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Cultural determination of literary theory.

A theory being an expression of a community's understanding (and expectation) of an object, it is inevitably determined by the intellectual culture of that community and shares in its wider assumptions about life and matters. One can show this cultural determination in respect of several major issues of literary theory in India.

Because India has been, and is, an oral culture, our conceptual categories of literary theory are rooted in oral compositions, renditions and performances and therefore many key concepts and issues of Western literary theory are not pertinent for Indian literary experience. Examples that prominently come to mind are the twin concepts of "writer" and "reader", the name "literature" itself, and the issue for example of "authorial meaning". The notion of "writing" implicit in the word "writer" renders inappropriate this conception of an author in a tradition of oral compositions. One would rather talk neutrally of a "composer", just as the Greeks talked of a "maker" (vate). The word "composer", apart from denoting only a mental process of putting together ideas/words, has the advantage of suggesting a certain relationship with musical composition, which is a valid association in that an oral literary composition is, besides other things, a structure of sounds (speech-sounds', and is therefore, assumed to have in Indian literary theory "an appeal for the ear", aural-interest, sravya, which is one of the two major attributes of any literary composition, preksa or visual interest, being the other. In the same way "reader" is a term that does not apply to the body of Indians for whom literary compositions are intended. We cannot talk of "reading" as the only or dominant mode of processing a literary text. In fact the dominant modes are "hearing" and "watching". So we have a complex processor of literary texts-hearer--viewer --reader. No one term would suffice to describe this complex function. We may appropriate the term "auditor" that Shelley uses in A Defence of Poetry, to express this complex of functions. The term "literature" itself, on account of its derivation from the root that means "letters" is inappropriate to describe the vast body of oral compositions, and the designation "oral literature" is really a contradiction in terms. We have in our tradition of literary thought a very apt term vanmaya which literally means "(that which is) permeated by/ has existence in speech vak, that is, language" and designates all verbal discourse including literary discourse. The other term, sahitya, made popular by the title of the 14th century theorist Viswanatha's book on literary theory, Sahitya-darpana has its origin in Bhamaha's definition of literary discourse--sabda, word; artha, meaning; sahitau indivisibility together; kavyam literary discourse; i.e. word and meaning together constitute literary discourse, which is a remarkable semiotic definition of literature by this seventh century literary theorist. All this shows that theory specific constructs are also culturally specific.

Take the question of "authorial intention", which is a major issue in the Western debate about literary meaning. At one time it was believed that the meaning of a text is the meaning intended by the writer--so the exegetical task is to reconstruct the author's intention by taking recourse to biography, i.e., history of the writer, the work and the age. With the death of the author, which followed upon the death of God in the Christian World in the 19th century, this concept acquired new dimensions. It led to an investigation of the very process of composition and it was postulated that the author perhaps exercised no control on his writing and that the texts virtually wrote themselves. Also that the author, an individual, has no existence as an individual, but is in fact a product of conglomerate social factors and circumstances. These are very significant ideas, and of value to all. However, the core concept of "authorial intention" does not apply in the Indian literary compositions which are more often than not characterized by an anonymity of authorship and this is so even when we know that Kalidasa is the author of Meghdoot. But then it is Kalidasa--we do not know who he was, when exactly he was born, how long did he live, what was his philosophical creed or religious persuasion and what food did he like? The name is no more than a marker, and is an equivalent of "X". The Indian world view does not attach any importance to the individual and the particular and the Indian mind constantly searches for patterns and paradigms of human experience--hence the marked preference for myth as a narrative mode. This anonymity is a feature of both the Sastras (philosophical treatises) and Kavya (imaginative compositions). Since the authorship is anonymous, there is no question of interpreting a literary text in terms of the author's intended meaning--instead the meaning has to be located autonomously in the text itself. No wonder therefore that the Indian literary theories are theories that are concerned with explicating how meaning is constituted and through what devices. They are all rooted in linguistics, the science of language which is the medium of literature, and therefore show remarkable affinities with the twentieth-century literary theories that had their origin in the linguistic revolution of de Saussure.

Consider now the question of preferred forms. In modern India one can see a divide between urban and rural literatures, between literate and oral and between literary and folk or popular literatures. In the dominant rural oral folk literatures the preferred forms are verse narratives (heroic and romantic) and short plays meant for performance in the open ground. Successful compositions, in both these forms, have both aural and visual interest for the audience sravya, preksa. These compositions in the manner of true orality are properly de-contextualised i.e., carry no information about the contexts of composition, seek not to inform the audience but to evoke certain states of being (emotional conditions) in them. Between the two, the Indian mind prefers the narrative witness, for example, the existence of the world's two major epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the existence of innumerable heroic and romantic narratives (akhyana, katha, kissa, etc.) in the literatures of all the major Indian languages. It is to be noted that these narrative compositions, particularly the epics, have strong dramatic elements and in fact, when they are enunciated they are performed as well as recited.

Consider next the questions of creativity, creative process and the sources of creativity. In the very origins of the Western tradition, in Plato (Republic, X) the carpenter is cited, and discussed as the paradigm artist, the first imitator of the ideational reality, who creates/who makes the appearance of them but not the reality and the truths this is a culture specific conception of "truth", "reality", and "appearance". In the Indian tradition, the metaphor for the artist is the "Kumbhakara", the potter, and this conceptualizes a very different creative process. The carpenter creates by measuring, segmenting and rearranging the medium--he is a geometrician dealing with the spatial reality. His creation is a rearrangement of elements. The potter does not work by segmenting and rearranging his material--his material, the clay, does not allow the precise segmenting that the wood is amenable to. In fact, the potter works with a lump of clay and what he does is to shape (as against re-arrange) the material with his alive hands to bring out (not create) the form which inheres in the material. The form is there, as dharma or karya (of karana, clay) as the Yoga philosophy claims (Patanjali's Yoga-sutras), and it is visualized by the artist--he sees the form in his mind's eye. His creativity lies in making manifest this privately visualized form, and the creative process is the process of transcription. In literature, it would mean shaping of the language-material to approximate and express what the writer has conceived. The success of the artist, the element of beauty in his work, rests in how well he shapes the material. He has to so shape the material that the bhava, the essence, of the object can be cognized by the viewer/reader; that is, bhavabodha is possible. The Indian theory of representation does not insist on an exact reproduction of the appearances, the surface reality, the lineaments and the wrinkles on a face or the rills in a landscape. In the backdrop of a philosophy that does not accept appearance as the whole or even partially significant reality, the theory of art enjoins upon the artist the task of making manifest that essential reality, the being, which lies beyond the apparent form and name of the object. This essential reality, not being apparent, is grasped only by those who have a special perception, kranta darsinah, men and women capable of direct appreciation by virtue of their capacity for deep meditation, for the essential reality, the being of an object can be perceived or felt, only in the inner self.

This process of meditation, the process of imaging, has been explicated by the Buddhist thinkers in their discussions of theories of art the artist begins with a ceremonial purification of the self, for the sublime conceptualization and expression requires a certain degree of purity, both physical and mental. He, then, withdraws to a solitary place, for the mind remains distracted in crowded places and routines. For ekagrata, one-pointed and focused consciousness, one needs solitude which makes it possible for one to be alone with one's own self. In the third stage, the artist offers daily acts of worship to the deity/object he proposes to transcribe or represent. That is, the artist cultivates through ritual performance, an attitude of love and reverence for the object-only with love and reverence, does the mind become aware of the beauty of the object, as an object takes on the beautiful hues when we look upon it with love and reverence. In the next stage, the artist consciously cultivates and realizes in thought what are called the four "infinite moods" of friendliness, compassion, sympathy, impartiality so that the artist's self is cleansed of all the negative feelings and vibrations and acquires a vastness and a tolerance fit for "sublime" subject and repression, for as Longinus had said (in On the Sublime) that no one who has led a mean and petty life can comprehend great or noble thoughts and subjects. In the fifth stage, the artist meditates on the vast emptiness (sunyata) to destroy his ahamkara, the consciousness of self, which would otherwise intervene between him and the object of his meditation. And then in the sixth stage he repeats and meditates on the bijamantra, that is, the grand attribute(s) of the object or deity. He inculcates these powers and attributes in his own self and experiences the strength and devotion of Hanumana, the filial piety of Rama, the naughty self of the child Krishna, the compassion of Buddha, and the introversion of Mahavira. And once he is permeated by the attributes of the objects, he meditates on the dhyana-mantra--that is, he brings up to his mind's eye the form of the object or deity. Now, so deep and total is the mind's concentration on the object, that the object or deity virtually appears before him--as if it is actually present. It is said in the tradition for example, that when Valmiki was to compose Ramayana, then all the events actually unfolded before him and all the characters appeared in person to him.

This is a theory of creativity which assumes that the artist has complete knowledge in advance of what he is going to represent or compose. This is evidently different from the modern theory that claims that the text writes itself and the artist is merely an instrument and does not know in which direction his narrative and his characters will proceed. The Indian conception of knowledge allows some gifted minds to comprehend, with equal felicity, the past, the present and the future, and a great artist is a gifted mind that understands the totality of the object, its past, present and future, becomes inward with it, before transcribing it.

The relationship between the artist and the object is not one of dominance by the artist--he is not a "creator" in the Indian tradition. He is a sadhaka, a worshipper; a yogi, an ascetic; a bhakta, a worshipper; who is full of love and reverence for the object of his thoughts, and his art is a form of meditation or prayer. The aesthetic experience is a sacred experience. The artist is mentally and spiritually a worshipper and in the actual handling of his material, a craftsman--the sculptor and the mason--are alike. So Panini (in Astadhyayi) while mentioning various guilds of craftsmen also mentions the poet's guilds. One can contrast this conception with the Western conception of the artist as a creator on the analogy of God as the prime creator. In Platonic thought and tradition, the source of the artists' creativity is in divine inspiration. In the Indian thought there are three sources of creativity (vide, Rajasekhara, Kavyamimamsa)--abhyasa (practice), vyutpatti (derivation; study or knowledge of existing art or literature) and pratibha (inborn ability; intuition). The artist has an innate ability, but he must study and become familiar with the practice of the earlier masters, and then he must practice his own art constantly. Indian philosophers, musicians, dancers, architects and poets, all display these three attributes.

Consider now, the relationship that holds between the audience/reader and the object of art. With reference to literature, three distinct stages in the evolution of ideas in this respect can be discerned. In Bharata's Natyasastra, we have the notion of preksaka, an observer, an impersonal observer or receiver of the text. In the 6th/7th century, in Bhamaha, Vamana, we have a revised notion--the notion of samajika, a social being, a participant in a collective performance as it were. Finally, in Anandavardhana, 9th century A.D., we get the concept of a sahrdaya, literally "of the same heart"; that is, that reader/viewer/hearer can fully comprehend and appreciate a work of art who has the same intellectual and emotional equipment, the same sensibility, as the artist.

The three stages in the conception of a "reader" are also indicative of the specific relationship that obtains between the text and the audience in the Indian socio-cultural reality. This is a multiple and complex relationship's perhaps one would expect in an oral tradition. The texts are performed, narrated, studied, and enounced (ritual enunciation.). They are used for education (in Kathas, oral recitations/narrations), for ritual purposes in ceremonies for (crisis management in situations of distress such as defeat in or prospect of war) and for intellectual advancement (adhyayana or study). As against the monistic reader-function in which the modern reader relates to literature in a literate society, in India, very complex relationship--socio-cultural relationship holds between an individual and his texts, and in that complex relationship, the reading-function is only a minor function, as most Indians learn their texts through hearing (varied folk/ oral narrations) and watching (varied fold, oral performances). For example, more people have become acquainted with episodes from the Mahabharata through Teejan Bai's performances than through individual study. In this perspective of the oral tradition, the visual media, the television and the videos, for example, are perfect instruments of communication and fit in beautifully with the Indian traditions of experiences of art and literature. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Ramayana and Mahabharata were such eminent successes and had more than 90% viewership. In India, watching them every Sunday became almost sacred act, a ritual with Indian families.






Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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Author:Kapoor, Kapil
Publication:Creative Forum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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