When spectatorship becomes devotion

Published : Jan 25, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Bodhisattva Padmapani (Bearer of the Lotus), perhaps the best known mural from the Ajanta caves.

Bodhisattva Padmapani (Bearer of the Lotus), perhaps the best known mural from the Ajanta caves. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Does archiving a thing, preserving it, caging it in amber, take it outside of human activity and touch? 

A girl fainted in Udaipur City Palace at the fag end of 2023. Holiday crowds were spilling out of the narrow, steep, and undulating stairways and passages that link one capacious hall to the next, one rickety aunty, one paunchy uncle, one wiggly kid wobbling down or up the stairs, becoming a bottleneck, as people waited behind in great clumps. The heat built up. The girl fainted. She was held and seated on a jharokha [window] in one of the juts of the wall, one that is only allowed for public sight, not touch. A long-ago princess would have whiled away time here, perhaps half a millennium ago. Today, a nauseous teen tries to get her head to stop spinning.

As my man and I walked through the narrow corridors, hands grazing walls that are technically heritage, as much by the need for support as by some strange haptic desire to belong, I was moved by the strange tensions that “heritage”—that heavy, unyielding word—offers. 

Also Read | How B.N. Goswamy energised everyone into the cult of seeing

Years ago, walking alongside pigs, snaking through the gullies of Badami, I had seen a temple of the Chalukya era, possibly a 7th century creation, which was now a sort of communal living room, with women drying their laundry on the rocks and men gathered by the steps, smoking, extending time. One reaction, from the perspective of preservation, was horror. The other, the one I felt more teased by, was joy. That heritage jostled with the domestic until it became an extension of it.

This tension kept cropping up over the years. When looking at the ways tourists—or would you call them pilgrims?—passed their hands over the temple walls of Pattadakal, over the sculptures of Elephanta, the chaityas of Kanheri, in a gesture of belonging and, simultaneously, of desecration.

Looking at a beautiful dancer, sculpted in sandstone on the exterior of a temple in the Pattadakal complex, I told a friend that in a few years we would not be able to see her expression, her eyes already smudged by hands, her lips would soon become a smooth, edgeless part of her skin. How fortunate for us to be caught in that flicker, before oblivion, and yet how unfortunate for those who might never see those things lost to history, to touch.

I am told the Ajanta paintings will fade into the rock, all that breath from all those people. I need to see it before it disappears. I am glad it is seen enough to disappear. Glad also, that from 1930 to 1955, the art historian Ghulam Yazdani did a comprehensive photographic survey in four volumes, and that simultaneously, while the Nizam of Hderabad patronised a project of its restoration in the 1920s, he also appointed Sayyed Ahmed, a well-known artist, to make copies of these paintings. Those half-closed eyes, the seducing peace of the figures, now archived, copied in some form for the future, for whom Ajanta will only seem like an empty rock canvas. 

One of the sculptures strewn about the Aihole complex was of a seated Buddha, head chopped off by time or invasion or carelessness. It is this mark of time’s recklessness on the sculpture that we are drawn to, not its preserved perfection. And yet, we are able to appreciate time’s recklessness only because it is stillpreserved.

Sometimes I wonder if life can exist alongside the archive. Does archiving a thing, preserving it, caging it in amber, take it outside of human activity and touch? 

Prof. Finbarr Barry Flood in his recently concluded three-day seminar Sacrality and Surrogacy in the Devotional Arts of Islam, organised by Jnanapravaha, skirts around this controversial question by focussing instead on how, through history, we have looked at artefacts as being scarred by human touch. He talks about “modern pious practices of looking”, as seen in museums and white-walled galleries, where we fetishise sight as the dominant mode of consumption, creating a distance between spectator and art; in fact, demanding that distance. 

Art as devotional experience

Historically, as Flood says, believers have experienced art as a devotional experience, haptically, touching their forehead or kissing stones or amulets or bowls, to attain barqat or blessings. 

From this, I ask what are these protocols of consumption that we have internalised as moral, right ways of experiencing? The idea that we do not want to touch because we want to preserve. That we want to preserve because we want to archive diligently, to monetise a state of perfection, to not allow an act of spectatorship to become an act of devotion. Think also of how we see cinema. The single-screen flinging of the self at the film as opposed to the multiplex silence, the embedding of this distance in a conversation around class, and class etiquette. 

Is there in our anaesthetic, distant consumption of art a leaking out of devotion, of attachment? A sense that we do not need to touch art because we are not energised by its possibilities. 

Also Read | Devoted and dull, ‘Adipurush’ is a flat work of worship

Almost as a counter, Barry Flood offers as an example the architect of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, I.M. Pei, whose name is mentioned in an engraving done for the building’s dedication that you see upon entering the gallery. What is strange is that it looks as if his name has been rubbed over repeatedly, as though touched by a thousand hands, all those oils and moistures blackening his name. “This is a touching tribute to Pei’s work,” notes Carter Wiseman, lecturer of architecture at Yale University and Pei’s biographer. Susan Piedmont-Palladino, the curator of the National Building Museum, offers the explanation, “I think all architects [touch the wall]. We hope that by touching his name some of his magic will transfer to us,” turning the act of secular respect into one of sacrality. In a cheeky aside, the headline for an article on this museum practice reads, “Something You Can Actually Touch at the National Gallery”. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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