we were told.
If Europe and America have been through the process of resolving their attitude to Development, it is a process inevitably that is reflected in their arts (over the last hundred years particularly). We inherit the fruit of these experiments. And something else. This something else are the specifics of our own condition.
Perhaps the final irony of history lay in this, that India like many subsequent Asian, South American, and African countries came of age and began to view herself as culturally independent at that moment in history when post-World War II influences conspired to dissolve national differences in art, culture and communications into a more or less single European-Transatlantic mainstream, and the Mecca of the new art-development had begun to shift imperceptibly but quite definitely to new York.
India however is perhaps alone among developing countries in the degree of complexity to be confronted in what she inherits culturally.
If we concede that the dynamic of power (political, fiscal and “Progressive”) has shifted base, we must also concede the city’s relatively high tolerance to minority opinion, towards alternative life-style and (again relatively speaking) to opportunity for upward social mobility. The pattern of the City is to pull manpower in towards its centre like some hugh generator and to discharge a residue of cultural effluent that comes to settle on its satellite towns and so eventually percolates to the village. The City continually combusts new ideas, decisions, and cultural influences. It feeds on change. But this centripetal-centrifugal pattern is imposed on the existing structure of our parallel traditions. Although under cslow erosion, their vitality lies as much in the fact that this is the majority-culture (particularly at a subconscious level), as in its own structure of survival.
This majority-culture, then, spreads over the country like a vast grid or network. Its power is accumulative or accretive and lies in a single if composite world view. The hospitality of vernacular culture to change lies in its wit and in the openendedness of its internal interfaces (by which an enormous range of small but significant shifts in balance make of variation and the play of individual insight within the system).
What seems to isolate our condition from that of other developing countries is the sheer weight and singularity of a classical or Sanskrit tradition combined with a finely multi-form web of vernacular arts, into which it has continually inter-married. From this fusion at all levels, comes that which is native to us. The variety of creative solutions is breathtaking. We have not as individuals even begun to plumb it. We have made little effort to absorb its structures, principles, and techniques into the educational/training system. We happen to be on it by accident. And so the urban contemporary, the classiscist and the vernacular exponent remain at present isolated from each other, each with his own problems, each leading his separate life. Yet each perhaps his what the other lacks.
Meanwhile, the distribution of this majority culture can be seen as a network whose actual decentralisation is its strength. Its centre appropriately enough lies in its world-view. The highly localised points of regional culture maintain a distinctive resident identity. This can be considered as the lateral spread or weft. The connections and exchange occur through the great temple-festivals or seasonal fairs that attract yogis, wandering mandalis and stimulate the resident enactment of Katha on the production of pilgrim-pats. Itinerants are continually on the road from one centre of patronage to another; off-season, from village to village; providing an additional and valuable link up. The periodic migration of communities make for deeper stylistic transaction. A familiar example of this is the enrichment of the Pahari and Rajasthan Qalams by artists disbanded from Aurangzeb’s court. Another is the movement of certain gharanas such as Dhrupad back to Delhi at the time of Shah Jahan.
This lateral distribution is reinforced by a vertical alignment or warp of influence. It the temple represents the heart-centre of ‘ritual,’ symbol, and siddanta, the local landowner or feudal patron provides the sense of place, of geneaology, of local legend; also an extension of range and subtlety in the art. And the village supports the realism of the people, its topicality, satire and the simplicity of the communication interacting and balancing. A local folk or folk-tribal form may be assimilated by a particular temple and rise to eminence. A temple troupe or artisan-community might be funded or pensioned by a local feudatory and so extend it repertory or technique. And everywhere at the village and tribal levels we have evidence of local assimilation and transcreation of Hinduism. Any vernacular form will eventually yield signs of assimilation from local courts; the variants are endless.
All of us have, at some time or another, been profoundly moved by our fellow-workers in these parallel traditions. Many of us have the tradition within recall. Fewer of us feel personally involved in what they actually undergo as they face problems of funding and training…survival, the move to the City, and the move into more viable professions. A time will come when we shall have to re-encounter and learn from our parallel traditions. Let us hope they will still be there when it comes home to us that we need them.
We have been led to think of the arts as the public arena at the vanguard of a nation’sthinking,feeling and perceiving. If we return to modernism and to the situation of contemporary urban arts we encounter a mixed vocabulary of personal styles. It is not a time for greatness. There are no 20th century giants.
We have no Picasso, for instance. No Artaud has revolutionised our urban theatre, (though we are surrounded by live ritual and spectacular forms). Language itself has undergone no creative reformulation as English received from Joyce. When we judge our contemporary accomplishment or lack of accomplishment through European eyes is it because Panini, Abhinavagupta, and the Sreni of Videhi lie too far back in memory for us easily to recover? The European-Transatlantic experience has become part of what we are presently going through. We have grown up bi-cultural.
Let us look at this part of our experience again. For Picasso, the discovery of the aniconic planes to African ritual sculpture was totally to fracture and to recombine our sense of the seen object. Artaud’s vision of a holistic theatre that must fundamentally disturb and re-order all the senses, led him finally to the ritual gesture of the Balinese. Joyce’s reshaping of language was a comparable if less translatable achievement. It lay in his sense that the dimension of myth and the scholastic tradition of Christian theology must continually be re-tested, realised and revitalised by the dialect of the streets and by the linguistic structures of the subconscious.
It is important to recognise that these were creative leaps rather than rational or political choices. Hence the elegance and weight of insight. It is significant that each began or ended as an allusion to parallel tradition. As worth noticing is that each has acted on the 20th century as a revolutionary or reawakening factor of cognition. In each case, the creative leap takes place through a structural disordering and reorganisation of mainstream sensibility.
In each case, discovering has been “radical” in the pure sense of returning us to the “root” of perception.
And as such, each achievement stands aside from the uncertain tides of art opinion: the short-lived, “Art for Art’s sake,” the nostalgia for medievalism, revivalism, and equally short-lived romanticism of the machine or the idealisation of City wastes and gestural spontaneity. While these ideological waves have indicated stand-points from which to view the problem and have enlarged our sense of what is happening, none of them has been able to survive contradiction. Only the authentically creative act has been truly independent.
Contemporaneity has reminded us of the extent to individual capacity. This however, is a freedom that we cannot afford to take for granted. Disturbance has been revealed as a necessary and even a positive force of awareness. It has reawakened our sense of the real as opposed to the theoretical; it has suggested that the revolutionary act of any art lies in the degree to which we are changed by it. We stand measured by this capacity. And so, poised between the creative spur of European-Transatlantic achievement and the untapped vitality of our tradition, which way do we turn? We look out towards the world. We look in towards ourselves. But have we learned what it means to be truly bi-cultural? A muscle is known by its stretch. We are not contemporary enough. Nor are we deeply Indian. Ideally we can, and should be both.
The Question of Identity Again:
Let us go, deeper. We are agreed that to perceive what is finest in the modernist achievement is to extend our sense of what is possible, and we are agreed that we cannot go anywhere without a more conscious and specific awareness of who we are as Indians.
It takes courage to walk empty handed into the corridors of the self. Nor is it easy to drop preconception. Somewhere in the fluid area between speculation and the realisation of a speculation lies the crucible of imagination. Here the self confronts self in isolation and in the conceptualisation of the race to emerge at a different order of awareness.
This is not easily achieved. But to those who dare it, perhaps all else is a structural exercise…
We have, most of us, at one time or other experienced a heightened sense of being alive. For a moment an event in our lives may have shocked us into a strangely unfractured sense of wholeness. The work of a master may frequently have a similar effect on the attentive eye or ear. This is perhaps as much a reflection of what he has passed through, as it is of a receptive state of awareness for the receiver.
Now work is a technical and pragmatic thing. It can be judged only in and by itself. So, we rarely speak of the process of which it is the notation and tangible reminder. As a result we do not ask what this process is about, nor do we attempt to explain it in art-training/education.
This is to leave aside the question of method, or that the artist may be speaking in the work as much about his encounter with his material and/or ways of seeing as anything else. The process is described frequently as a state energy. This is not inaccurate. But we need to be more particular. Now the classical Creation-theories of the Siddhanta are as precise as one could wish. They speak of world-creation. Yet there are grounds for believing that this process was seen as particularly applicable to the role of the maker or performer in society.
The process itself is perceived as the form-principle in action; it is the “making visible” of what is potential. A process is by definition continuous. The aspect of it that we are concerned with, has three marked points of transition.
We begin (characteristically, from the Indian point of view,) with the ideal of conception, i.e. a state of wholeness, integral if abstract. This is brought steadily into focus; at which point it begins to show signs of tilt. The creative will is about to predominate. As this action-capacity releases itself it takes over articulation, and form this point on becomes the motor-force behind the work. And this work is “measured out” through the progressive enactment of structures that synchronise into systems of increasing complexity. As the sap running up-plant defines the visible form of the plant, as we can tell looking whether the plant is set to flower or to wilt, as the sap is inseparable from the plant, is indeed its own heightened vitality, and yet is the principle that circulates and feels the budding structures, so is it with the creative ability.
Already by the pre-medieval period there are signs that this originally common ground of assumption is being canalised into two traditions that are beginning to separate from one another. Where world-creation and its implications continued to feed philosophy, we also begin to see the emergence of a formal aesthetic tradition where details of specialisation, technical production and aesthetic norms of judgement take over.
In vernacular andfolkcultures the metaphor of a vegetative or fluid vitality is in common use to explain the work; it is possible that meaning is retained here in its original sense. In the classical arts by the medieval period it tends to be identified with ruling emotion or set of stylised emotions from which the maker draws, and which he transmits through the work. In the more conservative art of ritual procedure again, we find the process itself involved and formalised. To ensure the purity of the image, the process must be pure.
What engages our attention here, however, is the clarity and the simplicity with which the creative experience is described. For a while all questions of identity or time dissolve under the pressure of a wholeness that is brought steadily to focus and articulated.
Identity and time may again re-assemble in the characteristic methods by which the maker subsequently tackles problems of structure-building and style. But for a moment we are concerned with that brink of visualisation: that “space between one thought and another” according to Kshemaraja of Kashmir, where a certain “Unmesa” or “Unfurling” of clarity takes place…
T S Eliot speaks of it as the “extinction of personality” towards “something which is more valuable”; this is the point, he suggests where are and science begin to speak the same language. Einstein was to agree. “The fundamental emotion to both art and science” he reflected, was this “experience of mystery”; mysterious only because we experience the “existence of something we cannot penetrate,” and which only in its most primitive forms can be accessible to the mind.
There is much living to be done. We are not living to full capacity.
Together with the search for renewed identity goes recognition that this identity is continually under test. Modernism is nothing other than an almost austere openness of mind that cuts through all clutter. It involves the willingness to take personal responsibility. Yet if we are privileged to be bi-cultural, we are also privileged to find ourselves in a country whose vitality and sophistication we have yet to learn. They lie within reach and very close. These are hybrid times. They are not times for complacency or narrowness.
If we can come closer to our centre, we shall find “either/or” question make far less sense. It is an issue of encompassing “both.” but far more profoundly than we have done so far. And at the centre of who we are and what we are doing there is finally “neither.” There is only a current of being that shall outlive us, and that makes a mockery of our small anxieties and our petty self-interest.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary (1980)