Every time we talk of aesthetics in art, we must ask if it is empathetic and free from its social conditioning.

Whose aesthetic is it anyway Why classical arts must become more inclusiveSwarnamalya Ganesh
news Opinion Friday, April 26, 2019 - 11:50

The dance and music season in Chennai is a time to soak in culture. But often one has to ask whose culture or what culture it is. 

To me as a practitioner, and hence an insider, this season has been about reflecting on the markers of what is perceived as culture. The headline for a piece on singer Vijayasiva in The Hindu, published on December 1, 2018, was “Traditionalist to the core”(accent added). One felt the title revealed a great sense of angst and trepidation about change, along with a sense of relief amidst the core connoisseurs and performing fraternity that someone is sticking to the norm. The title almost announced to the rasika, that the artiste’s creativity is within the confines of what they are familiar with and that he respects accepted boundaries. 

At a lecture-demonstration on the influence of the Carnatic musical trinity (Saint Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri) on their disciples, the scholar presented ragas as were rendered in the times of the trinity and even pre-trinity. A rasika squirmed in his seat upon hearing the unfamiliar phrases within the familiar ragas and during the Q and A, he voiced his deep concern about traditions being dismissed. Never mind that what was presented, pre-dated the current phraseologies of that raga, and was thus perhaps more traditional. It nonetheless “shook the core of the aesthetics of art,” he panicked. 

To appreciate art, one must grasp the aesthetic sensibilities upon which it is mounted. These are tastes which subscribe to certain norms and structures that were developed consciously. Between Bharata, Bhamaha, Dandin, Vamana, Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, they defined the aesthetic value of art as appreciation of beauty (Soundarya), experience of appreciation (Rasa) and suggestion as centrality of art (Dhvani). 

But how do we define what is beautiful? Is it not a subjective and constantly changing value? 

What is ‘beautiful’ today?

Much of the current ideas of aesthetics within the classical arts, emerged on the lines of late colonial and post-colonial moral and social compass. Where, once multiple ideas of beauty and artistry co-existed, with the advent of modern stage performance, the paradigm shifted to distil from this large pool, only what was felt necessary and fit.

Every aspect of stage performance, for instance, the text of the music, languages, rendition, voice modulation, stage setting and costuming for dance, went through a so called process of “refinement”. The post-colonial practitioners believed that eschewing more popular and colloquial practices would pedestal the art. Pedestal it did, by removing the lay person far from art, dubbing her unfit to understand the nuances. This was as much a self goal at losing relevance and patronage for classical art amidst the larger public, as it was hegemonic.

Those who pass through this social filter become rasikas and performers, often acting as custodians of aesthetic values. When an artiste attempts to question or push boundaries, these gatekeepers ring the alarm bells about "cultural carnage". Acceptance depends on the artiste’s social capital rather than textual references to aesthetics. If any artistic endeavour looks radical (read non-confirmist), it gets pushed into the skeptic “contemporary” category. It is mercilessly critiqued and even ridiculed, if the artiste does not “belong”. But of course, if the attempt is by a well-accepted artiste, the norm itself often shifts to accommodate it.

On social privilege

Shifting of art practice from the hands of traditional custodians to institutions brought with it a host of jaundiced arguments in favour of institutional learning such as better disciple, form and pedagogical methods, furthermore to the virtues of respectability. At the Natya Darshan conference this year, one senior dancer while analysing her own teaching trajectory, announced that her first guru, who hails from the Nattuvanar parampara, would ask her to slap the feet firmly on the floor with the sounds “paleer paleer”. She then quipped, “But I was inspired later by the refinement I found in executing this movement by another guru” who belongs to front ranking institutionalised teaching. 

She made a clear distinction in the two pedagogical approaches, in qualitative terms. Even if done unwittingly, she had placed judgement and devalued her guru from the traditional family of artistes. 

Image: Baroda Devadasi dancers - Gauriammal and Kanthimathi; Courtesy: Swarnamalya Ganesh

Prof Lakshmi Subramanian in her keynote address at the same conference observed that the archives of dance are “embodied”. That being the fact, what was once appreciated from multiple aesthetic values and from various legacies, has been systematically funnelled into a singular institutionalised model of aesthetic. This has whitewashed plurality and preached a myopic view of beauty thus, marginalising the value of several art forms, traditional practices and artistes, leading to endangering their survival and erasing much of our intangible cultural heritage.

A willful blindness? 

At the annual Natya Kala Conference, one of the sessions was on caste, gender and privilege in the performing arts.  The general view that emanated from the panel was that casteism does not exist, at least in its blatant form in the performing arts. Dance in particular, does not actively practice caste or any discrimination, they said.

Is that true? Notions of aesthetics dictate the dancer to appear in certain specific manners, speak a certain language, behave and dress a certain way. Let's take, for instance, the standardisation of the stitched costumes in pure silk and kemp jewelleries that dancers wear. These have become placeholders for refinement, the more expensive your silk looks, the more likely that you will be taken seriously. Your acceptance largely depends on these accoutrements, even if you happen to be a good dancer otherwise. If you wear a china silk costume, non kemp jewels or wear louder makeup for instance, you run the risk of  being cast out as unrefined. 

This is emblematic of a larger problem of inherent inequality. Where is our understanding of the varying economic capital of artistes when we make such expensive norms? Do we consciously break notions and make someone, say dancing in a china silk costume, feel accepted? Do we include everyone’s idea of culture in our practice? Where is empathy? Therefore, to think of someone or some other form as equal and for them to actually be equal are two different things.

The fact that we deliberately create a singular aesthetic value and measure all artistes and their work by that standard, that we deny parallel aesthetic traditions as valuable, make the world of classical arts intimidating and frustrating.

We must make the arts a place of better access. Let us bear in mind that for this, we have to address the social value of integrating ethics with aesthetic value. Every time we talk of aesthetics in art, we must ask if it is empathetic and free from its social conditioning. If we are not consciously inclusive, we are in essence exclusionary.

Views expressed author's own

Swarnamalya Ganesh is a well-known practitioner of Sadir, dance historian and Professor of Practice, Krea University. Write your feedback to her at swarnamalya@gmail.com.

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