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.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Inventing a symbolic language

The cultural model of Indian temple sculpture made a remarkable entry into an innovative line of English art through the London meeting between Eric Gill and Ananda Commaraswamy in 1908. Gill, an engraver and self-taught sculptor, quickly assimilated the two cultural characteristics of Indian sculpture, namely its convexity and linearity. Using for the most part female members of his family circle as nude models, this Indian influence resulted, on the one hand, in the proliferation of black and white line engravings, and on the other sculptured forms expressed as convexities.

Gill marked out his stone reliefs before carving with outlines that indicated the depth to which each part should be cut, by half an inch, an inch, and so on. Then he cut backwards from the front skin of the stone, removing material layer by layer, by following the outlines drawn on the stone. It was a methodical and logical procedure which produced direct yet rather heraldic images. David Kindersley, an apprentice letter-cutter who joined Gill's workshop in the mid1930s, recalled how Gill worked with sureness and clarity:

"His attention was remarkable in degree and duration . . . No tool was ever forced beyond its capacity. All stages were in process at once over various parts of the carving, the projections always being a stage ahead so that, for all the world, it appeared a simple question of removing a series of skins of differently textured stone. Strength and firmness of form were assured not only by the clarity of his vision but in no small degree through his technique. All form for Mr Gill was of a convex order. Concavities were the result of the meeting of two convexities."

Through his eager assimilation of the essence of Indian temple art, Gill was able to unite his innate aptitudes for the crafts of engraving and sculpture, in one seamless process of creativity. His engravings are flattened sculpture and his sculptures are puffed up line-engravings.

Eric Gill occupies a unique place in British sculptural life of the twentieth century. He was born on 22 February 1882 in Brighton, the eldest son of twelve children of Arthur Tidman and Rose Gill. Eric Gill described his father as 'an Anglican parson, formerly a Dissenter', and his grandfather and great-uncle were Congregationalist missionaries in the South Sea Islands. The strong sense of vocation displayed by these three close male relatives was inherited by Gill, who appeared to feel from early manhood that he had a divinely appointed task to do. This task was to communicate his vision of art as a vehicle for the splendours of spiritual life. And in order to do this, Gill began to produce figurative sculpture that was uncompromising in its sacred message.

Gill came to believe passionately that things had gone wrong with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the introduction of inhuman machine production of buildings, clothing, furniture, food and utensils. In the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was no special thing called art. Art was making in general and anyone who made anything would, if the word had existed, have been called an artist. Art was simply the ways of men with things; it was human work . In this sense, Gill was already pre-adapted to take up the cultural inheritance of Indian art, which for the most part is the product of anonymous sculptors and painters.

An entry in Gill's diary for 10 January 1908 records that he attended a lecture at the Art Workers' Guild, London, given by Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy on Indian Art. Gill added the accompanying phrase 'a most splendid paper'. This appears to be the first time that Gill became aware of Coomaraswamy, and it seems he was immediately impressed by the man and his knowledge. At the end of his life, Gill wrote in his Autobiography:

"There was one person . . . to whose influence I am deeply grateful; I mean the philosopher and theologian, Ananda Coomaraswamy. Others have written the truth about life and religion and man's work . . . Others have understood the true significance of erotic drawings and sculptures. Others have seen the relationships of the true and the good and the beautiful. Others have had apparently unlimited learning. Others have loved; others have been kind and generous. But I know of no one else in whom all these gifts and all these powers have been combined. I dare not confess myself his disciple; that would only embarrass him. I can only say that I believe that no other living writer has written the truth in matters of art and life and religion and piety with such wisdom and understanding."

Coomaraswamy was born in 1877 in Sri Lanka of a Tamil father and an English mother. He studied botany and geology at London University. The Home Office in London appointed Coomaraswamy Director of the first mineralogical survey of Ceylon from 1903 to 1906, and after completing this work, he travelled for the first time to India at the end of 1906. His time in Srilanka and India stimulated an abiding interest in the arts and crafts of those countries and their spiritual basis. In 1907 Coomaraswamy moved into a medieval building, the Norman Chapel at Broad Campden, restored for him by C. R. Ashbee who lived and worked a couple of miles away, at Chipping Campden. Ashbee had formed his Guild of Handicraft, a group of workers occupied in the arts and crafts, in the East End of London in 1888. In 1902 he took his ideas and his workers to Chipping Campden, an attractive and neglected Gloucestershire village, in order to test his theory that a rural life was better for the production of art and craft work than an urban one. Ashbee looked at the position of the worker and his occupation in the arts and crafts world, such as silversmithing or printing, in terms of the social well-being of the individual and of society as a whole. Coomaraswamy allied himself to Ashbee's ideas and ideals, but substituted the spiritual for the social. Coomaraswamy purchased William Morris's press and used it to publish in 1908 the first book on the arts of his native Srilanka, 'Medieval Sinhalese Art'. This was followed by The Indian Craftsman in 1909, Indian Drawings in 1910, and several articles in the Burlington Magazine between 1910and 1916 on Indian art, later published in book form as 'Rajput Painting and The Dance of Shiva', the latter reviewed by Gill. In 1917

Coomaraswamy left Britain to take up a post as Keeper of the Indian Collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a position he held until his death in 1947.

Coomaraswamy was important for Gill for two reasons: firstly because he examined the relationship between man's work and his leisure, and secondly because he examined the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Also he provided Gill with a phrase that virtually became Gill's motto, and is thought by many to have stemmed from Gill himself, so perfectly does it chime with his aesthetic -

'The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist'.

Gill was able to test his own Christian-based ideas against those of a Hindu, and thus gain a broader spiritual base, although many ideas were held in common. Coomaraswamy was looking for a new metaphysical system for man's work and life at just the same time that Gill was, but Coomaraswamy's aesthetic parameters were much wider. He offered a deep and first-hand knowledge of Indian and Srilankan arts and crafts to a British audience anxious to learn more. And Gill was in the forefront of those thirsty for this knowledge. An appreciation in Britain of Indian arts and crafts had first emerged in the late 1870s, spearheaded by the artists William Morris, Edward Burne Jones, John Everett Millais and Walter Crane. These men were only too aware of how the arts and crafts in Britain were being attacked by increasing industrialisation and they wished to focus attention on the same position occurring in India. From 1908 Coomaraswamy took up this cause with passion. Then in the Spring of 1910 the India Society was founded, with its headquarters in London. Among the founding members were Coomaraswamy, Walter Crane, W. R. Lethaby, Roger Fry and William Rothenstein, all of whom were colleagues of Gill and significant supporters of his emergent sculptural practice.

In 1908 Coomaraswamy published The Aims of Indian Art and in this book cited William Blake as a most significant example of a Western artist who worked in an imaginative rather than a naturalistic manner. This way of thinking and working allied Blake to the aesthetics of Oriental artists. Blake was for Coomaraswamy a great and original spiritual thinker and artist and assumed for him the role of a bridge between Eastern and Western art. It is not inconceivable to imagine that Gill wanted to inherit Blake's role. In 1910 Gill designed a tombstone based on one of Blake's illustrations to Robert Blair's poem 'The Grave', the dramatic composition of 'The Reunion of the Soul and the Body'. And in 1917 Gill based his wood engraving of The Last Judgement on Blake's colour print of God Judging Adam. Gill, like Blake, believed in social and spiritual reform, and sexual freedom. They both abhorred the negative power of industrial mechanisation. It has been said that Coomaraswamys complex erotic life was a feature of his personal philosophy.

Gill's belief that the ascetic and the sensual could be amalgamated stemmed from his burgeoning knowledge of Indian art and Hindu theology. In 1913 Coomaraswamy published his 'The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon' and a section of his chapter on Indian sculpture provides a most useful gloss on these two beliefs. Coomaraswamy had been describing how sculptures of spiritual figures were made more impressive if they were created in a voluptuous style:

". . . in the best of Gothic art there are traces of a conflict, a duality of soul and body. If in many works of ancient Greece there is no such conflict, this is because the body alone is presented: but in the best of the Indian sculpture flesh and spirit are inseparable . . .

In nearly all Indian art there runs a vein of deep sex-mysticism. Not merely are female forms felt to be equally appropriate with male to adumbrate the majesty of the Over-soul, but the interplay of all psychic and physical sexual forces is felt in itself to be religious. Already we find in one of the earliest Upanishads -

'For just as one who dallies with a beloved wife has no consciousness of outer and inner, so the spirit also, dallying with the Self-whose-essence-is-knowledge, has no consciousness of outer and inner'. Here is no thought that passion is degrading . . . but a frank recognition of the close analogy between amorous and religious ecstasy . . . It is thus that the imager, speaking always for the race, rather than of personal idiosyncrasies, set side by side on his cathedral walls the yogi and the apsara, the saint and the ideal courtesan'.


What can we learn from hinduism