My New Book— Strategies and Methods: Relocating Textual Meaning

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Sri Aurobindo and the aesthetics of transformation

Murali Sivaramakrishnan belongs to that rare breed of the vanishing (rather vanished) tribe of English teachers who are well-equipped with a strong foundation in the Indic spiritual tradition. Sturdily armed with a Sanskrit orientation, he approaches the territory of Indian aesthetics that angels dare not tread. It is common knowledge that the primary source of this discipline is thevedas and the upanisads. All great creations of art are the supreme emanation from the heart filled with rasanubhava. We do have a hoary tradition of aestheticians extending from Bharata of the fifth century BC down to Panditharaja Jagannatha of the 17th century who have thought long and thought deeply on what constitutes the nature and mode of existence of a work of art. The western critical tradition cannot pride itself of such unbroken continuity. There is a yawning unbridgeable gap of 10 centuries between the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. and the European renaissance of the 14th century, the interim medieval age relegating arts as unwanted baggage in its over-insistence on religion.

This book is an attempt, in the words of the author, “to reread the contribution of the mystic in the light of contemporary scholarship,” with an approach that is “holistic and integral, methodology not derivative but comparative, and poetically sensitive.” The work, a collection of articles previously published during 1993-2011 in various journals, is divided into four major sections in 11 chapters with an addition of two personal, contemplative musings — for me the best of the lot — and a select bibliography. Of these, the section ‘Aesthetics’ is of immediate concern to us. Murali is quick to realise the distinction between the aesthetics of the West and the East. Indian aesthetics centres on supra-sensual values since it is impossible to comprehend the finite without extending it to the infinite.Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics (1)

For Sri Aurobindo, the object of human existence is brahmananda, the delight of being and hence progress in life lies not in rejecting beauty and delight or practising a life of denial but in rising from a lower to a higher plane in the realisation of the experience of beauty and delight. The aesthetic process lies in the soul becoming conscious of its pilgrimage towards God. He envisions the possibility of the human to enlarge his awareness to the ultimate stage of Divine Supraconsciousness.

Murali maintains that Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is integral in nature and spiritual in its conception. Life is viewed in its entirety and in its all-inclusiveness. He steers clear of two attitudes: the materialist’s rejection of anything behind the phenomenal appearance and the ascetic’s refusal to accept the material reality of the world. These two stand as the major obstacles to a comprehensive awareness which is possible only through an integration of Life and Spirit into a cosmic continuum. “To become complete in being, in consciousness of being, in force of being, in delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living” says Sri Aurobindo in his The Life Divine. Murali coins the phrase ‘the aesthetics of transformation’ to denote this stage in the evolutionary process, in the Arnoldian sense of ‘a growing and a becoming, and not a being and a resting.’

Murali advises us that while approaching the works of Sri Aurobindo we should bear in mind the following: “his distinction of the subtler levels of spirituality from overt religion and its discourses; his foregrounding of the intensity and necessity of experiential yoga…; his constant involvement with poetry and the power of the Word — the mantra”. His concept of the efficacy of the mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, which he formulates at great length in his magnum opus The Future Poetry is vital to the Aurobindonian spiritual aesthetics which is all about the wholesale transformation of the inner-self (body, mind and spirit) and not, not at all, of the tawdry fripperies of external existence.

Most of these essays deal with Sri Aurobindo’s search for enlightenment, his recovery of the significant principles of ancient aesthetics embedded in our scriptures. Ideas and illustrations get repeated time and again; hence there is a noticeable lack of progression in the elucidation of Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics. It is none too easy to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the works of the great mystic. Murali draws heavily from the abundant source available in our scriptures. However there remain some nagging questions which an uninitiated reader is bound to raise. How does an aesthetic experience get immediately intuited? What is the locus of such an experience? Does it offer a terminal value? What is aesthetic judgment? Or aesthetic bliss? Probably such overt pragmatism is irrelevant and unwarranted in the context of Aurobindo’s synthetic vision. One searches for the ‘New Directions’ promised in the title of the book. Whither are they?

Book Review by MS Nagarajan in The Hindu July 1st 2014

Struggle between memory and forgetting–MURALI SIVARAMAKRISHNAN

 Partitions Post-Amnesias books and literature Book Review in the Hindu, 4th February 2014 by Murali Sivaramakrishnan

A backward glance at the intertwined Partition-impacted history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

A people without history, as the poet TS Eliot wrote, are not redeemed in time; for history is a pattern of timeless moments. And as historians very well know, beneath the surface texture of regions forced into existence as separate nations there are these deep traces of extreme traumatic events marked by violence, displacement, and multiple alienations. In the context of celebrating India’s 65th Republic day the time and temperament are equally well set for us to cast a backward glance at the intertwined history of the three nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Weaving through personal memory, family history, lesser known texts, and narratives of the regions of South Asia that were historically constituted into these three nations, Ananya Jahanara Kabir has documented a text of post-traumatic recollections cutting across regions, communities and languages. Partition’s Post-Amnesias, as her title implicates, locates itself within the frames of 1947 and 1971 (when Bangladesh came into being dislocating itself from Pakistan), and endeavours to trace the dialectic of memory and forgetting. It is a narrative that seeks to retrace the fragile webs of kinship and memory in which individuals remain suspended long after the political and personal events have sent them in different directions across, as the Bengali rhyme goes, “seven oceans and thirteen rivers.” The author now located away from her original home in Cambridge listens to the voice of a Pakistani singer: “Traveller, wipe your tears; return with yourself intact…” Those post-partition’s resonances ferry her across generations and regions, when displacements and dislocations mix into memory, hope and enchantment. The book reads like a memoir, despite its rich texture of quotations and erudite commentaries.

Collective past

Jahanara Kabir dedicates the book to her grandfather born in 1910, Faridpur, East Bengal, who died in 1981 in Calcutta, West Bengal; to her father, Zugul Kabirborn in 1941, Faridpur, East Bengalwho died in Calcutta, West Bengal; to her nephew born in Wales, 2011… “Imbued with the perfume of lime blossoms!” (Kazi Nazrul Islam) The core of the book divided into two parts — with a Prologue and a theoretically dense Introduction leading up to it, and a Conclusion entitled “Darjeeling Tea” endeavouring to provide a connectivity to the forever messy map of a region and people — reveals the heart of two nations which later became three whose histories and destinies were shared. As Jahanara Kabir notes: what my generation share — lie in East Bengal, we do not know; and what we know — life in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India — we do not share.

There are among many things that we in present-day India hold as dear to us as part of our memory of a collective past — the great heritage of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, the fabled learning centre of Taxila (Takaœilâ) and the now destroyed monumental Buddhas of the Bamiyan territory; the list of such treasures of our national memory could be rather long. But these are but the remnants that are tattered and disinherited amidst the vicissitudes of political events which are beyond us. They belong to us and at the same time do not belong to us. In a similar way as Jahanara Kabir shows, thrice partitioned Bengal, together with the partition of Assam, has given rise to a most peculiar kind of cartographic irresolution, and “othered the space” of memory. She wades through Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography, Moni Mohsin‘s The End of Innocence (Pakistani novels in English) and Point of Return by Siddhartha Deb (located in East Pakistan) attempting to piece together a phantom map of regions now cast in different points of history. Partition, as the author claims, was experienced as the wound of the mind for those who experienced it and also for those who escaped it. The breach occurred in the mind’s experience of time, self and the world.

Blurred boundaries

Whether it is through the politics of memory or the poetic of space, on the map or out of place, the narratives of these regions albeit intact are fragmentary just as the author’s own affective energies are dispelled and displaced from her map of three nations. “Through this book I enact my conviction that the boundary between investigation and imagination, between research and creative writing, and between objectivity and subjectivity is as blurred as that fuzzy boundary, now widely acknowledged, between historiography and fiction.” Violence, rape and destruction of entire ways of living are truths that bind the three nations together—the epistemological burdens of narrative memories also trace the broken curve of this spectrum.

In the chapter “Terracotta Memories,” Jahanara unearths the palpable evocations transferred through the variations of red clay as it moves from solid earth through memories and desires. Her contextual references are to MF Husain and KG Subramanyan. The strange and nameless uneasiness that the south-India born Subramanyan (who lived long in Bengal) feels at the sight of monsoon clouds or the song of the koel or the smell of the mango blossoms returns us to a viraha-inflected Fruedian uncanny, as much as when Husain signifies that the earthen pot is an oracular survivor of the destruction of tradition. The struggle of the modern to enervate narrative traditions seizes the vernacular and the seasonal, and terracotta, also a part of this sensorium, as both Husain and Subramanyan recognises, stands out as ephemeral and eternal, resilient and responsive.

The chapter “Archaeography” signals that forgetting is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation but reminds us that regions are contained in remembering. The chapter “The Enchanted Delta” is an excellent reading of Ritwik Ghatak and the fragmented traces of East Bengal.

Throughout her book, Jahanara Kabir, sustains the reader’s interest through her erudition by knitting together insights drawn from a wealth of creative scholarship. The text that she weaves opens up new terrains for the work of memory and narrative. She ends: Darjeeling, Faridpur, Calcutta, Karachi, and Dhaka, will remain forever places on another messy map: that of memories, forgettings, post-memories and post-amnesias. Logically her book does not end there. Because memory believes before knowing remembers! An excellent reading of modern South Asiatic heritage and its traumatic underpinnings.

Keywords: Partition’s Post-Amnesiasbook reviewhistory of IndiaPakBangladeshAnanya Jahanara Kabir

Review of Disorienting Dharma (2013)

Murali Sivaramakrishnan BOOK REVIEW in the HINDU 

November 12, 2013 Making sense of human suffering

Emily T Hudson, Disorienting Dharma
Emily T Hudson, Disorienting Dharma

Disorienting Dharma: Ethics and the Aesthetics of Suffering in the Mahabharata. Emily T. Hudson; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.

Suffering is a natural fact of existence that cannot be wished away or denied. And recognition of this fact is apparently the beginning and end of all human wisdom. Small wonder then, that this problem is highlighted by all great works of literature irrespective of geography, time or culture. And over many years of human history this one narrative strand is maintained by all genuinely sensitive poetic minds, and integrated into their poetic vision.

The Mahabharata of Vyasa is unarguably one of the most significant and poignant works of all times, and as this epic amply bears out in what could be among the most famous of all its poetic statements:“what is here is elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere else.” So huge and complex is its narrative canvas that it encapsulates the very span of human reach. And the entire text is replete with dimensions of human suffering which virtually appear to be endless, and persistent. Suffering then is the prime mover of the aesthetic of the text — an idea that requires a genuinely human-centred and sensitive approach. Emily Hudson has done exactly that and more. Her book is an erudite exploration into the complex web of textures and structures of the aesthetic of suffering and the ethics of dharma in the most tragic of all Indian narratives, the Mahabharata. The strangest and the most elemental characteristic of the epical narrative of Vyasa is that it is so notoriously paradoxical and blatantly reluctant to provide any easy answers to life’s eternal questions. What is explored in the text is the virtual inexhaustibility of all life itself. And what Emily Hudson sets out to do is to expose the triadic relationship of suffering, the idea of dharma, and the aesthetic function of the narrative strategies as they work themselves out in her intensely sensitive reading. To take the cue from the text’s narrative strategies as she artfully argues would lead one to unravel what the text “does” as opposed to simply what it literally “says.”

The book is a delight to pore over — in some places as interesting as the basic text of the Mahabharata itself, for anyone interested in those serious aspects of Indian aesthetics and narratology, where the drama of human suffering is narrated and close-examined under the scanner of societally-evolved dharma.

Five intriguing chapters with a conceptually and critically dense introductory chapter comprise the present book. The idea of Indian narratives is close-examined and the central concepts of dharma anddukha are highlighted. At the very outset, the significance of the Mahabharata as a most important source for the study of South Asian religious, social and political thought, and as a vehicle for transmitting dharma (moral religious and social duty or virtue) is hinted at, and the work approached as a document exposing the societal norms, regulations, ideology and the cardinal issues of a tragic sense of life.

The cardinal issue of the Mahabharata is human suffering seen against the social texture of dharma and thus the central aesthetic experience of the text lies in its epical preoccupations with death, destruction and ruin. In Emily Hudson’s words, this sensibility is the weight of human affliction, which is borne out in the narrative by the continuous line of travails that each character undergoes in the course of the narrative. Indeed, Ugrasravas, one of the principal narrators of the epic declares that after listening to the Mahabharata, one will never despair, even in dire situations. This is in direct line with Hudson’s thesis which goes on to argue that one of Mahabharata’s tasks is to refigure the reader’s understanding of suffering and her own professed engagement in her book is to de-center discussions of ethics in the text from the general topic of dharma and to re-center it on the issue of suffering and the intricacies of its relationship to dharma. Hudson initiates her reading of the Mahabharata through what she establishes as the lynchpin of its narrative: the game of dice and the consequent violation of Draupadi. In her reading she also invokes the characters of Yudhishtra, Dhrtarashtra and Duryodhana and interrogates them in their situational contexts vis-à-vis the plot. There is a certain sense of inevitability in the tale which is always foretold and the perspective constantly is shifting whenever the question of dharma is invoked at any point in the tale. It is as though the narrative is pushing the reader/listener away to a safe distance that affords a wider vision of the human situation. The disconcerting relationship between dharma and suffering is fore-grounded in the intimate aesthetic experience that the sahrdaya undergoes during the ill-fated moment of the dice game, the disrobing of Draupadi and the disastrous consequences thereon to all the characters. Everything that happens leads to the war. As Hudson points out the blind King Dhrtharashtra sees with insight but does not act with it. The purpose of the tale as it unfolds terror and fear in constant succession in the minds of the reader/listener is definitely cathartic. Time itself figures as a character definitive in the scheme of things.

Paul Ricoeur in his Time and Narrative had drawn a distinction between tales of time and tales about time. The Mahabharata is both a tale of time and a tale about time. For at the heart of this tale is its ethical project of refiguring our understanding of suffering.

Emily Hudson’s Disorienting Dharma is in line with other Euro-American scholarly pursuits into Indian ethical and religious ideas like those of Max Weber, Paul Wilmot, David Shulman, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty and James Fitzgerald. What is generally outstanding is her sensitivity to issues that are culturally and geographically alien to her, and her willingness to take on a text that is absolutely reluctant to provide any straightforward answers to life’s riddles. It is seldom that one comes across genuine scholarship these days like what Emily T. Hudson has exhibited in these pages. Her concern for the larger questions of human life through probing the profounder strands of the narrative textures and her unrelenting commitment to inquire into what each character and each specific situation in the text means at any given time and also to refigure it in the overall order of things, is quite clearly evidenced in her erudite critical reading.

Keywords: Disorienting Dharmabook reviewMahabharataEmily Hudson