The dismemberment of the demon Kalanemi: Manaku
In my recent post on drawing plants I introduced the six Chinese principles of brush drawing. I must admit that I have not posted enough on the power of other cultures to help us address the limited viewpoints that we westerners tend to have when it comes to thinking about art practice. I shall therefore over the next few months put up a range of posts designed to introduce you to alternative cultural aesthetics.
If you want to think more about 'viewer response' aesthetic theories probably the best cultural milieu to explore is that of the Indian sub continent. Indian art is best approached via the ancient aesthetic theory of . In Sanskrit this literally means ‘juice’, ‘extract of a fruit’ or ‘essence’ and refers to the finest qualities of taste. This goes back millions of years to the evolution of our senses as ways to detect what is good or bad for us. The colour, taste and smell of food, can usually tell us whether or not it is safe to eat it. It is therefore logical that an aesthetic theory would begin with an understanding of qualities linked to the testing of food. The term ‘refers to the ‘essence’ and emotional qualities that have been built into a work of art by its maker as well as to the response the contemplation or perception of the artwork evokes in the viewer or . The viewer response is as important as the maker’s intent, which makes this approach a useful critique in relation to western aesthetics that are post ‘death of the author’ or too obsessed with formalism and the internal dynamics of the art world. In rasa theory the maker has a state of mind () and it is this that is shaping what is coming into form. Because the theory began at a time when the pre-eminent art forms were performative, (dance, drama, poetry etc.) an emphasis was always put on how the audience was receiving the art form.
Hiranyaksha delivers a mighty blow, wounding Varaha: Manaku
The nine types of rasa:
First and most important is ‘’ a quality of love, attractiveness and erotic feelings. The deity that rules this area is Vishnu. The colour association is normally green, but as the erotic levels rise it becomes blue/black. It is interesting at this point to compare this with the most important of the six Chinese principles.
The first and most important principle of Chinese brush drawing was ‘spirit resonance’ or vitality. ‘The life energy of the maker should be transmitted from the artist into the work. The very heartbeat of the artist should exist in the rhythm of the marks that go to make up the work. There should be a total transmission of life force from the living being of the maker into the material structure of what is made. Love it could be argued is at the core of an idea about life energy, without it there is no procreation.
Fury, anger, warlike feelings. Deity: and Kali. Colour: red. Hence ‘ or ‘ which translates as fierce, violent, or furious and is associated with symbolism used to express fear, violence and destruction. Typical elements include adornment with skulls and bones, weapons, and wide, circular eyes.
’: Horror, terror, fear, the terrible. Deity: Kali Colour: black
’: Bold, fearless, stout hearted a heroic sensibility. Deity: . Colour: wheatish brown (yellow, ochre)
The 9th rasa is ‘’: Peace, tranquillity or a quiescent mood. Deity: . Colour: perpetual white (silvery, the colour of the moon and of jasmine)
The 9th is simultaneously seen as an equal member of the rasas, but also as distinct, since it represents the clearest form of aesthetic bliss and has been described as “as-good-as but never-equal-to the bliss of Self-realization experienced by yogis”.
Hence ‘which translates as peaceful and gentle, benign, and kind. the symbolism is used to express joy, love, compassion, kindness, knowledge, harmony and peace often using flowers to carry the message.
Because Indian aesthetics covers many areas that we have no specific names for in English, this area of understanding can feel very alien. However if you think about an aesthetic derived initially from something more akin to theatre or the performing arts, you can see how the communication of various emotions might be central to a particular type of understanding of art practice. The ‘blending’ of emotions could be seen as a type of recipe for life. It does require the taking on board of several new words and as I have discussed before, words can tend to fix meanings in ways that images don’t. For instance, the production of the aesthetic form or ‘rasa’ arises from bhavas (becoming, birth, production, origin but also emotional tendencies), a concept that blends the making or coming into being of something with the emotional proclivities of the maker, this fusion isanalogous to the production of tastes (juices) associated with both various foods and their flavourings (condiments, curries and spices). I have often thought of the close relationship between cooking and making art, and the idea of ‘taste’ in food and aesthetic preference is linked in English, but not in such a formal way.
There are more Sanskrit words that carry associated meanings. 'Vibhavas' means karana or cause. It is concerned with what caused the emotional communication; the ‘alambana’, the personal or human object and associated emotional substratum, or the ‘uddipana’, the excitants. The maker (alambana) will produce the work and as it is made the maker will transmit into it a certain emotional content. The art object 'uddipana' is what will excite the viewer or audience and this is followed by the ‘anubhava’ or effects in the audience following the rise of the emotion produced by experiencing the artwork.
I find this interesting because I was always taught that as an artist I did not need to feel an emotion I was trying to portray. I could convey anger for instance without having to be angry. However I have had many arguments as to whether this is actually the case and several of my artist friends have spoken to me about the need to channel their emotions into their work.
Compare the emotional registers of Indian aesthetics with the six Chinese principles of brush drawing in the post on drawing plants. Both in their own way ask us to focus on how we are making an aesthetic communication. My various blog posts are also asking the same question, but western aesthetics no longer have such clear rules. I have in previous posts looked at underlying mathematical order in aesthetics and at certain points historically western aesthetics did touch on what were known as ‘canons’ (For instance the Greek sculptor Polykleitos made a sculpture as a demonstration of his "Kanon" which operated as a "measure" or "rule" for the harmonious proportions of the human body) but all these reference points are now gone.
When searching for more in-depth articles to research in relation to this subject these Indian aesthetic terms are taken from the an, an umbrella term for various Hindu treatises and manuals on the arts and crafts, which outline Hindu iconography, design principles and rules, composition, the ideal proportions for human sculptures, as well as the principles and rules of architecture.
The Indian art world of the late 18th century can in many ways be compared with our own time. There was much stylistic innovation and hybridisation of art forms and it was the ‘rasa’ tradition of aesthetics that allowed this to happen. Visual art, poetry, music and dance began to cross-fertilise each other’s art forms. The artist Manaku, whose work is used to illustrate this post, lived during this time and this article on his life and times is a useful reminder of how little we know of art of this period.
The poet Ghanand wrote the following line when he reflected on the difficult times he lived in, ‘Ujarin basey hai hamaari ankhiyan dekho.’ In English it becomes, ‘Watch the wasteland reflected in my eyes’. I have thought several times that this could make a very good title for my next exhibition.
An earlier post on mathematics and rightness.
I first came across Sanskrit aesthetics in Marina Warner's wonderful book, 'No Go the Bogyman', her introduction is on p7 of the year 2000 Vintage publication.