The Cacophony of Art Therapy

Of late, echoes of a certain something called "Art Therapy" has been resonating throughout our land. More specifically, there has been an increase in the number of self-proclaimed "Art Therapists" strutting around with claims that they can cure a wide variety of diseases using music, dance, painting and poetry. They occupy the line already populated by that class of people who've anointed themselves as Sanyasis-Babas and Gurujis. Not just this--among our artists, there's a section of the untalented who, unable to earn renown purely as artists, resort to gimmickry to become world famous overnight. Endowed with unquenchable ambition, they are akin to an axe to art. There's also the section of charlatans characterized by their quest to earn great wealth painlessly.

"Art Therapy" has become a huge boon to these sections.

It's also true that there exist some honest folks among these "Art Therapists," and they might be truly learned to an extent. But not only is their number few, they haven't been trained formally in administering medical therapy in the scientific method. Several of my friends drawn both from the world of art and medical doctors--accomplished people and acknowledged experts in their respective fields--have often expressed their genuine dismay and concern about the plight of both medicine and art about this phenomenon. Therefore, it requires integrity, deep learning, and expertise before trying to merge art with medicine.

There could be a twofold reason why such undeserving "Art Therapists" are in great demand. The first is the ignorance about such unconventional treatment methods and a lack of awareness about the notion of holistic treatment on the part of the general public, and the second is the anxiety to "somehow"remain healthy. By leveling such criticism, I am neither rejecting unconventional and holistic treatment methods nor am I condemning them wholesale. Neither is the intent of this essay to pass judgements on any form of medicine or treatment nor grade them. I'm not qualified enough to do any such thing. My only purpose is to show how art is being misused by the excuse of therapy.

Of course, some people will be quick to counter this by pointing out the numerous benefits of music, dance, poetry and painting. There have been people who brought rains through music, breathed life into the dead, and melted rocks. But then why is every artist unable to accomplish these things?  Even if some divinely gifted souls have done these things, why have they been unable to repeat the feat everywhere? Not just that--why invest tens of years of unitiring sadhana to master say the Deepak or the Jyotiswarupini raga to do what one matchstick can do? Why hang on the Gundakriya or the Bairagi Bhairav raga forever when there are furnaces that can melt any metal, or when we have molten rocks inside a volcano, which needs no raga or tala to melt rocks? Apart from merely boosting one's ego, is there any other value to such tales of miracle?

One can recall the renowned legend of how Muthuswami Dikshitar brought rains by singing the Amritavarshini raga. Is this the innate strength of the Amritavarshini raga or is it the force of Dikshitar's personality?  Eminent singers and instrumentalists who gloat over their entire lifetimes about how they brought rains to unseen places by singing an Amritavarshini or Megh Malhar--that they chose the raga is coincidental--inexplicably remain mum when Bangalore's lakes dry up and taps refuse to respond. That aside, was the capacity for providing artistic enjoyment or the innate beauty of the Amritavarshini raga heightened because of the "miracle" of Muthuswami Dikshitar bringing down rains?


Indeed, the naivete of our ordinary public is such that if ABC flautist or XYZ Veena artist claims that he or she will play the Veda on their respective instrument, there is guaranteed rush to attend such performances as though that event marks the apex of their musical sadhana. The truth is that apart from the Samaveda, the other three Vedas comprise just three swaras (notes):  udaatta, anudaatta and svarita.  These three notes can effortlessly be played using the sa-pa-ni  or the sa-ri-ga notes even by a kid. More pointedly, the Revati, Natabhairavi, Mayamalavagowla and Kharaharapriya ragas offer us great possibilities to deliver a more effective impact in this regard: this fact can be gleaned by someone who has just an introductory understanding of music.

Given this, why does this illusion persist? One reason could be rooted in the reverence towards the message and philosophy of the Vedas: but even more significantly, reverence rooted in one's specific sect, which is sought to be superimposed upon an instrumental performance involving purely musical notes and is therefore free from any such extraneous encumberances. In this superimposition, they seek a reflection of their own veneration for the Vedas, and are thus swayed by such cheap tricks.

To this species belongs the recent phenomenon of the "hitech" artistes, especially the "star"  singers and instrumentalists of Hindustani music, and the contemporary "Rishis" belonging to the "fusion" gotra. These hitech artistes have given birth to a category that includes stuff like "Music for meditation," the Gayatri Mantra, "Vedic vibrations," and continue to churn out hundreds of CDs like mushrooms. Even in this case, the same element of mass delirium is at work. But one thing is clear--compared to the mayhem of "music therapy," these aberrations are slightly better: they are modest and closer to truth.

One can briefly examine a few samples of the rackets run by these worthies, who've collectively descended upon us like the contemporary avataras of Bharatamuni and Dhanwantri armed with numerous perversions of classical (Indian) dance: dance to ensure  smooth and comfortable delivery, dance to reduce diabetes and blood pressure.

Fortunately, very long ago, extensive research in the US was conducted in using the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and others for therapy. In our case, there has been little misuse of art in this regard. The reason could be this: our poets, critics, researchers and scholars were primarily highly analytical people, and therefore this sort of therapeutic method didn't attain the levels of mass exploitation and pervasive social delusion (This doesn't mean our tradition of music and dance is devoid of reason. What's more, there's very less perversion in our painting and sculptural tradition).

There's another important aspect here. Today's world of poetry, painting and sculpture leans more heavily towards craft, technique, logic, and socio-political analyses where intellect is accorded primacy than towards bhava (sentiment, emotion or feeling), the fundamental ingredient of these artistic endeavours. However, the world of music and dance continues to retain bhava as its fundamental ingredient, and hasn't largely distanced itself from it. This is why the element of therapy finds expression in these two arts. And it is this that several "music therapists" continue to exploit in a manner akin to voodoo. Thus, our eminences belonging to the world of literature, painting and sculpture have nothing to be proud of. If on the one side, art after being bereft of bhava is becoming "non-art," on the other, the same bhava is being misused and debauched.

Given this situation, what seems to be the basis for finding a solution? What are the possibilities for finding a solution?

To this end, let's contemplate upon the words of Acharya M. Hiriyanna who gives us what can be termed a fundamental aphorism:

The sole purpose of art is to transcend beyond all purposes. It is an attitude of contemplation rather than achievement. Art is concerned less with facts than with values. Experience is less the aim of art than the subject of art. Art is not (mere) experience but something added to experience. [Art Experience, M. Hiriyanna]

In light of my caustic remarks about art therapy, readers might feel that I am an advocate of the "Art for art's sake" school of thought. This objection emanates even from the purveyors of the "Rasa" theory. Indeed, it's possible that Indian Aesthetics is itself misunderstood thus. However, in reality, I believe that all benefits and purposes are contained in the aesthetic joy (Rasaananda) that ensues from the enjoyment of art. Just as nutritious ingredients are inextricably mixed in the taste of milk or honey, elevating and useful components too, are intermixed in pure art. Trying to separate and distill these components is akin to trying to squeeze just the element of perfume from a flower whose beauty lies in its wholesomeness. It's true that squeezing out only the perfumed essence of a flower in the form of extracted oil has its own convenience and utility. But in the process, here are the vital elements that are destroyed: the flower's personality, color, elegance, nectar, its ornamental possibility, and its general natural beauty. Most crucially, the few drops of perfume (Attar) simply cannot contain the opulence of wholesome experience much less the contentment and solace that the whole flower affords us. The fullness of that wholesome enjoyment is now restricted only to the zone of the nose, which alone can intensely experience it. Its beauty, which was formerly available to the eyes, skin and tongue is now dead.

One can also frame a counter argument thus: Being "specialized," it's enough if only one of our senses are content. We have an entire empire of artificial flowers to sate our eyes; we have an infinite variety of drink to tingle our tongues; we have innumerable manufactured luxury products to soothe our skin. And so, what extent of joy can a mere natural flower that blooms for a fleeting moment give us?

Here's the thing: ten, ten paises make One Rupee. Whether that One Rupee is a coin or a note, it's still One Rupee--this sort of dry, mathematical logic is inapplicable in this context. The mathematics in the statement of "the sum of the parts is always less than the whole" should not forget the comprehensive logic of the world of aesthetic joy (Rasaananda).

Today, people are increasingly becoming advocates of utility. In earlier times, theists were greater in number. Just as how that was dangerous in a different manner, even this is equally dangerous. While a theist is glued to faith and belief, an advocate of utility is glued only to material, physical reality. Both are unaware of the actual sanctuary where the soul of values rest. Therefore, the goal of the Believer is to attain the enjoyments supposedly present in the other world and that of the utility-advocate, to enjoy what this world offers. But then one mustn't forget the fact that any sensual enjoyment is always accompanied by both (temporary) happiness and sadness, and does not culminate in Unqualified Joy.

Unqualified Joy is beyond theism and utility, and ungraspable inside the boundaries of faith and symbolism. It is a distinction of experience and feeling found in art, spirituality, and service (undertaken for the welfare of the world, or Lokasangraha).

If in the past, art was employed like a slave labourer to the beliefs of Faith, today it's being exploited solely for material utility. Although both Faith and Utility have been helpful to art--in the realm of form--this help is purely on the plane of worldly transaction. However, the determination of the substance of art truly stands on the foundation of experience rooted in sensitivity. This can never be grasped by the ignorant religious fanatic and the utility-oriented person who's fascinated only by the hard reality of the physical and transactional world. This is possible only to a Jnaani or someone who has transcended both these extremes.

Therefore, today, if "art therapy" is being abused by some skilled artists to either deceive the naive or to amass wealth and fame--thanks to the pervasiveness of half-baked knowledge about both technology and science--in the past, such shenanigans were variously called "miracles," employed for religious conversion. On deeper reflection, it appears that more than being subordinated to religious purposes, art faces a greater danger when it's used purely for utilitarian ends (This doesn't mean that the damage inflicted upon art to varying degrees by religion is no less grave).

In summary, we can say that today, large sections of people calling themselves artists value art for transactional benefits such as acquiring health, wealth, fame, and other aspects, all of which are resources operating primarily at the level of the senses.

Mammata in his Kavyaprakasha [1-2] holds that poetry (or any art) yields name, wealth, transactional shrewdness, therapeutic "miracles," and moral education, and concludes that in the end, the ultimate benefit of art is in it becoming the cause for generating the value of finding joyous rest in one's own self.

But Hemachandra has given the first rank to the aforementioned joy. He places the side benefits like worldly success and ethical lessons next:

काव्यमानन्दाय यशसे कान्तातुल्यॊपदेशाय च | [Kaavyaanushaasana (1-3)]

Although reputed as a caustic critic, Bhattanayaka thunders:

काव्ये रसयिता सर्वो न बोद्धान नियोगभाक् |

In poetry, everybody has the right to savour joy but the transaction of giving and receiving sermons doesn't exist.    

Kuntaka goes a step ahead and claims that art is that which gives a magical inner joy over and beyond the four Purusharthas (Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha) in his classic Vakroktijivita [1-5].

The intent of all of these aestheticians is ultimately this: as much as possible, pure art should be "other worldly" or "excelling or surpassing the world." There exist numerous other devices and paths for obtaining mere worldly benefits. The only unqualified device we have is art. Let there be no artful transgression in this. Nilakanta Dikshita in his Kalividambanam has severely mocked such transgressions [See verses 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39 and 40].

More specifically, classical forms with their natural character of transcending time and space are inseparably bound with rasa and stand as invaluable, even amazing treasures. Only such works reflect both the ideal and the form of surpassing and excelling the world despite being within the world.

Applied art and contemporary art do not have this convenience. Here, the twin elements of worldliness and utilitarianism sit thick. We obtain greater clarity when we examine pure and abstract classical forms. In classical music we have the aalaapana, taana, swarakalpana, jati-swara, swarajati, etc. In classical dance, we have the karana, angahaara, adavu, etc. In painting and sculpture, we have the Rangavalli [or Rangoli], mandala, yantra, etc. These art forms and elements therein, endowed as they are with intrinsic beauty, intensely move the audience and generate joy in a far more profound manner with no external expectations or hidden interpretations than any parallel form in the realm of applied and/or contemporary art. Non-classical art forms aren't endowed with this intensity and fullness.

The greatness of classical arts lie in their qualities of universal equanimity in psychic distancing and impersonal enlightenment. Thus, classical arts are the lung spaces situated among the travails of the world. There is great danger in appropriating Bangalore's oxygen-givers like Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh to construct "socially useful" buildings like schools, hospitals, stadiums, cultural centres and orphanages thereupon. Similarly, there's great or even greater danger in the commercial enterprise of unleashing the "therapeutic" face of classical arts. We have roads, pavements and even the compound of one's house for walking and jogging. But for flowers, for soothing air we must surrender to gardens and parks.

Perchance art might provide therapy but it certainly can't do the job as effectively as traditional medicine systems like Allopathy and Ayurveda. That might occur as well when the patient forgets himself by dissolving the mind and attaining true rest for at least the duration that he's enjoying the art. This rest might then percolate down to his sense organs and result in energy enrichment, and he may eventually regain health. Therefore, the patient must first become a rasika (connoisseur). Likewise, the doctor. If the "Art Therapist" is himself devoid of aesthetic sense, what more can we say?

I can swear on myself and say that the entrepreneurs of "Art Therapy" that I see around me are certainly bankrupt of any aesthetic sense and the resultant spiritual refinement. As for the fate of their patients...sigh!


Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna from the original Kannada



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...