Creative border crossings

Published : May 13, 2015 12:30 IST

'King Lear' being  presented using the kathakali  form in Thiruvananthapuram, a file picture.  The staging was a joint venture between Kerala Kalamandalam and the Paris-based cultural organisation "Keli".

'King Lear' being presented using the kathakali form in Thiruvananthapuram, a file picture. The staging was a joint venture between Kerala Kalamandalam and the Paris-based cultural organisation "Keli".

THE unity of arts has been a major theme in philosophy since long. In ancient Indian texts like Kamasutra , the 64 arts, like geeta , vadya , nritya , natya and alekhya, are presented as a continuum and learning one is supposed to lead naturally to learning the next. These arts also include what today would be called games, crafts and even sciences—such as cooking, perfumery, hairdressing, embroidery, costume-designing, weaving, architecture, engineering, mechanics, metallurgy and mineralogy.

Bharata’s Natyashastra, too, though hard to apply as such to more recent forms of art, linked all the performing arts together through its concepts of bhava , the imitation of emotions by the performer, and rasa , the product of the response to those emotions by the reader, listener or spectator. He saw the rasa s in a performance as what Althusser would call a “structure-in-dominance”, with one dominating rasa supported and accompanied by the other eight. His concept of abhinaya and its parts like angika (body movements), vachika (speech), aharya (costume), and sattvika (minute expressions through gestures and facial expressions) also applies to dance as well as theatre. The Indian ideals of satyam (the true), shivam (for public good) and sundaram (the beautiful), though conceptually abstract and subject to historical interpretations according to the changing contexts (the concepts of what is true, good, and beautiful are not free from changing world views and those who construct them as a Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx or Michel Foucault would prove)—even though the traditional scholar would like to see them as eternal values—are common to all arts. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said that all arts aspire to the condition of music and, in a later age, Bertolt Brecht said all arts contribute to the greatest of arts: the art of living. But very few thinkers have probed in depth the nature of the relationship among the various arts. What I mean to attempt briefly here is precisely to look at this organic kinship and the mutual impact of arts, foregrounding literature in the process. The chief questions I would like to address are, what is the nature of this relationship, what possible paradigms can help us define and grasp this relationship without losing sight of the specificity of each of the arts and what are the various ways in which different arts get translated into one another or develop interrelationships to give rise to ever new forms that may not be easily categorised, especially in our times, and how aesthetics as a discipline helps us to understand this relationship, adapting itself to the evolving nature of art practices over the last, say, one hundred years that saw the rise of many new movements and categories. Obviously, I cannot go into the details of the questions and so would confine myself to certain conceptual underpinnings of the issue and illustrate them with examples from some of the arts, from India as well as abroad.

We know very well that every art, at least every traditional one, has its specific medium, its laws and its own ways of being appreciated. A connoisseur of music need not necessarily be a great admirer of painting or sculpture, literature, theatre or cinema. The same applies to other arts. Their knowledge of, and sensitivity to, one art can sometimes help them appreciate others, but sometimes it can also be an impediment. This has also something to do with the nature of the sensibility. For example, a classical musician who always looks for melody or harmony may be more comfortable with the perspectives, spaces, colours and lines of classical paintings than, say, with installation art, video art and other forms of the art of disharmony and dissensus (a term used by the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciere as the reverse of consensus). While he (read she) may appreciate classical dance or classical literature, he is likely to be disturbed by contemporary dance or postmodernist literature, which are meant to disturb our aesthetic ideas and habits anyway. But this application of sensibility in one art to other arts is not in any sense rigid or mechanical; it is relative, making crossings are always possible. There is no reason why an Indian classical musician cannot appreciate a painting, say, by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, G.R. Santosh or S.H. Raza. There are many critics and lovers of art who can adjust their perception and sensibility to suit different arts, schools and sensibilities.

It is also to be noted that in a country like India, with thousands of years of tradition in every art, the give and take among the arts has been intense and frequent. Most of our folk and classical forms of dance are interpretations, through movements and gestures, of poetry. Though it is generally classical poetry (in classical dance), the language developed for its interpretation can well be applied to modern poetry. I have enjoyed Sonal Mansingh presenting an African poem by David Diop as much as enjoying Alarmel Valli interpreting a Tamil Sangam poem. Many of the situations depicted in our dances take off from episodes in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata or songs in Jayadeva’s Gitagovindam . But I have seen Kathakali performances of Shakespeare's King Lear and Macbeth as also new attakathas on the life of Jesus Christ and the Buddha. Our music, too, whenever it depends on words, goes back to poetry, either already available or composed for the purpose, so much so that it is often difficult to extricate the composer from the singer as in the case of Annamacharya, Thyagaraja, Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa or Swati Tirunal, to take some examples from the South. We have all listened to Kumar Gandharva singing Tukaram’s abhang s or Kabir’s pada s where the song, the singer and the composer, the meaning and the music, dissolve into one another to transport us to a transcendental realm that subjects us completely to the regime of art. Thumri , kirtan , bhajan , dhun , pada , vak , abhang : many such forms that came into existence during the Bhakti period are, at the same time, forms of poetry and forms of music; this applies to Sufi poetry as well, not to speak of later forms like Rabindra Sangeet or Nazrul Giti , or the lyrics written for performance, social resistance (for example, Subramania Bharati’s songs and others written during the Indian freedom struggle, Indian People’s Theatre Association’s songs, songs of resistance from other cultures like those of Vuyisile Mini, Hoang Van, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, SSNY, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and so on, and songs for theatre and film which may be located somewhere between poetry and music).

Radical innovations

The kinship between literature and theatre is even closer as drama is a genre of literature that can be read and enjoyed even before or after it is staged. Many of us who grew up on Kalidasa, Bhasa, Sophocles and Shakespeare first knew drama as a verbal art. This is true also of film scripts which are now recognised as a genre in itself and get published and read. Today, the walls between many of the arts have begun to vanish, demonstrating further the ephemeral nature of the generic divisions we used to make: installation art, video art, concrete poetry, performed fiction and poetry, multimedia poetry, verse novel, contemporary dance, shuffle novel, a lot of postmodern fiction that makes use of other genres from poetry to photography and advertisement as part of fictional constructs, graphic novel, happening, street play, action painting, random music, concrete music are all examples of the border crossings that demonstrate the fragility of conventional categories. Groups like Bauhus and Fluxus in the West had already attempted fruitful creative collaborations between painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, musicians and poets that led to radical innovations in art and literature. We know how poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Octavio Paz were associated with such art movements. Various avant-garde movements have also redefined traditional forms of literature and arts and interrogated static categories.

This brings us to one conceptual frame that can contain most of the arts: performance. I am using the term in its modern sense, where writing and translation too are seen as forms of performance. The term has an undefinability and complexity that are, as Diana Taylor says, “reassuring”. It is more a discursive site —rather than a referential term—on which “a number of agendas, alliances and anxieties collect” (Shannon Jackson). It is self-consciously positioned as liminal and hence understood as a space for transgression or resistance. It includes a broad spectrum of arts and activities. In a broad sense, we can consider a poem, a play, a novel, a music composition or a painting as “texts” that go beyond the authorial intention and beyond the work in hand. While the work, if we follow Roland Barthes’ definitions, is substance that occupies a space—as a book or a canvas or a disk—and discloses an ultimate secret, a defined signifier, and is an object of consumption, the text is not an object, but the field of production rather than interpretation, the field of the signifier, governed by a metonymic rather than a hermeneutic logic, best approached through “associations, contiguities, carryings-over”, through “playing”. It is a “social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder”. If the work is authorised, interpreted, consumed, the text is encountered as a field of “play, activity, production, practice” (“From Work to Text” in Image, Music, Text , New York, 1988). It is also the field of jouissance or pleasure.

Barthes’ opposition between the work that is authoritarian, closed, fixed, single, and consumed and the text that is liberating, open, variable, traced by intertexts and performed is very useful to the contemporary discourse on performance as Barthes’ own sense of the text is self-consciously performative, and in this sense all arts can be seen as performances, insouciant and open to different readings or rewritings. This openness is what allows what appears as the “same” song to be sung in different ways or the “same” play performed from diverse points of view. Those who have watched the different productions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Othello or Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot or Indian plays from those of Bhasa and Soodraka to Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad will understand the meaning of this openness where the text is a mere signifier that can produce many significations. This is also true of the production of films based on novels, short stories or plays. Just look at a play like Macbeth, variously produced or adapted to the screen by Orson Welles, George Schaefer, Roman Polanski, William Reilly, Akira Kurosawa ( Throne of Blood ) or Vishal Bharadwaj ( Maqbool ), for example. The notion of a fixed work to which the producer has to be “faithful” has been challenged widely by the performance practices of recent years. Performance is seen as traced by a variety of gestural, figural and ideological textualities. Of course, traditional scholarship still continues to argue about the authenticity or inauthenticity of different versions of the plays of Shakespeare or Kalidasa, finding some verses as interpolations by others over time. A lot of time and effort has been wasted on “authenticating” even texts that can hardly be authenticated, like the Mahabharata which has, by all evidence, evolved over time, though it hardly matters to the reader, who only cares for the total experience, whether the text he confronts is authentic or not. One may do well to remember Leah Marcus’ comment on Shakespeare: “What if, rather than flowing effortlessly and magically from Shakespeare’s mind onto the unalterable fixity of paper, the plays were from the beginning provisional, amenable to alterations by the playwright or others, coming to exist over time in a number of versions, all related, but none of them an original in the pristine sense promised by Heminge and Condell? Nothing we know about the conditions of production in the Renaissance playhouse allows us to hope for single authoritative versions of the plays” ( Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Readings and its Discontents , Berkeley, 1988).

Performance by its very nature is an event or a point in time where some communicative interchanges are being practised. Performance, in other words, is a production of the specific state of the text in which a variety of intertextual possibilities are realised. “...The performance signifies an absence, the precise fashioning of the text’s absence, at the same time that it appears to summon into being, to produce it as a performance. The material text, the text as object, deconstructs the work even before we encounter it, play it, produce it as reading, criticism, enactment” (“Disciplines of the Text: Sites of Performance”, W.B. Worthen, in The Performance Studies Reader , ed. Henry Bial, Oxon, 2007). Philip Zarilli has a fine article on the Kathakali production of King Lear in Kerala—where Australian playwright David McRuvie and French actor-director Annette Leday collaborated with some eminent Kathakali artists—that raised a number of intercultural issues (“For Whom is the King a King? Issues of Intercultural Production, Perception and Reception in a Kathakali King Lear” in Critical Theory and Performance , ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach, Michigan, 1992). The performance was based on a 20-page adaptation of the play performed in two hours. It called into question ideas like author, intention and meaning, not unlike Peter Brook’s production of the Mahabharata or Endgame . In fact, it had little to do with Shakespeare as only the skeleton of the story was retained, as a British critic noted, and little to do also with Kathakali as the narrative, sung dialogue and gestural passages that structure a Kathakali performance had to be simplified and the roles of King Lear had to be adapted to the conventional types of characterisation in Kathakali. It was a translation of sorts, where the target and the source alike were under pressure and yet it remains an example of how the idea of performance can encompass even cultural transference.

Cinema is another form of performance that is close to literature and yet different in its language and its way of assembling different arts like photography, music, movement and acting. Quite a lot of films, both in the West and the East, have been based on literary classics, past as well as more recent. They, and even their studies, are too many to list here. The Ramayana has had several fun versions from Dadasaheb Phalke’s Lanka Dahan (1917), Ramayan by Debaki Bose (1933), Bharat Laxmi Rao (1943), S. Badami (1945), K. Somu (1960), Sampoorna Ramayan by Babubhai Mistry (1961), Kalyug aur Ramayan by the same director (1987), besides rewritings like Kanchanasita by G. Aravindan (1977) that question Rama’s idealism and Lakshmana’s fraternal loyalty from Urmila’s point of view, besides several partial depictions of episodes from the epic.

The main reason for the fascination with the Ramayana is its ingredients for entertainment: poetry, romance, drama, adventure, miracles, intrigues and moral ideals, giving enough scope for music, acting, depiction of landscapes, special effects and didacticism. Sita’s suffering, with which many Indian women could easily identify with, is another reason. It is to be noted that most of these movies disapprove of Rama’s treatment of Sita. There are references to the plight of the abandoned Sita even in films dealing with contemporary themes, like Awara and Pinjar . Rajkumar Santhoshi’s Lajja (2001) is a feminist interrogation of the whole Ramayana, tempered though with a rare sense of humour and astute sensitivity to dramatic balance as a study (“Family, Feminism and Film in Remaking Ramayana” by Vidyut Aklujkar in Indian Literature and Popular Cinema: Recasting Classics , ed. Heidi R.M. Pauwels) rightly points out.

Romila Thapar’s study of the television version of the Ramayana has looked at its relationship to Tulsi Das’ Ramcharit Manas and also its negative ideological and political impact on Indian society. In short, ideology has been a crucial mediator in the transformation of literature into film. Vidyut Aklujkar has examined the recreation by Girish Karnad of Soodraka’s Sanskrit play Mrichakatikam as Utsav . Several of our great film-makers, from Satyjit Ray to Adoor Gopalakrishnan, have created films out of short stories and novels by renowned writers, from Rabindranath Tagore (one of the most recent being Rituparna Ghosh’s Chokher Bali ), Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay ( Pather Panchali ) and Sunil Gangopadhyay ( Aranyer Din Ratri )to Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai ( Naalu Pennungal ) and Jayakanthan ( Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal ) not to speak of many films based on novels like Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan, especially the versions by Muzaffar Ali (1981) and J.P. Dutta (2006), and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Devdas —that has had more than 15 film and TV versions between 1927 and 2013, including those directed by Naresh Mitra, Bimal Roy, Dilip Roy, Shakti Samanta, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Anurag Kashyap, as also films and serials recreated from works like those on Meerabhai and Mirza Ghalib by Gulzar (also Sohrab Modi’s film on Ghalib)—to take some popular examples.

Films become master-readings, setting the agenda for the debates around a book even if it is subjected to criticism. The process of transmission from the literary text to the film text often gets suppressed in the process. In fact, the text comes to the film-maker mediated through different perspectives, including Orientalist and postcolonial ones, which is especially true of older texts like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or Shakuntala. To take another example, the play from which the movie Mughal-e-Azam is derived reworks the Anarkali myth that had already been mediated through Western travellers’ accounts intent on characterising the Mughal rule as “tyrannical”. K. Asif, the film-maker, had to unmediate the story in order to reclaim Akbar’s image as a tolerant and forgiving emperor, surpassing the sweeping and reductive British theory about “Muslim misrule”.

The revival of the Mahabharata on the screen had probably much to do with Dharamvir Bharati’s play Andha Yug, and most of the films and serials drew a lot from classical as well as popular performance traditions. The film songs, too, are many-layered and relate to poetic traditions as well as temple and folk-singing traditions, thus becoming “interaural” (like “intertextual” and “interocular”), to borrow a term from Heidi Pauwels, a pioneer in the study of the auditory registers activated by popular songs (Conclusion to Indian Literature and Popular Cinema , London, 2007).

There is little point in discussing the question of “fidelity to the original”, especially in the South Asian context where the originals—as in the case of epics and bhakti lyrics —are often not faithful to themselves! In fact, each version has its own value related to its specific context of production. We need to get out of the stigma of inauthenticity often stamped on a film and instead see it as one possible text. Many movie versions of literary works can be read with the lessons learnt from textual criticism in mind.

Art too has travelled a lot from the times of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne and even from that of the Bauhaus and Fluxus that questioned the age-old distinction between craft and fine art and brought them together in the idea of design. The history of modern installations, video-art and other avant-garde· manifestations of art can certainly be traced back to those moments of collaboration among designers, artists, architects and poets, and yet, what they created was not quite what we see today; go to any contemporary art show, say a biennale at Venice, Whitney, Vladivostok or Kochi, and we will be struck by the interrelatedness of arts, like mural, painting, photography, sculpture, music and architecture. I would like to go with someone like Jacques Ranciere in looking at the post-utopian present of art.

The mission of modern art was supposed to be to bear witness to the fact of the unpresentable. The singularity of appearing, then, must be a negative presentation: Barnett Newman’s monochrome canvas cleaved by a lightning flash or the naked speech of Paul Celan or Primo Levi. The installations that play on the indiscernibility between works of art and objects of commerce can be, as Ranciere says, “a nihilist accomplishment of aesthetic utopia”. What happens in the new art—museum installations, spatialised music, contemporary dance or “movement art” —is a de-specification of instruments, materials and apparatuses specific to different arts. Here, we find that aesthetics is not the name of a discipline but the name of a specific regime for the identification of art. Art moves from subjects to gestures, and is political not because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world, nor because of the manner in which it might represent society’s structures or social groups, their identities and conflicts. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space.

Aesthetics does not cover up ugly truths, it is a conscious attention, concern and value applied to surfaces, shapes, arrangements, techniques, movements, dynamics, suspensions, densities, repetitions and their expressive powers, as opposed to a limited focus only on ideas, ideologies, content, message, political programme, utility, action, expediency, practicality and materialism. Defence of aesthetics is the defence of imagination, pleasure, sensual and intellectual freedom, curiosity, play (as defined by Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller), experimentation, essay, openness.

Art is not necessarily about harmony and wholeness, but can be an awareness of discord, dissonance, or “dissensus”. It resists utilitarian co-option: the shape of a poem, cadences, surprises, sounds and spaces cannot be commodified nor taken as booty. Art always generates new ideas, forms, desires, possibilities, energies and love of existing in the world and opposes all forms of regimentation and invests the quotidian with layers of meaning. The autonomy of art that the avant-garde defends is a refusal to compromise with the practices of power.

Avant-garde art is the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in an unjust world. It breaks down the obvious orders and unsettles traditional patterns in an attempt to redefine the sensible. It resists simple interpretations. It is informed by the products and practices of the everyday, but also differs from them in significant ways. It is difficult to question its meanings as it questions the very process of assigning meanings.

The aesthetic regime disrupts the boundaries between art and life and redistributes the sense created by other practices. Any profane object could get into the realm of artistic experience and any artistic production could become part of the framing of a new collective life. Art interrogates the hierarchical organisation of the community and creates experiences that disrupt the results of domination in everyday life. Art contributes to social change by reconfiguring the realm of appearances and reframing the way problems have been posed. It contests the way capacities, voices and roles have been apportioned in the existing order. Artistic practices redefine what can be seen and said and the implicit estimations placed on the members of communities. Art denies the rigid identities stamped upon us by the hegemonic order and provokes counter-histories that offer new forms of experience and exchange between art and life.

Literature and other arts have constantly shared ideas, concepts, trends and movements, as can be seen, for example, in the Bhakti movement in the past or Modernist, Postmodernist, Postpostmodernist (to recall the title of Jeffrey T. Nealon’s book), Alter-Modernist (Nicolas Bourriaud’s term) or Hyper-Modernist (Gilles Lipovetsky’s usage) movements in our time. Literature and other arts intervene separately and together in the carving out of space and time, redistribute the perceptible, transform the order of things, introduce new subjects and new objects onto the common stage, make visible what was invisible, make audible as speech and music what was earlier heard as noise, and intervene in the practices and forms of seeing, saying, hearing, feeling, thinking and perceiving and create many common worlds for human beings to inhabit.

In this process, even when originating in specific sections and addressed to specific peoples and even when declaring its intention to divide its readers or audience into masters and victims as Bertolt Brecht intended to do (remember his plays were and are still being enjoyed by all sections of society even if their perspectives differ), they transcend class, caste, race, gender, language and every other division and category created by the human race, aspiring to what ultimately constitutes the human, and dreaming of a world free from discriminations, inequalities and hierarchies of every sort.

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