Art, Indian aesthetics and why it is important to us?

Two Deers in a relaxed pose - detail from the bas-relief "Arjuna's Penance" at Mamallapuram

Two Deers in a relaxed pose – a detail from the bas-relief “Arjuna’s Penance” at Mamallapuram (Image from personal collection)

Recently came across the writings of Shri Aurobindo titled “The National Value of Art”, a series of writings by him for the Karmayogin a century ago (1909-10). During my reading of these essays (which are available online and in print, see “Further Reading”) I realized that his words do ring a bell even today. He wrote these during the nationalist movement in the early part of the freedom struggle. Although he is critical, he does explain why the individual and the nation (in the long run) do not benefit with having the attitude of  looking from the eyes and glasses of the western gaze, which is quite prevalent even today amongst us. I know this is a long read, but couldn’t help but describe the topic in his own words. So, lots of quotes!

In the first essay, he talks about “human thought process” as to how it begins with the thought of survival progressing towards a higher intellect thought of imagination, creativity leading to art, poetry, painting, music, etc.

The value attached by the ancients to music, art and poetry has become almost unintelligible to an age bent on depriving life of its meaning by turning earth into a sort of glorified an-heap or beehive and confusing the lowest, though most primary in necessity, of the means of human progress with the aim of this great evolutionary process….The whole of humanity now demands not merely the satisfaction of the body, the anna, but the satisfaction also of the prana and the citta, the vital and emotional desires…The mass of humanity has not risen beyond the bodily needs, the vital desires, the emotions and the current of thought-sensations created by these lower strata…Beyond the manas is the buddhi… is independent of the desires, the claims of the body and the interference of the emotions…

He goes about saying why it is important not just to develop the abilities confined to one spectrum (reasoning) but also others (imagination).

Meanwhile the thought is the highest man has really attained and it is by the thought that the old society has been broken down. And the thought is composed of two separate sides, judgment or reason and imagination, both of which are necessary to perfect ideation.

In the second essay, he talks about liberal education, various levels of art and aesthetics.

It is precisely the cultivation of the spirit that is the object of what is well called a liberal education and the pursuits best calculated to cultivate the growth of the spirit are language, literature, the Arts, music, painting, sculpture or the study of these, philosophy, religion, history, the study and understanding of man through his works and of Nature and man through the interpretative as well as through the analytic faculties.

The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual.

According to our own philosophy the whole world came out of ananda and returns into ananda, and the triple term in which ananda may be stated is Joy, Love, Beauty.

So, how has art affected humanity till now? In many subtle ways, not easily appreciated as described in the third essay.

We do not ordinarily recognize how largely our sense of virtue is a sense of the beautiful in conduct and our sense of sin a sense of ugliness and deformity in conduct. It may easily be recognized in the lower and more physical workings, as for instance in the shuddering recoil from cruelty, blood, torture as things intolerably hideous to sight and imagination; or in the aesthetic disgust at sensual excesses and the strong sense, awakened by this disgust, of the charm of purity and the beauty of virginity.

In comparison of the Greek’s aesthetics, in the eastern counterpart;

Cittasuddhi, the purification of the heart, is the appointed road by which man arrives at his higher fulfillment, and, if it can be shown that poetry and art are powerful agents towards that end, their supreme importance is established.

Having established of the inner workings of aesthtic qualities of art, Shri Aurobindo now comes to main topic of why art is important for a nation?

The absence of these (aesthetic and artistic) qualities is a source of national weakness…Now the sense of form and beauty, the correct, symmetrical, well-adjusted, fair and pleasing is an artistic sense and can best be fostered in a nation by artistic culture of the perceptions and sensibilities.

ok, what about music?

Music is even more powerful…than Art and by the perfect expression of harmony insensible steeps the man in it….Music deepens the emotions and harmonizes them with each other.

Painting and sculpture, you ask?

The mind is profoundly influenced by what it sees and, if the eye is trained from the days of childhood to the contemplation and understanding of beauty, harmony and just arrangement in line and colour, the tastes, habits and character will be insensibly trained to follow a similar law of beauty, harmony and just arrangement in the life of the adult man….Painting and sculpture work in the same direction by different means.

Then, how do we cultivate these aesthetic qualities? He gives the answer to this as well.

Art galleries cannot be brought into every home, but, if all the appointments of our life and furniture of our homes are things of taste and beauty, it is inevitable that the habits, thoughts and feelings of the people should be raised, ennobled, harmonized, made more sweet and dignified…

If each and every person is able to have this artistic and aesthetic thought, then what effect does it bring on the country?

music, art and poetry are a perfect education for the soul; they make and keep its movements purified, self-controlled, deep and harmonious…They are, when properly used, great educating, edifying and civilizing forces….It (Art) is suggestive, and the intellect habituated to the appreciation of art is quick to catch suggestions…which leads to ever fresh widening and subtilisin of knowledge and opens a door into the deeper secrets of inner nature…

What does all this mean in context to India?

in India, the greatest efflorescence of a national Art has been associated with the employment of the artistic genius to illustrate or adorn the thoughts and fancies or the temples and instruments of the national religion. This was not because art is necessarily associated with the outward forms of religion, but because it was in the religion that men’s spiritual aspirations centered themselves.

For many, when we visit a place to see ancient sculptures or hear a musical concert, or see the murals in a temple, we are moved by the spirituality surrounding it. I do feel a positive vibe when I visit/see such things, unable to place the finger on the reason. The following one sentence aptly sums it up as to why Indian aesthetics affects our intellect in different levels.

Spirituality is a single word expressive of three lines of human aspiration towards divine knowledge, divine love and joy, divine strength, and that will be the highest and most perfect Art, which, while satisfying the physical requirements of the aesthetic sense, the laws of formal beauty, the emotional demand of humanity, the portrayal of life and outward reality, as the best European Art satisfies these requirements, reaches beyond them and expresses inner spiritual truth, the deeper not obvious reality of things, the joy of God in the world and its beauty and desirability and the manifestation of divine force and energy in phenomenal creation.

As mentioned in the beginning that we still are trained to a large extent to observe things with a western lens. Is there a way to repair this for future generations? Maybe and maybe not.

The country has yet to evolve a system of education which shall be really national…The spirit of old Indian Art must be revived, the inspiration and directness of vision which even now subsists among the possessors of the ancient traditions, the inborn skill and taste of the race, the dexterity of the Indian hand and the intuitive gaze of the Indian eye must be recovered and the whole nation lifted again to the high level of the ancient culture – and higher.

Further Reading: (Some sentences marked bold)


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