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Sunday, March 24, 2002
Arts etc


Tarun Cherian

Posted online: March 24, 2002 at 1014 hrs Print Email



 For a while, traditional Indian art, be it in temples, tribal art or in texts was closed to me. Impossible, big boobied women and silly geometry called yantras, and stupid stick figures of tribal motifs all seemed pale compared to the delightful nihilism of the surrealists, the dadaists on one hand and the raging power of rock on the other. Existentialism and absurdism was more accessible than tantra, and more real given the world view. In the last 20 years, that equation has completely and radically changed.

I believe that that core Indian tradition represents where global art can, should go and is going.

Art, I believe, creates, expresses, affirms, transforms, doubts and counter questions the symbols of the core beliefs of a community and of course the artist. Let us underline this, it is rooted in the core beliefs of a community and artist. So, where art is going depends on the trajectories that our core beliefs are embarked upon.

Today, there are broadly two worldviews. One is springing leaks. The other is a loose coalition still seeking coherence.

The first is a kind of crude physicalism, coloured by pre-quantum physics. You live once. Only the physical is real. Consciousness is a special case of chemical reaction.

In the second, the intangible rules. Certainties give way to quantum probabilities. Matter gives way to energy, and taken to its limit, matter is a special case of consciousness.

And this is the true artistic choice, which worldview is art to be rooted in?

Art can either speak celebrating the anguish of a psyche fractured – of a frantic consciousness desperately attempting an intoxication of the physical separated forever by prison walls of flesh and matter, spirit doomed to extinction as its form decays. This I term Western Art.

Or art can speak for a psyche fractured, reminding it that it is linked by faint threads of deep wisdom that connect it to its deepest self or creator, from which the whole world springs. This I term Indian Art or Embracing Art. Precisely the direction of Indian art before the impact of Industrialisation aggravated by Colonialism.

(By this measure, the enlightened second practitioner enfolds even the first, for he sees that to the anguished hand even unfeeling stone can turn to bread.) o

Art That Breathes To quote Stella Kramisch from The Art of India through the Ages, β€œβ€¦a work of (Indian) art is the body and house in which the formless, the beyond of form, the goal of release and source of all forms reveals itself.”

β€œ The ultimate unit of (artistic) measurement … is prana. The rhythmic breathing quality of form is the test of a work of art, for it contains the life movement (chetana) of the subject.”

Art in its most Indian sense, I believe, is the creation of form that invites prana, gathers prana, holds prana and lavishes prana on those who will approach it, not just as viewer, or conquering acquirer but as devotee and participant. Art's highest form is that of housing a living deity. Becoming the nexal point of the entire community.

In this deepest sense there is no division between life, art or any expression of it. All of being seen as arms of the creative Shakti of the universe. For what is not an expression of the Shakti? And what play of the Shakti is not part of the intertwining with the transcendent?

The singer would use power of sound as a way to evoke a feeling, a yogic healer would use the same power of sound energy to heal, the spiritualist would see it as the substratum of the universe. Strictly speaking, the healer sang the body into harmony, the singer healed the listener's heart, the spiritualist by becoming the sound that is the universe, in a real sense became the song.

So, am I arguing that we merely go back in time? Practically however, the cosmic dance, expressed through man was broken into individual arms of different disciplines, some artistic, some healing, some spiritual.

These disciplines were classically codified in specific distinct codes and sub-codes, yet there was a tacit, and often explicit recognition of the coherence of the diverse paths. The various worldviews belonged to one ecosystem, so there was co-operation in their disagreements. This meant that the intersection of the aesthetic, the spiritual and the socio-economic, in the various forms were either close or at least spoke the same language.

These codes today are in question. For these codes drew on, affirmed and related to the specificities of a time, an economy, a world. Will the next Valmiki continue to create an epic in poetic form or as a film? Will today's Arjuna not have the freedom to pick up a sniper rifle or a laser beam? Half my relatives are abroad, are they less Indian for that? Just because someone is born an American doesn't mean he isn't a reincarnation of an ancestor? I have principally lived in India that is urban, is that India valid? Much of what I read about India comes through the intercession of Western scholarship.Should we throw it out?And no I do not speak in Sanskrit. In our time science often isthe area that provides or appears to provide the greatest impetus. Must I agree with it when it statistically affirms the power of astrology as far as planetary positions go? Must I reject it when it states that the star sky has changed over the last 2000 years? Must I listen to an ancient treatise that speaks of pranic energy web, and ignore Kirilian photography that affirms portions of it and rejects portions of it? Will my Indianness allow me to explore the healing power of bija mantras yet turn my back on Jewish chakra point sounds, or the wisdom of spirit guides that give me other power sounds?

Of course we must revive and cherish Indian art in its traditional forms for it recreates a magnificent ocean of wisdom for all of us to draw on, to question the direction of modernity, to add depth to our lives. Of course our generation was undoubtedly the silliest abandoning our traditions when they were uncool and returning to it when it's hip. Yet without inner change they condemn Indian art to being a village demon, head fixed backward.

Creating New Codes. The great Indian art tradition will survive, live and thrive only if it continues that great interaction between the transcendent and the human afresh. For this encounter, annihilates all concepts used to describe it. The artist must wrestle then with the absolute like Jacob with his angel, seizing from his life, world and deepest self, meaning, vision and images. Even those teetering on the abyss of physicalist extinction will discover that the void and nothingness is fuller than the reality they think surrounds them.

β€œFor another light to come, this one has to pass.” – says the reiki master, Celia. Cherian

Many however are quite satisfied to merely stop with the outer form. And that ultimately is the tradition's undoing. For β€œTo catch the tail of the lizard isn't to catch the lizard.”

For example, artists who talk about the Kundalini Shakti without experiencing the unimaginable force of creativity, without desperately searching for a form to express, contain and evoke it do the tradition disservice. Artists who paint Ganeshas without actually touching the hem of that transcendent depiction of a transcendent being are denying the validity of their lives and the transcendent.

As a meditation catalyst and psychic guide I use symbols to energise the psyche. Some of the most potent have come from traditional Indian symbols, some come from other traditions. But equally are there many powerful new ones that are being channelled to me, that come from the inner universe today.

The limits of static symbols, no matter how brilliant, highlights another key problem, the strong religious cast to the whole issue. While I have called it an Indian tradition, in truth it is an abstract truth that embraces many others. The physicist searching for a unified field theory, and the trance artist, the Taoist and the creative director shaping the intangible brand are all encompassed by it. The blood artist searching for meaning through the canvas of pain and the conceptual artist are both welcome as long as they both tap in experientially to the same core belief.

True Indian art is deeply liberating for it frees the artist to choose whatever form he/she desires. And yet it clearly insulates us from inheritance of Western conflicts - of science versus religion/spirituality, the tyranny of the material over the spiritual, the practical versus the aesthetic. These conflicts are not ours. Strictly speaking neither are they humanity's.

By this measure, we can separate artists who use India as exotica from those who are truly influenced by our depth Anish Kapur is as Indian an artist as Raza. In turn, a Madonna singing Ashtanga Yoga isn't Indian unless her work is vibrant with prana, rooted in inner truths.

By not being form-dependent we can welcome the return of traditions that we initiated back to India, like Vipassana, Reiki, Karate. In turn, we can enrich and be enriched by parallel systems, like the Jewish Kabala, Russian Mysticism, Native American knowledge, or be struck by the similarity of Aboriginal art and Tantric symbols.

Beyond The Uncaring Universe

In the myth of Sisyphus, Camus talks of an uncaring and unlistening universe. In this Universe the artist commits himself to the absurd task of pushing the stone of meaning only to watch it roll down. The fact really is that the universe does care and does listen, only have we learnt to listen, to speak, to understand. For in this new millennium, we are discovering that it is the intangible that is the most potent driving force. And not just in art. It is the intangible brand that rules our life. It is the intangible value that is seen as the most powerful force of success.

It is easy to remember Munch's Scream. Few know that his most powerful work is that explosion of light in The Sun. We must hold both, not just one.

At the Kailashnath temple at Ellora, is the copperplate inscription of the master sculptor- β€œO how did I make it?” Vibrant words as valid tomorrow as it was centuries ago. For here it captures that brilliant moment when artist surpasses himself and wonders at it, when man's reach having exceeded his grasp, delights and is humbled.

India is more than a modern nation state, she is a state of mind, a ripple on the river of universal wisdom, she is God-ground, for on her have walked the rare few who remember who they are. Sometimes those footsteps are stones carved, sometimes luminous texts, sometimes just footsteps of those who come to earth because others are compelled to.