Indian art and Aesthetics

published on April 28, 2015

(A study of Vijayanagar Painting of Kiratarjuniya at Lepakshi)
M. P. Ajith Kumar*

Right from ancient times India developed an unexampled art tradition. And of all the art forms painting has been deemed the premier one that ranks with the highest and the noblest in different spheres. Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara, the early standard text on painting eulogises painting as prominent among all the arts. “Just as Sumeru is the best of mountains, as Garuda is the foremost of birds, as the King is the chief among men, so is chitra top-ranking all the arts.

yath/a= sume`ru pravaro= naga=na=m yath/an/d/aja=na=m garud/ah/ pradh/a=na, yath/a= nara=n/a=m pravara kshiti+s`a tath/a= kala=na=m iha chitrakalpah. /1
It is interesting to note that educated and aristocratic families in ancient India familiarised themselves with painting among all the other arts. While describing the arrangement of living room of a typical urbanite (na=garaka) Vatsyayana in his Kamasutra refers to the painting board, a box full of colours and brushes (chitraphalakam vartika=samudgakah/).2

India thus down the centuries preserved and nurtured her world of colours and brushes, and the art of painting continued to be prominent among the many art forms. Rich in aesthetic tradition, she continued to be prolific in production of art pieces. The valleys of Kangra and the walls of the many Rajput palaces, ornate with the Radha-Krishna love theme executed in graceful colours, treasured the rich tradition of India in the world of painting. The beauty of colours thus continued to colour the rich tapestry of Indian aesthetic tradition, and kings and kingdoms from Kashmir to Kanyakumari never lagged behind in promoting arts, especially painting.

The emergence of Vijayanagara Empire as well known witnessed an efflorescence of Hindu aesthetic efforts which has been unequalled. Literature, art, architecture and polity scaled their pinnacle just as the other sides of the Vijayanagara life like economy and society did. To put in a nutshell, the soul of the Hindu nation once again saw its full reincarnation under the protection the Vijayanagara Emperors gave to the long drawn traditions of India. Vijayanagara produced a profusion of genius who adorned the versatile face of life. If Ashtadiggajas supported the world of letters, raising the prestige of Vijayanagara literature to the Himalayan heights, the artists – the architects and painters – remaining anonymous, added grace to the aesthetic perfection of the age.

Unlike many of the artistic expressions which in modern times have become almost dilettantish, they being blind imitations as opined by the philosopher historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee in the Renaissance context, Indian classical arts proved different. Of these many classical arts, painting proved to be a strong medium India expressed her soul through. Though these paintings may appear of no importance to an ordinary viewer they are tips of many philosophical icebergs to the real connoisseurs of art just as they also take them to the heights of aesthetic enjoyments

“Thing of beauty is a joy forever” wrote an occidental poet. And this joy for ever is super-sensual and intellectually perceptible (sukhama=tyantikam/ yattat buddhigra=hyamati+ndriyam/), discoursed the teacher of Bhagavad Gita. That the object, which can impart the message of the eternal or give the ultimate and eternal joy alone is the Beauty has thus been an idea universally realized. Beauty is thus a wordless ecstasy, which can be experienced, it being the profoundest expression of the Truth. Naturally whenever an artist or a poet tried to image this secret reality deriving from his intuitive vision, to give an outward expression to this inner and informing spirit, it was couched in such and so highly beautiful a manner as to give the layman a lofty impression about the supreme beauty, in the most graceful way as to evoke in the onlooker a feeling of grace and tranquillity. One may wonder whether the Beauty stood before the poet or the artist in human form itself that he describes it in highly decorative diction. Seated with all the female grace and vigour, it was to another ancient poet the mother goddess in the crimson colour with three-eyes and ruby-studded and moon decked hair lock. (sindu=ra=run/avigraha=m trinayana=m ma=n/ikyamaulispuratta=ra=na=yaka s`e`khar=am. See the Dhya=nas`l/o=ka of Lal/ita=sahasrana=ma). The poet could not imagine imaging the beauty less beautifully than how it appeared to him. After all it happens when the artist or the image-maker becomes one with the Beauty and hence the artist’s giving an iconic representation to the Beauty he realises. Art, if to quote the renowned philosopher and saint Sri Aurobindo, is not a mere ‘nauch-girl’ of the mind but a priestess appointed in the God’s house not to spin fictions but to image the harder and secret realities deriving from the mystic vision. Kaviya= satyasrutah/ – poet or the artist is the hearer of the ultimate truth and to express this divine truth was his sworn mission. Artist was the missionary of the divine beauty helping the connoisseurs to enjoy the bliss a perfect work of art aims to impart.

Art becomes real when only it reaches the lofty plane where it evokes the aesthetic emotion – rasa – in the spectator or the rasika through the operation of different detriments, consequents, moods and involuntary emotions. And to evoke a rasa one of the permanent moods may stand above the other expressions of emotions, which are subordinate and come in harmony and unity with this supreme emotion. Thus the first essential of a work of art – rasavant – is unity, an idea well explained by the sage Bharata. “As a king to his subjects, as a guru to his disciples, even so the master-motif is lord of all other motifs”, opines his na=tyas`a=astra. A transient emotion should never be the theme of art because its extended development tends to the absence of rasa, the aesthetic emotion. The art should never be the medium communicating the ordinary emotions making it sentimental. That which emphasizes the transitory feelings and personal emotion is not beautiful or true art and plummets to the low realm of pretty art where time and eternity, loveliness and beauty, partiality and love and all such emotions would remain caught up in a mess of confusion.

Beauty and aesthetic enjoyment – rasa and rasa=sva=dana – are thus inextricably intertwined and inseparable. In fact the expression rasa=sva=dana itself is fictitious because rasa=sva=dana is rasa and vice versa. In the process of dh/ya=na its three petals (triput/i), the dh/ya=ta (meditator), dh/ye`ya (object of meditation) and dh/ya=na (process of meditation) fuse together, the three petals wither and the ultimate bliss alone remains. It reaches the state of tatva or ‘thou are that’ where the dh/ya=ta becomes the dh/ye`ya to enjoy the bliss of undifferentiated consciousness or the wholeness. One may notice how this state of ta=da=tmya is compared by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa with a salt doll diving down the sea to fathom its depth! The doll and the sea become one. Just like is the triput/i of art of which the whole aim is asva=dana or experience. The rasika (connoisseur) rasavant (object of enjoyment) and rasa=sva=dana (process of experience) combine to result in the withering away of the three petals of a=sva=dana and what remains would be the ultimate rasa or a=nanda. What thus left is bliss born of the undifferentiated state or advaita which is the basis of or conditional to all enjoyments. Advaita or oneness, the science of aesthetics says, is the basis of all kinds of enjoyment, and in the experience of Beauty this is more profound. Picture someone amidst a garden lost in himself enjoying the myriad colours and scent of flowers. Getting one with the entirety of Beauty, the rasika, having shed his personal identity, finds himself lost in the totality of rasa. The ‘personal’ becomes part of the ‘impersonal’. But the very moment the rasika or the enjoyer retracts from the impersonal to the personal, thinking that that beautiful garden belongs to somebody else the process of enjoyment or rasa=sva=dana ceases. Feeling of difference or dvaita does away with the enjoyment or a=sva=dana which the connoisseur so far had in union with the entirety of Beauty. Hence the conclusion that advaita is the basis of a=sva=dana.

There is identity of subject and object, cause and effect in aesthetic contemplation. This experience is, says Viswanatha Kaviraja in his Sahithya Darpana, “pure, indivisible, self-manifested, compounded equally of joy and consciousness, free of admixture with any other perception, the very twin brother of mystic experience (brahma=sva=dana saho=dara), and the very life of it is super-sensuous (lo=ko=ttara) wonder”. This enjoyment is supersensual and hyperphysical (alaukika) and the only proof of its reality is to be found in experience.3 Religion and art thus become names for the same experience, intuition of reality and identity. This as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous philosopher and art critic, says, is “not, of course, exclusively a Hindu view” of art but has been “expounded by many others like Neo-Platonists, Hsieh Ho, Goethe, Blake, Schopenhauer and Schiller”. Aristotle had long ago realized the importance of Catharsis or the state of mental refinement (chittas`uddh/i in Sanskrit) as the source of all creative arts. Chittas`uddh/i, the purification of the heart, is the appointed road by which man arrives at the higher fulfilment.4 The real art thus sources off only from the Himalayan heights of spiritual refinement and realization. The idea regarding art that it is the expression of the supreme realization has thus been universally accepted and the only difference is that India down the centuries took it to the pinnacle of philosophical perfection and explanation. India’s research and involvement in the fine arts always stood far in advance of other cultural zones.

Being-Becoming or bha=va-ru=pa relation having formed the basis of artistic expression, every stroke of brush expressed a powerful feeling whether it was hate or love, eroticism or despondency. Even character sketches and brush strokes combined help the artist up to portraying a person as done by Chitralekha who drew the picture of Aniruddha, bearing in mind the behavioural patterns of the youth Usha dreamt. Here one may notice how much psychology worked behind a cute piece of art. And the painting usually falling in with the rules of the traditional six limbs – shad/anga – ru=pabhe`da (variety of forms), prama=n/a (proper proportion), bha=va (depiction of emotion) la=van/yayo=jana (infusion of grace), sadrusya (likeness) and varn/ika=bhangi (mixing of colours) naturally carried the beauty and sublime look the classical art requires.5 Reality and creativity sprang up from the depth of imagination and concentration.

Art was the product of a balanced intellect and mind and artist the man with equanimity of mind and balanced temperament. He is the one who attained sama=dh/i or balanced intellect. Croce refers to “the artist, who never makes a stroke with his brush without having previously seen it with his imagination” and opines that artistic expression implies a vigilant will, which persists in not allowing certain, intuitions or representations to be lost.6 It is interesting that King Agnimitra pointed out s`ith//ilasama=dh/i or impaired concentration as the reason for the portrait of Malavika lacking in fidelity to the original. In fact it is sama=dh/i or balanced intellect and mind that an artist calls for and only in such a state one could perceive the transcendental Beauty. The artist in the heights of his sama=dh/i, shedding his ego, finds himself in communion with the impersonal (apaurushe`ya). Having been in union with the inner and informing spirit (rather than the mere outward semblance) the artist naturally must have forgotten himself. The ‘personal’ finds itself identified with the ‘impersonal’. Lost in aesthetic contemplation, nothing personal was left even to scribble the by-line under his artistic creation. Lost in the aesthetic enjoyment or rasa the artist or the seeker of Beauty forgot himself, leave alone his claiming the authorship of the Beauty he brought out in colours or from a rough granite block. Hence the anonymity of the artists who did wonders in stones and graceful frescoes which belong more to the fairyland of dreams than to the real.

Art is thus the highest realm where imagination and reality becoming one leads to creativity. An art piece is thus not a mere exactly reproduced replica of a model. It is original and creative. It is for our delight and this delight is something more than pleasure, it is the godlike ecstasy of liberation from the restless activity of mind and the senses, which are the veils of all reality, transparent only when we are at peace with ourselves.7 It was this cultural and national value of art many of the Indian painters imbibed in their portrayals. Artist or the painter was more than a yogi for while the latter’s mission ends with his soul’s final union with the ultimate Beauty the artist even while in communion with Beauty brings it out in stone or on the canvas in multifarious forms for the connoisseurs to enjoy the ultimate rasa. He is the real bodhisattva who applies his chisel on stone or strokes with his brush to bring out the omnipresent Beauty for all to enjoy its ambrosia before he realises his final unity with God which is satyam/-s`ivam/-sundaram/ or Truth-Bliss-Beauty combined. Truly speaking, the seeker who sheds his ego alone could be a real artist who attains the state of s`ivam or bliss.
Art is thus the faithful interpreter of philosophical idea. It is this philosophical expression one comes across in many of the paintings of Vijayanagara, especially the Kira=ta=rjuni+ya scene found at Lepakshi. Executed in vibrant colours, the painting of kira=ta=rjuni+ya predominantly features the vir+arasa or the mood of valour transforming ultimately into s`antam/ or the tranquillity of bliss.
The story is told in the Mahabharata wherein its author Veda Vyasa selects many such themes as the vehicles of his lofty philosophical lessons. It expands upon a minor episode in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata. While the Pandava brothers lived in forest exile, Arjuna, at the instruction of God Indra, propitiated God Siva with penance. Pleased by Arjuna’s devotion and austerity, Lord Siva decided to reward him. The scene started with the demon named Muka in the form of a wild boar, charging towards Arjuna and Lord Siva appearing in the form of a Kirata, a wild hunter. Arjuna and the Kirata simultaneously shot arrows at the boar, and killed it. They argued over who shot first, and a battle ensued. Though fought valiantly for a long time Arjuna could not overcome the Kira=ta who stood formidable. Caught in the iron clasp of the hunter, worsted and overmastered, Arjuna humbly sought divine help and meditated Lord Siva. Light broke on his troubled mind and he knew who the hunter really was. He realised and enjoyed the bliss in the divine embrace, gave himself over to the Lord, surrendering and seeking the final asylum in the bliss Lord Siva personified. It is also the final and ultimate bliss the artist too sought and brought on to the surface for all the connoisseurs to get themselves immersed in. Here the art is the faithful interpreter of a philosophical idea which the Vijayanagara painter captured in the cute piece of Kira=ta=rjuni+ya found in the Temple of Virabhadra at Lepakshi.

1. Vishn/udh/armo=ttara, 3. 43, 39.
2. Kamasu=tra, 4. 10.
3. Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva, New Delhi, 1982, p. 58.
4. Sri. Aurobindo, The National Value of Art, Pondicherry, 1917, p. 12.
5. C. Sivaramamurti, Indian Painting, New Delhi, 1980, p. 37.
6. Benedetto Croce, The Essence of Aesthetic, London, 1921, pp. 1-23.
7. Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Mirror of Gesture – Being the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeswara, New Delhi, 2010, p. 9.

• Author is Associate Professor of History in Sanatana Dharma College, Alappuzha $ Vice-President (Kerala Unit) College Adhyapaka Sangham.

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