Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Interplay of Arts in Ancient India

V. Narayanan

By V. NARAYANAN, (M.A., M.L., Advocate, Madras)

The Indian term for Art, kala, is significant. The word means a segment, a fragment, and it suggests a whole of which it is a fragment. The digit of the moon is a kala and it suggests the full moon of which it is but a part. The numeralistic grammarian of the arts has listed sixty-four kalas, but really the kalas or varieties of art are infinite in number. Prominent among these sectionalised and individualised arts are literature, music, gesture, painting and sculpture or silpa. This last, silpa, is considered the supremest art of all. The Universe itself is the silpa or art-emanation of the Supreme Architect or Silpakara.

The conception of the Universe as a work of art is a fundamental conception of the ancient Indians. Creation is an expression of this mood of the Supreme Artist, which is one of infinite Bliss. On beholding it, one falls into the Great Artist’s mood and loses one’s little self, becoming merged in Him. The votary of the Arts is on the sure way to everlasting Bliss. Creations of art put him easily along that way; and the more artistic the creation is, the more easily is one led on the way to Bliss.

Art is divided into particular arts with a view to help the artist in mastering the particular rules of the grammar of that art, to enable him to produce works which lift us from our little selves and merge us in Bliss. Although each art is but a fragment of one comprehensive Art, the function of each art is clearly defined by the medium of its expression, and the grammar of that Art is determined by its specific function. But the artist who mastered his grammar and cultivated his artistic urge is not content with achieving supremacy in his special art. He has a glimpse of the one infinite Art of which his own particular art is but a fragment. And he loves to transcend the limitations of his specific art and to allow the interplay or other related arts and, sometimes, of unrelated arts also. Thus the sculptor in Ancient India was not content with the mere exposition of plastic beauty. Several of our old icons, like, the Nataraja and the dancing Krishna, are not static poses but sculptural snapshots of dynamic dance-movements, revealing the play of the art of gesture and of dance on the plastic art. Similarly, we find notable instances of the influence of painting on the literary art. The Dhyana-sloka of the Sandhya prayer describes the Supreme Brahma Narayana, who is in everyone of us as well as in the solar sphere, in these terms: “His body is shining gold. He has a golden crown and gold garlands. His armlets are of gold and His clothes are gold.” The sloka a painter’s study in the ruddy yellow of the setting sun.

This word-picture of Siva is another instance in point. The several attributes of Siva can be ascribed to the influence of the pictorial art: “Siva dwells on the Silver peak of the snow-clad Himalayas. He rides a white Bull. His body is smeared with white ashes. His matted hair gleams white with the glory of the crescent moon and the cascade of the silvery Ganges."

Or this description of Siva’s Son in the opening poem of the Kuruntokai anthology of early Tamil: “Sev-vel’s abode is a rock of red gravel overlaid with the red clustering flowers of Kantal. The tusks of the elephant He rides on are red with dripping blood, for they have gored the asuras to death; and the arrows from His mighty bow are also tinged with blood.”

And, lastly, this vision of Red Horror:
“On the gateway of the palace fall the lurid rays of sunset,
Underneath squats the Man-Lion.
The red body of Hiranya-Kasipu reeks in blood;
The red claws of the Lion tear the red entrails therefrom.
The Lion’s eyes glow red with passion,
And! His tawny mane bristles with rage.”

Surely these examples must suffice to illustrate how the art of the Indian Purana was suffused with the glow of the painter’s art.

Let us now pass on to the interplay of the sculptor’s art and the art of the Puranika. Narasimha has varied forms in sculpture. We have the Ugra-Narasimha in the cave temples; and the Saumya aspect of Narasimha with Lakshmi by His side, And we have in the Yoga-Narasimha, the ideal of self-control and of beatitude. These forms are taken from kindred arts, but the conception of Sthauna Narasimha is entirely the sculptor’s own. What is more natural for a sculptor than to carve the majestic form of Narasimha out of the ordinary stone pillar of a Mantapa?Narasimha in the Sthauna form went to the Puranika, furnishing ocular demonstration of the all-pervasive nature of Brahman, the Supreme Soul.

Another illustration is afforded by the group of images worshipped at the main shrine at Puri. The current Purana story about them is this: Subhadra, sister of Sri Krishna and Balarama, expressed in her childhood days a wish to be married to her brothers. That wish is fulfilled, without breach of Dharma, in their super-mundane existence as icons in the Jagannatha temple at Puri. This artistic story arose apparently from the old prescription to the sculptor, which we find embodied in a sloka in the chapter on Pratima Lakshana in Brhat Samhita:

Ekanamsha Karya Devi Baladeva Krishnayormadhye

Devi in this verse is Durga, who was born as the sister of Baladeva and Krishna; and the sculptor who makes images of the twin-gods, Rama and Krishna, for worship is enjoined to place the inseparable Durga between the twin images. The sculptural motif is plain, to afford a relief to the figures of the twin gods.

Students of Indian architecture are struck by the wonderful work done on granite as if it were wood. From a study of such works of art, they infer that the earlier temple architecture used wood, and that these wonderful relics of architecture belong to the period of transition from timber to stone. There are some difficulties in the way of accepting this natural inference. We do not find in the earliest extant stonework any influence of wood-work. The Pallava cave-temples are remarkably free from the influence of wood-work. Nor do we find any evidence in the Silpa sastras about wood-work in architecture. The ancient Indians knew that wood-work was unsuitable for permanent architecture in the climate of their country. The marvellous details of wood-work in sculptural art which evoke the admiration of connoisseurs is traceable to the ambitions of the master-sculptor to transcend the limitations of stone-work and to assimilate the peculiarities of wood-work in the finished products of his art.

The first ambition of an Indian artist, as of artists elsewhere, is, no doubt, to master the science pertaining to his art, what may be called the grammar of his art. The architect must first be an engineer, the painter must attain to a mastery of the science of colours, the literary artist must have a good command over words and their meanings, and the musician must know all about the production of sounds. But he is no artist but only an artisan who merely puts into practice the mechanical rules of his art and does not allow his inspiration to transcend those rules. It is in transcending the rules of his art that an artist is revealed. In so transcending, the artist in ancient India boldly transgressed to other realms of art: for he felt that all arts were one and he recognised no boundaries between the several realms of separated arts. Compartmentalism in art was as yet unknown, and the master-artist in one medium was frequently found utilising the characteristic features of other art-forms to enrich his own.

Saint Sathakopa has a set of verses which suggest this interplay of the component parts of Art. The senses of the devotee hunger for contact with God. The eyes desire to see Him, the ears to catch the flap of Garuda’s wings which presage His arrival; the hands desire to be clasped together (in anjali pose) before His Presence. These things are natural to any devotee. But the sense-organs of the Alvar are superior. His eyes are eager not merely to see Him, but like the hands to be folded up in the act of obeisance. His ears strain themselves to catch the melody of Garuda’s wings, no doubt; but they hunger also to function as eyes and to behold His lovely Form.

These verses of Nammalvar which embody this idea state something which is true not only of God but also of Art. For, in essence, God is no different from Art. ‘Rasa vai sah’ says the Upanishad. The different senses correspond to the sectionalized arts. The arts of painting and of sculpture depend on the sense of vision; the art of music depends on the sense of hearing; and the literary art gratifies the sixth sense, viz., the mind. But the eye, the ear and the mind are not separate entities. The Supreme Artist, like the Alvar’s eyes, ears and mind, transcends the region of his particular art; and his work displays the excellences of diverse arts at once. In another place, the Alvar refers to the eyes of Krishna and the words that He speaks. “His eyes,” says the Alvar, “speak and convey messages. His words behold the thoughts of the devotee.” True art transcends the regions of the senses and of mind: and when it is achieved in a work of art, our: senses and our minds are transported to that region of bliss where all arts blend into one.

Here are a few notable examples, of such blending in ancient Indian literature.

Omkara panjara suki1nupanishadyadyana Kelikala Kanthim
Agamavipina mayurim aryamatuar vibhavaye Gaurim!!

“I meditate on the Goddess Gauri: She is the parrot encaged in Omkara. She is the cuckoo sporting in the gardens of the Upanishads. She is the peafowl roving in the forests of the Vedas.”

This is not pure poetry, as the translation reveals. To the non-Indian, the metaphors do not appeal. But so much of the pictorial art has entered the realms of poetry in India that every Indian thrills at the use of these pictographic words. The supremacy of Upama or simile among the Alankaras, and the excessive use of words denoting concrete objects to indicate abstract ideas, are alike due to the immense influence that the visual arts of painting, sculpture, gesture and dance have exercised over literature in India.

Much of the supreme artistry arising out of the interplay of the several arts on literature has been misunderstood in later days. Tiruvacakam says of the Supreme Being that He fashions the lovely woman out of bones and the noble horse out of the ignoble fox. And the words are taken at their literal value by miracle-mongers of a later generation. The Vedas proclaim that Sat, the supreme Being is One, though the learned call it variously. The sculptor expresses it in the icons of Siva-Sakti, and of Sankara-Narayana; and when poets like Sathakopa state in the wake of such sculpture, “The place of Lakshmi is His chest and of Brahma is His navel,” the literalist makes one deity the anga or part of the other, quite oblivious of the fact that the poet is here employing the language of sculpture.

Let me proceed to emphasise another peculiar characteristic of Indian literature, which is due to the interplay of music and poetry. Words as words have meanings, and as sounds have sonal values. But more literary craftsmen in Ancient India than in other countries have yielded to the temptation of mingling music and Poetry. The golden rule of one word, one meaning,’ was cast to the winds. Synonyms arose to facilitate the importation of music into poetry and, often, of music as a substitute for poetry, with the result that there are very few poems in modern Indian languages which cannot be sung. As a consequence, there is very little poetry in these song poems. In Tamil, for example, there is no word to distinguish a poem from a song. Etukai and monai, jingles and alliterations, have been prescribed by grammarians as indispensable to poetry, and the distinction has been so completely wiped out that the Tamilian mistakes his rich treasure-houses of songs for vast store-houses of music.

As with poetry, so with music. The human voice was considered the greatest musical instrument. Stringed instruments like the Vina and stretched instruments like the Mridanga were modulated to suit the human voice. Ideas conveyed by words were mingled with the music of the human voice, and the languages transgressed into the regions of musical sounds. They got so intermingled as to obliterate, in the lay mind, all distinctions between language and music.

This interplay of other arts in the sphere of any particular art, is the distinguishing characteristic of ancient Indian Art. Such interplay was inevitable, according to the Indian conception of the nature of Art. The oft-quoted passage from the Silpa Sastra brings out this fact. The pupil asks “Teach me the art, of image making.” The preceptor replies: “One must know the laws of painting to know the laws of image making.” The pupil “Then, teach me the laws of painting.” The Preceptor: “The laws of painting cannot be understood without knowing the laws of gesture,” The pupil: “Then teach me the laws of gesture.” The preceptor: “They, in their turn, depend on a knowledge of the laws of music.”

Ancient Indian Art was so constituted that each section of the Art had considerable correlation with the other sections; and together, the several sections formed one harmonious whole. Real unity in apparent diversity was the keynote of life in India, which had not in those days become either unworldly or other-worldly under the kindred influences of Buddhist Nihilism and decadent Hinduism. These looked upon life here below, not as one of Bliss but of unrelieved sorrow, from which liberation was to be desired, and compared to which even annihilation was Bliss.

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