G L N Simha’s Scriptural Paintings

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series G L N Simha's Scriptural Paintings: A Retrospective

Nature and Art

               Artistic expression covers an immense number of forms ranging from architecture and iconography to engraving and photography. The substratum of these myriad art forms is the human mind’s instinctive preference for exquisiteness over plainness. When the mind learns to feel elevated at the sight of the rich environment, the artistic impulse is born and manifests itself in an ever-expanding spiral. From the tendency to overreach considerations of mere functionality arises the concept of beauty. This evolution is discernible even in remote antiquity, which explains the coherence between Nature and Art. There is little need to further recall these basics which are familiar to students of Art.

               Swami Vivekananda, farsighted as he was, declared authoritatively: “The man who has not the faculty of feeling the beauty and grandeur of Art cannot be truly religious.”

               Several are the views about Art, all of them valid in different contexts. Sensitivity to aesthetic elements is considered important among the ingredients which constitute a developed individual. In a sense, a positive response to beauty is instinctive to human beings.

               Despite that true Art has no confines or specificities, the unique background of Indian Art is seldom understood by Westerners, with rare exceptions like William Jones and Fergusson. Indian artists employing predominantly Western techniques garner more acceptances. This is of concern to the extent that such trends increase the distance between philosophical foundations and mundane craftsmanship. There has thus been a cultural divide—even intra-nationally—which is undeniable. While this appears to be too broad a generalization, this has been necessitated by the fact that many indigenous artists and styles have suffered ghettoization. Perhaps this is in part a hangover of colonialism.

               As in music, so in other art forms too the environs, milieu and heritage play a salutary role in shaping and guiding the artist as well as the cognoscenti. It would a pity to sacrifice this rich diaspora to the novel and the meretricious. It should also be remembered that continuity is a sine qua non of meaningful survival. Once a rich tradition is lost, it will be virtually impossible to revive it effectively.

The Civilizational Divide

               Each human activity is impacted by cultural consciousness, symbols and concepts. Are not the melodic and harmonic systems products of different civilization-patterns?

               Fastness and rationality have characterized the Western civilization while compromise and intuition undergrid the Oriental civilization.

               In the Orient the diaspora o culture is a derivative of realization of the sublime relationship between man and the universe. This attunement is the genesis of aesthetics and the arts. For instance, while mountains and rivers appeal to the Western artist as Nature’s splendour, to the Oriental artist they are messengers of Divinity. All art, for the traditionalist, is but a highway to spiritual experience, culminating in realization of oneness with the Ultimate Truth. In craft-based art there is instant and finite joy; in sublime art there is sustained and infinite joy.

               This divergence is memorably encapsulated by Sri Aurobindo in these words:

“The western mind is arrested and attracted by the form, lingers on it and cannot get away from its charm, loves it for its own beauty, rests on the emotional, intellectual, aesthetic suggestions that arise directly from its most visible language, confines the soul in the body; it might almost be said that for this mind form creates the spirit, the spirit depends for its existence and for everything it has to say on the form. The Indian attitude to the matter is at the opposite pole to this view. 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.”

Painting in India

               India has a continuous tradition of painting spread over centuries. Exposure to alien techniques in the colonial period naturally influenced the Indian artists’ craft considerably, even though many strove to preserve what may in general be called the indigenous identity in painting. This entanglement was particularly pronounced in the nineteenth century. An eventual offshoot of Orientalism was the Salon Art which elicited mixed response. The early decades of the twentieth century, in the backdrop of Nationalism, saw the emergence of vibrant experimentation and distinctly individualistic styles. While being at home with European techniques, the Indian artists increasingly and creatively addressed a plethora of Indian themes ranging from the religious and classical to folk culture and everyday life. Thus, the post-nineteenth century transformation released the artists’ imagination from the straitjacket of European methodology.

               The sublimity and intensity of vision which Nivedita propagated could produce an Abanindranath Tagore and others who themselves became icons in later years.

               An unceasing demand for paintings depicting epic themes and gods and goddesses might have spurred a considerable segment of trained painters to specialize in the creation of paintings of this genre. Calendar market too sustained it.

               It would be stating the obvious if we say that achieving suggestivity by the visual route is attended by intrinsic problems. However, there are compensatory factors too which enable the artist to transcend the boundaries of that communication. Just as the art of music uses intra-verbal spaces to sublime effect, likewise the medium of the painter achieves suggestivity by invoking the emotional terrain at the subconscious strata. How the artist exploits these unique features decides the level of his virtuosity.

               Paintings inspired by ancient lore have many strands in them. The so called ‘religious’ paintings often have a narrative base. A higher level is interpretative and is driven by philosophic speculation, exploring the mystical realms.

               This genre naturally necessitates in-depth study of ancient texts and intense meditation thereon, thus elevating the artist’s craft to a level beyond mere celebration of beauty. This explains the elaborateness and minutiae of India’s classical arts ranging from music and dance to sculpture and iconography.

               Pictorial Art is held in such high esteem that a celebrated fourteenth-century philosophical work, Vedāntapañcadaśī of Vidyāraṇya has employed the imagery of the painter’s craft as an analogy in expanding the fourfold manifestation of Paramātman. Cit, Anataryāmin, Sūtrātman and Virāṭ are likened to the four stages of the painting canvas viz., dhouta (clean cloth), ghaṭṭita (starched cloth), lāñchita (outline) and rañjita (colour-filled painting). As a painting evolves through various stages, the Primordial Being too is said to manifest itself sequentially from an undifferentiated state (Cit) to gross and pervasive forms (Virāṭ). The analogy is further extended in the discourse to clarify that just as lines and colours create an illusion, emotions such as joy and sorrow too are illusions, being superimpositions on Ātman which in itself is changeless.

               In the higher reaches, Aesthetics, Philosophy and Superconsciousness coalesce in synergy.

Symbolism in the Scrpitures

               The origins of Vedic hymns belong to the prehistoric past. The hymns are verbal recollections of mystical experiences dating back to even more ancient times. Even the earliest attempts at unraveling the meaning of the hymns in historical times (c. ninth century BCE) plead difficulty as several millennia had elapsed since the direct revelations were first proclaimed. Naturally the lexical aids of recent times are inadequate for the task of interpreting the Vedas. The lexical tradition has to be supplemented by the insights of spiritual practitioners in order to approximate to an understanding of the vision of the ancient mystics. In this background the extant literary tools and meditative insights have to traverse together. This obviously is no task for the novice. Each of these two pursuits demands most rigorous training under the guidance of masters. Only such aspirants can hope to glean the import of the symbolic utterances constituting the hymns. It is needless to emphasize that this pursuit chiefly has to be at the level of consciousness.

               From this it follows that artistic expression of Vedic symbolism too demands the meditative approach as distinct from the merely pictorial approach. Meditative Art can alone do some justice to Vedic symbolism. This is even more complex than ‘abstract’ art, as the latter is a mere technique and lacks the spiritual and mystical dimension. The very grammar of Meditative-Mystical Art belongs to a higher level of human perception.

To be continued.

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Author(s)

About:

Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of greats like D. V. Gundappa and Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs.