In one of my earlier articles – Happiness, Flow, and the Upanishads – I had discussed the meaning of happiness and how the concept of ‘flow’ closely aligns with the Upanishadic view on brahmananda (supreme bliss). The state of ‘flow’ or ‘getting into the zone’ can be defined as a state of temporary moksha. The fourth of the four great purposes of life as defined by the great works on Sanatana Dharma, moksha is a state of lasting bliss (dharma, artha, and kama are the other three). Moksha is a state of sustained happiness. Of unbridled joy. Of restful ecstasy. While it is extremely difficult to attain the state of moksha, each one of us can experience it in short bursts – when we are in deep sleep, or when we are immersed in an activity that we love doing. Art is a beautiful means to attain this ‘temporary moksha.’
All forms of Indian art have a material dimension, an emotional dimension, and a spiritual dimension. This is true of Indian science too, but in this article I focus solely upon the classical arts. The material dimension of the classical arts deal with all the nuts and bolts of the art – the technique, the method of practice, and the physicality of the art. The emotional dimension of the art deals with expression, aesthetics, and presentation.
All classical art forms deal with the material and emotional aspects. Why then the third, spiritual dimension? This is the part possibly unique to the Indian tradition. The performance of an art is elevated to the state of a ritual. It is akin to worship. There is no place for petty feelings or smallness while performing an Indian art – be it dance, music, theatre, painting, or literature (or one of the sixty-four traditional Indian arts). The seers of ancient India seem to have been fully aware of the feeling of oneness and connectedness that comes from serious engagement with an art form, which is why they lauded the spiritual dimension.
Among all the arts, the one closest to my heart is music. As a student of South Indian classical music for over eighteen years, I find a great deal of spirituality in music. Our ancients have called the art of music as nadopasana – the worship of the supreme through sound. As students of music, we revere sound. We don’t think of it merely as a vibration that propagates through air as a mechanical wave. We think of it as a manifestation of the primordial cosmic sound. Needless to say, if we were to consider music solely in the material plane, it is just a wave of pressure and displacement that is audible to our ears. But these sound waves can make us cry or laugh or dance with joy. They can evoke myriad emotions even when we hear a faint splash in the background. But as a performer of music, we avail of the opportunity to get into the zone much faster and over the years, we train ourselves to stay in that zone for longer durations.
The spiritualization of the arts by our ancients also seems to have a practical value. By considering the act of engaging with the art as a sacred ritual, the focus is removed from our fears and worries of performance. Inhibitions melt and anxieties are silenced, ensuring that we perform unselfconsciously, becoming one with the art. We transcend technique and presentation and emotion to achieve this oneness. When the artist merges with the art, the listeners and viewers also get a chance to go along. Art is one of those rare human endeavors that can bring temporary moksha not just to artists but also to the audience. In fact, there is no need for the audience to understand a thing of what is happening on stage. This is especially true of music, which has often been called a universal language.
There’s a story of the famous nagaswaram vidwan T N Rajarathinam Pillai playing the song “Shantamu lekha saukhyamu ledu,” a composition of Tyagaraja in the raaga Saama. An Englishman who was in the audience (and knew nothing of Carnatic music) asked one of his Tamilian friends if the musician was playing a song that was about peace of mind. And indeed, the lyrics of the song say, “Without peace of mind, how can there be happiness? One can have all accomplishments, knowledge, wealth, and power, but without peace of mind, how can there be happiness?”
There’s another story, similar to the previous one, involving the legendary M S Subbulakshmi. She had visited the US to give a concert at the United Nations and was staying at a friend’s apartment in New York. As was her usual routine, in the morning she picked up her tambura, tuned it, and began her singing practice. From the neighboring apartment, she heard some intermittent noises; possibly something was being repaired. Unmindful of the sound, she began singing. After a while, the noises subsided. Then the doorbell rang. Two workers in overalls stood outside the door and said, “Can’t understand a thing but it sounds beautiful. Can we listen for a few minutes?”
A third story, this time involving a Marathi song composed by Hridaynath Mangeshkar (I forget which one). When a Westerner heard this song, he is said to have enquired, “Is this song about a woman who is leaving her home after her wedding?” which is precisely what the song was about.
Of course, one cannot claim that the same song will evoke the same feeling across people and cultures, but the appeal of music is wide-ranging and timeless. This is true of many of the classical arts – they transcend boundaries. No wonder the Indian tradition venerates its greatest artistes as saints – be it Bharata, the pioneer of the arts of theatre, dance, and music or great composers like Purandaradasa and Tyagaraja. It is also a reminder to us that instead of exhibiting the spectacular, we must cultivate the sublime.
This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma