Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
Quest for aesthetic refinement
"The science of the self - 'adhyatma-vidya,' which can be said to be the philosophy of India, recognises the 'unity' of all life and regards the pursuit and realisation of this unity to be the final purpose of life. This inseparable unity of the material and the spiritual is the foundation of Indian culture, and determined the whole character of her social ideals."
A. K. Coomaraswamy
Our forefathers spoke at length on the development of the soul of man, vis-a-vis his pursuit of the material. They also questioned the veracity of "uncoordinated knowledge" and the preference for it. An ideal society was therefore felt to be based upon duties being assigned to each individual according to "swadharma" - or the "appropriateness" of that duty for that man. Every man thus experienced an activity, which he either needed, or owed to society. It was assumed that by a natural law, the individual ego is nearly always born into its own befitting environment. And this was and is true - up to a point in our history.
The age of information has changed this. All knowledge has been made accessible to all. Children take instruction from computers on matters quite unrelated to their age or need. The question that then arises is - what is "appropriate" knowledge? And while all knowledge about our world is not merely appropriate, but also perhaps desirable, the key to a good education is to be found in the "personality"' of the individual rather than in what he or she knows.
To speak of the "personality" of an individual means to speak of things beyond a formal education.
A response to nature, to beauty, to an aesthetic sense, to a oneness with all life, to a humility of being and an appreciation of the arts - all these make an individual "whole". What in today's schools teaches a student to look inward, even as he looks upon the world? What is it that helps groom a "cultured" human being and not merely an educated one? Rukmini Devi once said, "Trees make fine classrooms." It is first of all a beautiful environment to grow in - an environment that reflects natures beauty. It is to "experience" this that is more important than knowledge. It is this atmosphere and the observation of it that leads the child to an experience of beauty. Understanding beauty starts really with an appreciation of nature - human and otherwise, recapturing the spirit of an India - where simplicity was of the essence. It is in simplicity that one begins to see the "spirit of form", not merely the form itself. An environment so natural - that the child is not overawed by it. Instead where his innate desire to express himself is easily manifested.
The place of art in education cannot be overemphasised in our times. Art stimulates creative expression and keen observation. These are vital to the individuality of a person. In this sense, art and life are not separate. Art is life. It is the expression of life in some form or the other. A child is nearest to all that is natural, unconscious, free and happy. He loves to roam free in thought and in spirit. When allowed to do so, character develops and discrimination develops. He learns the value of freedom and the value of disciplines Sri Rabindranath Tagore wrote beautifully in a song.
"Not my way of salvation, to surrender to the world!
The joy experienced in creative expressions is said to be equal to that "bliss which persons meditating on the Paramatma experience." (Abhinaya Darpana). A cultured person was expected to be educated in the sixty-four kalas (arts and sciences). These included dancing, singing, acting, gambling, sensing, metallurgy, cooking, gymnastics, minerology, calligraphy, architecture and engineering, nursing and rearing children. The acquisition of wealth to the pursuit of refined accomplishments, art and pleasure were not restricted to any single segment of society.
From Rig Vedic times, poets have revelled in the beauty of man and nature. The highest value was placed on beauty of expressions in the art of poetry. In the Brahmanas - the common term for arts was "silpa" -in the sense of the creations of a perfect or refined form or replica of life.
The Upanishads conceived of the ultimate reality as the "fullness of perfection" and the fountainhead of all enjoyment - rasa. In the epics and the Puranas, a personal God became the embodiment of all beauty and the object of man's devotion and rapture.
Musicians later developed a philosophy according to which music and spiritual endeavour were not separable. All songs were in praise of god and the act of singing was akin to yogic discipline involving the centre of breath and concentration. The pure melodic elaborations of a raga helps both the singer and the listener to become absorbed, where all mundane memory ceases and a poise of the spirit achieved.
It was so with sculptures, iconography and painting as well. They all expressed the same spiritual inspirations and purpose. In drama and poetry a theory was developed. The heroic play depicting the acts of gods was the highest type of drama. The grand poem or the epic in poetry was distinguished from the rest. The depiction of a variety of characters and action on a consequent mixture of reaction - both pleasant and unpleasant and therefore not equally relishable led them to the understanding that it is not the story so much, as the emotions embodied in the characters - that must be captured by the poet, dancer, musicians or actor.
It is in the capturing of emotion that a universalisation takes place of the particular nature of the play or event recedes into the background. A process of abstractions takes place that detaches the artist and rasika from the particular emotion itself, to an "enjoyment" of it. This was the aim of art. This brought joy and serenity to both.
Swami Vivekananda said, "I shall call you religious from the day you begin to see god in men and women." When human relations are thus made divine, our relationship with God may also take human form and we look upon Him as father, mother, child, friend or beloved. This is personified in classical dance where the nayika regards god as the beloved. The most exalted is to see no difference between the two; or between the love and the beloved.
"On one side is modern science, dazzling the eyes with the brilliance of myriad suns driving in the chariot of hard and fast facts collected by the application of tangible powers direct in their incursion; on the other are the hopeful and strengthening traditions of her ancient forefathers, in the days when India was at the zenith of her glory . . . On one side, ranks materialism, plenitude of fortune, accumulation of gigantic power, and intense sense-pursuits . . . on the other one hears in low yet unmistakable accents . . . the search for the self." Vivekananda thus put to us and to the world the dilemma of a nation like ours.
Like him, Tagore also stressed India's role as spiritual teacher to mankind - but also reminded his countrymen of the vitality and dedicated search for the truth of the West. Looking dispassionately at the events of his time, he declared that the clamour for political rights distracted men from the more fundamental tasks of erasing caste-barriers, uplifting the poor and liberating men's bodies and minds from self-made burdens.
If we can retain a childlike wonderment at the variety and beauty of creation and in the ceaseless stream of poetry, prose, drama, song and dance - our education can be called "whole", can be called "Indian". Beauty cannot be known objectively. It perhaps comes with the rejection of objects and events that give displeasure in the prolonged analysis. But it may be experienced by attaching one's mind to what is beautiful.
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