Splendour in every moment
INTERVIEW Harsha V. Dehejia on changing aesthetics of Indians and his book “Akriti to Sanskriti”. ANJANA RAJAN
T he elaborate weaving of even the simplest sari; the alluring symmetry of a simple cane mat (chatai); the earthen water pots sold by impoverished potters, all bear the stamp of an Indian worldview in which every action — mundane, spiritual, entertaining, by choice or by compulsion — is imbued with aesthetics, and in which the pursuit of aesthetics itself becomes a path towards the meaning of existence. Harsha V. Dehejia revels, in the role of scholar and devotee, in the beautiful. A renowned expert on Krishna-related research and a medical doctor, he is Professor of Indian Studies at the College of Humanities, Carlton University, Canada. Dehejia notes that the common perception of Indian arts is restricted to the classical, and that folk art is considered “low, popular, not worthy of study.” He finds this “a Western way of looking at art, dividing into high and low,” and counters the categorisation with “Akriti to Sanskriti: The Journey of Indian Forms” (Niyogi Books), published early this year. In it, he traces the links between the beautiful everyday objects produced by traditional Indian artisans and a complete philosophy of life: a perspective of human existence vis-à-vis the cosmos. He points out that while an ordinary woman who draws a daily kolam or rangoli before her doorstep might not be able to discourse on it, nevertheless, these forms link us to an ancient past. “A contemplative person,” he says, sees that a lotus “invites a Devi to reside in it.” And though many today may not be cognisant of the aesthetic and philosophical value of the traditional forms, they are by no means sidelined. Meanwhile, the prolific author has just finished “A Pahari Romance: The Love Story of Usha Aniruddha”, to be brought out by DK Printworld. He is also busy with an exhibition on Fabric Arts of Krishna opening in January 2011 at the Krishna Gallery endowed by his family at the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai. Excerpts from a chat with the scholar:
How “Akriti…” evolved
My main love is Krishna, but this akriti thing kind of evolved. It evolved out of my course, and also from talking to ordinary people — the housewife, the dancer….All these beautiful akritis we have project a certain worldview — not one of asceticism, the traditional worldview that we have to negate the world. There is another view which is celebratory, which luxuriates in all this beauty. I’m rejecting the view that the Indian worldview is one of negation….Indian cultural luxuriates in fecundity.
On modern Indians’ view of beauty
The modern Indian does not see beauty in antiquity somehow. If I were to take a damaged Ganesh from 16th Century Vijayanagar from an antique dealer to my aunt’s house, she would likely say it brings bad luck. The reasons: it is not considered right for worship or contemplation, and we believe in something new every day. The Indian psyche is not driven by history. It is driven by mythology….So there’s a reason behind it, but it’s sad….I go to the old utensil-wallahs in Mumbai and beg them for old boxes, old kalashas, tiffin carriers, huge spoons that were used in monasteries. I have a huge collection which Indians don’t see beauty in for some reason….But our akritis are not lost. Somewhere, you’ll find a kalash, a rangoli… It’s coming back, I’m convinced. Indian culture is like a palimpsest. I’m an optimist that way. Look at the dance, the music, it’s thriving. Look at the beautiful paper being made….
Increasing minimalism of modern designs and ethos of the old
They become less ornate because of the concept of minimalism. Largely I agree that functionality has become the watchword. But in doing that are we not doing away with beauty? Yes, I agree we’ve become very utilitarian, very functional, but we’re losing something. When you expose yourself to motifs likerangoli, etc., you are exposing yourself to the ethos that surrounds them at a subliminal level. Like when I see akalasha in my room, I’m connecting myself at a certain level to samudra manthan (the myth of the churning of the ocean of milk by the gods and demons). Certain aspects of modern culture seem to eschew beauty in favour of utility. Modernity seems to have dispensed with beauty.
Work in the pipeline
I keep on working on Krishna related subjects, especially when they are connected with any of our arts be they sahitya, chitra, shilpa, sangita, nritya and even pakashastra. I do want to write something on the kitchens of Krishna but have not started my research. The next project is a folder on the noted Riti Kal 18th Century poet Matiram. After that I will take on the interesting subject of Rukmini Haran. I have photographed many murals of Krishna and a couple of years down the road I will exhibit this