Modern tendency is to depreciate the value of the beautiful and over-stress the value of the useful. Generations of Indians have been cut off from the ancient roots of their aesthetic cultural traditions, thanks to a mercenary and soul-less education. According to Sri Aurobindo, this situation can only be corrected if education can figure out ways to emphasize and facilitate the faculties of creative imagination as well as higher emotional delicacy and spiritual sensitivity.
These innate aspects of Indian temperament at one time had been the source behind all high aesthetic culture of our civilization. For a variety of reasons these aspects got submerged over the course of time, but have not yet been fully destroyed. There is today a great necessity to revive this temperament which values the deeper beauty in all aspects of life.
But what is Beauty?
The great classical musician whom the world came to know as a sufi saint, Hazrat Inayat Khan once said:
“As the ocean cannot be emptied into a vessel made by human hands, so beauty cannot be captured within the limits of human definitions. There is the beauty of the pine tree, a beauty of straightness and uprightness; and again there is the beauty of the sweeping branches of the willow. Or again a curve added to the beauty of steadiness of form sometimes doubles that loveliness. What can explain this diversity? Beauty of movement, of gesture, of feature, of expression, of voice, all escape explanation, which is indeed but a limited thing.” (The Art of Personality, Chapter 12, Beauty).
Beauty indeed escapes all human definitions. It is in and of the form, but also and primarily beyond the form, it is in movement and also in stillness. Beauty is something to be experienced, though that experience may also be limited by the limitations of the experiencing heart and mind.
Beauty, Delight, and Harmony
“Beauty is his footprint showing us where he has passed…“
This one line from Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem, Savitri expresses perfectly the deepest Indian view of Beauty.
In the Indian spiritual tradition Sachchidananda is the highest Supreme trinity of Existence [Sat], Consciousness [Cit], and Delight or Bliss [Ananda]. Beauty, according to Sri Aurobindo, is Ananda taking form, though the form need not be a physical shape.
“One speaks of a beautiful thought, a beautiful act, a beautiful soul. What we speak of as beauty is Ananda in manifestation; beyond manifestation beauty loses itself in Ananda or, you may say, beauty and Ananda become indistinguishably one.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 27, p. 700)
This oneness of Beauty and Delight is a quintessential aspect of the Indian view on Art, Beauty and Art Appreciation. All Art is a medium to express this Ananda, this Eternal Delight through form, in this view. But as mentioned in the above quote, beauty need not have a physical form. A thought or a most ordinary act becomes beautiful when it becomes a means to Delight. This is a matter of experience and requires gradual inner development – both for the artist as well as the one appreciating art.
How does one experience the delight of beauty?
“The vision of beauty is spontaneous, in just the same sense as the inward light of the lover (bhakta). It is a state of grace that cannot be achieved by deliberate effort; though perhaps we can remove hindrances to its manifestation, for there are many witnesses that the secret of all art is to be found in self-forgetfulness. And we know that this state of grace is not achieved in the pursuit of pleasure; the hedonists have their reward, but they are in bondage to loveliness, while the artist is free in beauty” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Essays, pp. 39-40).
When we stand in front of a work of art, does it make us experience a moment of self-forgetfulness? Is that same as being in a state of divine grace? But it is important to remember that the self-forgetfulness Coomaraswamy speaks of is not a casual mind-less-ness, but rather a practice of going higher than the realm of mind where the mental-vital ego-self is forgotten along with its incessant demands, desires, expectations, and preferences.
It is a state — a state of grace — when we are completely identified with the objet d’art, even if the moment is just a tiny one. This is how one may experience Delight – whether in the process of creating art or appreciating art. Furthermore, pursuit of true beauty is not at all a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.
To experience beauty in a work of art it is not necessary to appreciate the artist’s meaning. A true connoisseur who has developed an inner sight and feel to experience beauty knows without reasoning whether or not the work is beautiful, before the mind begins to question what it is “about”.
Sri Aurobindo emphasises that beauty for beauty’s sake can never be the spirit of art in India. An artist and an art connoisseur who are steeped in the highest values of Indian culture always seek beauty, but they never lose sight of the end which Indian culture holds more important, the realisation of the Self in things, of the Invisible in the visible, of the Infinite in finite.
“Beauty does not get its full power except when it is surrendered to the Divine.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 15, p. 232).
Such an ideal is based on a higher spiritual truth that Beauty is an expression of the Infinite on the physical plane, and therefore for something to be truly and beautifully effective it must be offered at the service of the Divine. In other words, there is no place for an egoistic pursuit in the truest experience of Beauty.
“In the physical world, of all things it is beauty that expresses best the Divine. The physical world is the world of form and the perfection of form is beauty. Beauty interprets, expresses, manifests the Eternal. Its role is to put all manifested nature in contact with the Eternal through the perfection of form, through harmony and a sense of the ideal which uplifts and leads towards something higher.
Let beauty be your constant ideal.
The beauty of the soul
The beauty of sentiments
The beauty of thoughts
The beauty of the action
The beauty in the work
so that nothing comes out of your hands which is not an expression of pure and harmonious beauty. And the Divine Help shall always be with you.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 12, p. 232)
Harmony is another important aspect of the Indian view on Beauty and Art. This is true for all kinds of artistic and creative process. This aspect of harmony is emphasised in all Indian art forms – be it painting, dance or music. Ultimately, this inner harmony is to be experienced both by the creator as well as the receiver of the art. Harmony like Delight is an inner quality of the soul and must be developed progressively. Art – both the artistic process as well as art appreciation can be important means to develop a greater sense of inner harmony.
Sacred Roots of Indian Art
“What Nature is, what God is, what man is can be triumphantly revealed in stone or on canvas.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 451).
E. B. Havell in his famous work The Ideals of Indian Art (1912) makes some excellent points about the inner truth behind Indian Art.
- India had conceived the whole philosophy of her art, early on in the Vedic period itself.
- Indian Art was conceived when that wonderful intuition flashed upon the Indian mind that the soul of man is eternal, and one with the Supreme Soul, the Lord and Cause of all things.
- The rishis who expressed their spiritual realisations and experiences through the Vedic hymns and spoke of the Spirit behind Nature in beautiful imagery were great artists who gave to India monuments more durable than bronze.
“Indian architecture, painting, sculpture are not only intimately one in inspiration with the central things in Indian philosophy, religion, Yoga, culture, but a specially intense expression of their signiﬁcance.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 269)
Art in Material Form in the Vedic Period
Havell reminds us that in the Vedic period in India, though we may not find any explicit development in what we are accustomed to call as the fine arts, it was nevertheless an age of wonderful artistic richness. He explains that the transcendentalism of the essential Vedic thought which could satisfy the intense reverence for the beauty and delight in Nature that the Rishis expressed through vivid images is the opposite pole to the barbaric materialism of the present day which is the negation of all art and beauty.
It is also important to note that the Vedic period was not entirely barren of art in material form.
- The elaborate sacrifices and rituals called forth the highest skill of the decorative craftsman who worked on the yajñaśālā and the vedikā, the consecrated space and altar for performing the sacrifice ritual.
- We find references in several texts from Vedic and post-Vedic times, e.g. in the description given in the Ramayana of the great sacrifice prepared by Vasishtha we find equal honour being accorded to the skilled craftsmen.
- There is a direct continuity between the ornamentation of carved posts made for yajñasthala and the ornamented pillars of later Hindu temples.
- The priests who performed the yajña and recited the hymns were experts in poetic meter and precise articulation, pronunciation and accent. This precise musicality of the ritual and its inner spiritual significance of facilitating an invocation and a transcendence – both for the singer as well as the listener may be considered the highest form of art in itself.
- The entire performance of a ritual in itself is an Art as it emphasises the deep interconnectedness of Art, Religion, and Life.
Significance of Adornment, Decoration
- Indian Tradition considers alaṃkāra (or alankāra), adornment and decoration auspicious and leading to prosperity.
- We find evidence in both Śilpa-shāstras and the Purānas where decoration is considered important for the houses – both of gods as well as ordinary people.
- The Vishnudharmottara prescribes auspicious depictions on houses of men. There are specific depictions to be avoided.
- The Samarangana Sutradhara speaks of ashtamangalas (eight auspicious objects) on the door and says that the auspicious Sri is to be carved on the entrance.
- The Pramanamanjari, a śilpa shāstra text from western India, speaks about the kind of decorations for the pillars in houses (e.g. figures in dance-poses). The threshold should be decorated with flowers and leaves.
This tradition of decorating the houses continues to this day in the form of kolam, rangoli and mandala. Much study has gone into the deeper meaning behind this sacred practice. The noted expert on Indian art Stella Kramrisch commenting on the power of life giving mandalas writes:
“The magic diagram makes it possible for power to be present and it brings this presence into the power of the person who has made the diagram….here it is the magic circle, in other designs the sacred square, a concatenation of curves, or intersection of polygons, that encloses the magic field. Into it the power of the god is invoked. It is assigned to its enclosure, it is spell bound. It cannot escape; it is controlled. It is held in its confinement, bound in a plane by the outline of the enclosure so that it cannot escape into the ground where like lightening, it would be rendered impotent.”
The third chapter of Bharata muni’s Nātyashastra, which is based upon the Gandharva Veda (appendix to Sāma Veda) gives detail of the rang-pooja to be performed to the gods of the stage before dramas can be enacted in a newly constructed theatre. It says that a mandala should be drawn on the stage and the gods should be worshipped and invoked to occupy their proper seats. In another ritual, mentioned in the Nātyashastra, a brilliant mandala of ashtadala padma is drawn in which Brahma and other guardian deities of the eight quarters etc. are worshipped.
Indian Art – an Expression of the Divine
It may be confidently said that the greatness of Indian art is the greatness of all Indian thought and achievement, particularly the following ideals, as pointed out by Sri Aurobindo:
- recognition of the persistent within the transient,
- recognition of the domination of matter by spirit,
- the subordination of the insistent appearances of Nature (Prakriti) to the inner reality which, the Mighty Mother of All Creation veils in a thousand ways even while she suggests.
It was the highest vision of the Vedic seers, the vision of the Infinite that is revealed and yet hidden in all the finite forms of the existence, which materialised in the later periods in the wonderful forms of all Indian art, including painting, sculpture and music.
Sri Aurobindo speaks of the theory behind all great Indian art in these words:
“Its highest business is to disclose something of the Self, the Infinite, the Divine to the regard of the soul, the Self through its expressions, the Infinite through its living finite symbols, the Divine through his powers. Or the Godheads are to be revealed, luminously interpreted, or in some way suggested to the soul’s understanding or to its devotion, or at the very least to a spiritually or religiously aesthetic emotion.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 267)
The highest Indian art is identical in its spiritual aim and principle with the rest of Indian culture, says Sri Aurobindo. He adds further:
“The ﬁrst and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really ﬁtted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development” (CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 439).
This spiritual aim of art is not forgotten even on the level of material world, the outer life of man and the things of external Nature. In most good works of Indian art, there is always something more in which the material presentation of life ﬂoats as in an immaterial atmosphere. Life is seen in some suggestion of the inﬁnite or of something beyond or there is at least a touch and inﬂuence of these which helps to shape the presentation.
The noted Indian artist S. H. Raza once explained the inner purpose of Indian art as follows:
“A stone can represent divine power, and it can also be just the visual representation of a stone! So the question of finding the immense power of symbolism in Indian culture is one thing. To be dedicated to it in a romantic way, is entirely a different thing. Now it depends who the artists are that are working in this direction, and what they are trying to show.”