Beauty · Indian Culture · Inner View · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

Learning Art Appreciation with Sri Aurobindo

“All great artistic work proceeds from an act of intuition, not really an intellectual idea or a splendid imagination,— these are only mental translations,— but a direct intuition of some truth of life or being, some significant form of that truth, some development of it in the mind of man.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p, 266).

There still remains immense divergence between different cultural forms of art because of various significant differences:

  • in the object and field of the intuitive vision,
  • in the method of working out the sight or suggestion,
  • in the rendering by the external form and technique,
  • in the whole way of the rendering to the human mind, and
  • in the center of our being to which the work appeals.

When the object and field of creative intuition of the artist is limited to life, action, passion, emotion, idea or nature, or when all these are seen for their own sake and for an aesthetic delight in them, such art appeals more directly to the outward soul by a strong awakening of the sensuous, the vital, the emotional, the intellectual and imaginative being. It is not directed to the eye of the deepest self and spirit within. Sri Aurobindo explains that the spiritual component in such work is limited to as much or as little that is suitable to and expresses itself through the outward form.

The modern, rational, westernized mind is generally arrested and attracted by the form, lingers on it and cannot get away from its charm. Such a mind loves the form for its own beauty, rests on the emotional, intellectual, aesthetic suggestions that arise directly from its most visible language, and confines the soul in the body. For such a mind, form creates the spirit, the spirit depends for its existence and for everything it has to say on the form.

Here are some examples for such art, in my view of course! As wonderful as they are as works of art, they just seem to lack something for me, something intangible, something that can only be felt not described.  


Klimt-mother and child
Gustav Klimt, Mother and child
Prakash Raman
Prakash Raman, You and Me

Frida Kahlo-Roots


Uniqueness of Indian Art or Art for the Spirit

The Indian art aims at something more. Or should we say that the best of Indian art aims at something more.

Note: As will be clear by the examples I share, the words ‘Indian’ and ‘Western’ as used here are not really about a geographical marker but rather more a representative of a particular outlook on life, existence, reality, knowledge, truth, and of course, Art. ‘Indian’ refers to a more integral approach where Spirit is not removed from Life and Matter, just hidden and hence all Life and Art become a means to express and unveil that hidden spirit. ‘Western’ is used more in the sense of a rational-materialistic approach to Life and Art, which views Spirit as something outside, something separate from Life and Nature. Also, the examples I have chosen are mostly of works by contemporary artists, to highlight the point that some differences between different cultural forms of art remain no matter what the globalists of the art world think or say.  

The theory of ancient Indian art at its greatest is of another kind. And as Sri Aurobindo reminds, it is the greatest art which gives its character to the rest and throws on it something of its stamp and influence.

Indian art is identical in its spiritual aim and principle with the rest of Indian culture.

“Indian Art demands of the artist the power of communion with the soul of things, the sense of spiritual taking precedence of the sense of material beauty, and fidelity to the deeper vision within; of the lover of art it demands the power to see the spirit in things, the openness of mind to follow a developing tradition, and the sattwic passivity, discharged of prejudgments, which opens luminously to the secret intention of the picture and is patient to wait until it attains a perfect and profound divination.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 467).


Priti Ghosh, Descent of Bliss

Reality for its own sake is not the ideal of Indian art. As per the Indian view, the highest ideal of an artist is one who sees with an inner vision the true reality which is hidden.

Beauty for beauty’s sake can also never be the spirit of art in India. As Sri Aurobindo puts it so beautifully, beauty we must seek and always beauty, but never lose sight of the end which India holds more important, the realisation of the Self in things.

It is not that all Indian work realises this ideal; there is plenty no doubt that falls short, is lowered, ineffective or even debased, but it is the best and the most characteristic influence and execution which gives its tone to an art and by which we must judge and appreciate it, reminds Sri Aurobindo.


MF Hussain krishna leela
M F Hussain, Krishna Leela

Form as a Creation of the Spirit

“For the Indian mind form does not exist except as a creation of the spirit and draws all its meaning and value from the spirit. Every line, arrangement of mass, colour, shape, posture, every physical suggestion, however many, crowded, opulent they may be, is first and last a suggestion, a hint, very often a symbol which is in its main function a support for a spiritual emotion, idea, image that again goes beyond itself to the less definable, but more powerfully sensible reality of the spirit which has excited these movements in the aesthetic mind and passed through them into significant shapes.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 270)

Antar Jyoti-S H Raza
S H Raza, Antar Jyoti (Inner Light)
Bindu Popli, Antaryatra (Inner Journey)

According to Sri Aurobindo, when we see a great work of Indian art – a painting or a sculpture – the truth, the exact likeness or resemblance is there, the correspondence, sādṛśya, but it is the truth of the essence of the form,

  • it is the likeness of the soul to itself,
  • the reproduction of the subtle embodiment which is the basis of the physical embodiment, the purer and finer subtle body of an object which is the very expression of its own essential nature, svabhāva. (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 308).

The means by which this effect is produced is characteristic of the inward vision of the Indian mind.

Ritam Upadhyay, Ram
DSC_6258 (679x1024)
Artist unknown, Krishna Radha
Keshav Venkataraghavan, Dialogue with Arjuna

It is done by a bold and firm insistence on the pure and strong outline and a total suppression of everything that would interfere with its boldness, strength and purity or would blur over and dilute the intense significance of the line.

For example, as Sri Aurobindo explains, in the treatment of the human figure, an Indian artist pays attention to the following:

  • all corporeal filling in of the outline by insistence on the flesh, the muscle, the anatomical detail is minimised or disregarded;
  • the strong subtle lines and pure shapes which make the humanity of the human form are alone brought into relief;
  • the whole essential human being is there, the divinity that has taken this garb of the spirit to the eye, but not the superfluous physicality which he carries with him as his burden.
  • It is the ideal psychical figure and body of man and woman that is before us in its charm and beauty. (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 308)


Amrita Shergill bride-s-toilet-1937
Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride’s Toilet
I rise
Freydoon Rassouli, Monarch of Love

An inner aim and vision governs the work of the Indian artist even when he or she is creating the figures of ordinary human beings. As Sri Aurobindo explains, the focus is not to portray some dramatic action or a character portrait, but to embody rather a soul state or experience or deeper soul quality.

For example, in the figure of a saint or a devotee it is not the outward emotion, but the inner soul-side of rapt ecstasy of adoration and God-vision which the artist is trying to express through the creation. This emphasis on expression of an inner soul quality or experience is what makes all Indian art unique.


170708 - Krishna Premi - lores
Keshav Venkataraghavan, Krishna Premi
Maiden in love - Asit Kumar Haldar
Asit Kumar Haldar, Maiden in Love



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