DHRUVA MISTRY

Work1990-1995
introduced by David Cohen,
Anthony Wilkinson Fine Art, London(34 pages)


Bad Infinite:
Delight of the Reason N,
1993-94



From the poets' circle,
A proposal for the New British Library 1990


 

 

 

 

 


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A WELL-SPRING OF DELIGHT: DHRUVA MISTRY AND THE RASAS

"Only a man of little wit can fail to recognize that art is by nature a well-spring of delight, whatever may have been the occasion of its appearance."

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy


RASA is perhaps the crucial concept in Indian aesthetics, and like so much that comes out of India, the word itself functions on different levels. It can mean "flavour", "taste", "relish". It can also mean "sap" or "juice", and following from this, it can refer to the best or finest aspect of something, its "essence". "Poetry", according to Vishwanatha, author of a classic i4th Century treatise in poetics, the Sahitya Darpana, "is a sentence the soul of which is RASA". At the mundane level, a RASA is one particular flavour, at a higher level it is, in Coomaraswamy's phrase, "the delight of the reason", akin to religious bliss (in fact a substitute for it, for one inclined to delight is not free of earthly or sensual attachments). Like the English word "taste", RASA can be a generality or a specific.

The concept of RASA dates back at least as far as the Natyashastra of Bharata, a training manual for actors in sacred theatre written in the 4th or 5th Century. Bharata identified eight different RASAS and their corresponding moods or humours, the BHAVAS. The first RASA, for instance, SHRINGARA, the erotic, corresponds to RATI, love, while the eighth, ADBHUTA, the marvellous, corresponds to VISMAYA, astonishment. It is hard to suggest an equivalent to the RASAS in western culture: they have some of the properties of rhetorical devices or tropes, something too of literary or artistic genres, but to think of them in such terms is to underestimate their significance. For in Bharata's scheme, the RASAS encompass the whole gamut of experience: the performer or maker artfully and subtly works with a particular or dominant RASA, and this in turn activates the corresponding BHAVA in the audience. Audience response is crucial to the completion of the work. The member of the audience is a RASIKA; aesthetic experience is RASAVADANA, literally "tasting of RASA",

By the middle ages a whole body of theory was in place, a complex hierarchy of the various sentiments and their related moods and traits, which had come to apply to all the arts, although there is relatively little direct theoretical application of RASA to the visual arts. Each RASA had its corresponding colour and deity. And a ninth RASA, SHANTA, the quiescent, was added to the list compiled by Bharata. Even more were suggested by various authors, but the canonical list of RASAS and corresponding BHAVAS is as follows:

  1. SHRINGARA (the erotic) – RATI (love)
  2. HASYA (the comic) – HASA (mirth, playfulness)
  3. KARUNA (the pathetic) – SHOKA (sorrow)
  4. RAUDRA (the furious) – KRODHA (anger)
  5. VIRA (the heroic) – UTSAHA (energy)
  6. BHAYANAKA (the terrible) – BHAYA (fear)
  7. BIBHATSA (the odious) – JUGUPSA (disgust)
  8. ADBHUTA (the marvellous) – VISMAYA (astonishment)
  9. SHANTA (the quiescent) – SHAMA (tranquillity) *

Since 1990 Dhruva Mistry has treated the RASAS as a theme in their own right. In several series he has created allegorical figures or tableaux to personify each individual RASA. Indian art, like Hindu religion, is adept at lending human or animal form to abstract principles. And yet in giving shape and personality to each RASA Mistry has devised a new subject. Of course he draws extensively upon traditional iconography, upon works which in turn typify the various RASAS, but the actual bodying forth of, say, SHRINGARA, as a particular maiden, sitting cross-legged under a tree, is an iconographical departure. It can be compared to the way in which LIBERTE became an allegorical female subject after the French Revolution, culimating in the Statue of Liberty. The first instinct of the mob, on seeking a new statue for the pedestal formerly occupied by Louis XV in the Place de la Concorde, was to choose a statue of chaste, war-like Minerva. Similarly, Mistry might have carved a goddess or figure from mythology to evoke the erotic RASA. Indeed he has made many voluptuous female sculptures in the course of his career. But now he introduces us to a girl who is SHRINGARA, and who is as real and unreal a person as Durer's Melancholia.

Mistry's first set of RASAS was his entry to a competition for the new British Library building at St Pancras. These eight plasters were maquettes for the figures Mistry proposed for a sunken amphitheatre set within the plaza. He imagined, in the rather self-conscious way a foreigner might in such circumstances, that the organisers secretly hoped for busts of the great English poets. It is significant that he should reckon that his RASAS fulfill a similar function, signifying touchstones of inspiration and the range of poetic experience.

In this series, which he calls 'From the Poet's Circle', Mistry took the liberty of conflating the fourth and fifth of Bharata's original list (RAUDRA, the furious and VIRA the heroic) in order to make room for the later but canonically accepted ninth, SHANTA, the quiescent, in this set of eight. (He has not depicted SHANTA in subsequent series.) Mistry drew upon a variety of images and styles that had marked his career up until that time, which was appropriate, as the series was about diversity and totality of expression. The conflated RAUDRA/VIRA figure recalls his 'Reguarding Guardians', chimeras made-up of human, bull and bird components, with a nod in the direction of Picasso's 'Minotauramachy'. BIBHATSA, the odious, by contrast, is one of his abstracted stick figures, the limbs rendered like a courgette or cucumber, clutching a skull. SHANTA, the quiescent, is represented not by a figure but by a tree. The support – neutral elsewhere in the series – contributes here to the narrative: a mountainous island upon which a little sailing boat is beached. But the tree is pulsating with life, as if in defiance of the stated theme.

For the set of direct-wax bronzes pieces which followed, 'Dialectical Images: Delight of the Reason' 1992., Mistry treated the first seven of Bharata's original list. These are strange, spindling figures and groups. The whole set is pervaded by HASYA, the comic sentiment, in much the way that most figures in the plaster set are flavoured by the voluptuousness of SHRINGARA, while the following four sets of golden reliefs each titled 'Bad Infinite: Delight of the Reason' 1993-95 can be said to aspire to the condition of ADBHUTA, the marvellous. Gold is in fact the colour ascribed by the sages to ADBHUTA, so in covering all the reliefs with gold leaf, Mistry is implying that, whatever individual RASA is evoked, the very fact of RASA is marvellous. These bas-reliefs, which date from 1993-95 and which treat the original eight RASAS set out by Bharata, are Mistry's most complete and satisfying explorations of the theme.

This introduction is not the place to explore the iconology of Mistry's reliefs, to determine how much is borrowed, how much invented, or to track down sources. Such tasks will have to await a longer text by a better qualified author. One point that should be established, however, is that in the reliefs Mistry moves from the monumental aspect of the British Library series, where the figures are allegorical and generalised, to a more specific, narrational, pictorial idiom – the RASAS are shown doing rather than being. To give just one example: the SHRINGARA of the third set [SET O] depicts Sohni, a character in romantic literature, who swam across the river to meet her lover Mahiwal, using an empty pot as a buoy. This might seem to contradict the point made earlier, that Mistry depicts a RASA as an independent figure rather than choosing other figures who evoke the given RASA. But metaphysically-speaking there is no retreat to sentimentality on Mistry's part. On the contrary, there is an advance from autonomous allegory to a more complex anagogy, as a whole array of myth is recruited to the service of the philosophical meaning of RASA.

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Whatever other motives Dhruva Mistry had for making RASA his theme, at a certain level these series constitute an aesthetic manifesto. In his seven years training in fine art at the University of Baroda Mistry studied, as all students do, both western and Indian aesthetics. A British Council scholarship brought him to the Royal College of Art, London, in 1981, after which he was sculptor in residence at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. His great success in England (he was elected a Royal Academician in 1991, at thirty-four the youngest since Turner) is in no small measure a positive reaction to his Indianness which, there is no denying, he wears on his sleeve. But Mistry's art is strongly informed by other traditions too, notably Egyptian art, and, more significantly, by modernism. Why at this stage is Miistry asserting his belief in RASA when Indian themes and forms are already so apparent? I would suggest that more than a declaration of Indianness, Mistry presents RASA as a manifesto for beauty and the marvellous, qualities so down- trodden in an international artworld dominated by western values. For those of us who believe the art of our time, especially the institutionalised avantgardism that exercises such hegemony in museums and the media, is NIRASA, devoid of delight, Mistry's reliefs are literally that, a relief – like the cavalry that arrives at the end of a Western, only here it is an Indian who is chasing away cowboys!

The sort of art that grabs media attention these days and excites indignation among art lovers – precisely of course because it sets out to do both these things – deploys shock tactics to assault the senses, particularly those of revulsion and disgust. Often directness is accentuated by unmediated techniques: photography, or better still, "found" objects. In his RASA reliefs, Mistry depicts odious things: BIBHATSA drinks the blood of a victim, or is surrounded by bones and strewn body parts. But such horrors are depicted in the same format, colour, and style as the other RASAS: the odious is acknowledged as part of the continuum of life. There is also a dignified recognition that our apprehension of horror in art is of a fundamentally different order from our response to such events in real life. Art is at a remove from mundane life, and entails a higher state of consciousness.

The polemical side of Mistry's reliefs is signalled by his (typically) paradoxical title: 'Bad Infinite: Delight of the Reason'. The "Bad Infinite" is a term from Hegel, encountered by Mistry in Suzi Gablik's essay, Has Modernism Failed? (London, 1984) where Gablik asks: "Does post- modernism offer even greater scope for freedom, or is it merely the effect of what Hegel called the bad infinite – which claims to comprehend everything but is, in reality, a false complexity that merely covers up a lack of meaning." Clearly, Mistry takes the latter view, and offers RASA as an antidote to the false illusions of his age.

A moral and corrective vision of RASA is also to be found in the great modern interpreter of Indian culture, the Indian Ruskin, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy was, in fact, considerably inspired by Ruskin (despite the latter's aversion to Indian art) taking to heart the English critic's crucial distinction between AESTHESIS ("'mere animal consciousness of the pleasantness") and THEORIA ("exulting, reverent and grateful perception"). Coomaraswamy was not disdainful of the senses; he just insisted on the need for a higher transcendent moral faculty to complement them. To Clement Greenberg's statement that "the modern painter derives his inspiration from the very physical materials he works with", Coomaraswamy replied that this "actually means that the modern artist may be excited, but is not inspired. Modernism is about freedom for oneself, Indian (and medieval) art freedom from oneself."

The NIRASA art of our own time is radically different from the sort of abstraction championed by Greenberg: it is conceptualist rather than formalist. Where formalist abstraction can be said to wallow in "»ere aesthesis", conceptualism takes theory to the n-th degree, divorcing art from its foundation in the senses. Marcel Duchamp admitted that he "wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting... This is the direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than to an animal expression." But conceptualism and formalism are two sides of the same coin: both in their dogmatism exclude a vital component in art, form in the case of one, content the other. As Coomaraswamy wrote: "The two worlds, of spirit and matter, PURUSHA and PRAKMTI, are one: and this is as clear to the artist as it is to the lover or the philosopher. Those Philistines to whom it is not so apparent, we should speak of as materialists or as nihilists exclusive monists, to whom the report of the senses is either all in all, or nothing at all."

Mistry's reliefs engross the viewer – the RASIKA – with their inter- play of form and content. Even though western viewers, and no doubt some Indians too, will not be able to identify the myths and legends depicted, the very sense of narrative is enticing in itself, while the form adopted seems spiritualy edifying, philosophically right. These reliefs have an enlivened density about them, like the bewildering decorative and iconographic complexity of an Indian temple. But for all their quirkiness and naivity, they also have a tight and compelling sense of design. As reliefs they are between sculpture and painting, combining the physicality of one medium with the illusionism of the other, purposefully engaging sense and imagination in equal measure.

David Cohen, 1995

* This list. is taken From B. N. Goswamy Essence of Indian Art Asian Art Museum of' San Francisco 1986, page 271

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