The forest closed in all around us as the sun was infringing the western-ghats in a halo of orange and red. And it was not just another evening for the four of us who treaded softly over the drying cluster of leaves that carpeted the jungle floor: it was so eventful. The guide who led us all the way here was suddenly waving excitedly for us to troop over—he was pointing out something up in a broad leaved tree. I looked and could barely make out the bird’s shape in the evening glow. It was the Sri Lanka Bay Owl. The excitement was visible on all four of us and our guide was just as equally excited. He was gesturing like a magician and practically dancing in his glee. It was a moment to freeze for all eternity. We were on a forest track that branched off Urulan Thanni near the well known Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Earlier in the day Usha and I had driven up from our home in Trivandrum. This was strangely enough my first visit to this famed part of the world—a haven for all bird lovers.
Each of us has his own reason and his own reasons for writing; Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s words prominently focuses on his own—when he says:
Between us, we speak differently. And yet we make out
What the other intends in silence
Where speech separates from the air…
And, he continues:
Our language is still the speech of strangers. For others.
Murali Sivaramakrishnan is an artist, well-known as a painter, and for his exhibitions, a sentient human being “behind the hushed rainbow,” who probably turned to writing poetry because he realised that his words would go on to complement his visual creations. It would be difficult for me to comment on this. But this is certain: Murali Sivaramakrishnan is a poet who wonders at how being is elicited in this world, at the manner in which language transmutes and transfigures our experiences of things, and at the way that our experience of language transfigures us:
Afterwards, every seeker is bound to trace that stormy arc-
The real is never found till it dies a mortal death
Crying out in treacherous voice in pretentious guile
Even tempting the silent one, beguiling the sordid self.
There are the elements of rhetoric: every seeker is bound to trace that stormy arc—which map Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s work. It is rhetoric of a generalisation that brings the mind to bear against the discrete beings on our horizon.
As a reader, one has first to recognise that these words are not transparent:
The tragic and the perfect seldom drift farther than a shout
Suffering is the smallest toll that any art demands.
Later perhaps, as the words deliver their meanings, we can see through their referents. And then comes the discourse of the poet, which is reflexive. There is precisely the type of verbal tension here that results in good poems in free verse, and it causes the poem to be recognised as a singular expression, a cause perhaps to rejoice. And perhaps each poem in this collection finds its own way to “listen to the breeze. Learn with the leaves/ That fall and are returned…”
Murali Sivaramakrishnan is a generous poet. These thirty one poems are evidence too of a feeling-being who is caught in a different sort of irony with more tragic implications. Throughout his work, concern and a genuine feeling for others is communicated:
Do we know how to interpret the sky?
Do we know how many times the humming bird’s wings close and unclose
Each second by second?
Do we know how long the tiny insect flits about
Until it flies right into the flame?
Do we know how to interpret the signs of our times?
And then the poet askes:
Why should we know, nor care?
We are made to wax and to wane like the shadow of the black eagle
Against a candle-light moon.
We are made to drip like last night’s rain
Through yellow and green leaves
Over black boughs and wet earth.
We are hasty eyeless roots with no skies.
I am the Saint, I am the Sinner
With a past and a future.
I’d finally like to say that Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s poems go on to make us participants in the wonderment, sharing the discovery in his poems rather than reading the mere reportage of private perceptions. We, as readers, are there at the creation, the beginning, the making of a bond, rather than receiving the final product, perfectly made, shiny and without flaws. This is perhaps, what makes Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s work human, bringing him closer to our lives. This poet never hesitates to remind us of our existence, and to talk ourselves into how and why we go on living. It is not an easy thing to do for a poet. In these sad and difficult times for our race—the human race, that is—it is comforting to people who love literature to know that there are poets and artists like Murali Sivaramakrishnan alive and working.
June 17, 2016
Sheldon Pollock has done pioneering work in the field of Sanskrit studies, and the book under review alongside his magnum opus The Language of Gods in the World of Men is part of a series onHistorical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought. In fact, a brief review like this might not do full justice to the scope and range of A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics. Six chapters, densely packed with text, translation, commentary and explications (including several previously unavailable in reliable translations) prefaced by an erudite introduction tracking the various issues relating to the conceptual framework of rasa, its avatars, extensions and exclusions, make this work unique and a collector’s item. The reader gets a brilliant compendium of comparative aesthetic scholarship in elegant prose. The book is taxing for the non-initiate but a feast for any discerning student of Indian aesthetics.
What is rasa? When was it actually formulated, and in what context? How did it assume such significance in the contexts of aesthetic debates? For several years, albeit such discussions had been fairly common in Indian academic circles, scholars have always felt a severe lacuna when it came to tracing the history of the concept in comprehensive terms.
Granted there have been insightful contributions from scholars like S.K. De, P.V. Kane, K. Krishnamoorthy, V. Raghavan and others, but Shelden Pollock has foregrounded many key elements that sort out the sequence of this elusive concept in clear-cut terms. He traces the trajectory of the idea of rasa from theatre to poetics. Indian scholars had designated literature as that which is ‘seen’ (on stage) and that which is ‘heard’ (through literature). Although poetry (kavya) is an all-inclusive term, theatre had developed suitably early in this country. The oldest extant text on dramaturgy in India is Bharata’s Natyasastra. This treatise is a comprehensive account of everything from ritual preliminaries of a theatrical performance to the various types of acting (language, gestures, facial expressions, costume and make-up) to music, dance and stage design. Chapter 6 in theNatyasastra is the closest thing we have to a foundational text of the discipline of aesthetics, where the celebrated “aphorism on rasa” is found. As Bharata sees it, rasa arises from conjunction of vibhava,anubhava and vyabhicharibhava — factors, reactions and transitory emotions.
When a theory that is exclusively developed for literature ‘seen’ is adapted to discussions on literature ‘heard’, there is bound to be a conceptual expansion, and this process of appropriation was transparent to the early theoreticians, says Pollock. “Generally speaking,” wrote Rudra Bhatta, in Srngaratilaka(early 9th century), “the nature of rasa has been discussed by Bharata and others in reference to drama. I shall examine it here, according to my own lights, in reference to poetry.”
The consequences of this expansion of rasa theory, according to Pollock, can be charted principally in three domains; the discursive, where the concept was fused with the rhetorical; the conceptual, where the narrative required a new linguistic analysis; and the categorical, for the defining condition of rasa as something actually visible on the stage no longer constrained the understanding of what emotions could count as rasa. In all three domains, however, the discourse on rasa remained formal, and attention was squarely focused on the text.
Aesthetics as an academic discipline in the West begins formally with Alexander Baumgarten in 1735. Through the works of Kant and Gadamer, aesthetics remained a domain of sensory experience, holding little consequence to the world of knowledge. Now, as we translate the word rasa as taste, it ushers in a problematic when placed alongside the history of Western ideas. For instance, the configuration of the problem of emotion in literature. Western theory juxtaposes concerns with the author’s emotion in the creation of literary artwork (as in Romantic/ expressive theories) with the emotion embedded in the text (its formal properties) and with the reader’s emotional engagement with the text. As Pollock says, a strikingly analogous set of concerns can be found in India, but here the ideas take on the contours of a sharp historical development. The earliest element of rasa (as the tragic) is visualised by Valmiki. Then from Natyasastra onwards, there was a long period of intense textual analysis, until the 10th century when Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta foregrounded the aesthetic subject. And once rasawas seen as engendering emotions in the reader, the entire discourse shifted gear and the inquiry focused on its conceptual transformation.
It is a pleasure to follow the various streams of argument that Pollock traces through the classical texts.A poet does not pour forth rasa until he himself overflows with it, so it is with this insightful scholar. This is indeed a source book for rasa. What now remains is for regional scholars to take up and continue the debate on why and how aesthetics came to be subjugated to or dominated by knowledge. This could help us understand ourselves a little better by coming to terms with art and literature and reintegrating with the world at large.
A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics; trs & ed Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University Press, $80.
Murali Sivaramakrishnan is professor of English at Pondicherry University.
Keywords: A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics, Sheldon Pollock, Book review