Understanding culture

Print edition : April 03, 2015

The Chaluka temples of Badami, Karnataka. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Mahajanaka Jataka, Cave 1, Ajanta, depicts the abhishek, or ritual bath, of the king before he sets out on his ascetic life. The clear understanding of perspective is seen in the receding pillars. The roundedness of the pillars is also brought out by shading. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The wide-ranging field the book covers and the vividness of the conceptual concerns it encapsulates make it an important source of reference on the cultural life of early South Asia.

THERE can be no reader in the human sciences that is not at the same time a programmatic statement, if not a project, in its own right. The book under review, a collection of 13 essays on the cultural history of early South Asia, is no exception. Shonaleeka Kaul, the editor of this anthology, is aware of this challenge and turns it, admirably, into an advantage. The result is a rich collection of essays introducing us to, and reorienting our approach to, the cultural life of early South Asia.

An academic engagement with culture is often called upon to define and defend its terrain. As a phenomenon and as a category of understanding, culture has elicited copious debates and controversies in recent decades, which are known more for the heat they generate than for the light they shed. In such a climate, one expects in a volume such as the present one an elaborate discussion on what constitutes culture or how one must make sense of it. Shonaleeka Kaul surprises us not only by not offering such a discussion but also by stating with disarming candour at the very outset that culture has two interrelated meanings; one, as a way of life and, the other as art. The former, she says, is anthropological, and the latter, aesthetic. The essays put together in this collection are best approached in the light of this definition as they underline the interrelationship between the two by examining art (the aesthetic) in the historical settings where it was produced, consumed and transmitted (the anthropological).

A dominant trend in South Asian studies has been to place culture against the backdrop of the political economy and appreciate it as an offshoot of power politics. Shonaleeka Kaul’s is an attempt to call this approach into question. The alternative proposed by her “proceeds with an understanding of culture as practice through which a society makes sense of itself and the world it inhabits, and through which it articulates its humanity”. This finds unequivocal support in more than one essay in this anthology. In her study of the Badami Chalukya temples, Himanshu Prabha Ray makes this point explicit by making out a case for “shifting the emphasis from viewing temples as instruments of political legitimisation to understanding them as ritual instruments that provided anchorage to the social fabric”. Jaya Mehta’s work on Ellora concurs with this position. “Instead of routinely attributing patronage of the site to ruling dynasties,” she writes, “we need to recognise the role of wider interest groups.” Important as these suggestions are, one might ask: is the state exclusive of the community?

Both Prabha Ray and Jaya Mehta examine the changing history of temples in terms of claims and patronage. Upinder Singh’s work on the edict-bearing pillars of Asoka is another piece where stress is laid on the monument’s successive history of reception. This approach ensures that art is not objectified as a relic frozen in time but is rightfully placed in its ever-changing context. Shonaleeka Kaul’s choice of essays is informed by these considerations, which in turn opens up possibilities of raising questions about representationality and reception by heterogeneous communities across time.

Prabha Ray argues, on the basis of inscriptions, that the patronage extended by the state to temples at Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal and Mahakuta (in Karnataka) was hardly substantial. The history of the temples, therefore, needs to be delinked from the history of statecraft in the region. This argument is, of course, tenable when made in relation to temples built during the Rashtrakuta or Kalyana Chalukya periods. It may not stand ground for Badami Chalukya or Pallava temples, as one has to explain why the finest of these temples were built in such close proximity to the royal capital if the ruling elites were not particularly drawn towards them. Prabha Ray is only able to point to the presence of different communities in this region without any evidence to show them as distinct from or disinterested in the dominant political networks of the day.

Jaya Mehta, in contrast, shows with greater clarity how various communities at different times made claims over Ellora and how these claims found their way into texts such as Skanda Purana, Lilacharitra and Kathakalpataru. Her attempt to show how “monuments would… be a part of multiple identities of communities involved” and how “the community concerned would reinvent each association” is far more persuasive.

A major limitation of the studies of Prabha Ray, Jaya Mehta and Upinder Singh is their lack of interest in form. This shortfall is ingeniously addressed in Vidya Dehejia’s work on the modes of narration in early Buddhist visual art. Vidya Dehejia suggests that sculptural representation of narratives might have evolved out of painted scroll narratives of which the Pabuji ka Par [sic] of Rajasthan is a surviving specimen. She then goes on to identify different modes of representing the narrative, such as monoscenic narrative, continuous narrative, sequential narrative, synoptic narrative, conflated narrative and narrative networks, and how viewers might have responded to these different representational patterns.

More compelling, if somewhat speculative, are Erwin Neumayer’s contextualisation of Mesolithic rock paintings and Jonathan M. Kenoyer’s evaluation of ornaments from the Indus Valley sites. Neumayer’s idea of an axis mundi cult developing a tradition of erecting pillars that culminated in the great pillars of Asoka is rather laboured, but his suggestion that the economy represented in the hunting-gathering paintings is proto-agricultural needs earnest consideration.

Kenoyer’s work carries impress of a rigour in methodology. It demonstrates how the systematic study of objects, such as ornaments for instance, can offer fresh insights into the urban life of the Indus Valley cities, enabling us “to break through the barriers of understanding that have resulted from the absence of literary documents”.

It is interesting that the anthology opens with a classic essay by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, which sets out an agenda of sorts for the study of art history. In this brilliantly argued piece, Coomaraswamy places the Aristotelian imitation model vis-a-vis Plato’s model of inspiration as the source of art, and makes a persuasive case for the latter. He urges that only through rhetoric (arising from inspiration) and not through aesthetics (that springs from imitation) can the arts of other peoples be understood and interpreted.

This foregrounding of autonomy over determinism forms a subtle template against which the other essays, where a case is made out for the autonomy of the community in lieu of the determinism of political authority, must be read. Another classic essay in this collection, Stella Kramrisch’s study of the theory and practice of painting in Visonoudharmottara, in a very different way tells us that canons and conventions were hardly decisive or irrevocable but worked alongside the practices developed by the individual artist.

Oral traditions

The reorientation of early South Asian cultural history, which this volume seeks to bring into effect, is also reflected in several papers where oral traditions are taken up for scrutiny. These include A.K. Ramanujan’s freewheeling note on folklore and K. Kailasapathy’s structuralist assessment of Tamil heroic poetry. In exploring the bardic practices of early Tamil Nadu, Kailasapathy argues that not only the poetry but “canonical and exegetical material was also studied and cultivated orally”.

Uma Chakravarti’s nuanced study of the Buddhist Jataka stories highlights its oral origins and argues that the voice of the lower classes came to be represented in them “without, however, allowing transgressions to go beyond permissible limits”. Shonaleeka Kaul’s essay on the functions and social locations of kavya underlines the elite nature of the early Indian literary enterprise but, at the same time, reminds us that “the social limits of kavya do not deny its elite origin but were not identical with it”. It argues that the performers of Sanskrit drama and the locations of performance were rarely elite or courtly.

Terracota art

Among the more earnest of challenges faced by historians of art is the difficulty in chartering the trajectory of art in line with the trajectory of political and economic transformation traced by historians. Not unexpectedly then, only one essay in this collection makes an attempt in this direction.

Devangana Desai’s work on terracotta places the efflorescence of terracotta art in an emerging urban context and shows how with de-urbanisation and the advent of a feudal order it went into decline. That terracotta art decayed after the 5th century is a fact of history, but inasmuch as the feudal model has been found wanting in several respects, and, therefore, discarded by most historians, the causes need to be sought elsewhere.

Engaging with the essays in this anthology is indeed instructive and rewarding. Shonaleeka Kaul deserves praise for putting them together. Cultural History of Early South Asia: A Reader is a timely intervention that has a definitive and clearly articulated purpose. The wide-ranging field it covers and the vividness of the conceptual concerns it encapsulates make it an important source of reference for students, researchers and the lay enthusiasts. This work is not likely to be replaced for a long time.

Manu V. Devadevan is Assistant Professor of History, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

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