Towards Ananda: Rethinking Indian Art & Aesthetics
by Shakti Maira
Anyone who knows India is aware of its sophisticated aesthetic philosophy and equally rich history of making everyday things beautiful. Yet, most Indians, and travellers to India, are familiar with the great contrast that exists between ingrained beauty and contemporary ugliness. Towards Ananda examines the many reasons for this paradox.
Unlike most books on Indian art and aesthetics which emphasize the 'glorious past' of the classical traditions, this one is centred on the present and the future – on contemporary art and its place in the emerging global art world. The author explores ancient theories of aesthetics in the light of contemporary challenges, and journeys across the country to distil the complex forces which have shaped Indian aesthetics. He also gives us an overview of Western ideologies and art movements, and their conflict with Eastern perspectives. In the course of the narrative, he illustrates the application of the aesthetic values of balance, rhythm, harmony and proportionality in art – as also in economics, development strategies, health, education, city planning, architecture and product design. Though the primary focus is India, the issues discussed, of purpose and practice, content and context, market forces and institutions, extend to all societies that becoming homogenised by globalisation.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Identity and influence
"The problem of what Indian art is can be illustrated by the experience of an author who wanted to write a book on India's top hundred artists. She had gone to the Lalit Kala Akademi to discuss her idea. 'Top hundred artists?', she was asked. 'But there are only about twenty! Who do you plan to include?' When she read out her list, which included some artists who lived outside India, she was told: 'These people left the country and therefore cannot be considered Indian artists.'
"As an artist who is sometimes excluded from the Indian art world for having lived abroad for over two decades, and as one of the names she hinted was contested, it got me thinking: Who is an Indian artist? Is it someone who makes art and lives in India? It is someone who makes art and was born in India? Is it someone who, no matter where they were born or where they reside, makes art that is influenced by Indian aesthetic ideas of art styles? Lastly, is an artist who was born in India, lives in India, and yet makes art that is heavily influenced by Western ideas and styles, an Indian artist?
"There are two intertwined issues here: Who is Indian? And what is 'Indianness' in art?
"The first issue is not just related to art. It has to do with how we define nationality and identity. We have probably grown, at least consciously, beyond the atavistic idea that stepping outside Indian shores made one lose one's 'purity and caste', though the idea may still have some lurking subliminal echoes in our rejection of those who leave Mother India. We have also outgrown our post-colonial hang-up of excluding those who cohabit with the 'whites', though there is some resentment about those who manage to get out into the larger world and make good: an NRI envy. Perhaps in this matter we can use the emerging consensus about Non Resident Indians being Indian in cultural and economic matters. So as long as the artists are of Indian birth or descent, they should be considered Indian artists (though we should check with the second and third-generation artists before including them, lest they throw a Sir Vidia-like fit!)
"The second issue is a more challenging one -- what is Indianness in art? Is it a distinctive cultural attitude towards art and aesthetics? Is it a distinctive style or language? If we could identify it, we could then select the top hundred 'Indian' artists."