In the current phase of human evolution when sense of utility dominates sense of beauty, appreciating aesthetics as a subject is not very common. Even happiness and its analysis seems to be rooted much less in sense of beauty and more in sense of possession, consumption and achievement. This is not a new observation, it is noted a century ago by Sri Aurobindo. We can see how word by word his analysis holds true even today, and how the overemphasis on the sense of utility along with destruction of sense of beauty (through destruction of culture) results in the same hindrances in happiness of human beings.
This is a major reason behind the vacuity and incompleteness of today’s human mind and its craving for ‘something more’. There is a reason for the traditional Hindu sense of completeness of life and experience too, which is wrongly termed mediocre contentment by the superficial leftists. The activity of left of mind has always been that of discrimination and sense of utility, while it is the right functions that involved sense of beauty and synthesis. The extent to which leftist thought dominated human activity and public discourse in the last century is visible not just from the communist regimes. The so-called non-leftist philosophies, by their economy-centrism have been predominantly left-minded in that sense. The erosion of native cultures all over the world, especially in Asia, is a result of such anti-aesthetic and anti-transcendental, disguised materialistic ideology of the west.
Even in the ‘right wing’ discourse of late, there is very little if any, presence of aesthetic aspect which is so very fundamental to sense of beauty and happiness, its understanding analysis and quest. There is definitely an element of assertion of traditions, constructive effort in social aspects in the ‘Hindu right’ and some support to art-forms in the spirit of respect to tradition. But aesthetic approach to life or aesthetic pursuits as ends in their own right, which is a severe lacuna in the contemporary Hindu thought – arguably the biggest one.
The aesthetic culture of India has several aspects and layers corresponding to the primal qualities and experiences of life and of the world. This is why it caters to people of all tastes, temperaments, bents of mind and belonging to different sheaths of consciousness.
Thus reinstating India’s aesthetic culture involves reviving not just performing arts, but the theory of aesthetics underlying the art-forms and the philosophy of beauty and happiness.
Any meaningful revival of Hindu worldviews and outlook to life cannot ignore its most fundamental aspect – happiness and beauty as the essence of life and universe. Ananda or happiness is the essence of life and ultimate purpose of all pursuits and experiences of the phenomenal world. This experience is primarily three-fold: sukha, dukha and moha. Theory of Hindu Aesthetics is aligned with this philosophical theory. The substratum of existence and experience in the theory of aesthetics, its essence or sap, is called rasa. Aesthetic moods are multiplied based on the nature of human experience. Rasa is the most articulate conceptualization of the experience of beauty.
Expression of experience through various art-forms is primarily based on (1) understanding the experience (2) understanding gesture (3) understanding the medium of expression (4) mastering the art of expression to achieve a resonance of experience in the observer. Thus the first two aspects are common to all art-forms. The third and fourth vary from one art-form to the other. For instance a dancer understands human anatomy and masters gesturing while a sculptor understands gesture and masters his instruments to achieve it.
Arguably, the most comprehensive text of Indian aesthetics and art is Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra. Bharata Muni’s contribution to mankind is among the most valuable. While the immortal art of Bharata Natya derives from his text, the Natya Sastra covers a large canvass of aesthetics, starting with the theory of experience, expression, achieving the resonance, performing arts, cultural aspects, the various natural phenomena required to understand the basics of art-forms such as acoustics and human anatomy.
The treatise has six thousand verses organized into thirty six chapters. Here is a list of the chapters –
- Origin of Enactment
- The Theatre
- Consecration and Stage Deity
- The Class Dance
- Background and Preliminaries of Play
- Rasa-s/Aesthetic Moods
- Bhavas/states and variants
- Facial gestures
- Gestures of hands
- Gestures of other limbs
- Chaari Movements
- Mandala Movements
- Geo-cultural specifics
- Prosody, speech, pitch
- Metrical patterns
- Diction of a Play
- Addressing and Intonation
- Types of a Play
- Limbs of Junctures, Plot
- The Styles
- Costumes and Make-up
- Representation, enactment and expression
- Special representation and natural phenomena
- Success and accomplishment of a play
- Instrumental Music and Acoustics
- Stringed Instruments
- Hollow Instruments
- Time Measure
- Dhruva Songs
- Covered Instruments
- Types of Characters
- Distribution of Roles
- Descent of enactment/drama on Earth
Natya Sastra keeps in line with the tradition of the way any Sastra approaches its subject, by presenting its philosophy, method, context in micro and macrocosm, fruitfulness of the subject in human purposes and attainment of happiness, enlisting its modes of validation etc.
Like many seers, not much is known of Bharata Muni the person – only his vision is gifted to mankind, making both the seer and the text immortal. Besides Bharata Natya which is derived from the Natya Sastra, several art traditions and forms are enshrined in the text. Rishi Runa is repaid only through learning and imparting the knowledge the Rishis gifted us with. We bow to the Muni in reverence.
Note: Today, Magha Purnima, is Bharata Muni Jayanti (14 Feb 2014).