Agonised Fragments: Saundarya, Modernity, and the Aesthetics of Duality


I  Duality

Let me reverse the order of the topics suggested in the title by beginning with duality.  Regardless of where some of us may prefer to be, duality is where all of us are: as Raja Rao’s says in The Meaning of India, “There can be no world without duality, yet there can be no peace in duality” (85).

Several months ago, when I began thinking about this paper, it was this statement that was uppermost in my mind. I wanted to ask if duality, which is essentially a metaphysical category, might be applied to the discussion on beauty and modernity. Even at that stage of preliminary reflection, I noticed a problem that I would have to confront. Duality might, by definition, be unrelated to time, to history, and to contingency. In other words, the problem of duality would obtain at all times for all people, just as its opposite, nonduality, might be, according to some views, its antidote and solution. Somewhat like the quintessential human problem of dukkha that the Buddha identified, all of us, whether ancient, medieval or modern, would have to live with and try to overcome duality. What, then, made modern times so special? That, I thought, was the first problem. If duality is synonymous with the human condition itself, then how was it to be historically situated or analyzed? What makes duality in modern times different from duality in traditional times?

I started with the following hypothesis: duality, painful at all times, acquires a special poignancy during modernity. That is because duality is a largely an individual matter in earlier ages, just as one might argue that one’s spiritual quest is an individual matter. But during modern times, duality gets institutionalized. Isn’t this what Weber meant when he spoke of modernity as the progress disenchantment of the world, or when Walter Benjamin bemoaned the loss of the aura of art in the age of mechanical reproduction? To my mind, the root cause of this might be the abolishing of the spiritual or metaphysical from the realm of daily life. A holistic view of life is substituted by the fragmentary. One way to describe the symptoms of this substitution is to point to the shift from the theocentric to the anthropocentric world view, supposed to have taken place in Europe during or after the renaissance. In Science and Culture, Jit Singh Uberoi locates this shift in terms of “a particular demonstrable set of relations between (a) God, (b) man and (c) nature that can best explain the nature and character of the unity of Western civilization.” (11) Uberoi contends that positivism, “as a faith and system” replaced the medieval Christian world view:

Positivism first attacked and successfully demolished the medieval Christian synthesis, transcendentalist and immanentist, in the sphere of science and religion, i.e. divinity or Spirit and its symbols, and only then went on to unfold on its own the new relations, categories, and attitudes of modern life and thought . . . the new regime . . . rested on two fundamental presuppositions:  (a) the disassociation and the autonomy of fact and value in the field of knowledge; and (b) the dissociation and autonomy of lexical truth and applied praxis, or theory and technique or consciousness and conscience or belief and conduct, in the field of life. (26)

Uberoi credits the Swiss Protestant reformer Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531) with being the chief architect of this “revolution,” rather than Martin Luther or John Calvin. By attacking and rejecting the traditional ritual of the mass, Zwingli effectively separated the “world of spiritual truth and inner light from the world of apparent reality and outer forms. . . . The two spheres were to be regarded as separate and different until the last judgement of God . . . and this would lead to the infinite regression of dualism.” (32)

Uberoi’s thesis is aptly summed up in his diagram of the four sets of boxes (figure 3 36). In the old system, the box of the spirit, the largest box, contains all the others—mind, life, and matter; hierarchically, it is also on the top, numbered 1, followed by mind, 2, life, 3, and matter, 4, respectively. In the new order, all the boxes are separated. Matter is number 1, connected to life, number 2, mind, number 3, and spirit, number 4; spirit, however, is a doubtful box, represented by broken lines.  It has been rendered “metaphysical.”

As an aside, one might see links between Uberoi’s schema for describing the levels of existence with Sri Aurobindo’s earlier gradation of consciousness from matter, to life, to mind, to what lies beyond. But what interested me most when I first thought of this paper was the interesting intersection between Raja Rao’s and Uberoi’s thought. And at that intersection lay the enemy they both held in common, duality.

Raja Rao states his position quite unequivocally:

There are, it seems to me, only two possible perspectives on human understanding: the horizontal and (or) the vertical. They could also be named the anthropomorphic and the abhuman. The vertical movement is the sheer upward thrust toward the unnameable, the unutterable, the very source of wholeness. The horizontal is the human condition expressing itself, in terms of concern for man as one’s neighbour—biological and social, the predicament of one who knows how to say, I and you.

The vertical rises slowly, desperately, to move from the I to the non-I, as non-dual Vedanta would say—the move towards the impersonal, the universal (though there is no universe there, so to say) reaching out to ultimate being—where there is just being there are no two entities, no I, and, you….

The horizontal again, on its long, arduous and confused pathways will reach the same ultimacy by divesting the I of its many vestments through concern for the other, by compassion for the other: “The vertical then is the inhereent reality in the horizontal…” (140). Or again:

There are only two pathways to looking at the world: the causal way or the unpredictable: or to use my metaphor . . . the horizontal or the vertical . . . In the context of Indian philosophy, we could say, either there is duality or non-duality. (192)

In other words, for Raja Rao, “There are indeed no horizontal solutions, the human has no answer ever.” (190) Locating this contrast in a trans-civilizational dialogue with Andre Malrauz, Raja Rao quotes the latter as saying, “You remember what Dostoevsky said: Europe is a cemetery of ideas—Yes, we cannot go beyond good and evil. We can never go, as the Indians can, beyond duality.” (51) The dukkha, the deep sorrow that we experience as human beings, is therefore nothing other than the story of duality, the sorrow of time, process, grown, decay, causality, contingency, in a word, the sorrow of the horizontal. For Raja Rao, “In the dissolution of the object, then is happiness.” (83) The dissolution of the object, of the world itself is only possible by the negation of the self that sees the world as separate from itself.  Upon the negation of that self, the whole world is reduced to its primal state of pure consciousness, Advaita.

So, for Raja Rao, duality characterizes earthly life as such; that is why mere duality or mere mundane existence is a curse:

For the world is war—the war of the opposites. Good and bad, night and ay, man and woman, are all, as it were at war with each other, in the sense that the two things can never be at harmony—harmony is always transcendence. (84)

The world, which is duality, which is the war of opposites, craves for peace, a peace that comes only from dissolution or transcendence: “Thus transcendence is man’s only need. In transcendence there is neither man nor woman, day nor night. . . .” (85) The purpose of the world is to lead us to transcendence. Every object, in other words, points by its very partiality and limitations to that from which it arises for the time being and to that in which it dissolves upon its true cognition—the Absolute, the Ultimate Reality. The aim of life, according to this view, is “the abolition of duality, of contradiction—and of the peace it should bring to one.” (7) India, in this scheme of things, is “not a country (desa), it is a perspective (darsana).” (17) And the meaning of India is “Knowledge, Jnana, itself the ‘I’” (194) as the last page of the book affirms.

Departing from Raja Rao a bit, I would say that though duality, in one form or another, might be perennial to the human condition, modernity imposes upon us a special kind of duality.    

II:  Beauty

Even when I first thought of this paper, it was very clear to me that beauty, saundarya, could only be considered as part of a larger world view, not as an end in itself. This was especially true if we were to locate its importance in the classical traditions of India. In fact, I wasn’t sure why we were focussing so intently on this concept in the first place. I got the answer to this question after I read Harsha V. Dehejia’s Parvati Darpana. This is an exquisite little book, a personal as well as a philosophical narrative. Embedded in it is a subtle suggestion that the true end of life, happiness or satisfaction, can never be achieved unless we aestheticise our lives. Dehejia, in accordance with Kashmir Saivism, calls this state visranti, or true restfulness:

The all-important concept of visranti of Kashmir Saivism is a rich and full epistemic rest, it is the rest that comes at the culmination of a joyful activity, it is the pleasurable stillness that succeeds the excitement of orgasm, it is the silence that follows speech and yet contains within it all sounds, it is the glow of resful knowledge that seeks knowledge no more, it is the serenity of self-awareness that need now look outward anymore, but only inward to enjoy that awareness, it is the stillness of self-reflection, it is the freedom of consciousness turning in on itself, it is the beauty of a cosmic vision, it is the glory and majesty of visvarupa. (83)

Contrary to Raja Rao’s essentially Advaitic and transcendentalist view, Dehejia argues that “this visranti is not the contentless nirvikalpa jnana of Sankara or the sunyata of Nagarjuna but a rich and primal subjectivity driven by its objectivity reflecting on itself” (ibid). So, it is for a fulfillment of and through the senses that Dehejia stakes his claim, though he does not deny that the ultimate object remains transcendence. No transcendence is possible by negating or bypassing the senses. It is only through the mundane and the sensual that the trans-mundane and the supra-sensual may be attained. In this respect, Dehejia’s point of view is Tantric, not Vedantic.

In Dehejia’s advocacy of the satisfaction of the senses, the aesthetic principle plays a very important role. Aestheticising one’s life would mean to surround oneself with objects of beauty. Apprehending them, the senses find their satisfaction and the mind is contented. That is why, it seems to me, Saundarya plays such an important role in Dehejia’s view. At this point I must share a discussion I had with him during which I asked him, “What about those who cannot afford to aestheticize their lives?”  He replied with characteristic candour and bluntness: “Well, they should do bhakti.”  What this meant, at least to me, was that in the modern context, only an adept, a rasika, could enjoy objects of beauty. Traditionally, of course, this was not true because of the beauty inherent in objects of daily use which were hand-made and reflected the perennial artistry of the folk. But after the industrial revolution, the cultivation of taste has always been the prerogative of a few. It presupposes an elitism either of an economic or intellectual kind. So, saundarya and its pursuit, do, in effect, become elitist pursuits, exclusive to a certain class of people in recent times. But because a theory of beauty cannot be restricted to just a few, Dehejia suggests a way out for the rest of society: bhakti. Bhakti or devotion does not require lots of money.  Nor does it necessitate the surrounding of ourselves with objects of beauty. Bhakti requires a certain emotional and mental temperament, which even without ample material resources, can launch the practitioner in a real of sensual and supra-sensual experience that is akin to the rasasvadana of the connoisseur. The image that instantly sprang to my mind during our discussion at Harshabhai’s very beautiful home in Ottawa was of the kirtankars in the Mumbai local trains. Living in distant suburbs in wretched surroundings, they still managed to convert their daily commute of a couple of hours into an aesthetic experience by singing bhajans together. The artistic quality of their worship is variable and its effect on non-participants probably not too salutary, but for those absorbed in the ritual, the otherwise tiresome, crowded, even dehumanizing daily journey is suddenly rendered bearable, if not pleasant. From what I understood of Harshabhai’s views, saundarya was for those who could afford it while bhakti was for everyone. A corollary of this view is that saundarya is secondary, if not irrelevant to bhakti. The intensity of the devotee’s emotions is able to transform his or her state of mind to something similar to what the rasika experiences regardless of subjects or objects of the devotion.

Interestingly, the second half of Harshabhai’s ideas is quite similar to the traditional construction of classical Indian aesthetics by theorists like Ananda Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy says that the Hindu view “treats the practice of art as a form of yoga, and identifies aesthetic emotion with that felt when the self perceives the Self.” (41) If, as Coomaraswamy argues, such a view is predicated on an anti-positivist epistemology, then the objects of saundarya are of little importance:

Throughout the East, wherever Hindu and Buddhist thought have deeply penetrated, it is firmly believed that all knowledge is directly accessible to the concentrated and ‘one-pointed’ mind, without the direct intervention of the senses. (46)

Indeed Coomaraswamy asserts that the purpose of the imager—and by extension, the artist—“was neither self-expression nor the realisation of beauty . . . if there is beauty in his work, this did not arise from aesthetic intention, but from a state of mind which found unconsciou expression.” (47) Nor is it that beautiful themes lead to beautiful works for “the quality of beauty in a work of art is really quite independent of its theme;” (47) in fact, those who deliberately set out “to paint a beautiful picture” may be surprised to find that the result “is insipid and lacks conviction.” (47) 

In “Hindu View of Art: Theoretical,” Coomaraswamy reverts to this theme.  Citing Dhananjaya’s Dasharupa, he asserts that “Beauty is absolutely independent of the sympathetic—‘Delightful or disgusting, exalted or lowly, cruel or kindly, obscure or refined, (actual) or imaginary, there is no subject that cannot evoke rasa in man.’” (54) Not only is the aesthetic experience not derived from “material qualities” but is quite independent of them and may even, “as Dhananjaya says, be derived in spite of sensuous or moral displeasure.” (55) What is more, “The tasting of rasa—the vision of beauty—is enjoyed, says Vishvanatha, ‘only by those who are competent thereto.’” (55) In Sahitya Darpana, Viswanatha observes:

Pure aesthetic experience is theirs in whom the knowledge of beauty is innate; it is known intuitively, in intellectual ecstasy without accompaniment of ideation, at the highest level of conscious being; born of one mother with the vision of god, its life is as it were a flash of blinding light of transmundane origin, impossible to analyze, and yet in the image of our very being. (III, 2–3; quoted in Shah 40)

But, though the aesthetic experience is supersensuous, it cannot dispense entirely with objects:

We can no more achieve Beauty than we can find Release by turning our backs on the world: we cannot find our way by a mere denial of things, but only in learning to see those things as they really are, infinite or beautiful. The artist reveals this beauty wherever the mind attaches itself: and the mind attaches itself, not directly to the Absolute, but to objects of choice.” (59)

In Coomaraswamy, as in Dehejia, the object is important, but only provisionally in that it leads to the state of pure enjoyment, which, by definition is out of time and space. We are reminded here of the great treatise Abhinavabharati which clearly states that:

The artistic expression is the direct expression of a feeling of passion generalised—that is freed from distinctions in time or space and, therefore, from individual and practical interest through an inner force of creative intuition within the artist. This state of consciousness (rasa) embodied in the poem, is transferred to the actor, the dancer, the spectator. Born in the heart of the poet, it flowers as it were in the actor and bears fruit in the spectator.

If the artist of the poet has the creative intuition, the reader or spectator is emotionally educated man, in whom lie dormant the different states of being and when he sees them manifested, he is lifted to that ultimate state of bliss, known as ananda. (Kapila Vatsyayan’s translation cited in Shah 49)

This view of the object as leading to a state beyond itself may be contrasted with Raja Rao’s declaration that “In the dissolution of the object, then is happiness.” (83)

I would like to turn to one final essay by Coomaraswamy before leaving him and this issue of beauty behind. In “That Beauty Is a State,” Coomaraswamy once again declares that beauty is an aesthetic term, having to do with whether a work of art is rasavant, full of rasa, or not. Beauty does not have to do with our sympathetic or ethical response to the work, but only to our aesthetic response. In other words, “beauty may be discovered [my emphasis] anywhere” (65) even if it may not be present everywhere: “in aesthetic contemplation as in love and in knowledge, we momentarily recover the unity of our being released from individuality.” (68–69) The ultimate artist of critic, by this logic, is the sage or the mystic, who apprehends absolute beauty in whatever he or she sees, like Kabir who “reveals the Supreme Spirit wherever the mind attaches itself.” (70)

From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that beauty or saundarya is not a cardinal principle or aesthetic category in classical Indian traditions. Instead, aesthetic delight or rasa and ananda or the bliss of both artistic and spiritual relish are, of course, more important. Beauty, moreover, is neither inherent in the work or art nor is it the goal of either the artist or the critic. As an aesthetic experience, beauty may also be found in that which is not beautiful in a conventional sense. In any case, the object, whether beautiful or otherwise, is a means, not the end of either the creative or the critical process. Either the object is “dissolved” in the cauldron of consciousness or transcended as in extreme versions of Vedanta or Buddhism, or the object is transformed and sanctified as in Tantra and Bhakti. In either case, the aesthetic experience, which is akin to a mystical experience, is of a non-contingent, ahistorical and nonspatial kind; it is outside the bounds of normal space time or process.

III  Modernity

The best place to begin my meditation on modernity is M. K. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909). As we think back to its context, it seems clear that what Gandhi wanted to offer was not just a clarification of his own ideas and positions, but a blueprint for what could be termed an alternation. This nation would not follow the same path as modern European nation-states, but would embody and actualize a different civilizational orientation. For Gandhi, India was tyrannized not just by imperialism, but by modernity; indeed, the former, to him, was just a special version of the latter.  Gandhi rejected modern civilization as a system that was evil and immoral precisely because its main tendency was not to direct its citizens to virtue but to pleasure: “people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life” (32).  Its institutions and machinery were programmed not to enhance but to diminish the human spirit.  According to Gandhi, “This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion” (33); on the contrary, “immorality is often taught in the name of morality” (ibid). It encourages the multiplication of human wants and the means it provided for satisfying these wants are exploitative, violent, and ecologically disastrous. In fact, it “seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so.” (ibid) True civilization, for Gandhi

is that mode of conduct which point out to man the path to duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves. The Gujarati equivalent for civilization [sudharo] means “good conduct.”  (55)

It is easy to see how the key tenets of what Gandhi considers a good civilization, with elements such as observance of duty, mastery over the mind, restraint of the senses—all leading to self-knowledge, derive from such traditional texts as the Bhagawad Gita. Gandhi sums up his critique by asserting that

The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of the Western civilization is to propagate immorality. The latter is godless, the former is based on a belief in God. So understanding and so believing, it behoves every lover of India to cling to the old Indian civilization even as a child clings to the mother’s breast. (57)

Thus, to Gandhi, traditional Indian civilization encouraged piety, virtue, and simplicity. It was a God-centric, not Mammon-centric civilization, which made it inherently non-violent, whereas violence and Godlessness were a part of the structural logic of modernity.

While it is impossible and unnecessary to engage with the whole of the Gandhian project here, I think I can safely say that if self-knowledge is one of the major goals of civilization, modern Western civilization has not lagged far behind.  However, and this is the moot point, the self whose knowledge they have sought and obtained is a self quite different from our traditional notions. In fact, under modernity we have an unprecedented level and intensity of introspection in literature, art, philosophy, and the social sciences. The scale and magnitude and detail of this introspection are so vast that it would impossible not to take it properly into account before venturing any assessment of modern Western civilization. On the other issue of whether Indian civilization encourages morality and the conduct of one’s duties, again, a hundred years after Gandhi, we cannot be so sure. The peculiar postcolonial state in which we live today certainly does not seem to be conducive to morality or right conduct, either in the public or in the private sphere. Going back to the purusharthas, Gandhi’s critique of modernity seems to be based primarily on dharmic considerations. He dismisses entirely the great advances made by the West in the spheres of artha and kama. As M. P. Rege adds, “Gandhiji seems to ignore the intellectual and aesthetic sides of civilization.” (89) Today, it is not possible for us to ignore those achievements; simple living and high thinking no longer seem to suffice for most of us. A more integrated idea of human development, which addresses all levels of human aspirations in the manner of Sri Aurobindo’s thought, seems to be closer to our ideals.

It is amply clear, then, that the kind of society that Gandhi envisaged is far from realized in present day India. But can we say that the contrary is therefore true—that we have become a modern nation?  Few, I think, would accept the latter proposition either. If anything, what we see in India is a project of arrested decolonization and blocked development. This is a society which perplexes and exasperates both traditionalists and modernizers. Traditionalists would argue for the self-sufficiency of Indian traditions. Like Gandhi, they would say that we have little that is of essential importance to learn from the West. What is more, a healthy tradition already has in-built into it a critical component, which allows it to innovate and transform itself ceaselessly. To that extent, the modern is only a sub-category, not the antithesis of tradition. On the other hand, modernizers, including hard-line Marxists, would argue that without a total destruction of tradition, including its ideology, institutions, and way of life, no real progress is possible. 

These tradition-modernity debates, in their various forms and guises, have penetrated nearly every discourse that has emanated from India during the last 200 years or so. In their “hard” versions, the two positions are incommensurable.  However, both at the level of lived reality and at the level of ideas, we find interesting hybridities or co-existences in nearly all areas of life. It is clear that the “softer” versions of both theses are not just mutually compatible, but a certain schizophrenic, if not properly resolved adjustment between the two is to be found everywhere.  Perhaps, it is this unique and vibrant compromise that best defines the nature of Indian postcoloniality.

I would like to suggest, however, that this debate falsifies, in a fundamental way, the real issue that modernity raises for us in India.  In that sense, the shift from the quarrel between happy traditionalists and happy modernizers to unhappy traditionalists and unhappy modernizers cannot, fundamentally, be considered a step forward. Ashis Nandy expressed this move quite elegantly when he said:

Today, the battle of minds rarely involves a choice between modernity and traditions in the pure forms. The ravages of the former are known and, if the past cannot be resurrected by only owned up, pure traditions too are a choice not given to us. Ultimately, the choice is between critical modernism and critical traditionalism—it is a choice between two frames of reference and two worldviews. (415)

While I would agree with Ashisda that there are indeed multiple frames and worldviews available to us to day as they contend for hegemony, I am not sure that his own work has gone in the direction of critical traditionalism. Instead, what I see is an easier way out, that of critiquing the dominant. The danger is that dissent is not only a socially and intellectually sanctioned part of the dominant, but it is totally dependent on the latter for its material and spiritual sustenance. This is not to dismiss dissent out of hand, but simply to suggest that it is still locked into an unholy, if oppositional, alliance with the dominant. In the end all that such dissent demonstrates is that there is no life outside the dominant. I would instead suggest that the way out is neither tradition nor modernity, neither domination nor dissent, neither rationality nor antirationality, neither history nor myth, but something else, something that can be both and neither, as the occasion demands. What I am suggesting or advocating is not necessarily a post-modern eclecticism or a trendy relativism, but an alternate category to the deadly duel of the binaries.

If I were to explain this category with reference to the issue of modernity, I would simply say that India is not necessarily traditional as opposed to the modern West, but that we are simply non-modern people. “Non” is meant to suggest a radical difference that refuses to be subsumed under affirmation or negation. This position can also be worked out with reference to postmodernity. Postmodernity denotes a variety of styles of thought and practice. Some of these are distinctly anti-rationalist, while others may be considered neo-rationalist. As opposed to rationality or its opposite, irrationality, we might posit something that includes and supercedes rationality, as we know it. We might call it wisdom or gnosis or prajna or jnana—all these connote neither instrumental rationality nor anti-rationality, but something that is at once less than rationality and more than rationality. Of course, it is not very clear how this gnosis, once it is enthroned—if that happens—will translate itself into political, social, and cultural institutions and practices. Perhaps, none of this will happen until a new science, with its concomitant technology emerges—a science is neither so violent nor exploitative as present day science is. At any rate, it is this third pole, often implied and rarely stated clearly, which to me suggests some kind of way forward.

From such a perspective, Indian modernisms in various arts and sciences and in their multitudinous disciplinary formations might be read anew not so much as examples or produces of a colonized consciousness, but attempts at responding to the modern from an alternate centre. In the West, the reaction against the dominant can only result in another version of it, but in India I would suggest that it would become a part of the self-expressions of the non-modern. That is why modern Indian art or modern Indian poetry is not modern in quite the same way as modern European art or poetry is. I had earlier attributed this difference to derivativeness, imitation, and cultural subjection, but now think I am mistaken. It is impossible to think of the leading intellectual or cultural figures of the last 200 years merely as imitators or importers. I think we can see them as being in a critical dialogue with themselves and with the West. This is as true of the Bengal school of artists as of those modernists who superceded them. We might apply a similar argument to understand Indian postmodernism. While several techniques and styles might be borrowed or assimilated, the final artistic or cultural produce engages critically with both its sources and its targets.

Almost ten years back, while working on an anthology of Indian English poetry, I had argued that modern Indian English poetry was inauthentic because while it had adapted the discourse of modernism for its purposes, it was not born out of what might be termed the modern condition as it obtained in the West. I was attacked presumably from the standpoint that the modern condition, however we might define it, is universal and not local to Europe. As opposed to this a well-known professor from JNU was known to assert that “there are no cities in India.” Why asked why he said this, he replied, “Show me one city in Europe or North America where you see cattle roaming about the streets!” This sounds like a Sardarji joke, but even if we don’t agree that the presence or absence of cows defines urbanization, we cannot help but affirm, even intuitively, that Indian “cities” are indeed very different from European or North American ones. The point is that material conditions and discursive conditions need not always have the same causal relationships. In Europe, we might argue that the former determines the latter, but in India, what is epiphenomenal to Europe actually assumes a causal role! In other words, we talk about postmodernism—or whatever is after that—in India not because we are in a condition that might be termed postmodern, but because the dominant discourse in the West is being conducted along these lines.

Earlier, I had taken this as a sign of our intellectual inferiority and colonization, but recently I have begun to wonder if it is not actually something else, something quite different. After all, our engagement in these discourses is selective, if not half-hearted. This is something askance in our whole stance. Only some of us succeed in demonstrating “native-like” fluency in these latest discourses, while the rest are clearly marked, both by choice and by default, as non-native, third-world, postcolonial, or what have you. It is almost as if we were posing the modern and the postmodern to save ourselves from the imposing of the dominant discourses. This posing I had earlier taken to be a weakness, a symptom of inferiority, but lately I have begun to recognize in it a genuine position. To that extent, the playfulness and eclecticism of postmodernism were already available to us during our own modernist phase. Consequently, we might legitimately argue that we were always already postmodern not only because we were never fully modern, but also because we had absorbed the language of modernity without having arrived at the condition of modernity.

In India, this surfeit of cultural input and output adds up to what I call the non-modern. The non-modern demonstrates a fluency in the vocabulary of the modern, while never acceding to the modern condition totally. The gap between reality and language, between the socio-cultural and the intellectual, between base and superstructure, between them and us is therefore never bridged totally. This gap produces not just a doubling or a hybridity that Homi Bhabha speaks of, but a critical distance, an alternative viewpoint that may be termed neither traditional, nor anti-modern, but non-modern. Our present, in other words, is in constant critical dialogue with our past and our future. Spatially, this is the dialogue between the metropolis on the one hand and the Indian heartland, with its rich artistic repertoire, mediated through what might be termed the modern sector that all of us occupy and in which a seminar like this is sustainable.

The non-modern, however, is not just a plural space that denotes the absence of a master-narrative. It is not merely characterized by a surplus of styles and practices, whether of thought or action, art or craft, sacred or secular. The non-modern, in other words, is not defined just the absence of a dominant centre that defines and controls; it is not merely a shrine in which the idol has removed, a polity or culture presided over by an absent authority. That would be the negative or emergency response of the non-modern. Under threat, what is at its centre may fragment and scatter, leaving a chaotic or anarchic arena of confused contentions and frustrated possibilities. When such a society recoups and regroups its resources, what emerges at the centre is not an absence nor the logocentric and oppressive presence that a Derrida so derides, but something that allows rationality and plurality, a non-violent, integrative wisdom, if you will, which allows for both material and spiritual elevation, for opportunity and equity. Modernity and its discontents cannot be addressed satisfactorily by replacing it with postmodernity or anti-modernity, just as the ills of tradition cannot be cured by substituting it by modernity. To those who find it increasingly difficult to describe India as a traditional society, I would simply suggest that even if it is not traditional, it is still non-modern.

The postmodern replaces the beautiful with the cute. Votaries of tradition, the rasikas, are appalled. They throw up their hands in despair and ask, “How to restore beauty to its rightful place in the scheme of things?” The Advaitin replies, “Dissolve the cute, just as you would the beautiful; both are phenomenal; there is no peace in the world, therefore transcend it.” The Tantric would say, “Use the ugly to reach the beautiful; transform this world, don’t renounce it.” Both these responses are valid, but only in a generalized, non-substantial way. The real question is what sort of cultural products do these two responses produce? Are these conducive to aesthetic delight or not? The whole is no doubt holy, but is the fragment necessarily profane? A fragmentary beauty is better than none; to that extent, Harshabhai’s programme of aestheticizing daily life cannot be given up. But at the macro level, what the trajectory of the non-modern discovers remains to be seen.

The primary distinction between modernity as a condition and modernity as a discourse allows us to play a critical part in the contemporary world, though we may remain non-modern in our overall civilizational orientation. The special kind of dualism that modernity establishes, of course, remains a problem. But, what is really crucial is this:  it is not, except indirectly and tangentially, our problem. We can let the West sort it out by themselves, perhaps offering a few meaningful interventions now and then. The absence of beauty in our lives can be attributed only partially to the pains of modernity. Its real source is elsewhere—it is born out of bad governance, moral and material corruption, environmental and ecological pollution, and large-scale disaffection. These problems arise not so much out of modernity as out of postcoloniality. Many of these problems have to do basically with too rapid a growth of population and the inability of our systems to cope with this explosive increase.

Yet, the limited autonomy or svaraj that we have attained since independence cannot be dismissed or rejected. It does provide some scope for recuperation and reaffirmation.  If Truth and Ananda remain major goals for us, we need to find out own ways of pursuing and expressing them. Beauty, which is neither a cardinal aim of human life, nor a central component of our artistic theory, will, willy-nilly, find it expression in what we do. I can quickly see two ways in which this may happen. One is by bracketing the beautiful by keeping out that which is ugly, disorderly, or painful.  Enclosed and protected spaces, which create their own special ambience of beauty, such a auditoriums or performance centres are just one example. On a larger scale, planned multi-art complexes, arts and crafts villages, even entire neighbourhoods or cities can serve as examples. The other, harder task of ensuring that beauty is in the very genetic code of our institutions and enterprises very far from realization. There is a cosmetic beauty than can be added as an embellishment to some, but the deeper beauty of the spirit is another thing. As a civilization regains its strength and vitality, it begins once more to put express and assert its fundamental tenets. To that extent these are exciting times of both challenge and possibility for us in India.

Works Cited

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. Bombay

Asia Publishing House, 1952.

Dehejia, Harsha. Parvatidarpana: An Exposition of Kasmir Saivism through the Images Of Siva and Parvati. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1977.

Gandhi, M. K. Hind Swaraj. 1909; Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1998.

Nandy, Ashis. “Cultural Frames for Social Intervention: A Personal Credo.” Indian Philosophical Quarterly. 11.4. (October 1984). 411–421.

Rao, Raja. The Meaning of India. New Delhi: Vision Books, 1997.

Rege, M. P. “‘Svaraj in Ideas’ and Hind Swaraj Reconsidered.” New Quest. 143. (January–March 2001). 65–91.

Shah, Ramesh Chandra. Ancestral Voices: Four Lectures Towards a Philosophy of Imagination. London: The Temenos Academy, 2001.











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