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An Embodiment of Indian Art
Apparao Galleries Chennai

An unbroken tradition is validated time and again in Indian art practices. From antiquities to the contemporary, Indian art has a strong link with ‘saundarya shastra’ or aesthetics. Indian aesthetics is understood as the theorization of the theory of the beautiful. Its definition in the context of Indian rhetoricians is of a state of heightened awareness, of bliss, which transcends pleasure, declaring kinship with the spirit rather than the corporeal self.

The theory of Indian aesthetics is housed within the Natyashastra by Bharata which propounds the connectivity between the plastic and the performing arts. And the ‘Rasa theory’ within it stands as a pillar of traditional arts. Following this seminal treatise on the arts Abhinava Bharati, by Abhinavagupta, serves as our most authoritative source being the most significant commentary on Bharats’s Natyashasta including the theory of Rasa. The Aesthetic experience is described as the ‘tasting of flavour’ or Rasa swadana. Rasaliterally means the quintessential essence of a work of art. A two-way process, the artist strives for Rasa in his work and the rasika or connoisseur intuitively detects it. Rasa is bestowed not made. When Rasa is applied to art and aesthetic experiences, the word signifies a state of heightened delight or ananda, or unity with Godhead.

Rasavadana or the tasting of the flavour is contingent upon several elements coming together in harmony. Bhava (the mood or emotional state), vibhavas (determinants), anubhavas (consequents) and the vyabhicharibhavas (complementary emotional states)

Though Bharata himself only mentions eight Rasas, there is a generally accepted ninth Rasa i.e. Shanta (quiescent). These are Shringaraa (the erotic), Hasya (the comic), Karuna (the pathetic), Raudra (the furious), Vira (the heroic), Bhayanak (the terrible), Bibhatsa (the odious), Adbhuta (the marvellous).

It is against this backdrop that the work of contemporary Indian artists will be showcased. The essence of their work which maybe linked to a specific mood or emotion may transgress/include a group of sentiments. Navarasa the show posed a simultaneously challenging and stimulating prospect with the nine Rasas at its very core. The exhibition is an attempt to move out of the formal structure of the navarasas as defined by the traditional aestheticians. The Navarasa show thus enables the ‘rasika’ to experience the vast encompassing nature of the aesthetic experience.

The Taxonomies of ‘Rasa’ have been done in a purely subjective and interpretive manner. On occasions while decoding the Rasa theory several Rasas go into the creation of a work of art. The appreciation of Rasa particularly with respect to which Rasa dominates is thus an intensely personal experience, the tools of deconstruction varying from line, form and colour to content and theme

The ‘Rasa experience’ is intensely personal, subjective, consequently intangible and has been variously interpreted. Hence Rasa is held to be unique and indivisible. Its division into nine varieties possesses only restricted values and is adopted for the sake of expediency and used by aestheticians to broadly divide the aesthetic experience. Obviously the Rasa experience would be restrictive if looked at within the narrow framework of the principal nine. But viewed from a macro perspective it proves to be liberating.

Dr. Alka Pande



Science In Arts

“Art is a kind of knowledge by which we know how to do our work…a means of communication by signs and symbols, a kind of mimetic iconography.” – Anand Coomaraswamy

Indian art is the art of signs and symbols. A continuing leitmotif in Indian art. Manifestations of these can be seen in the art practice of the eleven participating artists in ‘From the Tree to the Seed’. The ‘adequacy’ and ‘inadequacy’ of symbols are directly related to their ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’. This adequacy or inadequacy of the symbol is determined by what degree it symbolises its referent. Symbols of art, by virtue of being likenesses of their ‘truths’ are iconic and become projections of their intended referents. With the result that works or symbols of art are intended as means of communicating super sensuous truths or forms.

What do symbols and signs seek to communicate? Facts and information certainly, but not exclusively. Far beyond these an artist aims to communicate desire, emotions, feelings, visions, dreams, ideas, images, in a word, himself/herself, his/her total being.

Emerging from consciousness, artistic representation may be traced back to Vedantic and pre-Vedantic philosophy where thought preceded form. From the abstract to the figurative and from the figurative to the abstract, the core of Indian aesthetics develops in a highly structured fashion originating in the Natyashastra. In ancient India the very essence of appreciating the arts, be they the plastic or performing, lay in the savouring of the ‘sap’ or juice of expression. Written in the 6th century AD at the height of the Golden Age of Indian Art, the Natyasashtra is one of the most inventive and seminal of all texts thus raising it to an iconic canon. Its author Bharata conceded his indebtedness to earlier scholars who had theorised orally on the arts. It was he who in the 6th century A.D. laid down the foundations of the ‘Rasa’ theory in the Natyashastra. Often celebrated as the fifth Veda, the Natyashastra is a compendium of the understanding of Indian aesthetics.

Art and life in India have been inextricably intertwined from the ancient to the contemporary. Art as a way of life, art as ritual, art as decoration and art as unity with Godhead, bore testament to the socio-cultural milieu, the high level of sophistication that developed in ancient India was reflected in the arts by their study in a holistic light. The arts thus strived to hone man’s intellectual sensibilities, thus raising him to the level of the transcendental, which in India was Brahma or ultimate reality.

A myth in a particular text of the canonical document the Vishnudharmottaramm one of the Puranic Texts (circa 4 -6 Century A.D.) expresses the interconnectivity of the arts in no uncertain terms. There once lived a king called Vajra. He was a pious and devout man. One day he went to the great sage Markandeya with a request. “Oh Master, grant me but one wish!” begged the king. “Teach me the art of iconography so that I may make my own idol for worship…” Touched by the king’s appeal, he was forced to ask him a few questions before handing him the first lump of metal. “Do you know how to paint?” asked the sage. The king did not, but requested that he may be taught it if that was a pre-requisite to learning sculpture. “But for that you need to know how to dance,” continued the sage. To learn dancing, in turn the king was required to have a rudimentary knowledge of instrumental music, which needed a foundation in vocal music. Thus the king had to begin with the octaves in order to transform his creative potential into tangible form. Thus the highest form of abstraction in arts is embodied in music. So close is the association that the different disciplines also share certain common terminology like the word tala and laya. To a sculptor tala means one measure and to a musician or a dancer it refers to one beat, or the measure.

The Natyashastra, in particular the rasa theory contained in it, came to be the theoretical base for all art in India. Dealing primarily with dance-drama or natya, the rasa theory was all encompassing and “immediately applicable to arts of all kinds”: Coomaraswamy Numerous commentaries on this text were to follow. Several aestheticians took rasa as their base, expounding various other theories on art. Rasa is India’s unique contribution to the study of aesthetics.

Natya” is essentially rasa, which consists of situations, mimetic changes, transient emotions, and basic emotion, which can be experienced, not through any means of empirical knowledge, but through aesthetic susceptibility only. Similarly, the word “sastra”, stands for the means of knowing the essential nature of “natya”, and as distinct from a dramatic presentation, which is concerned with mere imitation of the external. The art of effective speech or recitation (Vacikabhinay), the art of music, the art of acting and the Rasas are included in the Natyaveda.

Rasa, is at the core of the Natyashastra. The term “rasa” itself has borne many definitions- from the basic physical definition where rasa is the sap or juice of a plant, to the non-material finest part, to the relish and flavour while experiencing a heightened sense of delight. According to Bharata, rasa, the aesthetic object is essentially the product of dramatic art and is not to be found in the creations of nature.

” Considered jointly with speech, gestures open a ‘window’ onto the mind. … taking gesture into account, we see patterns not revealed by speech alone and see more comprehensively how meanings are constructed. Gesture is not only a display of meaning but is part of the act of constructing meaning itself, adding a ‘material carrier’ that helps bring meaning into existence … “

David McNeill

The study of nonverbal behaviour is tied to performance in drama and dance. Since Indian studies describe and emphasise a unity of purpose between poetry and drama, indeed, between all arts, the physical manifestation of nonverbal behaviour as representations of underlying psychological needs and states is integrated in every art. In poetry through appropriate description and metaphor, in sculpture through direct, indirect and oblique representation of nonverbal acts, and in dance combining both poetry and sculpture, adding to the combination the dimension of movement and symbol. The artist whether author, painter, playwright, musician or actor, communicates through words, sounds, music, line, colour, surface, tone, space, gesture and movement. What renders a gesture more effective is a mode and manner designed to please, and gratify the senses, sensibilities and minds of those being communicated with. In addition what is being communicated must be meaningful and significant. The perception of the gestural object must move beyond the merely sensual and penetrate deeper to the level of intrinsic perception.

The mode and manner of communication determines the form and significance of the content and gesture. To trace the evolution of symbolism and gesture, the ancient tomes of Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra and the Abhinayadarpana of Nandikesvara are essential. Attributed to the 4th to 6th C. AD, the Abhinayadarpana is a standard text on dance or Nrtya, which is followed by many schools of classical Indian dance. Abhinaya is an inseparable component of Natya, the ancient Indian system of dramaturgy. The principles of Natya have been laid down by Bharata in the Natyashastra where the performing art form of theatre, encompasses not only the arts of dance, drama and music but also literature, painting and sculpture. Today’s well-known classical dance styles such as Khathakali and Bharat Natyam in addition to the more esoteric theatre forms like Kudiattam Yaksagana still follow Bharata’s technique and his concept of Abhinaya. The Natya with Abhinaya as its backbone was conceived by Lord Brahma, the Creator of Vedas and handed over to Bharata for codification. ‘Abhi’ is the prefix meaning ‘towards’ and ‘ni (naya)’ is the root meaning to carry. Abhinaya may be interpreted to mean to carry towards, i.e. to carry the spectator towards the meaning. Thus, Abhinaya serves, as a vehicle of Natya through which the spectator experiences the particular emotions of the dramatic character that is to lead him towards Rasananda – tasting or savouring Rasa, the ultimate bliss, the aim of NatyaRasa is at the core of the Natyashastra. The term “rasa” itself has borne many definitions – from the basic physical definition where rasa is the sap or juice of a plant, to the experience of a heightened sense of delight.

The definition of ‘Abhinaya’ makes it clear that in terms of ancient Indian dramatic theory, it is not restricted to acting, miming or facial expressions. The term applies to all the related aspects of dramatics, which contribute in conveying poetic content. Bharata has defined four major types of Abhinaya – Angika Abhinaya, Vacika Abhinaya, Aharya Abhinaya and Sattvika Abhinaya.

Angika Abhinaya – to convey connotation and meaning through body movements. Encompassing natural and symbolic gestures, postures and movements of the major and minor parts of the body, including the Mukharaga, or expressions conveyed through the subtle movements of facial muscles. A nonverbal communication mode, the author/director insists upon the need for the gestures and facial expressions to be in consonance with one another.

Vacika Abhinaya – expression through speech. This includes the actor’s skill at delivering dialogue in addition to the dramatist’s skill at employing the appropriate language. Bharata has discussed in detail the different Vrttas, metres in poetry; the Laksanas, figures of speech; the Gunas and Dosas, the strong and weak points of poetic writing including diction.

Aharya Abhinaya – involves Rangabhusa – the make-up and costumes, ornaments etc. – of the Patra, the dancer-actor and the Nepathya, the stage props and decor. Bharata prescribes precise colours, hairstyles and costumes for specific characters.

Sattvika Abhinaya – expression of Sattvika-s, i.e. the peculiar emotional states producing the particular physical reactions such as Romanca (horripilation), Asru (tears), Sveda (perspiration), Vaivarnya (change of complexion) etc.

Thus, Abhinaya may be described as a particular system of dramatic presentation which uses all various aspects of histrionics, specifically., Angika, Vacika, Aharya and Sattvika. This fourfold Abhinaya performed along with Sangita, i.e., the triple symphony of Gita,Vadya and Nrtya, produces Natya – the total theatre, as conceived and described by Bharata.

For the study of painting, the gestures as mentioned in the Abhinayadarpana are of great significance. It is mentioned in the Vishnudharmottara that the canons of painting are difficult to understand without prior acquaintance with the canons of dance. A treatise on the canons of dance, the Abhinayadarpana of Nandikesvara introduces us to the use and application of gestures or Angika Abhinaya. The exclusive purpose of the Abhinaya, as stated in these texts is to invoke Rasa in the spectator. Only when the abhineta interprets the content of the rupaha through Abhinaya, so the spectator may experience it, is the emanation of Rasa possible.

Indian aesthetician Bhattanayaka holds that Rasa is spectator based. In other words, Rasa is created when the spectator is able to identify himself with the character via the aids of the Vibhavas (emotive situation in human setting) and Bhavas (furnishing moods which produce Rasa). Abhinaya may be said to disclose to spectators the beauty or manifold pleasurable aspects of the play by means of words and gestures or ‘suggestive imitation’. The doctrine of imitation lies at the base of almost all art forms in India.

The gestures of the head, hands, lips and postures prescribed in these manuals are not realistic or rigidly defined. Exaggerated postures may be seen in the sculptures and paintings of Ajanta, Amravati, and Deogarh to name a choice few sites. The Ajanta paintings in particular are a superb example of the portrayal of the gestural in art.

In the words of Mallinatha, the famous commentator on Kiratarjunyan, “the specific activity that produces Rasa and Bhava is called Abhinaya.” Abhinaya reveals to the spectators the beauty or manifold pleasurable aspects of the play by means of words, gestures etc. Acting is only one aspect of Abhinaya. From the word ‘nata’ and the words such as ‘natayati’ it appears that the ancient Indians had their plays ‘danced’ and not ‘acted’. This is corroborated by the evidence of Harivamsa, which uses the expression natakam nanrtuh (dance a play). Abhinaya is a form of art akin to dancing, an ideal medium for the ‘suggestion’ of ideas and emotions to the spectator.

An object becomes a work of art by generating a brand new set of meanings – categories beyond the prevalent interpretation. A work of art has a continuous existence and identity; it contributes to our being, not so much as a possession, but by pointing to a way of ‘becoming’.

Art activity deals with the interrelationships between the object and subject and the inert object and form. Nihar Ranjan Ray holds that no creation is possible without the dichotomy of subject and object disappearing at a certain point. It is only when the two coalesce that creation becomes possible. In Indian art, the subject is purusha, the object prakriti – the unformed natural object. When the latter is disciplined and organised by the subject in a manner that pleases, satisfies and supports the human senses, sensibilities and mind so as to aid the qualitative improvement of the human personality, it is transformed into a form, a work of art.

For A.K. Coomarswamy, art was a metaphysical statement. The belief that art is representative of the symbolic communication of truth has held through the ages with tradition being regarded as a language spoken directly, suffering no loss of intelligibility. Coomarswamy describes a certain historic continuity in art that may be traced from the Vedic times. His view of Indian art centres on the ‘whole man’ where authenticity, meaningful living, spontaneity, homogeneity and tradition in art are particularly sought after. For him the ‘whole man’ is a metaphysician.

As discussed, within the sphere of the gestural be it in the performing or plastic arts, gesture or the performative aspect is very significant within the context of Indian art practice. From the traditional, where the role of the spectator is of paramount importance, we move forward through time. Crossing the canvas from ancient art practice vested in the Natyashastra from whence springs Abhinaya, the most important driving tool of the performative, we arrive at the modern, where the practice of art has undergone a startling metamorphosis. Yet the streak of continuity remains constant. Modern art for all its developments, borrowings, evolution and transformations has not seen many changes in the making of its art; it is the aesthetic experience that has shifted. The opening up of global boundaries, the subsequent dissolving of borders, our artists moving to the west and returning with a broadened more ‘global’ vision, has resulted in the production of art shifting from the decorative onto a broader cultural base. Where once Indian art was decorative, embellishment for icons, for symbols, it has become a practice talking of vital issues. Issues of identity, pluralism, hybridity, multi-vocality, de-territorialisation, re-territorialisation, nationality and nationhood, issues that are at the fore of artistic practice the world over. Notions of national, ethnic, racial and gender identities are no longer regarded as absolute essences. The manufacture and adaptation of culture and identity are reliant upon intricate interactions with material and ideological conditions.

Geographical borders no longer limit artists, curators, critics and collectors. With the intervention of electronic highways there are no specific boundaries, people are connected to each other in a virtual space which is an entity in itself. The breakdown of physical spaces through cyberspace has opened a whole new world for the artist community, the world has shrunk and the work practices have been given an expanding canvas. Connections have proliferated beyond imagination, creating a whirlpool of ideas which spins in a global environment accessible to all.

The arena of aesthetics has witnessed a paradigm shift yet the source and motivational aspects remain the same. Abhinaya continues to suffuse the production of art. Now aesthetics has become the realm of the experiential, the autobiographical, the existential and the urban because these are fast becoming the increasing preoccupation of artists throughout the nation. The genres have divided, art derived from folk, art derived from the tribal, and art from tradition.

The 1920’s saw the development of art that grew out of a different flowering derived from a western iconography. Amrita Shergil and Raja Ravi Varma were two of the most important catalysts responsible for the forging of a modern sensibility and the establishment of a modern aesthetic in Indian art. It is from them that the seeds of modernism were sown. Ravi Varma introduced the canvas; Amrita Shergil brought in the body as gesture. Gesture evolves and changes. A gesture once attributed to the decorative becomes a form of embellishment of the self of the spirit of the identity.

As boundaries continue to disintegrate, so too the divisions between the ‘high’ and ‘popular arts’, the ‘fine arts’ and the ‘crafts’. Drawing upon their hybrid cultural backgrounds and experiences of multiple displacement in ways that transcend ideological limitations, the Indian artists of today address broader global concerns including oppression, nationalism, mythology, history, identity, memory, mysticism, as well as the problematics of modernism and post-modernism through their individual poetics of survival.

Drawing upon their Indian roots the eleven participating artists have mastered the suggestive power of the gestural, be it in their forms or their artistic practice. From Subba Ghosh’s video installation, which describes the interface between the traditional reading of gesture through the ‘making’ of the film and the film itself being a modern medium of artistic expression and Jitish Kallat, where the process is as significant as the final product with each physical stroke of the brush becoming a gesture, a step towards creation., to the non – verbal suggestive forms of Bharti Kher, all the participating artists of the ‘Tree to the Seed’ including Atul Dodiya, Anita Dube. Hema Upadhyay, Reena Saini Kallat, Rekha Rodwittiya, Sharmila Samant, Subodh Gupta and Surendran Nair demonstrate the continuity of the ‘gestural in art’.

Bhuj – A Commemorative,in collaboration with Voluntary Health Association of India, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi
Cross Talks in Design,in collaboration with NID, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi