Classical art, with its formality, made the past remote. Folk art gave it back some life, writes Rupika Chawla
Dussehra time, and those three terrifying effigies of Ravana, his son Meghnath and brother Kumbhakarna go up in smoke, disappearing amid noisy recrackers, signalling the just end of evil characters, so the story tells us. It is just as well that the immensely powerful Kumbhakarna of the gargantuan appetite was cursed to sleep for six months of the year; otherwise he would have lustily devoured mountains of men and other mammals and destroyed a world or two because his aggressive, demonic nature would have made him do so, just for the fun of it. Therefore, the universe and all those it contained sighed with relief every time this terrifying asura, second only to Ravana, stretched out on his bed, yawned and nodded and slumbered for months.
One of these long slumbers transpired during Ravana’s ferocious battle with Rama. Ravana began to weaken and desperately needed Kumbhakarna’s help. He ordered that his brother be woken, much before the six months were over. Terrified musicians forced to play and sing as loudly as they could, trumpeting elephants, cacophonous donkeys, and lancers ordered to poke and tickle the sleeping demon, set to work with enough noise and provocation to awaken Kumbhakarna.
Following the mural tradition in Kerala’s many villages are the 16th-century wall paintings to be found on the outer walls of the Shiva temple in the village of Todikalam. Some of the paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana. One of them is of Kumbhakarna, stirring ominously in his bed, his nails long and sharp, furious at his premature awakening. What immediately takes the painting from the sublimity of the epic down to the mundane and humorous are the boxes and containers stored under his bed, much in the way an ordinary Indian has always done and will always do. Certainly the way rural artists who painted these would be comfortable with such a domestic arrangement and would visualise it as a natural way of living, even for Kumbhakarna. The mighty Kumbhakarna is immediately seen as an ordinary man, vulnerable and human.
Among the earliest examples of Buddhist art are the 2nd-century BCE Bharhut sculptures made by lay monks and artisans. A large granite medallion from this site shows the carving of a man suffering from toothache and an extraction which is underway. An amusing visual overstatement shows a huge pair of pliers tied to a rope placed inside the man’s mouth. The other end of the rope is tied to an elephant, the dental extractor, instigated to run in the opposite direction. Could it be the truth? Did it really happen? Is this just a piece of whimsy? Whatever the truth, people in the past certainly suffered from toothaches and sought remedies to alleviate their problem.
Whereas the imagery of the elephant and the giant pliers is artistic and playful, it recalls a prosaic version in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. One day, the mischievous Tom refuses to go to school because of a toothache. Knowing Tom’s cunning ability to take advantage of a situation, his Aunt Polly decides to act before he could. She ties one end of a string around his aching tooth, the other around the handle of an open door and slams the door shut, thus pulling the bloody tooth along with it. She then sends Tom packing o to school with no further excuses for laziness.
Unlike in classical texts, folk literature humanises people, emotions and actions. Established traditional literature and art seek to place them in rarefied zones of thought, action and behaviour, while folk and vernacular literature do the opposite.
Even Vyasa, the venerated composer of the mighty epic Mahabharata, has been treated with some irreverence in folk literature, something that classical pundits would consider unthinkable. In a folk tale related by AK Ramanujan, Lord Ganesha offers to help Vyasa transcribe the epic on the condition that both of them would do so in a continuous uninterrupted flow. Unfortunately, Vyasa was mortal and had to urinate, unlike Ganesha who was a god and had no such requirements. Vyasa therefore arrived at a solution. Whenever the urge overcame him, he would “throw in a hard word for Ganesa to puzzle out while he ran out to relieve himself” (from The Collected Essays of AK Ramanujan).
Humans have an extraordinary connect with the world of gods, demons and superheroes that they create and give life and substance to. Sometimes they absorb themselves completely into this metaphysical world and playfully evoke it in their creative expression. At other moments, they shoot this out of the ordinary world into the far distance, make it remote and give it unreachable epic grandeur. Most of the time it is classical art that produces the grandeur, while folk and village art do the reverse.
Gods, demons and superheroes apart, people who live in the present have a tendency to believe that those who lived in the remote past were not quite like them. They endow people of bygone ages with seriousness, formality and gravitas, accepting as true that people in the past could not have indulged in everyday slouching, giggling, yawning or burping.
Classical Indian dance had to abide by the tenets of natya dharmi, the laws of classical dance, in order to be taken seriously. Noble sentiments, stylised movements and gestures, fall into natya dharma. Facial expressions that distorted the face, as occurs with excessive laughter or loud sobbing, were also not permitted as they were considered lokadharmi, which pertains to common or daily life and is the opposite of natya dharma. This also includes lowly actions, informal movements and ordinary emotions.
Classical art, literature and theatre, which depend on stylisation, have certainly helped create the impression of the remoteness of an extraordinary world where the emotions of anger, grief, vengeance, love and valour were of a lofty quality and where the deeds of humans were of an epic quality.
It is only relatively recently that Shakespearean tragedy was performed with stilted dialogue, and stiff body movements and gestures, in the belief that a combination of tragedy and the distant past necessitated a certain presentation that was the reverse of normal behaviour. Television in India still believes that epic stories need to be interpreted with a formality in vocabulary and speech, in gait and grim faces. It is remarkable that even though mythological characters feel remorse, anger, grief and other emotions, all attempts are made to suggest that their larger-than- life dispositions are brought on, perhaps, by the remoteness of time.
But whether it is the past, present or future, human emotions, aspirations and concepts do not really change. As the truism goes, the more things change the more they remain the same, bound as time is by the cycles of birth and death. Even during the earliest times social conditions prevailed for beggars to abound; damsels wore plaits and high hairstyles centuries ago, reminiscent of the fashion of the 1960s. And the irtatious woman always knew how to be winsome and appealing with her sideway glance.
This article was published in the July-September 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine.