The State of the Study of Indian Aesthetics: Then and Now

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By Parul Dave Mukherji, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Interest in Indian aesthetics has revived in recent times since its resurgence in the middle of 20th century. During mid 1950s, a space for dialogue between Indian and western aesthetics had opened at a time when the newly independent nations like India were expected to turn to their past to reinterpret it from an unshackled standpoint. It is to be noted that in 1965, a special issue of the Journal of Art and Art Criticism was devoted to Oriental aesthetics with contributions from leading Indian thinkers and scholars of the time ranging from K C Pandey, P J Chowdhury and Ramendra Kumar. Participating in this debate were Archie Bahm, Eliot Deutsche and Thomas Munro whose investment in this cross cultural study of aesthetics was remarkable. The euphoria for exploring new avenues and alternative models to Eurocentric understanding of aesthetics was short-lived and in more than a decade and a half, it was displaced by scholarly indifference.

One of the reasons for this failure was the kind
of framework of comparative aesthetics subscribed by the Indian scholars was
still conditioned by colonial notions of aesthetics. So if one of the leading
experts of Indian aesthetics, K C Pandey[1] asserted equivalence
between classical Sanskrit notions of imitation (anukrti) and the Greek theory of mimesis, A K Coomaraswamy,
following P Masson Oursel[2], underlined the difference
between the two traditions. How else does one understand the alternation
between feverish search for Sanskrit
equivalents for every western terminology- catharsis, mimesis, and tragedy and
so on, by K C Pandey and repudiation of
such comparativism by Orientalists like Coomaraswamy and Masson P. Oursel ?

More recently, the time seems ripe for an
ascendency of comparative aesthetics and that has got to do with our era of
globalization when the media and the easier modes of travel have brought
diverse cultures face to face. Aesthetics which had come under censure during
the cultural studies turn in social sciences has also made a recent comeback in
the west. [3]Meanwhile, the study of
Indian aesthetics has received more serious attention outside India.[4]In a strange way, the 1950s
moment is back again but with a difference.

Perhaps in the wake of the cultural studies
turn, the discipline of art history is again poised for a theoretical
rethinking and experiencing exhaustion with Eurocentric art theories. For art
historians and aestheticians in the west, there seems to be an urgent need to
explore an alternative space that may yield to a different starting point for
understanding aesthetic concepts.

Recent Works on India Aesthetics:

At first, while exploring writings on Indian aesthetics, I had
assumed that keeping a narrow focus on comparative aesthetics will allow me to
grasp the specificity of theoretical concerns. But wading through tomes of
recent writings on Indian aesthetics, I arrived at a startling conclusion that
it was only under the rubric of comparative aesthetics that any kind of
research on Indian aesthetics was carried out. The comparativist moment was not
exclusive to 1950s following Indian Independence when a new post colonial space
was offered to Indian scholars to revisit their past and throw light on
pre-modern concepts of aesthetics in India. In other words, comparativism
informed the very enterprise for studies in Indian aesthetics that has
continued up to the present times even if the specific nature of the questions
asked has changed over decades.

Before I take up more recent writings on Indian aesthetics, let me consider
two publications during 1970s in India and abroad.

It is important to place two important books in comparison- Edwin
Gerow’s A Glossary of Indian Figures of

and G Hanumantha Rao’s Comparative
Aesthetics: Eastern and Western[6]
Gerow’s entry into Indian aesthetics is through Sanskrit poetics and he raises
salient questions about the interrelationship between poetics, aesthetics and
dramaturgy. In place of simple comparison between eastern and western
aesthetics, he identifies a problematic within comparativism- the persistence
of a Crocean bias that has led the scholars of Indian aesthetics to ignore the
school of rhetoric or Alamkara school which was driven by formalist concerns.

Almost re-scripting the title of K C Pandey’s two volumes which had
appeared in the 1950s, is G Hanumantha Rao’s work –Comparative Aesthetics: Eastern and Western. In the Introduction,
Rao makes clear the continuation of the enterprise of comparative aesthetics:

This comparative study of the concepts of aesthetics and art begins
where previous studies like those of A K Coomaraswamy’s Transformation of Nature in Art and K C Pandey’s Comparative Aesthetics leave off. [i]

While this book offers interesting insight into comparativism, it
tends to engage largely with western aesthetic theories and references to
Indian aesthetics appear as an afterthought and almost relegated to footnotes.
Rao makes it a self-conscious project to compare traditional Indian aesthetic
theories with what he calls as the contemporary western philosophy of art-this
by itself is a viable enterprise but it ends up in an asymmetrical comparison
between Indian and western aesthetics where the main focus is on Hegel, Croce,
Cassirer, Plato, Aristotle, I A Richards, Freud, Langer , Ruskin and other western
aestheticians while discussions on Abhinavagupta, Bharata, Anandavardhana,
Bhamaha, Bhavabhuti, Rajasekhara are restricted mainly to one chapter on Indian
Philosophy of Art.

On the other hand, Eliot Deutsche’s Comparative Aesthetics, charters a more nuanced terrain in the way
he carefully steers the middle ground between cultural specificity and
universalism without ascribing it to the eastern and western aesthetics
respectively. Alert to the possibility of exoticizing Eastern aesthetics, he
posits the culturally different formulation of the rasa aesthetics, for example, as enriching both the disciplines of
aesthetics and philosophy. Unlike K C Pandey and Hanumatha Rao, his primary
focus rests upon Indian discourse-particularly as formulated by Abhinavagupta
even if the kind of questions he asks draws from the tradition of western
aesthetics about subjectivity of emotions in aesthetic experiences.

The decade of 1980s witnessed the publication of Padma Sudhi’s Aesthetic Theories of India, which
revived comparative approach advocated by K C Pandey[7]. However, the sections on Indian and
western aesthetic theories remain juxtaposed and do not speak to each other.
Leaving large tracts of references from Sanskrit sources un-translated hampers
her flow of her arguments and assumes a singular address to a ‘native’ reader.

It is in the 1990s with the
publication of V K Chari’s Sanskrit
that a coherent comparativism is carried out from the perspective
of a literary critic. If Gerow’s concern was to highlight formalist dimension
of literary poetics, Chari shifted his focus on semantics and in the process,
underlined the bearing of philosophy, logic and linguistics on
literary/aesthetic theories. Much more critical than his predecessors, Chari
deployed comparativism that set up a conversation between western and Indian
theories of aesthetics and brought out
cultural specificity of both. It problematized the reception of Abhinavagupta’s
aesthetics which was largely assumed to be dictated by his transcendentalism.
Contesting such easy appropriation of Indian aesthetics as theology, Chari
extricated the aesthetic strands from Abhinavagupta’s contribution and argued
for its total autonomy from religious discourse.

But, despite the transcendentalist vocabulary, neither Abhinavagupta
nor the other exponents actually seek to subsume aesthetics under theology or
illuminist metaphysics of one brand or another. Again, although these critics
tend to describe rasa experience in mystical terms, they never fail to seek validation
for their theories at the logical, phenomenological level and to secure for
criticism an objective aesthetic basis.[8]

While the critical retake on Abhinavagupta is commendable in the way
certain stereotyping of Sanskrit aesthetics has been contested, he continual
concentration on the rasa theory and its interpretation offered by the 11th
century aesthete, Abhinavagupta has led to homogenization of Sanskrit
aesthetics as ‘Indian aesthetics’; it has
occluded wide ranging discourses within Sanskrit aesthetics such as
anukrtivada or theory of mimesis, for instance and a highly sophisticated but
under-researched discourse of Tamil aesthetics.

Recently, the most dominant discourse that informs contemporary art
theory is that of inter-culturalism that appears to be a direct response to
globalization. World Art Studies is a new field that has emerged in the west
which claims to correct traditional art history’s euro
centrism.  Within World Art Studies, aesthetics emerges as a
universalist component through which cross cultural comparisons again become
possible in a postmodernist era of the celebration of
cultural difference. It is against the valourization of cultural differences that the current ascendency of humanist universalism has
to be situated.[9] Perhaps, as a
reaction to the last decade of the dominance of culture studies approach that
underlined plurality of cultural specificities, the new trend of global
aesthetics foregrounds commonality of sense perception that cuts across
cultural difference. At its extreme lies the stress on universalism that has
led many practitioners towards the biological given of human brain and to
explore the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics.[10] On one hand, the World Art Studies aims to
contain the whole world in its global sweep and yet adopt pure empirical ‘case
study’ approach.

World Art Studies examines the phenomenon of art through a broader
cultural, global and temporal perspective, bringing together a uniquely
exhaustive range of perspectives on art and borrowing approaches from the study
of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology and geography as
models–alongside more conventional art historical perspectives. In that
spirit, this volume goes beyond abstract models, using case studies to
demonstrate and examine specific methods of investigation. [11]

Indian aesthetics gets subsumed under world aesthetics and is
grouped with African, Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. In this clubbing of
Indian aesthetics with other world aesthetics, again it is via rasa theory and the
canonized figures of Abhinavagupta and Anandavardhana that Indian aesthetics
gets represented- pushing other facets of Sanskrit aesthetics and particularly
Tamil aesthetics into oblivion.

the Logic of Binarism & Synthesis

I am certainly not suggesting that finding differences between the
east and west is more heroic than looking for homologies. Rather, collapsing
differences located within the cultural specificities of any two given
traditions in the name of grand universals like Beauty, Aesthetics and so on or
erecting insuperable boundaries of differences between the two are equally
problematic. It seems to be more productive to acknowledge that there is
neither a simple transcendence possible, if that is even desirable, itself
being a fraught concept nor a synthesis.

The very fact that there is no one-to-one correspondence between
terms like ‘naturalism’, ‘imitation’ or ‘mimesis’ and the Sanskrit terms, is
itself an important conceptual pointer.
Of course, the absence of a word does not imply that the concept does
not exist. But it offers a significant clue as to rich problematic that needs
to be articulated and developed.

It will be too reductive to simply level a charge of ethnocentrism
against Masson-Oursel for his denial of naturalism or conscious imitation of
the visible world in Indian art but it has to be seen as an attempt of one
culture to theorize another at a time when India was still a British colony. Or
for that matter, Pandey’s unproblematic acceptance of the terms of western aesthetics
has to be seen against the history of Aesthetics around the middle of 20th
century when comparative aesthetics constituted a powerful genre of this
discipline. However, in the contemporary, post-colonial present, one cannot
subscribe to the dated methods or assumptions structuring “the comparative
method”. An alternative cannot be sought
in postulating the east as a separate entity and searching for lost past and
indigenous criteria, untouched by the western contact, for evaluating its art
traditions. That will amount to substituting the nationalist with the nativist
discourse and result in methodological insularity and ahistoricality.

The only way to break out of the double binds of the east/west
polarization is to- a) critically historicize first the discipline of
aesthetics as it emerged in the west and the terms central to western
aesthetics rather than taking it as Aesthetics, a given and ahistorical,
universalistic concept; b) in a double gesture, to not only problematized their
application in a non-western context by foregrounding cultural differences and
the rich, complicated terrain of translatability but to anticipate
repercussions that this problematisation
could have within western aesthetics.

Works Cited

Ames, Van Meter. “Aesthetic values in the East and West”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism XIX, No.1, (1960): pp.3-16.

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of
Religion: Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam,
and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Bahn, Archie. J. “Is a Universal Science of Aesthetics Possible?”Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism
XXXI (1972): pp.3-7.

Braembussche, Antoon van
den (Editor),  Kimmerle Heinz (Editor),
Note Nicole (Editor). Intercultural Aesthetics: A Worldview
Perspective Interdisciplinary Reflection on Science, Nature, Art, Human Action
and Society)
Springer, 2009.

Bryson, Norman. Vision and
Painting: The Logic of the Gaze.
New Haven and London: Yale University
Press, 1983.

Chatterjee, Partha. Ed. Texts of
Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal
. Calcutta: Samya, 1996.

Chaudhury, P. J. “Catharsis in the light of Indian Aesthetics”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
Supplement to the Oriental issue XXIV
No. 1, Part 1 Fall (1965): pp.151-163.

Deutsch, Eliot.
Studies in Comparative Aesthetics,
University of Hawaii Press, 1975.


[1] K.C. Pandey, Comparative
Aesthetics, Indian Aesthetics & Western Aesthetics
. 2 vols. Varanasi:
The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 1950, 1956.

[2], P. Masson-Oursel “A Comparison between Indian Aesthetics and
Philosophy.” Trans.

A.K.Coomaraswamy (from Review Des Arts Asiatique) Rupam 27/28 (1925): pp.91-94.

[3] Michael Kelly, Aesthetics
, 4 vols., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

[4] Ken-i-ichi Sasaki, ed. Asian
, Japan, Kyoto University Press, 2010.

[5] Gerow, Edwin. A Glossary of
Indian Figures of Speech
. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

[6] G Hanumantha Rao, Comparative
Aesthetics: Eastern and Western
. Mysore: Mysore Printing and Publishing
House, 1974.

[7] Padma Sudhi’s Aesthetic
Theories of India
, Pune,
Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1983.

[8] V K Chari, Sanskrit Criticism,
New Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass,
1993, p.11.

[9] Note the very title of an essay by Ben-Ami Scharfstein is “The
Common Humanity Evident in European, African, Indian, Chinese and Japanese
Aesthetic Theory” in World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and
eds Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried Van Damme, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008, p.343.

[10] John Onians. “Neuroarthistory: Making More Sense of Art” in World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and
, eds Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried Van Damme, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008, p.265-286.

[11] Ibid, Back cover blurb.