The True Spirit of Art
Dr.Smt. Rukmini Devi
Full text of the T. R. Venkatarama Sastri Endowment Lecture for 1950, delivered under the auspices of the South Indian National Association, Madras.
Reprinted from “Triveni”
Vol. XXXI, No. 4: Jan 1951
According to my conception, the true spirit of Art comes not from a knowledge of Art alone but from a knowledge of Truth and from possessing the true religious spirit. I say this because the source of all knowledge and inspiration is one. It does not matter whether by Religion we mean a faith, a philosophy, a system of ethics, as long as we agree that the religious spirit is primarily a spirit of dedication. The true spirit of Art is something which can be contacted only by those who have this dedicated spirit. So is Art a sense of aspiration, a reaching out. Some may think that Art is Beauty and, being concerned with the expression of Beauty in a material world, is a matter of Form before anything else. According to me, Beauty is Form as well as inspiration, because the spirit of the Beautiful which comes down to expression is the spirit of inspiration. Many have said that Art is Religion. This should not be taken to mean that Art is another kind of a Religion but it certainly is the essence of Religion – the same inspiration is behind it. So it is that in the case of the artist, the sense of dedication, the sense of tremendous aspiration towards spiritual life becomes Beauty.
In the world today, people talk much about understanding the value of Beauty and Art without knowing fully what it means. Most people really do not know what Art is. They have, of course, a theoretical idea about the place of Art in national life. They give it a high plane in the national consciousness. Our present Government, for example, has the avowed intention of encouraging all kinds of folk Art, folk dancing, etc. But the conception most people have of Art is very superficial because it is mostly based on book knowledge. At the same time, while calling something very superficial by the name of Art, they are prepared to do anything for it. In reality, such an attitude is similar to that of a man who says, “I am a learned man because I have read many books and know them all by heart”. But it is the identification with the spirit of knowledge that is contained in books that makes a man learned, not the mere committing of words to memory.
It is the same with Art. Many say they are artists but only a few are. It is aspiration, it is that inner conception of the true spirit of Art which is the real heart and the most important force in the human individual, that makes the artist. Take a great musician like Tiger Varadachariar. Those who have listened to him periodically will say, “He could sing a magnificent number of Ragas”. Others will acknowledge and admire his marvelous repertoire of Kshetraya Padams and of Thyagaraja Kritis. All this is quite true; but suppose Tiger had forgotten them all or had never known them; then the general opinion would have been that he was quite a nice man but that he did not know much. The usual conception or judgment on such matters is founded on the extent of an artist’s knowledge and not on the feeling one gets of his contact with reality. As a matter of fact, it is this feeling of contact that is important. A very great individual, a great personality, gives on the feeling that he is in touch with something real. Such a person can even make mistakes which lesser personalities can ill afford to make. Tiger could make mistakes in Tala which in his disciples would mean only insufficient training. A very great poet may sometimes write verse which sounds appallingly like nonsense. In a lesser writer, such a poem would really mean nonsense because he depends for effect upon form – words, correctness, etc. In a great poet, whatever be the mistakes in form, he still gives the impression of a contact with reality. This is because he has touched the Truth, he has contacted light.
Ordinary people do not know how to judge artists. With all the present day craze for dance and music, we see how judgments and criticism are superficial. If a dancer is fair, the dance is good. If, in addition, she wears many jewels, the dance is still better. The same levels of judgment obtain also in the case of music and musicians. In the West, on the whole, the general level of Art appreciation is better. Because of this, over there, they have a certain understanding of genius and know how to forgive a genius his peculiarities. They will say, “Well, anyhow, he has something in him”.
For a singer ordinarily, mostly so in the West, the voice is a most important factor. Of course, the voice is an important factor in India, too. But such a preoccupation with the voice of the singer can, in some cases, lead to a position where the voice becomes more important than the music. It is very hard to put up with a harsh voice. But there may be a musical element in a singer who has a harsh voice which may be beautiful and well worth while to contact. The music is in the soul of the singer and it expresses itself in beauty, whether or not the voice does it full credit. This is because the spirit of Art – the creative spirit – is a very remarkable thing. This spirit is independent of Form in one sense; in the sense that, often, it expresses itself even in imperfect Form, as in the case of the poet who may write good poetry which, from a formal point of view, may contain many mistakes. Art as we know it is at the same time dependent on, as well as independent of, Form. In one sense, if Art is invisible, there is no Art at all. It has to be visible and so is bound to Form. How can human beings know music without sound? If a great musician were to say, “I have taken a vow of silence for the rest of my life. In future, silence will express my music”, it would be strange, even amusing, yet it is possible.
Nevertheless, expressed Art depends on Form whether in sculpture, architecture, or painting. Beautiful words are necessary in poetry to express noble ideas. Art, while it expresses itself in Form, transcends Form. The method of expressing oneself in the chosen Form of a particular Art is called its technique. The rules have to be learnt, but when they are learnt thoroughly then can be broken. Younger artists often like to break the rules, but really to be able to do so one must be a genius. What is a genius? Of course, from the Hindu point of view, genius is something that develops through a number of incarnations. Genius is creativeness of the soul. What is a creative person, what is creative Art? Creative Art is something that is eternally new, eternally different. A recognition that it is something ever fresh and new, leads to the misconception that it means variety. Mere variety does not mean creative Art, though many will say where there is variety there is creativeness. A creative artist can go on doing the same thing and yet it will never be the same. Each time, the creative impulse gives to the same Form a fresh, newly born atmosphere. Creative Art has variety but it does not need to have it. It can be something that is repeated over and over again and is yet ever fresh. It would sound like a paradox to say that, even in repeating, the one thing a creative artist cannot do is to repeat himself. A person who believes in variety, consciously promotes variety while an artist is concerned only with his creative spirit. In the creation of variety as such, there may be inventiveness, there may be talent. But talent is not genius.
In these days we are prone to mix up words and the facts behind the words. We think that talent is genius when it is not. A person can be very talented and still not be a genius. When artists have genius it becomes clear that all creative Arts belong to one spirit. That spirit becomes evident and expressed when an individual is able to contact the reality of an experience through a mind which is under the stress of a deep emotion. To be an artist, mind and emotion have both to be developed. The intellect, as ordinarily understood, is not necessarily needed for Art. I have myself seen this in the case of children who do not like books but are interested in, and can express themselves in, Art. Our ideas are very limited. We do not really know what intelligence is. Often we think that when we do not understand a person, she or he must be intelligent. When I was very young, sometimes I used to attend lectures delivered in English and I thought these lectures were marvelous because I did not understand one word. Now, the same thing happens to most of us in mature life. We are apt to be impressed by a thing just because we do not understand it. Intelligence really means a capacity for the perception of truth, of reality. In genius this very clear perception of the mind combines with a deep emotion which stirs the soul of him who contacts it. This emotion is not confined to one particular stimulus but is something which makes on sensitive to all experience, which makes one feel for everything.
In society, people often make a special effort to appear cultured in conversation. This is mostly so in the West where, in society, people have to have something to talk about. “What a lovely scene!” they say; “Have you read the latest book of such and such an author?”; “Oh! You are from India. It must be a very interesting country”, and so on. When I go to New Delhi I hear men and women talk in the same way. This is a reflection in India of the superficial side of Western civilization. But this has nothing to do with real culture which primarily is a keen perception in which there is deep emotion – a deep emotion tremendously responsive and making one expand. Beauty and Art make one feel as if a comb is drawn through the meshes of our being and fresh air is let in. This happens when one sees a beautiful thing, when one feels very much for a child or an animal. We are breathing deep, spiritually, when we feel a great emotion. This stirring up is tremendously important and this is one of the reasons why Art is important. Unless we know how to comb out our being so that we are ever fresh and revivified, we cannot respond and we cannot help people. The intellect by itself is cold and unresponsive like steel. But when beautiful emotion is mixed with intellect we are able to contact something which is deep and marvelous. The actual emotion of contact is something one cannot convey to others. Ask a great musician wherein lies the secret of his inspiration and he will reply he does not know. At the same time there has to be something within us to respond. We cannot really hear the Kalyani Raga and all its subtleties unless there is a deeply responsive element within us. That part of us which hears, sees, and responds has to be prepared for the reception of Art.
A very important thing in life is the stimulus of being with someone who knows a great deal about these subjects. Slowly one begins to feel and know also. This has been a part of my own experience. I have often been in contact with remarkable people who were specialists along lines which were not mine – Sir C. V. Raman, for example. It is so marvelous when he speaks about the diamond, and his inspiration has made me feel that the diamond is indeed something wonderful. I have felt the beauty of the diamond all the more. When one hears him, one wants to go in for scientific research also. One wants to be a great scientist like him. His ability to contact such an inspiration in the subject of his research makes on feel that he is also an artist. The stimulus of greatness is tremendously important. Many say they will and can study for themselves. This is a mistake. The presence of greatness in the Guru, the teacher, makes on contact the reality in the subject of study. When someone has make a deep study of certain books, those who come into contact with him also begin to feel the greatness of knowledge. Sometimes I have heard recitations from Shakespeare which have laid open to me the soul of the poet and made me wish I could recite as beautifully as some of these artists. When one has such contacts, one is inspired. Therefore, we should be with those who can give us such inspiration.
The real difficulty with genius, the creative spirit, the Truth, is that you cannot really explain what it is or teach another person to acquire it. You have to learn to contact it by imperceptible means. Art has to be contacted thus and it has a very special message. Art means Beauty although today anything passes for Art. Dancers think that if they do anything with their bodies it is beautiful. In the Art galleries of today we see many horrors labeled as modern Art. Certainly, in the future, such Art will be looked down upon. In India at present, there is a craze to copy this foolish phase.
Art means expressing beauty but we must remember that the unexpressed is also beautiful. Complete negation of movement is beautiful. Beauty is a very marvelous and cosmic thing. Human consciousness is on many planes. There is one part of it which is material and one which is divine. That part which is material belongs to the world of limitations. It is slow, tamasic, purely physical. So the mind is often physical, very concrete and narrow; but one sometimes comes across a mind that can fly to heaven. There are ordinary minds and spiritual minds. The spiritual is a God-like force. From my point of view, the Gods cannot speak too easily to humanity because humanity is very slow to understand. The Rishis and teachers have made great efforts to provide this contact through the Vedas, through poetry, through Religion, through beautiful and forceful language. They have tried to show us something of the other world. Does Art teach us something else? If it does, what is it that it attempts to teach? It teaches us the same thing that the Rishis have taught. It shows us a suggestion of the Heaven world and puts it at our feet. Would you like to know what the Devas are like? Look at a beautiful dance; it comes from the Devas. Do you want to see something that comes from the highest and yet belongs to the ordinary world, something marvelous that God has created? There is a flower right before your eyes.
Photo courtesy of Koviloor Swami (C. Nachiappan)
Art is something that, so to speak, is placed right at your feet. Here before your very eyes is your divine self. You think the artist is someone outside yourself. You yourself are the artist and a creation of Art is your own creation. You have it in you to create. You can make beautiful poetry, you can write a wonderful book, you can sing this song. You will say, “I cannot do any of these things. I am afraid even to attempt them”. How is it then that another human being like you can do them? This means you can do it also. Art is a direct message from the Higher to the lower. Beauty is the most perfect language there is. You want the divine to speak. But we are hearing the divine speaking always. If we know how to hear music, we are hearing the divine speak. All of us have heard, only we do not know. We have seen the Art of the divine – though we do not realize it when we have seen a great dancer. But then we may say, “she is after all a human being”. However, when she dances it is the divine spirit in her that dances and not the mere human body. If we learn to think this way, we will understand Art and its marvelous message. This divinity is a marvelous message to humanity – a direct gift. When we hear great music we feel so thrilled and stimulated that we feel we ourselves can create. If we really understand Art as a message of the Gods, then we will find that God Himself is Beauty. And the world should be filled with it. We must become God-like. We can do this. But we have to become filled with the spirit of pure Beauty, filled with a spirit of dedication. This means we have to expand emotionally and mentally so that we can enter into the spirit of Beauty, the spirit of Art, and be thrilled.
People often consider themselves ‘hardboiled,’ using that term in a complimentary sense. Actually it is an unfortunate confession, a very sad thing. If there is nothing on earth that thrills them, what a sad position they are in! Every person should be sensitive enough to be moved deeply by something. It is better even to be moved to tears than not to be moved at all. The capacity to respond to emotion means something more than being merely emotional. Every time you are really thrilled by something, I am quite sure it makes you grow and you will never again be quite so small as you were before. The difference before and after may not be very great, but if we go through such experience constantly and are constantly inspired, one day we will transcend the ordinary. Every individual has, at least to a small extent, the power to be inspired. If one is cold and hard, then inspiration means nothing. But if we are capable of being inspired, it means two things. Firstly, that there is someone who has the capacity to inspire and, secondly, that we have the capacity to respond. It means that we can respond to Beauty. To some extent, it is because there are people who can respond to Beauty that there is expressed Art, not entirely because there are artists alone. If nobody responds to music the singers will always have to sing to themselves. Therefore, the spirit that can respond to the revelation of a very great artist can also show you the way magnificently. When you contact such art, when you hear the sound of music or see the colors in a beautiful picture, you not only hear the music or see the picture; you see into the very soul of the artist and, even more, you see the soul of Art itself.
Art is a threefold message from the Highest, through the Spirit, technique and form. When an artist pours forth his inspiration, what is it we have? That which is inspiring in it is not the Form but the spirit. The spirit, of course, needs the Form for its expression. Form is necessary for the expression of Beauty – that Beauty which is Cosmic and which is the true spirit of Art. This Cosmic Beauty is like a very great river that comes down like a waterfall from the high mountains. This is Art. If we want to contact it we have to enter in to that greatness. We have to enter into the heart and the essence of Beauty. How are we to do it? Not merely by thinking of Form. Technique will come, will develop. Form will appear and shape itself even without effort. A person who is inspired is touched by the spirit which is eternal, a form which has no end. A picture can have a frame but the spirit goes beyond the frame. The form has limitations but in that limitation the spirit is seen and we begin to see everlasting Beauty. This is the work of Genius and is the essence of Art. Art goes together with the right kind of Religion. I have said this many times. There must be purity of action, purity of thought, purity of life, a true attitude to life, clear perception, sensitiveness to all things, a tenderness of feeling – above all, deep tenderness. Such tenderness of emotion is delicate emotion. The Art becomes spiritual and not the Art that is portrayed today. The dance I speak of is the dance of Sri Nataraja Himself. If we would understand His Art, we must learn to spell the word not only ART but also HEART. This is our way. We must put all our hearts and minds into it and a penetrating and keen intelligence, so that we are no more on the physical plane but on the plane of the Gods where the True Spirit of Art lives.
In India today, we have a great work to do for the revival of the spirit of Beauty. There is a consciousness of the place of Art – but there is a lack of understanding of Art itself. As we travel in India today and visit famous places we see monuments and temples in ruins. No traveler or educated Indian visits any place for sight seeing except to see relics of the old civilizations which are of either religious or historical interest. In India, with very rare exceptions, the religious and historical are combined. There is no history without Religion, nor monuments nor cities. This is a unique feature of India’s life. We have made our genius unique because Form is an embodiment of spirit, and we use no form that is not spiritual, nor is there any true life for us ordinary human beings without beauty of form. This is why Indian Art is primarily a spiritual Art. Our conception of Art has come from the plane of Intuition and therefore our creative expressions are the result of a spiritual experience. The fundamental difference between East and West seems to be that the East has emphasized the fact that a body is taken by the soul and therefore the soul has a body, while the Western conception is that the body has a soul. The Indian knows of the Himalayan heights and traces the Ganges from the source to the ocean, while a Westerner discovers the Ganges, and after traveling along the plains and climbing mountains, he finds the source.
So it is that we find the source of Art in the seership of the Yogis and direct knowledge is given to the world. Just as each Brahmin has agotra by which he can trace his birth to a Rishi, each Art, each Science, has a gotra by which we can trace the root of the teaching to a great Rishi. Bharata Natya finds its gotra in the Rishi Bharata, Medicine in the Rishi Agastya and Dhanvantari himself and so on without end. Indians accepted the knowledge and worked with it to discover the truth of it. In the West, a few great poets, musicians, and philosophers gave to the world their knowledge and their experience. But it remains as their own individual expression. The nation as a whole accepts no knowledge but develops through experience. So we find that Western Art gradually developed through different phases of civilization and has yet to understand the deep significance of Art. They have yet to know the philosophy of Art, and the spiritual meaning. But whichever of the two methods is used, they will meet. Either Truth must be experienced, or, experience must teach Truth. It is with the approach of opposite ends that East and West will meet. Either way it is Truth that is Art.
Speech alone does not portray Truth or knowledge. Knowledge or wisdom is expressed through color, sound, rhythm, and movement. It is because of this conception that we see in the symbology of the great Being, Nataraja, an expression of every form of Art. As the rainbow is many-colored, Art is many-formed. You see in Nataraja the great Yogi, for Art is primarily not only spiritual on the spiritual plane but spiritual on every plane of consciousness coming down to the physical level. So He is the Yogi, the Seer. He is the Teacher, for in Him is born knowledge. He is movement, and every limb even as portrayed in the still form of an image is movement and grace. He is the all powerful – but his power is hidden by grace and beauty. This again is the expression of true Art, for it is power that has transcended brute force and crudity. He is sound, for in Him is symbolized the first sound, the sound of the Damaru. He is last, but not least, rhythm, a dancer, for the dance is the united expression of all Art – poetry of motion, music, line, grace and, most important of all, an expression of spirit triumphing over matter. In the statue of Nataraja we see that all Art is one and the essential spirit of Art is the cosmic conception that touches the heavens and the human conception that touches the heart of man.
This is a very marvelous idea, because there is no Art which does not throb with human emotion. Without this emotion, Art becomes cold and uninspiring.
If we, as Indians, cannot understand this spirit, we can never really revive Art. What we need in India is a revival of spirit, not a revival of Art Forms. If we revive Art Forms, we revive a dead body; if we revive the spirit, we not only revive the Art Forms but become the source of new Forms which will be as beautiful as any that man has created. So many people speak of creating a new Art. In every field of Art in India efforts are being made in this direction. A am sorry to say that this effort is only producing ugliness instead of beauty because we are creating with the mind alone and not with the spirit. There are many modern-minded Indians today who decry what they call revivalism or tradition in Art. Usually these are people who neither understand Art nor India. For centuries and for thousands of years, India has not only preserved her religious spirit and tradition but has proved that creative consciousness was an important feature of Indian Art. One of the greatest dangers for the artistic future of India is the fact that people of little knowledge are taking such an active part in it. The Christ said, “do not cast your pearls”, meaning, “do not give a precious jewel to the ignorant”. In the same way when the ignorant direct the way of Art which is a message of the Devas, it can produce nothing but sacrilege.
Photo courtesy of Koviloor Swami (C. Nachiappan)