Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I n t e r a c t i v i t y I n A r t

Why does India continue to miss its renaissance ? What does one mean by renaissance, anyway ? It is the time when a culture discovers a new dimension of growth, and explodes into it. This kind of cultural explosion would become unmatchable to any other place in contemporary times. As the European renaissance demonstrates, this process is literally something which makes a center-of-the-world phenomenon. India has frankly not seen such a process.

Making renaissance happen in India does not mean to mimic the elements of European renaissance. That would achieve nothing. What should instead happen is the discovery of a completely new dimension, something which is till that moment unknown to the world. An apt example would be John Sebastian Bach's discovery of counterpoint in music. Till that point, western music did not have a great element of harmony in its compositions. But after this, the theory of music changed course completely.

So, what is it that needs to be discovered now ?

In this post, I will try to point to one specific direction which could possibly lead to a discovery. That direction is that of more interactivity in art.

To make my point clear, I will specify three levels of interactivity that exist in art.

The first level which is the least interactive - is to consider art as a form of personal self discovery. There is only one party dealing with art here, and that would be the artist himself. His art is a process of talking to himself - raising questions and discovering answers. Most often, the artist looks at this process as holding the conversation with not himself, but with God. But Indian philosophy (Adwaita) considers both of these views to be identical.

The second level is to consider art as a form of performance. There are two parties dealing with art here - the artist and the audience. The art-form is created by consciously keeping the audience in mind. This can be considered as the equivalent of the artist cooking a meal for the audience. Without the audience, the art-form would not have any meaning.

The third level which is the most interactive - is to consider art as a form of sport. There are two (or more) parties involved here - and all of them are artists. The art-form is created purely for the sake of having fun together. Art has a socializing value here, and the notion of fun is defined accordingly.

Art created at all these levels can produce delight to the beholder. Though Thyagaraja (18th century musician) did not have Kiran (me) in his mind during his compositions, his art indeed produces a great delight to the second party.

Given its reputation for being a warm culture with very few socializing barriers, we expect India to have more art-forms in the third level. But the opposite is the case.

Indian Music : Strictly falls at the first level in India. This has been for historical reasons. Great saints and philosophers (like Thyagaraja) turned to music as a form of worshipping God, and have produced real gems of music. The later generations have followed their example. Due to the extremely personal nature of the art-form, Indian music tends to be very solitary. The notion of multiple instruments is practically absent in the Indian musical tradition. Consequently, Indian music does not exhibit harmony. There is a high element of improvisation in music which corresponds to the personal element.

In contrast, European music has historically been considered at the second-level. The notion of a concert hall and performance to a seated audience were crucial aspects in the development of European Renaissance music. Consequently, the music exhibits grandiose harmony. I do not intend to say that European musicians didn't have a personal element to their compositions. One of the most popular works of Bach "Mathew's Passion" is considered to be a deeply devotional/personal offering. But the nature of the composition, by itself, is at second-level. It is written for a huge orchestra. This feature is a significant element in western music.

After the advent of cinema, Indian music has started to experiment with the second-level. Unsurprisingly, this has necessitated a huge borrowing from the theory of western music. Marrying Indian raagas to the western theory of harmony is a hard task, but offers a huge potential for cultural explosion and renaissance. The best musicians of India (Ilayaraja, Rahman etc) have indeed been those well versed in western music. Though the barriers have not been breached yet (several mathematical problems remain), Indian popular music is set forward to bridging this gap. But several of the best brains in Indian classical music tend to shy away from the notion of thinking of music at the second-level. Consequently, Indian music keeps missing its renaissance. As a medicine, I propose the musicians to create musical operas based on the stories of Indian mythology. Why not an opera based on the story of Eklavya ? Would it interest Bhimsen Joshi, or Balamurali Krishna ??

Indian Dance : Has historically been considered as a performance, thus at the second-level. Most of the classical dance forms have been patronized in the courts of the Maharajahs. They ended up being elaborate performances requiring great skill.

In contrast, European dance has primarily been considered at the third-level, as a form of socializing. A vast majority of the dances exist just for the sake of giving pleasure to the dancers, usually a man and a woman. There are a few instances where dance is considered at the second-level (as in ballet), but the influence of the third-level is so huge that the dance-moves in the performance tend to draw from the more popular varieties. This tradition keeps alive to this day, and most of the invention in dance is done in this direction, for the dances of a couple.

Even in the era of the modern cinema, Indian dance has surprisingly kept to its second-level. Most of the moves in the dances shown in film are created by keeping the audience in mind. Even though it is a couple dancing on the screen in the wilderness of the mountains, they tend to dance as if they are on a stage. Several times, the actor dances alone on the screen to the applause of the audience. The cultural attitude of India would not change. Since dance has never been thought of at the third-level, Indians do not tend to understand the notion of a discotheque. It has not caught on well in India, as compared to Brazil or Japan, for example. As a medicine, I propose the great dancers of India to run discotheques, and organize events where they teach young adults to dance together. This direction offers a huge possibility of innovation in dance.

As an aside, there exist a few traditions of dance in the world which are considered at the first-level too, such as the whirling of the Sufi dervishes.

Indian literature :
Has traditionally been at the second-level. Just like in Greece, the bards of India have always been patronized to recite songs and poems. Great poets like Kalidas have written plays as their major works. This tradition has recently changed worldwide, due to the impersonal medium of the book. Here, the poet is at more liberty for personal exploration. Modern literature is turning rapidly into the first-level. The audience is usually ignored, unless in a few cases where the work of literature is a short story or a novel. As the spectrum shifts towards poetry, the audience is largely ignored in the current age. This may not be considered bad by many people, but there are several traditions which are dying out as literature becomes less interactive.

In fact, there exist several traditions in India where literature is even considered at the third-level. The Telugu tradition of Ashtaavadhaanam and the Urdu tradition of Qawwaali immediately come to mind. As the current era of poets keep themselves busy publishing books for a certain faceless reader, the human element of literature is slowly disappearing.

As a medicine, I encourage all writers to use the online media such as blogs and discussion forums, to rejuvenate these dying forms of literary tradition. Such websites can indeed be patronized by readers/advertising if the quality of the contents makes it worth. This kind of patronizing has indeed turned into a reality today, due to the extraordinarily high ratio of engineers (people skilled in high-tech) amongst the richer sections of the Indian society.

Indian visual arts : The very same thing can be said about visual arts such as painting. These have traditionally been at the second-level, and the artists worked for adorning temples, palaces, mosques etc. But in the current age, these art forms are increasingly turning to the first-level. As a medicine, I encourage the visual artists to participate in the growing revolution of computer graphics and aid in the production of movies and computer games, thereby working at the second-level. This also provides greater opportunities of monetary compensation for the artists, apart from triggering new discoveries in the forms of art.

In conclusion : I encourage all artists to explore more interactivity in their art-forms. This is a very promising direction for realizing a renaissance in India.