5 May 2014
The beautiful was certainly our earliest wonderment. Aesthetics, the discourse and study on beauty, would become one of our eternal fields of inquiry. However, several major schools of thought, across the globe, soon took a reductive turn: from narratives of a fundamental harmony, they picked the human out and began to focus on its activities, its creations, its artifacts. Art would thus be the exclusive domain of the beautiful. But beauty, natural, cosmic, precedes and transcends the human craft. Flowing through the latter is an energy, an organic flow: vitality, life itself. For the first debate of our new series, Ecstasies: Conversations on the Beautiful, photographer Benoy K Behl discusses how the early Indic philosophy of aesthetics located beauty in the very continuum of the life force, connecting cosmos and tradition, deities and humans. Writer Rosalyn D’Mello‘s strikingly immediate style encounters the beautiful in the delirium within a palmyra fruit, in nature’s play of violence, and along a beam of light tracing the contours of desire…
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The Indic Philosophy of Aesthetics
Benoy K Behl
The Aesthete’s Intercession
The early art from the Indian subcontinent presents a valuable record of the compassionate vision of one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. It is a view of the world that sees harmony in the whole of creation. It recognises that the same vital principle animates all of us — the animals and trees, the flowers and leaves and even the breeze that moves them. All that there is, is seen to be a reflection of the divine.
This worldview considers the phenomenal world of separated beings and objects as an illusion, perceived and brought to us by our senses. The information provided by our senses is of a personal and not of an objective nature; absorbed in the sensory perceptions, we are blinded to the reality beyond. The primary illusion is the perception of ourselves as individual entities: this leads us on a path of egotistic existence, which distances us from the truth. The high purpose of life is to seek reintegration with the one; to perceive ourselves as part of the beauty of all creation; to see oneself as a part of the divinity of existence: thereby, to lose the pain of a life caught in the web of endless desires.
The aesthetic experience is considered to be of great value in Indic thought. Our experience of beauty, when we respond to a sunrise or to a great work of art, is seen to be a moment when we perceive the grace which underlies the whole of creation. In that moment, the veils of illusion of the material nature of the world are lifted and we see beyond… In that instant, our material preoccupations do not fill our consciousness, or blind us to the greater reality. Indic philosophy maintains that this moment of aesthetic experience is ‘akin to ‘Brahmananda’ or the final ecstasy of salvation. Art has therefore played a very significant part in the life of the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana, which was penned by the fifth century AD, drawing from the earlier oral traditions, is perhaps the oldest known treatise on art in the world. It states that art is the greatest treasure of mankind.
Buddha head, Gupta period, 5th century
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The making of art in the Indian sub-continent has been a form of meditation as a part of a life spent in worship and discovery. The creation of the beauty of form is, for the sculptor, a joyous rediscovery each time of divine glory. For the Indian sculptor, the grace of divinity is everywhere. The stone before him contains the image of divinity and it is for him to but remove the outward aspects and to release that form. The process of making an image is not only a personal joy of discovery and creation, it is also one of sharing the grace inherent in the world with others. As the ego and belief in one’s identity is considered to be an illusion of our limited sensibilities, the focus has never been on the individual. For about a thousand years till the seventh century AD, vast quantities of art were produced in the Indian sub-continent. It depicted deities, mythical creatures, animals, plants, trees, forms combining these beings in a great harmony, and also common men and women. Yet this art never depicted the kings under whose rule the works were created. Nor was the name of the artist mentioned.
According to the Chitrasutra, personalities are too unimportant to be depicted in art. The noble purpose of art is to show the eternal, beyond the ephemeral. Thus, works of art were meant to convey the Truth as experienced yet again by the artist. No early thinker or artist claimed that it was solely him who had seen the Truth. Each teacher of the ancient times, including the Buddha and Mahavira, holds that he merely follows in the footsteps of others who went before him. The emphasis is on the loss of the ego and not the perpetuation of it. Art was the prime vehicle for the communication of these ideas.
One of the greatest contributions of this philosophic stream is that there are no barriers placed between the spiritual world and the world of the senses. The art of this tradition is a fulsome sharing of the life experience, in all its aspects. It sees our perceptions, from the sensory to the highest realms of the spiritual, as a continuous path. It harnesses our faculties and perceptions to help us understand and reach out to the divine, through all that is around us. This philosophy does not seek to deny our response to the splendour of the world around us. In fact, it sees this beauty as a reflection of the glory of the divine. Thus, the human form is not presented in a manner which would awaken base desires that burden us. Instead, Indic art recognises the grace in all human and other forms and seeks to elevate us through our aesthetic response.
Parvati, Chola Bronze, Tamil Nadu, 14th century
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The ancient and medieval Indic sculpture is naturalistic. However, it is inherently different from art which attempts to portray only the transitory shapes of the objects of the world. Here, naturalism is the expression of that sense which moves beneath the surface of objects, that inner being of the trees, animals and people: the spirit which moves the whole of creation. Even as the richness and complexity of life experience is presented, our perception of the material world is not denied. The dynamic play upon our minds of ever-changing perceptions, the dance of illusion that veils eternal reality, is described as lila. In the search of the truth, the experience of this lila is not negated. In fact, there is a celebration of the divinity contained within the forms of the world. This is seen through the ancient and medieval period in Indic art, where the human form is used as a vehicle to express philosophic ideals.
There are no gods in this philosophic vision. There are deities: deities who are the personifications of concepts and qualities. These qualities are within us and by looking upon the deities brought to us in art, by meditating upon these, we imbibe those fine qualities. When we are filled by that grace, there is no space left for base desires and pain: we become that deity. There are many images of deities trampling the demons of ignorance. However, the demons smile as they are vanquished. In this world, where all is seen as part of a cosmic whole, there is no anguish, finally. The achievement of knowledge and the dispelling of ignorance are likened to a victory.
The Great Stupa of Sanchi
There is evidence everywhere in Indic monuments of a great cosmopolitan culture from the earliest times. Some of the Buddhist art and pillars of India were patronised by Greeks, Parthians and others from faraway lands. Influences of art from everywhere were received warmly, and some of them continued in the flow of art through the centuries. Artistic styles, motifs and iconography spread swiftly in early times to all corners of the land.
What survives today of the early Indic art is only a small fraction of what would have been created. Yet it consists of such vast numbers of monuments and sculptures that it staggers one’s mind. The corpus is gigantic and spread to every corner of the subcontinent. Thus, we find that there have been pan-Indian themes and artistic styles, since ancient times. Regional variations and colour have added further richness to these traditions.
He is aware that the violence is momentary.
It must be.
Precision is imperative.
A votive beheading; an eager dissection with the same searching blade; a meditative reaching into crevices; the zealous extraction of flesh.
The smaller the softer the sweeter the more delirious.
His eyes have tilted to a slant. The curled tip of the blade picks at a convenient point around the circumference, ushers the fruit to a corner of his street-side cart, along with the other depositions, then the second, then the third.
The round, bruise-colored husk is now bereft.
Love child of coastal excesses; fruit of the Palmyra tree, offspring of hedonistic divinity; translucent flesh, interior wetness revealed after lips have made contact with its texture, then hollowness; the epicurean tongue glides against the pocket, sucks in the liquid remainder, tears into the suppleness, until all memory of its existence survives squarely as experience.
Tadgoda, Nungu, Tale Hannu, Taati Ningu, Taati Munjalu, Tal Gaha, Tala, Tari, Taal, Pana Nangu, Munjal, Targula.
Beauty lies on the edge of surrender.
Four aesthetes walk into Lal Bagh.
Morning light stretches against the leaves. Speckles.
A post-colonialist discourse follows.
Their pace is punctuated by ellipses; breath-spaced gaps; revelations; anecdotes; the demonstration of axes; the illustration of detail; observatory notes on the import of wrought iron; the commissioning of exotic plants; their uprootment from foreign lands; the subsequent translation, transliteration, transcreation; the hegemonic attempts at writing over without erasing; the horticultural superimposition to create new histories.
The territorial appropriation of beauty.
The lead aesthete escorts the initiate; he rummages through the grass and delicately lifts the fallen frangipani; temple flowers. He sees the familiar face of the woman who comes by everyday to pick strewn flowers and collect them in her polythene bag.
They greet each other and when she is gone, he turns to the initiate and tells her the intriguing story the woman had once passed down to him; of the snake who had made a home for himself close to the frangipani.
The Director of the Directorate of Horticulture had issued a directive to rid the garden of the snake. The order was carried out by the reluctant underlings; the snake’s home was smoked out. The next day the snake slithered its way to the Director’s home and bit his wife.
Is beauty born of conflict, or does it exist in spite of it?
Is our postlapsarian world unknowingly obsessed with recreating Eden?
“Every time I walk here I find myself getting more and more curious,” says the lead aesthete. By now we have torn fledgling flowers from the Tamarind tree, indulged in the premature sourness; plucked inch-long apples from a human-sized tree and basked in the memory of the forbidden; collected samples of shed bark; shredded slivers of the paper-trunk tree…
In other words, the timeline of our walk was constituted by a series of singular moments. We had come to understand how beauty only reveals itself through the act of pausing. The aspiring aesthete must learn to isolate it, approach it, contemplate its mystique. Beauty must be absorbed. Like a parasite, the aesthete must relish each morsel, allow it to perpetuate through the bloodstream. The aesthete must become the accumulation of her encounters with beauty. It must define her being.
Beauty lies in the perception of it. A tree may be blossoming wildly in a forest, but if there is no one to witness its grandiloquent display, is it still beautiful?
Was the White Silk Cotton Tree with its stellar girth and its elephant-skin texture magnificent only when it intercepted our gaze? Or was it always carrying its one thousand years in that large, majestic moment? What were the collective beauties that defined its being?
She decided he was beautiful months before she could encounter him.
And when she did, she learned that he was not a man of faith.
He only believed in the sun.
In the certainty of its daily rising and setting.
In its gospel of light.
And that is what he practiced; that was the purpose of his being; to draw with light.
And after she knew him; after she had loved him; she was still unsure if he saw in her the beauty she believed she possessed. She wanted to see in him her reflection. But he rarely ever acknowledged her beauty. Rather, she hadn’t yet learned to decipher his coded, non-verbal appreciation of its existence.
One day he relented.
She was informing him of an admirer who, he could tell, was seeking to acquaint himself more meaningfully with her beauty. She was yet unaware of his motive, though, to her credit, she did anticipate his desire for her.
“I’m not surprised,” he responded. “You’re young, and beautiful.”
“So you admit I’m beautiful?” she asked, seeking assurance.
“It depends on how one defines beauty.” “And what is your conception of beauty?” “I think of beauty as light. Light that shines through from within. Yes, I think you’re beautiful.”
Later she would learn it was through his eyes that he revealed his lust; through his sight that he touched the world. His manner was to look at the object of his desire, and covet it through that gaze. Everything fell into perspective when she chanced upon this revelation. All those times she found herself confounded by his ability to resist touching her dark, naked body lying beside him, all sun-kissed and yearning; the times she knew she had aroused something within him but not enough to lead to surrender; the times she would beseech him with her eyes that hungered for reflection. It was on a mid-summer morning that she discovered the secret behind his beholding of beauty. She was half-awake half-asleep, and bare; had shed her clothes in the darkness of the hot, dry hours of night. When she opened her eyes she found he was awake beside her, resting the weight of his body against his angled arm. He was poised towards her and his eyes had been roving her extent. When he noticed she was aware of his trail, with a single finger he trekked along her breasts and circumambulated her nipple. All she saw was his finger against the blackness of her skin, its surface reflecting the sunlight. She finally understood how his caressing of her body through the slightest touch transformed it from flesh to feast.
She was always aroused by the sensual, but over time it would become an obsession. The world, she would learn, existed purely for the purpose of her indulgence. She would come to understand how to isolate the sensuous and devour it through her experience of it. She would begin to document their love affair by inscribing it as a litany of pleasures. She would begin to pursue, relentlessly, the beauty in the everyday.
Sometimes she couldn’t bear the maddening intensity; it made her weep; it interrupted her lust; it cleansed her of her sins; it made her new. It made her conscious of her fragility, her innocence, her capacity to destroy in order to dance over the exquisite ruins. It made her aware of the threatening, devastating myth of her own beauty.
Born of destruction, Beauty destroys. Beauty, while firmly affixed to the world of the living, is entrenched in mortality. It derives its being through the fact of impending death. And yet, Beauty must be lived, must be felt, must be experienced, must transform in order to be. It must please and also terrify. When transcribed, it defies its mortality, becomes truth. It is all we know, all we need to know.
Benoy K Behl is a filmmaker, art-historian, author and photographer specialising in Asian monuments and art heritage. With a career spanning over three decades, his pictures have been featured in the international media, including National Geographic and the BBC, as well as in prestigious museums and galleries. His 128 documentaries are regularly screened around the world.
Rosalyn D’Mello is a freelance writer based out of Delhi. Her first book, A Handbook For My Lover, is being represented by David Godwin. Her features and reviews on art and culture have been published widely. She was nominated for the Forbes Emerging Art Writer of the Year Award.
Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
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