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How Art Works…

I don’t think we have any idea, in the West, just how far market logic has worked its way into our sense of self and things. We are angry about something, anything, in fact, that calls in question either the remnant we hold on to or the value of having let so much go. We are happy enough with the Past if we can make "tradition" mean a series of family customs (which generated feelings of completion and community), or heroes of individualism (who won or perhaps just enjoyed what for us is now in the double jeopardy of disappearing and of not having seemed worthy). But if Tradition comes to menace the shred of Being called "individualism" or the extravagantly overvalued category of the objet, a very intense mix of moral thunder and primal anxiety rumbles away in the unconscious.

Our Wagnerian smithy hammers out a bolt to be aimed at any infringement of individual "space"–a term covering freedom (license?), comfort (luxury?), autonomy (irresponsibility?). If Tradition were to demand frequent constraints upon our choices, or a significant share of our resources, or a constant investment of our energy and creativity in oblating ourselves to others–and, above all, if Tradition were to suggest that what lay inside the apparent boundaries of the "self" were the least interesting aspects of our Being–how ready to hand would that thunderbolt be, ready to consign such a Tradition to our marginal zones of Impracticality, or Saintliness, or an even more vaguely worded Otherness. But what of the anger and anxiety, however covered by a twitch of sarcasm or thoughtless respect? Is there anger over being asked to give up the contemporary substitutes (commodities? gamesmanship?) for what feels missing? Is there anxiety that Tradition, not in its Christmas card form but in its more menacing and ancient form, looks at us with the same mixture of expectation and amusement and pity that Orwell felt, confronting the elephantine menace of Orientalism?

My epigraphs menace the Self by menacing its Signs, the objets that re-present the Self by virtue of being (considered) autonomous entities possessed of a rich, complex, but stable and readable essence. For us to leave the future to itself is easy enough, but not because we will pass on what it needs to know; it’s more like leaving them to their own autonomous chance at The Game. In the tradition these epigraphs describe, something different is happening, mothers teaching their daughters patterns and dyes sometimes unknown to the men, for a long time little known outside a very poor, out of the way district just south of the Himalayas. At great rituals (of family life, of the goddesses) these paintings appear on the walls of the home, or as rice flour patterns on the ground. They are creatings, prayers, not objects, not manifestations of the unique and individual self. They are always called "writings," not paintings or pictures, because they are a language of relationships, not a representation of (id)entities, essences.

It is not enough to gesture generally toward Tradition: "it is not the unique individual who speaks through these artistic creations but the anonymous collective mind with millennia of traditional knowledge" (Thakur, 35). The gesture is meaningful, but not too much to our ears. The same critic calls on Kalidasa to explain the "Maithila mind":

Isn’t it interesting how starched "the Greeks" are ("static," "inert") next to the creepers, streams, minglings, flows, and throbs of Tradition? That "harmony" has to do not with the form of the Praxitelean body itself, but with its relation to spirit, to ideas, to nature, to those ways of life we call gods and goddesses? That the Occidental Self, to us the very invention of interiority, strikes the Oriental as a stasis more akin to "outer forms" rather than to these artists’ process of relating (inner to outer, material to spiritual, creator to "anonymous collective mind," the present to millennia)? If it is meaningful for me to make a major point out of their using "writing" to name their art, then I need to show something significant about a visual art of relationships rather than of things. In fact, I need to come back to the truism that market logic has invaded our logic of things and make it mean something to us–to know what it means to say that "holding on to things is foolishness."

What stirs in us when we read that a village woman, preparing to paint, begins by mixing soot, red clay, and carnation pollen with goat’s milk or bean plant juice in order to have the black, red, and yellow paints that color her walls? Is it just that she evades the market economy, the local tendril of multinational capitalism reaching into her village with tempting (and easy) pots of color–pots requiring that she earn something worth somebody else’s rupees before she can paint? Or is it that the soot from lamp wicks and cooking fires is there for the celebrants to see, marking the shapes, keeping the memory of fire around the heads of that ideal couple, Ram and Sita, or that most worthy of opponents, the ten-headed Ravanna? And that the faces of these great ones shine with the pollen of the painter’s favorite flowers, that their garments and their outstretched hands glow with the earth from her riverbank? These all express a material relation between the painter and her media, between the imagery and the world immediately outside, between her life as a village woman and her life in the "anonymous collective mind." They are not a part of a system marked by separations, even alienation, or categories, spheres, realms, or of the reservation of "art" for those few allowed the visual literacy and fluency to experience paintings as creations rather than as things.

Aripanas are visual pieces done on the floor [see Figure 1], perhaps the courtyard, perhaps at the threshold; they might be "painted," drawn with rice starch or cowdung in water, or outlined with rice flour that insects will carry away even faster than sweeping or washing or foot traffic will wear away the others (in other regions they might be called osa or chauka or sathia or rangoli or kolam). At a popular auditorium in New Delhi (where everything from classical concerts to stormy union meetings might take place), I watched women working in the "modern" lobby before an Event, making a fifteen foot mandala with rice flour, and I saw a similar process at the posh Ashok Hotel (though in the more cost-effective form of paint on paper). Perhaps the urban versions seem "tainted" to you, particularly at the Ashok where "examples" of "the culture" are exhibited for the guests. But you could as easily feel that no Indian leaves utterly behind a root of herself reaching back into the Village, however nostalgic or conflicted a fiction "village" might be, as surely as the vines and tendrils of an aripana’s plants form their versions of mandalas and mythological figures.

Why would you walk on art? Perhaps the mandala is ultimately tantric in origin, or perhaps it is more immediately linked to a Durga or harvest festival or a family occasion like marriage. Tantric mandala are spatial means "whereby ‘cosmic cross-points’ are created in the relative plane, at which the individual encounters the universal noumena" (Mookerjee, Tantric Way, 15); "within its perimeter a complexity of visual metaphors–square, triangle, labyrinthine patterns–represent the absolute and the paradoxical elements of totality" (35). Cross-points relate individual and that which is beyond the individual; patterns relate "absolute" and "paradoxical" elements of a "totality" more inclusive than our typically homogenized models. To look at these designs is to become part of "dynamic relationships concretized in the rhythmic order elaborated out of the multiplicity of primal forms" (49): each cross-point marks our passage on a mental or spiritual freeway of connections and inmixings. "The sign," it seems, "begins to convey a lived experience" (50)..

I want to stay with this tantric tributary of mandala a bit longer because the logic implicit in these drawings can help us see how and why "tradition" works differently than we might have imagined. Thus far, we have several useful pieces–that dynamic interrelations among these visual elements work rhythmically, rather than, say, figurally or representationally, to achieve their effect. Here is perhaps the core of this idea in an account aimed at the mass of western outsiders:

The (re)mobilization of energy forms into "vibrational patterns" doesn’t happen in the drawing (that is not what "worship" means), nor is it something we would say happens in the one who meditates upon the shapes and patterns. The meditator is vibrational patterns, after all, and perceives herself not as a "form," an illusion of immobilized energy, but rather as elaboration from (and eventual return to) that "point of zero dimension" we have only a word like "whole" to denote. Our wholes are huge, cosmic; they have substance; they have an identity. Such traits are only derivative coagulations: tantra’s whole includes the spatial and temporal self-differencing described above as well as the interchanging of form and energy.

What does it mean for such an experience to occur to an individual about to receive the sign of his adult Brahminical privilege, or about to marry, or to move or renovate the family shrine? The immediate meaning is the opposite of western rituals which reinforce, even make transcendent, a "self" that mandalas dissolve. But as a means of our understanding "tradition" as process or experience, aripana help explain how "writing" and "tradition"–antithetical terms in the West–are gerunds which retune one’s being to its pre-individuated character. Not "tradition lives," but "tradition is living." Not two people starring in their marital pageant, but two beings, tropologically Ram-Sita, Shiva-Shakti, complementary sine curves of a primal syllable.

Of course, then, the drawings themselves are nothing (the Tibetan term would be "empty")–"consumables" in a sense quite different from that of the commodity. The most austere of them are yantras, "abstract" geometric drawings to our eyes, the Shree Yantra being perhaps the best known [see Figure 2]. From the outer square with its four gates to the central bindu, the initiate can move through progressive states of enlightenment from the earthly plane to supreme joy. Thinking from the center out repeats the originary process of becoming–i.e., the point ("the nucleus of condensed energy, the seed of the ultimate Sound, and the dynamic and static aspects of the two in one") differentiates the Shiva-Shakti energies to form a triangle ("the expansion of space and time, sound and energy, continue in the process of creation, and the primary triangle is transformed into a series of lines, triangles, circles and squares to form the Sri Yantra"—Mookerjee, 58). Two rings of lotus petals modulate between the outer square (which, with its gates, is the floor plan of both this yantra and many temples and serves as a signifier for the earthly) and the interior space marked by nine interlacing triangles (five pointing down, the yoni, four pointing up, the lingam). Signifiers of fulfilled desire, the lotus rings allude to affiliation in nature’s sphere and thus anticipate the inner fulfillment at the center.

I have made this yantra a linear experience, an unfolding in time of the prehistory of creation and the (anticipated) path to salvation. But this linearity in time can be deceptive, since these two ("past" and "future") resonate within each other, just as Mookerjee’s language, summarizing tantric texts, begins to fold metaphors into each other in ways unsettling to our usual thinking. For energy to have a nucleus, for seed to lead to an ultimate (or even a sound), for dynamic and static to be (self-differently?) one–these are usages that show a different logic, a different conceptual mapping in this diagram of meaning. (In fact, for dynamic to be [only] one of two–dynamic seems to already presuppose self-different [though perhaps the same must be said of the "static"]–which are then "in one"… well, it gets complicated in this now Jamesian syntax, but that sort of "one" is not what westerners usually mean by the One as utterly self-identical.) Perhaps one key is something like the transubstantiality of sound, time, form, space, energy discernible in Mookerjee’s description: to "read" this yantra is to take its (and one’s own) space, time, energy, and form, and make them as contradictorily both present and expended (expendable?) as a humming sound. To read is to let Shree Yantra’s nine stages resonate with one another, is to let the eye physiologically vibrate tracing the lines and colors of its overlapping triangles (mine from Nepal has the red of "radiant energy"), is to relate the "energies in varying degrees of concentration" as they appear in square, circle, triangle, point. Rice flour on the threshold, watercolor in the monsoon of daily existence, mantra recited and gesture repeated–there are many ways to let go of things and reiterate. [Tarthang Tulku, a Buddhist, will tell you the same thing about the deities themselves–they "embody ways of being, not things" (Tarthang, 16).]

Were narrative enough, one could stop with an all-explaining myth; here, narrative is made to be exceeded. Were representation enough, were there a final referent or transcendental signified ("thing") to which one were pointing, one could stop with the icon that stood for (signified) that thing; here, visual form works as much by a physiological effect akin to op art as by the what it lays out. The Shree Yantra can work equally well painted by a master with crushed lapis and gold, by a copyist with water color on canvas, by a school child with ruler and protractor in her tablet. Narrative is an order whose closure is within time; Representation is an order whose closure is within (ideas of) things; Authorship is an order whose closure is within the self. It’s a beginning to say that in the logic of this yantra, history, things, and self are exclusive parts dependent upon an inclusive whole, but one which has no clear claim to anteriority either chronologically, spatially, or even ontologically. For energy is not enough either; were it, one could be just doing, could do without the yantra’s grammar of form. Nor is presence enough; were it sufficient, the flash of insight would complete something, no one would make or read the same yantra twice.

Is so abstract a work a special case which allows this implicit definition of Tradition? We can test this intensity against some different examples, beginning with a set of placemat-sized animals of the kind one now finds, for example, painted on wrapping paper–these must be the least consequential of an ephemeral form? One notices immediately the absence of "perspective," that system of visual logic that locks a thing into its position in the material universe. Figure, ground (flowers, rocks, trees, dirt, whatever), and frame (sometimes solid, sometimes rows of triangular points like the diamonds of illumination in tantric designs): they share plane and prominence, they twine together in a primary relatedness, they are bodies of geometric elaboration. [see Figure 3] What dominates is the vibration of basic bold colors, stripes, checkerboards, repeating blooms or dot patterns, curves and scallops, and the rope-like edgings of diagonal hatching. Are they still lions, tigers, elephants? Is there anything of the character traits projected in our photoreal nature painting? In speaking of the more elaborate and convention-bound thangka paintings of the Tibetan tradition, Tarthang Tulku makes this interesting comment about the unnaturalistic use of space, light:

For two lions on wrapping paper, this passage may expect too much, but even the lions and the tigers don’t imply homilies on natural nobility or Darwinian struggle or the all but sexual grace of bodily form. Rather than foundation or origin, they may well signal a bit of the sense in which animals, plants, people are (merely?) transformations of matter and energies.

That more-than-Ovidian metamorphosis is, in fact, explicit in many of the festival paintings. One can compile a lexicon of symbols (parrots relate to Kama, God of love; fish suggest fertility; elephants are the vehicle of the thunder god Indra and symbols of the macrocosm, but may just express a wish for wealth; snakes are both sexual symbols and water deities). Such figures gather into a design a range of associations which connect the occasion with the values of harvest, marriage, planting, or the deity being celebrated. Turtles work differently; they are associated with water and its life-giving properties, their shape suggests the round lotus and (in the head and tail protruding) the phallic bamboo sprouts, and they often specifically recall Vishnu’s second incarnation when he assumed the form of a tortoise in the war between the Asuras and the Devas. [see Figure 4] The "turtles" aren’t things; they activate relationships and invoke the multiple contexts that condition one’s understanding of an occasion.

Women use these paintings to propose marriage. In this relatively spare example, the central lotus is convincingly penetrated by the phallic bamboo tree; the sun (fertilization) and the moon (the source of the nectar of long life) float high, fish and snakes are nearby, the lotus buds in the upper left reiterate the yoni pattern rife in this genre, the bridal couple in the lower right welcome the elephant of fortune and power… [see Figure 5] One can go on naming and translating things, but more interesting to me are the relationships signaled in this design. The marriage proposal is frank about sex and fecundity: the lotus and the tree are large, central, and laid upon the macrocosmic circle. The couple are those macrocosmic forces, they are also the little people in the corner. Bamboo tree (a fecund plant that grows outward into a familial grove around the central elder), Vishnu (the preserver), phallus, husband… Lotus (the water plant, on which deities rest, from which they emerge), Sita (the perfect wife of Ram), yoni, wife… If a relational and performative art is sometimes difficult for us to conceive in the shadow of our western modernism, such a kohbar may help embody its character for us. The proposal performs tradition as a live and lively relating of the contexts within which sexual union takes place. It places the couple within the larger grove within which humanity, and all creatures, live, within the tradition of deities who themselves perform the relation of the two (or the many) and the one (whether as the male-female emerging out of oneness or as the many ways to that one). It performs desire as but not simply the self’s doing.

Lotus and yoni fuse; Krishna (melting pot for any number of local fertility myths as well as a Vishnu avatar) plays his flute in a yoni in a lotus bud; deities, more pathways than entities, are represented by feet, by footprints leading to the lotus. A bamboo grove or plants interchange with "proper" tantric geometrical designs or with deities or with the (geometrically elaborated) animals that are the "vehicles" of deities–and can do so with an ease that undoes any rocklike materiality we might see in them, makes them all metaphors of each other, makes them all (path)ways of experiencing such relationality as rhythm, and rhythm as vibration. As I listened to a colleague wrinkle his nose and call these paintings crammed and busy with too many of the same things, I thought, no, that’s not it. Repetition–of yonis, of triangles, of the little crosshatching lines or petals of borders and frames–is the visual equivalent of the sustained chanting of, say, Om, and such vibration is finally the sound of self-difference.

At every tourist depot from Delhi westward one finds embroideries as skirts and blouses, for bedcovers and doorway arches, on walls and purses. It might be the Kutch tribals’ cowrie-shell-lined flat abstracts, or the famous Gujarati embroideries of the tree of life, shining with tiny mirrors three-eighths of an inch across, or Ganesh with his attending dancers and assorted animals, or fields of triangles or mandalas lit with silver-dollar sized mirrors held in place by a thousand minute stitches in shining thread, or the luminescent zaris with their gold- and silver-dipped thread in dazzling circular or zigzag or rectangular intricacies. [see Figure 6] Here too art is a visual form of vibration, a border of parrots or peacocks shifting between striking you as repeating animals and becoming instead one continuous interlacing of a visual rhythm. Triangles are lines of mustard thread, they are yonis pointing earthward and phallic skyward pointers, they recall the sharp points in a yantra, they signify any one of a number of theological trinities (of Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, of creation-destruction-preservation, of androgyny-maleness-femaleness, and on and on). Circles are microcosms and lotus flowers and mandalas and wheels of life and disks of Mind and bamboo groves and eyes and earrings or noserings and navels and vaginas–whole lists of metaphoric strategies vibrating with each other, keeping each other connected and thus mutually reinforcing one another with the (intellectual) power of the others, but also leveling them all within the same plane of provisionality, mediation, metaphor, each excusing itself from the pretension to be the final referent, the signified in which the movement or sound can stop. [see Figure 7]

And the mirrors (which catch lamplight by night, and sunlight and so also the eye by day)? Can any mirror in Indian culture escape being a metaphor, an illusory surface catching the image of the watcher, marking the illusoriness of the self or the world it reflects, marking the reflectedness of everything, marking the radiance that is light as metaphor of vibration? When the mirror "interrupts" thread, or perhaps "intervenes," or perhaps "interposes" itself, it sets yet another metaphor system against that of the stitching: juxtaposition both doubles the effect(iveness) of the rhetoric and unsettles the primacy or stability of either metaphor. The metaphoricity of each is stressed in both senses of the word–pointed out through the emphasis of foregrounding, worried by the lengthening queue of versions that becomes almost meta-metaphoricity in its "lesson" about the language of experience.

These recurrent ideas also constitute the difference of Indian music (from western). Consider this description of the raga by the musicologist B.C. Deva:

A composition is not a score, a "manual for correct execution" (151); it is a language which enables performance. As a "seed idea," it imposes restraints, it implies a form, but it does not define; but nor, Deva goes on to make clear, does it mean "improvisation" with the common connotations of spontaneity, "on the spur of the moment, without preparation" (17). The length, character, and variations of performance are what relate the individual as performance to "composition" as a language (of tradition, but not the fixed rule system we might associate with the word). For the musician who performs, for the listener who reads that performance, the raga offers a satisfaction different from that of expressiveness within closure: something more like the meditation upon that seed, by which that seed has a life in the world and returns to its seed state.

The idea of a seed makes reference to the mantra, another art of sound worth remarking. Ajit Mookerjee’s explanation of the monosyllabic bija mantra adds resonance to Deva’s discussion of the raga:

A concert is not the same thing as a spiritual master’s meditation, but the shape of the logic may well be as similar as the energizing or transforming power of the experience. (The sixteenth-century musician Tansen is said to have nearly burst into flames singing the fiery raga Deepak at Akbar’s command, and was saved only by his lover’s singing the monsoon raga Malhar and bringing the cooling rains down upon him.)

Raga is a language that enables a seed to be developed into a transforming experience; also interesting to consider is the rhythmic system of this music. Western rhythm is linear, (e.g.) 4/4 time that tick tocks along; optional, piece-by-piece orchestration shapes and colors it to fit the melodic sentence of a work. But tala works differently by offering the choice of a number of recognizable cycles with distinct starting and middle points and sections of variously arranged beats, and with a number of possibilities for variation by "lead" vocalists or instrumentalists fitting in their notes. A cycle runs twelve to sixteen seconds in a piece of medium tempo (as opposed to a four second measure in western music of similar tempo). It is not divided the way our measure is, by a steady number of equal beats, but is made up of clusters of beats (that might each be four equal beats, but that also might be, say, a sequence of 2, 4, then 3 beats). And, most immediately striking to one’s ear, each different cycle or tala also assigns a "word" to every beat in the cycle–the "word" being one of the eight or so distinctive sounds one can make on the tabla (including the almost metallic clunk of the thumb on the rim, the deep thunk of the bass struck in the middle, and the unique sliding note the tabla can produce).

Why do I care about this system theoretically speaking? Because the rhythm’s time is not allowed to seem equated with a "natural" flow of (linear) time? Do westerners tend to assume that "real" time is linear, and that an effective reading in time narratizes the meaning or ultimate fulfillment of "naturally" linear time? So that orchestration shapes and fulfills time the way we as (transcendental) egos should fulfill time in our lives, building toward a full grasp of our individual essences? (Or the way our theology fulfills time in the Kingdom Come?) What of rhythm, time, that is always, inevitably, gathered up into cycles… Does it insinuate that linear time is filled out by how we speak a language of words, phrases, sequences that is "real" the way a performance is real, or "real" the way any linguistic event is real? To practice a cyclic time is not to say that going out around the orbit of life in the world is false or unreal, but that such orbiting and its various "centers" are not necessarily going to get you to so ultimate a status as finale, closure. Such a tala of time is about how "tradition is living" rather than conformity to a stasis. We struggle here to conceive the larger context which makes different logics of rhythm "feel right."

Internal variations in the patterning of beats and in the character of the drum strokes or "words" that are spoken beat by beat mark a self-difference of pace and character to time unlike the regularity we tend to naturalize as the nature of being in time. In a similar way, the microtonal variations in the complex system of sruti (with 22 or more unequally divided notes per octave) introduce a dimension of variation in scale unfamiliar to western ears. Oversimplified, the western tempered scale (Deva calls it a "cancer") and metronome rhythms abstract, normalize, and regulate; the sruti and tala of classical Indian music articulate a detailed system within which the performer must play with a keen sense, as Deva puts it, of the "physical, physiological, psychological, and occultic aspects of music" (30). "Occultic" carries unfortunate connotations in the west, the variously suspect worlds of tarot, poltergeists, ESP, crystology, and the Rosicrucians. But here it points to a metaphysics and related aesthetics different from ours, one not reached through rationalist empiricism until "reasonable" and "experience" mean differently. A performance is "reasonable" if it induces a state of mind (rasa) that relates it to different modes of "experience" and to a meditative texture: rasa leads to a sense of being in which "play" is akin to its fully nuanced poststructural usage.

In any case, Indian arts press steadily against the substratum of logic westerners normally take as their ground. Yantras look like the floor plans of temples, and vice versa; "the ceiling of Adi Nath Temple," reads a caption in The Tantric Way, "is decorated with crystalline patterns symbolizing the unfolding of sabda, the sound element, in a mandala field" (85)–a confluence of building, painting, sound, and religion. Nor is there so very much point to the usual division between high art and people’s culture, only recently under sustained attack in our journals. Deva often comments about the rootedness of classical Indian music in folk music, compares it with tribal forms, and makes comments like the following:

I want to think whether this relationship between concert and folk arts might point to something else important about how art works, a sense that the stylized behavior we might normally associate with elite art forms is meaningfully attached to both elite and popular arts.

Balwant Gargi’s Folk Theater of India reports what he found as he crisscrossed village India, watching small troupes staging local traditional forms for occasions ranging from the most sacred of royally subsidized festivals to the bawdiest of street entertainments. He loathes the proscenium stage, film music, the homogenizing effects of media culture, and cultural elitists. He likes vital theater, whether by Sanskrit pandits or illiterate slum dwellers, and as he moves from region to region in India, he savors a mixedness otherwise "ignored" by his worst villains, the "modern critics, influenced by the realistic drama of the nineteenth century." Here, for example, he describes a Karnatakan form of song-drama 300 years old:

Folk drama may mix languages, the way the Nautanki writers in Uttar Pradesh use Sanskritized Hindi for the opening prayer song, but let "the rest of the songs and the alliterative dialogue flow in a hybrid form with a heavy Urdu bias. The writers mix Braj, Rajasthani, Hindi, and local dialects in the play" (43). The same Nautanki tradition also mixes Hindu and Muslim folk cultures and blends anything around the stage into its set, including balconies, embankments, house windows; the Bengali Jatra mixes the audience (seated around a stage) and the play that extends out along a runway for entrances, exits, and key moments analogous to close-ups in film (11-12); the Gujarati Bhavai performances mix burlesque, double-entendres, character studies, and (to conclude a quite various evening) "a chaste drama packed with proverbs and parables" (52); the Varanasi Ramlila celebrates its sacred story of Ram with masks of Muslim manufacture, with a scene presented from stages separated like "islands amidst the sea of people" (audiences can reach 300,000 for key scenes), with troupes doing different scenes at different times and places over a fifteen to thirty-one day period (94); actors often stay in view between their lines, lounging, smoking, chewing, even sleeping before snapping back into character on cue; action, commentary, and dialogue can be distributed in varying ways among actors, narrators, choruses, and buffoons who interrupt the action to interrogate or heckle the players; dance and poetry, music and gymnastics, prose and song, canonical chants and extemporaneous repartee… The catalog of what mixes in different ways in different local forms goes on and on, but I’ll end it with one final example that helps explain the distinctive character of this mixing. In the Raslila tradition, the story of Radha and Krishna is played in the relatively intimate setting of temple courtyards. It is so sacred an experience that the audience cannot smoke or even drink water during it, and the actors playing Radha and Krishna are worshipped as incarnate deities after the dance. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the role of the narrator or leader of the troupe as Gargi explains it:

Rich, that is, with the weaving of a text rather than the recitation of a script, lengthening and shortening as local circumstances (and gifts) may indicate, no doubt varying the mix of centuries, genres, and pace to fit the evening–playing Raslila, that is, speaking a performance out of the grammar and vocabulary of the form’s (inter)text. When one considers that many of these traditions’ performances last six to twelve hours (or even longer), that they mix in all the ways that we have found enumerated in Gargi’s account, that much is stylized and that much is also made at the moment of performance, it is no wonder that Gargi can conclude that such folk theater "is an expression of the whole life of the people: their customs, beliefs, crafts, arts, philosophy, poetry, music, even their wealth and valor" (111-112).

So perhaps it is not surprising to consider the larger effects of the form. Beyond the reverence recalled by Raslila or the cultural patriotism revived annually by Ramlila, beyond the erotic Tamasha’s capacity to "bring to light the gestures and words lurking in the heated subconscious of the repressed onlooker" (84), beyond the political points scored in the Jatra–beyond these explicit points is the "expression," the (re)articulation of a whole life that underlies the specific import of a performance. In the most stylized of all the folk theaters, the delicate Chhau of Seraikella in Bihar, masks replace make-up and facial expression, and "a variegated string of small dance-dramas, each lasting seven to ten minutes," replace the elaborated epic of Ramlila and other such sustained narrative forms. It can include both a courtly version, in which a dancer draws upon the fifty to a hundred stylized steps and walks, as well as the more folk-like performances of neighborhood troupes at the annual festival (178, 180). But I am struck by the overall effect of this masked drama in which the body, with only music for a prop, is the focus:

Static movement, silent actor, hallucinatory reality, rhythmic life. I’m not interested in whether such an effect is unknown in the west or whether it suggests a truth of the spirit. I want to see instead if Chhau, rather than the exception to other dance-dramas, is instead the fullest expression of a cultural logic as we would find it manifest in dance-dramas. These forms we have been considering come to seem like dialects of a larger language, whether they are like ragas acceptable to the urban sophisticates, or, like Madhubani paintings or some of the folk theatres, left to the obscurity of village or slum or province. Whether so seductive that the prostitutes once watched the boy-actors to learn gendering, or so perfected that the animal or human character being portrayed needs no props or color scheme to signify it, does stylized movement strain toward that hallucinatory moment of meditation when a form of life both is and exceeds its self? Are we back to the tantric seed of geometric embroidery and Mathila iconography? And the mixings we found in folk theater, far too prominent to be repressed or overlooked as the import of the form: do they tie together the town and stage or the performers and audience or the high and low, anything that might seem really and categorically distinct rather than only hallucinogenically so? Or recall how the complexity of talas and srutis diverges from the mechanizing effects of "regular" rhythm and even-tempered scales? Weaving texts rather than reciting scripts seems strongly akin to finding a raga anew each performance from its vocabulary of potential. Sending bits of the Ramayana out into islands amid the audience keeps myth out in the world around us, seems like the interweaving of newly wed, genitalia, deity, and nature in Mathila kohbars.

This discussion begins to feel to me a bit like that very fast part of a raga when the tempo doubles and the voice of a Mallikarjun Mansur is warbling grace notes up and down the scale, cross-weaving with his brother, the tabla racing. To close, then, let us turn to that most stylized of forms, classical Indian dance. I became interested in the Odissi tradition because it was all but lost, the temple dancers (the maharis) dead or retired, only the boys who dress and dance as girls (the gotipuas) still active at all, and even their work considered a shadow of the tradition’s past glory. A retired mahari trained her nephew in the old style, his study including the complex vocabulary of bodily movements (there are dozens of hand movements alone, but also elegant, ornate taxonomies of foot movements, gaits, arm and torso poses, and patterns the body makes moving through space), but also a knowledge of the songs, costumes, and the emotions expressed through the face and body. This youth, Pankaj Charan Das, danced as a gotipua and in the Raslila pageants we’ve glimpsed already, came to direct a dance theater, and eventually became perhaps the fountainhead of the Odissi renaissance, training many of the present teachers, most of them former gotipuas. No doubt his effectiveness in the Odissi revival has much to do with his participation in these three tributaries of the tradition. Dance theater and state arts academies provide a context quite removed from the combination of royal and temple patronage under which Odissi dance flourished since the tenth century (attested by inscriptions) or seventh century (attested by sculpture) or perhaps even to the second century B.C. if one accepts Ananda Coomeraswamy’s reading of the carvings in the Ranigumpha caves of Orissa. For so ancient a tradition to nearly disappear, a victim of the effects of invasion and economic reorganization, is a sobering case of modernization’s impact. But, perhaps just barely, the lineage of gurus passed through the narrows of a single man from whom the history and diversity of Odissi dance now flows once more as a living tradition, able to change without necessarily losing the fervor and the spiritual resonance of its era as a temple event.

The maharis danced for centuries in the temple grounds, the gotipuas just outside, becoming more common as the sakhibhava cult swept Orissa. Sakhibhava was a religious movement in which the devotee considered himself the shepherdess consort of Krishna. The gotipua marks the conjunction between the Vaishnavite movement’s celebration of dance as a form of worship and sakhibhava’s sexual metaphor of enlightenment. Just as the Mathila paintings often focus upon Radha and Krishna as a couple ideal because they combine the sexual and religious, so in Odissi the many songs celebrating Radha and Krishna, or the gopis (shepherdesses) and Krishna, are the musical and narrative frame. And just as shapes like the swastika (which represents the limbs of Vishnu or the four directional winds) become yantras in the Mathila tradition, so too do many of the poses in Odissi present this sign to its attentive audience.

In fact, the oscillation between pose and movement is a rhythm particular to Indian classical dance, so much so that Coomeraswamy’s reading of carvings two millennia old calls to mind the strikingly close relationship between sculpture and dance. Nearly everyone has seen the nataraja, the Shiva dancing the swastika shape in a ring of fire; to see such a bronze is to be struck by the movement more than implicit in the pose, as if the necessity of choosing between the temporal dimension of movement and the spatial dimension of shape were somehow overcome. Writers about dance find the point irresistible; Sunil Kothari’s presentation of Odissi: Indian Classical Dance Art is no exception:

Visiting a site like that of the great Surya temple of Konarak–Kothari calls it "literally a lexicon of dance movements" (25)–and seeing an Odissi performance in the same week can be disorienting, for each becomes the other’s backdrop. The dancers move out onto the stage from one’s imagined Konarak facade; the bas-reliefs at Konarak take on the dancers’ individualities and the music seems somehow to be playing again. And this is the first great lesson of Odissi for us, that the temporal and spatial coordinates of materiality are as plastic as they are fixed. These arts are (especially to western eyes) extreme elaborations of their material forms. They vary, juxtapose, sequence, and trope elements until the "excess" of elaboration becomes that elaborate exceeding of the sensory: the beyond of the sensory is reassociated with that sensory so that the dualisms or binaries that might otherwise plague thought and being pass beyond themselves.

And, mostly, this works precisely because of the degrees of stylization involved, even the extremes of taxonomy, prescribed functions, and almost levitical ritual given in texts like the Sanskrit Nyantrashastra. One comes to recognize the recurrence apparent in the permutations on these traditional gestures, signs, forms, what have you. That recurrence in turn recalls experiences of reiterations in other forms and contexts (whether in life imitating epics and tales, or in embroidered patterns); reiterations, image-repertoires, subdivisions, vocabularies, taxonomies, grammars, all are means by which ornamentation as a (more than) philosophical practice turns the movement of material forms and the stasis of apparent objects into rhythm, vibration. Each chosen step or gesture of the hand is in resonance with its others, a metaphor of relatedness in which no thing is only itself and no part truly exclusive. Almost diacritical in character, these arts drive us beyond the thingness of art to the systems in which it participates.

Kothari evokes this character to preface a portfolio of contemporary Odissi dancers, almost as an aside:

Such talk of "intensities" and "heights" reminds us of the third great lesson of Odissi, the crucial character of performance–and it is a character as true of painting or sculpture as it is of the more literally "performing" arts. Rasanubhava is an aesthetic experience in which the work’s emotion becomes in the audience an experience involving both feeling and understanding. The "content" is a metaphor of the suffusion of a larger spirit in the manifest profusion of experience, the "awareness and enriched consciousness" to which Kothari refers. Choreography, orchestration, ornamentation, decoration, whether over time in the planned and executed sculptured temple or epic or shastras, or in the immediacy of the extempore–all these are an intensity in performance of arts that do not represent so much as enact enlightenment. In that interplay between the gopi and the god, between the stylized repertoire and the individual elaboration, among the material elements of the art form, among the levels of resonance from the body onwards, an audience can choose to see the fulfillment in art of a state of full awareness.

One who meditates, like one who performs or who is the capable audience at a performance, envisions a design (painting’s visual, dance’s spatio-temporal, music’s aural, all arts’ conceptual) as projection, enactment, performance, of awareness–and then draws the awareness back into herself as an achievement, for a moment at least, of a sort of consubstantiality with that awareness. A performance art like dance enables an audience to follow (literally) the dancer’s projection and absorption, exhalation and inhalation. It is only a spectacle if the observer maintains himself as subject and the dancer as object. This art works by offering all participants the opportunity to complete a kind of yoga, a discipline, in which the experiential quality brings to fruition the seed of an inclusive whole (of Om, of the raga, of the Radha-Krishna story, of the ardhanarishwara figure in which the male Shiva and female Parvati are one, of the Shiva lingam in which the phallus emerges from the yoni [see Figure 8]). In the west it is often an "I" in union with something–the divine, nature, the beloved; in this art, the ultimate form requires the "I" as an exclusive partitioning to serve as a trace or echo, one triangle in an embroidery, one square in the body of the bull, one step in the dance. Is any westerner taught to think of the self as trace or echo?

I began by musing on market logic pervading western understanding of things, selves, art, any form of culture. Clearly a great strength of the west is its ability to manage and manipulate the objects it sees as its horizon of being, as clearly as one could trace counter-traditions in the west trying to imagine what such a basic logic excludes from possibility. As clearly as the west looks, has looked, to the east to model some of those possibilities. This isn’t the paragraph I wanted to write; it starts to be about the mindtrap of orientalism, about new age naïveté, about why Republicans might not be nice to people they don’t know. Perhaps some taint of that other paragraph is inevitable if one even wants to explain to friends about how tradition feels to those for whom it seems less lost than it does for me, or to explain how an art works that did not pass through a modernist period which thought art stood somehow apart from the rest of it, or through an historical epoch in which the ways we relate to one another and the ways we make things were torn apart and resynthesized to serve, it feels like, someone else’s interests. Is it that when I look at India, I see a struggle, who knows how futile, against a process that felt completed here to me as I grew up in America’s fifties suburbs? I hope it has more to do with wanting to understand that crucial piece of cultural context I would otherwise miss when I read current Indian fiction, itself a transcultural enterprise in which the hybrid postcolonial Indian picks for reflection (and perhaps resistance) the very narrative engine by which western culture re-engineered its pre-industrial consciousness? But why should my position be any different from that daring fictionist, any less conflicted, any less ambiguous, any less mixed than folk theater or the spectacle of villagers playing Rajasthani folk music for us tourists out in the Thar desert as the sun sets…

I thought before writing this section that I would call it "Tradition," in hopes that I could condense for western readers the progress I’ve made thus far in trying to understand what that word means from the inside, from a different inside than my own, from a different history and a different social reality. It changed to "How Art Works" when I finally realized that it is more helpful to think of tradition as an art than as a legal code, an authority, even a repository. And that it is more helpful to think of art working to make tradition, to make it live, than to think of art making artworks. I’m well-trained and well-practiced in thinking in those ways I want now to choose against, at least for a while, at least in part. At the Dakshinkali temple in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal, people take their offerings to the goddess down to the mountain stream that flows through the temple gorge. They wash their goat and ornament it with flowers and color. The ornamentation is crucial: one wants a thing for the goddess at its most beautiful. The washing is even more crucial: if the goat doesn’t shiver in the cold water, it isn’t worthy to offer. I think all that went into this chapter was like taking us down to the stream to see if we shiver. Isn’t shivering a version of vibration? Om.


Or perhaps the chapter is not done after all. If I’ve learned anything it ought to change the way, as a literature professor, I read stories; what seems one kind of story to me as a postmodern westerner ought to feel quite different after supposing I can write Om at the end of a paragraph without self-parody or condescension toward my subject. It should change the way I work the relationship between formal and thematic elements. It should change what I look for, what I expect.

Chudamani Raghavan writes in both Tamil and English; Susie Tharu and K. Lalita introduce her by explaining that "many of Chudamani’s plots explore how, given identical situations, men and women are treated differently by society" (334). "Nangam Ashramam" (The Fourth Ashram) was judged the best Tamil short story of 1972: one must expect this to be an excellent work of its kind. A woman’s version of passing through the four stages of "man’s" life (bachelor and student, householder, retirement "in the woods," and complete renunciation), this story, one must expect, cuts against the grain of Hindu orthodoxy and promises us some familiar liberationist motifs, among others.

"It’s flat," a western reader tells me. The story is simple, in one sense, for the absent protagonist, the dead woman, has been through three stages, each marked by a different lover/husband, and has committed suicide because the third man would not give her a divorce permitting her final stage of sannyasin, renunciation. "I knew almost immediately it was suicide and that the guy narrating wouldn’t let her go." No mystery, no hidden scene with a sure thereness we’d find by drawing back the curtain or peering through the keyhole, no line beginning in confusion or darkness and ending with clarity and light, an ending that ends, satisfies, releases, carries away into the vicarious world of fiction that extra charge of transference from our own dark primal confusions. "The characters are wooden; there’s no growth or change, no epiphany. I don’t feel like I’m inside them." Mystery, sexuality, death, mainstays of our fiction (and its metaphysics) and of this story: perhaps one might have expected a happier match between reader and story.

"Was I crying for you, Shankari, or for myself? … It was my own loss I mourned. Where would I ever find such a perfect gem?" (336). This revelation is not from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse in which "the violent mourning which then grips me is the mourning of the Image-repertoire itself: it was a beloved structure, and I weep for the loss of love, not of him or her" (31). The western postmodernist is shocked to discover in Barthes that it is The Symbolic itself he (pronomial gender intended) has craved, that his true beloved is Discourse, that it is structure and not the violent difference of a human other that he desires. But "The Professor," as he is called by all in the story, has lost neither a "her" nor a structure, but a "gem," multi-faceted, but static:

Wondrous that a woman he’d known all her thirty-eight years had suddenly been both strange or new and what he’s always looked for, that she should both stand before him and be a pervasive sacred vision. Sacred magic, she has wrought this change in him by choosing him, and by telling him yes, she knew what she was doing, that "I never do anything without thinking it through."

He has found, that is, the gem that unites all contraries in itself, tells him it’s ok to own it, marries his "understanding" to a body (hers? his?), and then sustains him, for years, happily, until the day she asks for a divorce so that she can move on. He hadn’t moved before she arrived, he does not wish to move now, he was a still point with her, he wants her as a still point, symmetrically opposite to him, "equal" according to his mode. He may, that is, recall how "our ancestors decree[d] the code of four ashramans," but he does not live them (he extends bachelorhood through the age of the householder; almost to the age of the sannyasin, "my love became a madness … I couldn’t let her go, so excessive was my love for her and the greed I felt" (343). He has the liberty to disregard the fluidity of dharma (duty) because of his gender, but he feels the shame of trying to hold, trying to see life as a "gem" rather than as passage ("Nothing could keep her bound," he muses; she is unlike him in all things).

This is the sermon ("it gets too prosy at the end," the reader tells me):

He can feel "shame" over his attempt to contain or fix her, but he is, still, already wondering "where would I ever find" another. We, western readers, are that Professor, understanding this story as he does, as his tragic refusal to allow her to do as she wishes. This cautionary tale of constraint is as flat, prosy, and predictable as my reader says it is, lacking character development and complexity, lacking a plot in which actions draw out the unexpected inner qualities, lacking controlling metaphors that constellate themes and forms as a harmonic vision. His tropes (gem, vision, searching and finding, the end that was in the beginning ["what I had always been …"], equilibration) configure our formalism.

Precisely our problem, to find our highly naturalized protocols for narrative fingered as the villain in a fable of gender and theology. The liberating, modernizing, egalitarian West as the epicenter of a death instinct corroding Hindu culture from within? Too strongly said, but the Professor’s thinking and our practices resonate in a discomfiting way that speaks to why this prize-winning story can fail for a western reader. The story is not "in" a character, is not an interiority at play (or work) in the world; it is not even "in" the absent one, Shankari (whose name is the feminine form of Shiva’s, Shankar, hence naming her for the goddess Parvati but in the form that reminds one of the Ardhanari, the combined male/female form of this primal deity). The story, instead, takes place in the resonance between them, between her ashraman and his, among the forms of love and roles and changes that each experiences, between his practice and his rightful dharma, and ultimately among the complexities of Indian culture in which we can list a cast of thousands: the very patriarchal Aryan vedanta and the persistence of the Mother, the maleness of Islamic and British invaders and the "feminine" qualities of Hindu gods, the constraints upon all power (whether based in gender or caste or politics)–the material weight of history and tradition–and the illusory character of all things including history, tradition, deities, gender, and individuality.

And so. For these men, a fatal convergence between the gemlike logic of fixity and unity and, on the other hand, the imperatives toward gradual renunciation built into the dharma of life’s stages. For Shankari, this dharma is highly context-sensitive as she negotiates what is possible for her under the constraints of gender. Her dharma, the Professor opines, is always conjugal and varies with the mode of her investment in sexuality (as preconscious sensation, as body, as mind), each mode subsuming rather than simply replacing the prior. His way of catching himself in that last point is to have said that "she gave up everything, or rather, she experienced and outgrew everything": "giving up" is more his own logic–in which beings and ways of living are things you have or don’t–while experiencing and outgrowing are her logic (and more closely the dharma than his logic). Outgrowing keeps the prior as part of oneself, a younger self to which one is always related.

It also tells us something that he holds the right of choosing, while she waits upon outside forces to permit the change she has thought through on her own (tuberculosis kills the first husband, the second grants divorce, the third refuses). One of the key resonances happens between the story’s vision of her dharma and the thoroughly patriarchal and thus alien context in which its practice must suffer. His role is imperial, hers the colonized, her choices comprise permission or death, her one "failure" in negotiating her passages coming at the point when she would "outgrow" the conjugal. No term, no concept, and no individual consciousness, provides a sufficient center for organizing this story either as a vector (our nineteenth-century organic developmental template) or as a gem (our twentieth-century formalist or "system" template). The hierarchical imperium of gender, however strong its social enforcers, is implicated in the leveling and relativizing effects of dharma. One thinks of the way in which certain tribals belong to (differing) groupings by gender, clan, achievement, and age group: these different clusterings constrain and de-absolutize each other and have a strange (to us, perhaps) effect upon self-consciousness. One is a multiplicity multiplying in the interplay or resonance among the roles and responsibilities and privileges of these groupings. One is not one’s own self so much as one is enabled into the patternings afforded by these groupings. The imperatives of duty, the attachments of the body’s various seductions; the illusory character of "selves" and "worlds" and the hardnesses of what one comes up against; the resonances we’ve listed playing outward into multiplicity, the peculiar sort of non-self-identical unity in which they’re all ultimately held.

These lines of relation barely graze the interiority of the characters–they affect what goes on "inside," but "inside" is the least meaningful of the sites of the story. The story’s real site, then, is in resonance, a hum, the in-betweenness of simultaneously real and illusory individuality, but an individuality thinkable, livable, only in terms of its "conditions of exteriority," to quote my favorite phrase of Foucault’s. The story does not contain its reading, its epiphany, its form: the form is meditative, an experiencing and outgrowing of its terms, a playing out or a working or a weaving of its juxtapositions, its color-cycling, its dialogic contraries. It is a great Tamil story because it begins echoing, echoing back through her lives to the dharmas of stage, vocation, class, individual nature, and to the kind of primary energy with which one undertakes life (possession? jouissance? outgrowing?), and to how one turns upon the wheel(s) (with all the ambiguity between turning and being turned implicit in "turns upon"). How does art work? In the shiver of a primal syllable that holds all that it fails to contain.