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THE INDIAN AESTHETIC TRADITION is as ancient as India itself — in a manner of speaking — dating back to its seminal formulation by Bharatamuni in his Natyasastra. The encyclopaedic treatise, datable at least to 200 BCE, still commands its sway over all our performing arts including cinema. The Natyasastra has almost singlehandedly birthed our aesthetic tradition, and few treatises have had such a decisvie and shapely impact over an entire culture in the spatio-temporal realms. In fact, every aesthetician worth his mettle invokes Bharatamuni with reverence and takes extreme care not to violate his foundational principles.
Anandavardhana, the luminous ninth-century aesthetician who mined the Natyasastra and unearthed the eternal principle of Dhvani (aesthetic suggestion) in his epoch-making classic, Dhvanyaloka gives us what is essentially a commandment:
santi siddharasaprakhyā ye ca rāmāyaṇādayaḥ ||
kathāśrayā na tairyojyā svecchā rasavirodhinī ||
This is the essence of this verse: works like Ramayana contain Siddha-Rasas or established aesthetic flavours. The artist who takes undue liberties in his work violates Rasa.
A millennium later, A.C. Bradley, the celebrated British aesthetician pretty much echoes Anandavardhana when he says: ”If an artist alters a reality so much that his product clashes violently with our familiar ideas he may be making a mistake.”
A rough way to think about Siddha-Rasa is to regard it as a foundational tradition that has evolved specific principles and rules via experiment, experience, trial and error…after passing through eons of filtering processes. As in culture, so in aesthetics. Tradition is the river that feeds, nurtures and sustains culture, and tradition is not “created” by one person or one institution or one book. As Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh memorably says:
Indian literary [i.e., aesthetic] theory is mainly codified in Sanskrit. However, it is applicable to all genres of literature produced in all languages. Anchoring itself to universal experience, it steers clear of social, economic and political theories that change by the day. Transcending sectarian biases, it provides insights into art that are experientially verifiable.
To axe or weaken tradition based on individual whim or ideology or politics or what “feels” currently trendy is to drain out the source of this perennial river. This engineered drought cannot be undone. The ancient, sacred River Saraswati, a source-fount of the Hindu civilisation, dried up eons ago and we have to today content ourselves with mere academic research about it. Memories and not life is all we are left with.
Immortal works of literature like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranic treasury have inspired countless retellings and derivative renditions—in part or in full—not only because they are immortal but because they have intrinsic beauty, and beauty is also malleable, in a profound sense.
But it was only in recent times that two perverse phenomena have occurred almost in parallel.
The first was the ugly spectacle of writers, artists, dramatists and filmmakers twisting and distorting not only this priceless literary heritage but deliberately tampering with the original itself. Ranganayakamma’s poisonous (literally) Ramayana Vishavruksham (Ramayana, the Poisoned Tree) is one of the most egregious specimens of this category. It is the literary equivalent of E.V. Ramaswami Naicker’s political goondaism against the Sanatana culture. Girish Karnad’s perverse incursions into our Vedic and Puranic lore have been clobbered elsewhere in The Dharma Dispatch. A more recent work is Chitra Devikaruni’s Palace of Illusions which has Draupadi sexually lusting for Karna in her fantasy. The less said about M.F. Hussain’s filthy “paintings,” the better. svecchā rasavirodhinī.
Retellings have always existed and past writers did take liberties. The Kannada poet, Kumaravyasa’s Karnatabharatakathamanjari is suffused with such creative latitudes. Another recent example is Kuvempu’s Sri Ramayana Darshanam, imbued with fantastic liberties. The most recent example is Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s classic Parva, which makes humongous deviations from the Mahabharata. But all these poets and writers have stayed scrupulously true to the spirit of the original. Which is why their works have also endured till date like the original. Mountebanks like Ranganayakamma, Karnad, et al became irrelevant in their own sordid lifetimes.
The second phenomenon is the widespread epidemic called “interpretation.” This term is a code word for the calculated massacre of the finest traditions of Indian aesthetics. “Interpretation” is actually a political hoax masquerading as literary criticism. Almost every such “interpretation” uses theories and terminology imported from disciplines other than aesthetics. The ostensible process is aesthetic critique but the ultimate goal is political. Thus, you take a colonial theory of sociology which says that the only defining principle of the Hindu social organisation is “caste.” That caste is the root of all ills plaguing this society. That oppression is the primary function of this “caste system.” Then you recruit a mercenary and award him or her the certificate of an “art expert” or “literary or movie critic.” The grateful mercenary ransacks our epics and Puranas and miraculously finds exactly those elements which are deemed to “prove” the aforementioned theories of sociology. And so, characters like Guha, Sabari, Vali, Shambuka, Karna, Ekalavya, Sita, Draupadi, become pawns servicing an ideology. From that first depraved step, the path to deifying a wife-stealer and serial rapist like Ravana can be trodden with swift ease.
This “interpretation” malaise was the aesthetic accessory of the destructive spread of Marxism in India, a story that I have narrated elsewhere. And when we grasp this root, a lot of answers regarding the downfall of Indian cinema will unravel on their own.
“Interpreting” our literary corpus using prisms other than aesthetics had the other calculated outcome: of destroying standards. How would you like it if scrap-dealer Syed Pasha used his expertise to diagnose a heart condition? If something like that happened in real life, both Syed Pasha and the hospital would face criminal charges. But this has precisely occurred in the realm of art, literature and cinema. And how was it accomplished?
The Theory! The Theory!
First, posit a theory that things like aesthetics are outmoded and irrelevant in the contemporary world.
Get enough academicians and intellectuals to propagandise it.
Begin a ”movement,” another code word for using art, drama, literature and cinema as vehicles to peddle ideology.
Start a slew of “literary” magazines and journals where the theory is both dressed up and sexed up and disgorged periodically.
Offer the prospect of a promising career to young aspirants in the field.
That’s how you build armies of the Faithful generationally.
Here is a sample of how this destruction of standards occurred.
In a meeting of the All India Progressive Writers Association held on April 9, 1936, the Hindi writer Premchand thundered thus:
It is the duty of Indian writers to…develop an attitude of literary criticism which will discourage the general reactionary and revivalist tendencies on questions like family, religion, sex, war and society and to combat literary trends reflecting communalism, racial antagonism, sexual libertinism… It is the object of our Association to rescue literature from the conservative classes... to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people…as well as lead us to the future we envisage… Till then Indian literature had been dreamy and unrealistic. The progressive writers for the first time brought it down to earth.
The naked tenor of messiah-hood oozing from this is breathtaking. What is also clear is the casual manner in which terms and phrases are thrown around as if they are settled truths. Terms like “reactionary,” “revivalist,” “conservative classes” have no agreed definitions and can be easily challenged on several grounds foremost of which are logic and history. So what were the “literary trends?” What was the “literature” that they wanted to “rescue?” In plain words, it was the mien and the standard of literature that these untalented folks aspired to create but simply couldn’t.
The so-called “conservative” charge that Premchand hurls is precisely rooted in our aesthetic tradition. In the domain of literary or aesthetic criticism, the universally accepted method, followed for unbroken centuries, was denoted by a lovely term: Sahr̥daya samīkṣa, Sahr̥daya vimarśana, etc. It translates to, “appreciation by a refined connoisseur.” Appreciation is an embracive term which includes pointing out defects as well. The standards involved in this appreciation primarily include the selfsame elements of Rasa (Feeling, emotion) Dhvani (Suggestion), Aucitya (Propreity), and vakratā (turn of the phrase, embellishment, etc). These are universal aesthetic principles unaligned with language, country, genre, and art form.
And as long as both our filmmakers and critics adhered to these tenets, we got classics like Maya Bazar, Navrang, Satya Harishchandra and Thiruvilayadal.
To be continued
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