An aesthetic of extremes

[Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.]

Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime might be the most popular book in a Western language ever to deal with Indian aesthetic theory. The book’s official subject is the aesthetics of computer science. Though I am getting a degree in computer science myself, I found myself more interested in Chandra’s lucid comments about the medieval Indian philosophers Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta and their theory of rasa, the emotional “tastes” that an artistic audience can savour.

What is important about Chandra’s work is that he _applies_ the _rasa_ theory. He draws from the best English-language works I know of on Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta: the writings of Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson and M.V. Patwardhan, especially their translation of Ānandavardhana’s _Dhvanyāloka_ with Abhinavagupta’s _locana_ commentary. But Chandra does what Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan do not: he asks how the theories of Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta could apply to us. <!–more–>

That “us” is one that Chandra rightly puts into question. When an “us” is spoken of in contemporary works of philosophical application it is often glossed with “a modern Western audience”. Chandra’s audience is certainly modern, as he is, but he, and his audience, are not only Western. He grew up in India and divides his time between India and the US. And in the rasa theorists he found a way of expressing how his aesthetic preferences differ from those he was taught in the West – a way that I found spoke to me as well.

To me the most striking passage in the book is on pages 147-9, where Chandra applies the classical rasa thinkers to an art medium they never knew: film. Chandra points out: “Indian movies mix emotions and formal devices in a manner quite foreign to Western filmgoers; Indian tragedies accommodate comedic scenes, and soldiers in gritty war movies can break into song.” He juxtaposes this with Ānandavardhana’s claim that there is “no obstruction to a single rasa [emotional ‘taste’] by its being mixed with others…” and Abhinavagupta’s comment that the predominant rasa of a story can be strengthened by the presence of different ones. Abhinavagupta draws an example from that quintessential Indian artistic work, the Mahābhārata. There a wife sees her dead husband’s severed arm and recalls its caresses on her; her erotic and romantic memories bring the grief into sharper focus by contrast. And Chandra says: “This is why the Aristotelian unities of British and American films seemed so alien to me when I watched them as a child.”

I don’t know enough about Indian films or English-language film theory to know whether Chandra’s application in that context is right. Yet what he says in this passage nevertheless struck a chord with me. It suggests that what I had previously described as an unphilosophical post, about my own autobiography and relation to India, may have its philosophical significance after all. Returning from my Indian wedding, I had written about how modern India had come to appeal to me, above all through its love for bright colours. Which I described at the time as an aesthetic, but with no connection to any sort of philosophical aesthetics.

After reading Chandra I can’t help but see a connection between the aesthetics of the medieval Indian theorists and the ones I see on the modern Indian street. (I say all this with some caution because I do not know these theorists at all well, and Chandra himself does not claim to be an expert on them.) Above all, what I am seeing here is a rejection of moderation in aesthetics, something that I think might be implicit in Chandra’s mention of Aristotle. Aristotle famously described virtue as a mean between vices, comparing it to an archer hitting the target, and I have tended to agree with him. But while I am overall satisfied with this characterization in ethics, I am not satisfied with it in aesthetics.

In her Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic, Ingalls’s student Wendy Doniger characterized Indian mythology as a “pendulum of extremes”, explicitly avoiding moderation. I think there is something to be said for this characterization of Indian aesthetics in general, as immoderate. I’ve elsewhere mentioned the Indian approach to smell: India just smells so much more strongly than the West does, for bad and for good. Walking around India one can’t help but notice how little control is exercised over odours of the sewer and pollution – but also how much more often one smells sandalwood and other fragrant perfumes, not to mention street food. I think my grad-school colleague James McHugh was right to identify smell in Indian culture with sandalwood and carrion.

This point in turn leads back into an aesthetic point I had myself made with its primary reference to the West: the critics of kitsch are wrong to tell us we should avoid making a fantasy world more beautiful or pleasurable than the real one. Rather, we should remain aware that such a world isn’t the real one, remain all too aware of the badness of the world: enjoy Thomas Kinkade as long as you also appreciate Hieronymus Bosch. I’d rather look at either Bosch or Dalì on one hand, or Indian poster art on the other, than at what has always struck me as the muted blandness of a Monet. This has been my aesthetic sensibility for a long time, and Chandra makes me realize that it might well be an Indian one – and may even have philosophical roots in thinkers like Abhinavagupta and Ānandavardhana.

5 Replies to “An aesthetic of extremes”

  1. Hi Amod,
    As it was with Aristotle- aesthetics did not start so much with the aim of propagation of predesided ideology to be followed- as was an analysis of writers whose greatness was taken for granted, to derive general principles. So also in India art was not so much produced under the influence of any ideology but the art-theories were the result of study of art works. Alamkarasastra believed though that art have a duty to make people virtuous.
    The classical literature that alamkarashastra analysed was highly conventional and not easily given to extremities that inspiration might lead to. I agree more with the eminent bollywood scriptwriter and lyricist Javed Akthar that bollywood films derived their aesthetics from folk traditions rather than classical.
    There is a very popular Hindi film song which I think explains very well the difference in Indian attitude to tragedy. Here I quote the relevant line- “Gila maut se nahi hai , mujhe zindegi ne mara!”(Tr.No complaints against death! It is Life which have killed me!)
    A film critic Darius Cooper have already used the Rasa theories to explain the films of Satyajit Ray in his book on Ray in the nineties.
    About Indian aesthetic temperament-particularly the classical one- is more delicate than loud-it would seem if we look at the-Ajanta murals-which is dominantly serene in mood and so are the best miniature paintings of Pahari Schools which are so tender in its treatment of love.
    But there are exetremes in treatment of sex!
    Let me give you a little known bizzare example. It’s given in a book “Eloquent Earth”. It is from a place called Chandraketugarh. From this palce-around early christian centuries-more erotic terracotta tiles(which were meant to be hanged on wall)were found than anywhere else in the world. The great number suggests that it was probably the only civilized society known to man where pornography was a socially widely accepted mode of entertainment! The bizzare terracota relief I was talking about depicts sex between a monster with human body but deformed face with shark teeth and a lady with human body but who has a sunflower instead of a face on her neck!

  2. If you’re interested in well-informed applications of rasa theory (including to film) you might want to check out some of Edwin Gerow’s articles, such as:
    – “The Persistence of Classical Esthetic Categories in Contemporary Indian Literature: Three Bengali Novels,” in Literatures of India (1974), 212-38.
    – “Plot Structure and the Development of Rasa in the Sakuntala,” JAOS 99, no. 4 (1979) and 100, no. 3 (1980)
    – “Rasa as a Category of Literary Criticism: What are the Limits of its Application?,” in Sanskrit Drama in Performance (1981)
    – “Rasa and Katharsis: A Comparative Study, Aided by Several Films,” JAOS 122, no. 2 (2002)

  3. To add (a critical note) to Ryan’s list: Herman Tieken, “On the Use of Rasa in Studies of Sanskrit Drama,” Indo-Iranian Journal 43 (2000): 115–138.

    To the point about mixing rasas: my immediate reaction is that the contrast between “Indian” and “Western” sensibilities on this point is overdrawn, for a couple of reasons. Debjyoti already mentioned the wide spectrum on the Indian side, and on the Western side, I thought of the comic interludes in Shakespeare’s tragedies. (And of course the “Aristotelian unities” of British and American films aren’t; the phenomena that Aristotle was concerned with, performed tragedies and comedies, always had songs!) But more to the point, Ānanda had a very clear and constrained idea about when it was appropriate for rasas to mix (and which rasas were capable of so mixing)—and to judge from his discussion in the Dhvanyāloka, he is much more open to the possibility of mixture than most other theorists. But in support of your “rejection of moderation” claim, rasa theory (and its practice in Sanskrit drama) does generally come with the requirement that rasas need to be “nourished” (paripoṣa) by a whole gamut of factors, from the plot to the song and dance to the props and scenery, making it possible to see the emotional content of a play as massively overdetermined. (But I would agree with Tieken that this is a dūṣaṇa, not a bhūṣaṇa, of the rasa theory…)

    I also don’t think that Aristotle ever imagined an aesthetic extension to the (ethical) idea of the “golden mean,” but I could be wrong.

    • Yeah, this is a really speculative post – one of those what-if kind of things where I expected to be corrected. Aesthetics is not my field; I’m trying to think and learn about it a bit more by going in this direction.

      Especially, I’ve been thinking more about Aristotle and as far as I can tell, you’re absolutely right that he does not seem to have extended moderation to his ethics. I do see an aesthetic of blandness and drabness pervading much of at least the anglophone West, but extending to some extent into at least parts of the continent – neutral colours, unspiced food. This isn’t a “West/East” comparison at all – as far as I can tell, Japanese aesthetics tend to be much like the typically Western ones in this way.

      Maybe this is just cultural happenstance and there is no philosophical underpinning to this stuff at all. I doubt that, though I bet whatever underpinning there might be is considerably more complex than I have depicted here.

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