Vermeer to Me

Just there
Between the fleeting nature of life and
Vanishing point
of history
Just there,
Is forever

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A Philosophy Called Vidhisha

As I vaguely remember it, like most of my conversations with her, it kind of happened after a college party at her house. She was slightly under the bliss and I was as sober as one can be. Of course, by choice. There’s always something very distinct about the conversations I have with her; whether contextualised or not. She’s not like any other talker. She’s different; she’s her.

Just like her genealogy, words coming out of Vidhisha’s mouth are anything but predictable. She still holds the award for the funniest conversation of 2017 and I don’t see anyone coming even an inch closer to that. However, that night, and maybe during that conversation, I quite unconsciously pierced through the obvious. I did not see or measure Vidhisha by the words she spoke or the moves she displayed. I looked through all of that and found myself staring straight into her super-consciousness. That night, I could see a remorse so unapologetically surfacing on her being that no gesture could disguise it as anything else. Through the eyes that were watering and the smile that was widening, I saw a Vidhisha that I’ve never seen before – a calming disposition.  

So what was it that made that face so unrecognisable and yet so relatable? Well, it was Jay Chou. This might seem like an abrupt disconnection of sorts but I find it imperative to mention that Vidhisha is a huge K-Pop buff, and if you ever get to know her, you’ll know she doesn’t just stop there. So, it was Jay Chou and his songs that set the tone for that conversation and everything that ran parallel to it; wait, maybe tangent.

With an almost empty pint of Budweiser in her hand, we went on to sit on what I suppose was some sort of a couch right under a string of small yellow lights. After a sip or two and her smile beginning to widen, she said – ‘You know what, I hate listening to Jay Chou, this K-Pop Singer.’ ‘Then why do you listen to him’ I asked what I thought could be the most logical follow up question. ‘Because I love his songs’, she replied. ‘Hold on a second. Didn’t you just say you hate him?’ ‘I didn’t say that. I said I hate listening to his songs’. I was so baffled by this glaring contradiction in her statements, and as sober as I was, I couldn’t help but let my shallowness take control of my tongue – ‘I think you’re tired and you need to take rest Vid.’ ‘Why would you say that’ she replied with that smile still gleaming on her face. ‘Wait, let me explain it to you’ – and that’s where I got to know what layers of complexities lie in that one statement that she made so unintentionally.

Whatever she said that night, didn’t register much with the rationalising process of my mind. However, it took me almost 12 months to understand not only that conversation but the context in which it was made. Finally, I got to get hold of an idea that is so close to Vidhisha that it just silently made its presence that night and I could not help but just restrict my reaction to mere admiration.

For past few weeks I’ve been digging a lot of ancient Japanese history; Heian period to be précised. While reading The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, I came across this heart warming philosophy of mono no aware. Having its roots in the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto tradition, mono no aware is one term that cannot be exactly translated into any other language. It’s more like an inexpressible emotion captured in the uttering of ensemble of words. After much deliberation, historians and linguists have loosely translated it as ‘realisation of pathos’. It is when one gets a realisation of the beauty associated with fleeting nature of life that the feeling of mono no aware surfaces. It peculiarly homes two contrasting ideas, beauty and loss, under a singular bracket of emotion. One must feel the loss when one sees something beautiful in order to experience mono no aware.  This pathos of beauty concept traces itself from the Buddhist idea of impermanence; the fleeting nature of life that Murasaki Shikibu so unapologetically described in her legendary piece of literature.

There’s one thread  that is missing from associating Vidhisha’s hatred for Jay Chou with the Japanese philosophy of mono no aware – and that is – the reason why? What can be the reason that Vidhisha hates the idea of Jay Chou in her life even while not hating him as an artist or a person? She answers to this dilemma by saying that she hates listening to him because every time she does, she loses something close in her life. No matter if it’s a boyfriend or her favourite dress, something gets ruined every time she listens to Jay Chou’s music. ‘Then why do you listen to him?’I asked, ‘Isn’t holding on to things you love more important than feeding on to your hobbies’? After hearing my questions, that smile starts to resurface on her face and without any contemplation she said – ‘But there’s nothing more beautiful than Jay Chou’s music; even if it’s worth a loss. For things that are bound to go will go, but the beauty that I discover in his music, will always remain forever. For that particular moment when I’m listening to his music, there’s nothing more beautiful that I can think of.’

So, there you go, the Vidhisha I so proudly claim to know for almost 3 years, is someone way more than the words that she usually finds herself being measured by. This Vidhisha is a philosophy. She is a depth of feelings that understands inherent truths of life more than anyone I have ever met in this college.

 

 

Japanese Theater of Kabuki: Understanding the Existent Invisibles of Life

We often neglect the life led between the realisations of narrowly perceived moments. It’s like we hopscotch from one landmark to another without ever thinking about who draws the line between the two; and why? In this never ending movement of ‘becoming’ we often push much of our life to this interlude that interests no one. In other words, we construct our own invisibilities.

Not much, but some remarkable observations have been made about the existence of this invisibility. No matter how much ironic it may sound, but the phrasing of this phenomenon as existential invisibility rather than a non-existent entity is a deliberate choice. We may rightly force a non-existent thing into oblivion, but doing the same for an existent but unperceived entity calls for some serious consequences. Therefore there have been deliberate attempts to unmask the invisible and one such attempt was conducted by renowned economist Adam Smith in his theory of laissez-faire. However, the so called unmasking doesn’t involve some sort of creating a visible form of the invisibility. Rather, it endeavours to make the invisibility a part of constructive human conscious. As we can see in Smith’s idea of invisible hand, the invisibility is not given a perceivable form but is provided with a characteristic in order to recognise its existence and the effect of the same on our functioning.  

So why is it so significant to not only recognise but consciously understand this existent invisible entity? An answer to this question can be obtained by observing a practice in traditional Japanese theatre of Kabuki. Commencing during the Edo period, Kabuki is an erstwhile avant-garde theatre of Japan which is now seen as a form of classical theatre. Kabuki involves characters staging folktales and ancient Japanese classics while being dressed in elaborately designed kimonos and hair dresses. Since Kabuki is aimed to generate a cathartic feeling within the viewer, the operational activities which are not part of the main narrative are often cloaked in order to avoid distractions. One such operational activity is the job of a group of men called kurogo.

Kurogo are part of the theatrical construction but are not part of the narrative. Their task is to provide props to the actors so that they can perform their roles according to the narrative. So how are these existent invisibles incorporated? Well, kurogos are dressed in all black and their faces are covered with a black veil whenever they appear on the stage. Japanese theatrical convention considers black to be invisible, hence the dress. Kurogos, much like Smith’s invisible hand, provide the actor with all operational needs required to reach/achieve desired moments/goals. Whenever they appear on the stage, the viewer has to neglect their presence and consider them to be non-existent. They are instrumental in actor’s central decision making process. So much so, it would be hard to imagine the fluent movement of the actor’s story without the unrecognised interventions of the kurogos.  

The very practice of kurogos unsettles me to think about our own real lives. Both history and chemistry have proven the causal effect of moments in life. In this world of claiming opportunities, more like seizing them, there is a lot that happens that is often pushed aside as non-existent; as interlude. The movement from one landmark to another is physically impossible without crossing the territory that connects the two. This very territory, coupled with the mental instrumentality of self, constitutes the existent invisible of human beings. This is our kurogo.

Our kurogo doesn’t have a definite shape or form. It manifests itself both as animate and inanimate substances. Sometimes it can be your cab driver who takes you to work everyday without delay or the trees in your neighbourhood that make sure you get enough oxygen to survive another day. Just like Lego, we are scattered pieces of various shapes and sizes that are brought together to be made into a meaningful entity by these very kurogos. Our life, our journey, our becoming, all is incomplete and impossible without the effort of our existent invisibles; our kurogos.

So, now that we know that there exist some invisibles in our life that play an instrumental role, the next question is, how do we recognise them? How do we make sure that they stay forever? Honestly, the answers to these questions lie in forgetting. Yes, after consciously understanding the existence of certain invisibles, the next stage is to make your unconsciousness active. By this, I don’t mean to push humanity into neglect of its most faithful helpers. Rather, I want humanity to forget that it exists outside or independent of these very existent invisibles. I want humanity to stop perceiving its kurogos as invisible and start imbibing itself with them instead.

If you want to know how this can be done; how we can imbibe ourselves with the most selfless caretakers of universe, with our kurogos, kindly read my next post that gives an insight into achieving the same.

 

Resignation in Japanese Poetry

Murasaki Shikibu, if not dissected psychoanalytically, represents a landmark of women literacy in the history of the world. As court lady in the ancient Japanese empire of the Fujiwara period, Murasaki pens down what is seldom referred to as the first novel in the world. 
Murasaki is able to write a sort of historical account of her period due to the proliferation of Chinese language in the elite circle of Japan. Daughter of an imperial aristocrat, she was exposed to the learning of Chinese which was seen as a status symbol for the high ranking families in the region. Even though Japanese relations and actual cultural importations from China were put to halt by her time, she does create a cultural bridge between the prosperous Chinese civilisation and her own northern city of Heian Kyo (modern day Kyoto). 
 
In her massively popular The Tale of Genji, we see quite an insightful account of Japanese socio-cultural life of the early eleventh century. Out of many themes, what marks the depth of the entire novel is the spiritual element that Murasaki is able to grasp and reflect upon the circumstances of her real life. After the death of her husband we see the reflection of Buddhist ideas of impermanence and universal transience in the poetry of Murasaki who herself was a devout Buddhist.   
 
Buddhism (Tendai) came to Japan from the Chinese hills and became the dominant religious faith during Murasaki’s time. The Mahayana Buddhism and its principle of resignation from the sorrows of the world reflected heavily in the Japanese poetry of the ancient period; even though the same wasn’t followed to the letter in practice. 
 
Japanese Buddhism was fascinated with the concept of fleeting nature of the world and the same can be seen in this poem from the Nirvana Sutra:
 

Brightly coloured though the blossoms be,
All are doomed to scatter.
So in this world of ours,
Who will last forever?

So in Japanese Buddhism, the memento mori should not be a grinning skull but the images such as scattering of blossoms or the yellowing of autumn leaves, which served to remind them that all beautiful things must soon pass away.
 
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Izumi Shikibu 
 
The host full of women Japanese writers of the period include one of the most emotionally intellectual poetess Izumi Shikibu. In her poetry, we can find an outspoken lamentation about death and illness. This is an excerpt from a splendid and one of the heart warming poems she composed, and this one, she wrote on her death bed:
 
Yo no naka wo                                            
Nani ni tatoemu
Asaborake
Kogiyuke fune no
Ato no shiranami. 
 
Yo no naka wo
Nani nagekamashi
Yamazakura
Hana miru hodo no
Kokoro nariseba
 
Kuraki Yori
Kuraki michi ni zo
Irinubeki.
Haruka ni terase
Yama no ha no tsuki. 
 
This was translated by Arthur Waley:
 
This world of ours – 
To what shall I compare it?
To the white waves behind the boat
As it rows away at dawn
 
This world of ours – 
Why should we lament it?
Let us view it as we do the cherries
That blossom on the hills
 
Out of the dark
Into the dark path 
I must now enter:
Shine on me from afar,
Moon of the mountain fringe 
 
The same lamentation about the fleeting nature of life can be seen the sombre dispositions of Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is heavily preoccupied with evanescence and death. She writes (in her diary) – ‘If only I had been more adoptable and respond to the pleasure of this fleeting existence with a little more youthful enthusiasm! In her verse she writes:
 
Like the waterfowl that play there on the lake
I too am floating along the surface
Of a transient world 
Apart from lamentation about the sorrows of life, we see a sense of understanding of the transience nature of the world. Another Japanese writer Sei Shonagon writes about the death of her mother – 
 
The moaning period had come to an end and as usual time was hanging heavily on hands. I took out my psaltery and, as I dusted it, plucked occasionally at the strings. Now there was no longer a taboo on playing music, and I reflected sadly on the transience of this world.
 
And finally Murasaki writes – 
 
As I walk across the bridge
That spans the Ford of Yume
I see that this world of ours too
Is like a floating bridge of dreams 
 
Japanese poetry of the ancient period cumulatively reflects the theme of resignation, an ideal so central in the teaching of Buddhism. Even though the subject matter focused on resignation, the very act of writing and creating a body of literature that is homegrown, shows a complete opposite of it. As the eleventh century marks the blossoming of Japanese indigenous culture, after centuries of Chinese and Korean imitation, the idea of democratisation of art and the aesthetics itself have something to cry and take pride at the same time. 

Cezanne’s Large Bathers: A Commentary on Neurological Perception of Reality

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The Large Bathers by Paul Cezanne (1898-1905)
Famously termed as the father of Modernist Art, Cezanne through his seminal work named Large Bathers, captured the historical shift of aesthetics in European art. A painting that took seven years to complete and was in process of being completed till Cezanne’s death, has become a celebratory piece that represents the genesis of modernism and the revival of impressionism in European aesthetics. 
1. Art Appreciation 
The painting has been made by keeping the geometrical construction in mind which was quite prevalent in the perspective art of renaissance; especially the use of triangles. We can see the division of painting into three triangles. The first two triangles show the groupings of six women on each side of the painting and the third triangle is the larger figure that contains both these triangles as well as the background of the painting and meets at the point where the two trees meet in the sky. Such geometrical construction is used to create balance in the artwork. 
 
We can see the reflection of Classicism here which is very similar to the famous work named Diana and Actaeon by the late renaissance Venetian artist Titian. In both these works there has been attempt to visualise human nudity in public space by making human body a primary language of expression (a heavy characteristic of the entire Classical Art). Even if we focus on the two standing women in the picture, the one in the left (woman striding from the tree) looks similar to the 18th century sculpture of goddess Diana and the one in the right, with the positioning of her knees, shows uncanny resemblance to the ancient sculpture of Venus de Milo. 
However, this is also a major shift from Classicism for its lack of detailing in the depiction of human body. Now this is where this painting becomes fascinating. 
 
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Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1556-1559)

 
Inspired by the Impressionist school of art that focuses on elements of art such as light and colours rather than objects, Cezanne here brings back our focus on the fact that it is the element and not the object that is the subject matter of this painting. One can say that this is the purest form of commentary on Classicism where the Classical fascination and technique is used to make something which is a complete deviation from the Classical school. This is evident from the bodies of the women in the painting. Instead of showing sensuality, there is heavy abstraction. So much so that the white marks on the bodies are nothing but the display of the canvas itself for the painter did not choose to paint these spaces. By doing so, he takes out attention from the beauty of a woman’s body to the shapes and forms that represent it (elements of art). 
 
Cezanne’s focus on abstraction is evident from the figures on the two extreme ends of the painting where these figures are not even completed and are represented in a sketched form. Also, two figures in the background,  a man and a horse, are also represented in the most abstract form possible, thereby restricting our appreciation to the elements such as colours (beautiful shades of blue and orange) and shapes. The use of flat strokes to depict the sky and the leaves, also weighs towards impressionism and abstraction. 
 
2. Art Philosophy and History 
The most striking theory of this painting is its heavy commentary on movement. The mixture of Classical subject matter and Impressionist technique shows the historical shift in the European art practice of the period – which is a shift from perspective realism of renaissance to the abstraction and use of elements of art. If we look into the painting, we can see that it is divided into three parts:
First part is the representation of Classical art by the depiction of nude women bathing in public.
Second part is the river that separates the the first part and the background. 
Third part is the background where we see a man moving away from the painting to another direction. 
It is said in one of the interpretations that the man in the background is Cezanne himself and his movement depicts an act of moving away from the traditions of Classical art to a practice that is more elemental in nature. Another example of movement, is the swimmer, who also being distanced from the first part, is shown in moving abstraction. 
 
The other theory that is vocal in this painting is that of alienation. At least six women in the painting are looking away from the audience; and the ones that are staring within the space of painting, have blurred faces. In addition to this we can see spaces in the figures which are left white and shows the bare canvass, which to much of conspiracy theories, can be associated with an external force interrupting the artwork or the purest expression of nudity – which is, no colour at all! Well, all this representation of alienation is there because Cezanne was heavily influenced by the Impressionists. However, it also creates an element of chaos and spontaneity in the painting. Something which takes me to this idea of Dissolving and Becoming
 
The burring figures in the painting as well as the use of flat strokes give this impression that either the scene is captured during its dissolution or during its becoming. This Dissolving-Becoming dichotomy is synonymous with the process through which we perceive reality.  The velocity in which the mind captures the everyday display of reality and processes it is so fast and chaotic that we lose out on understanding or knowing that exact moment when perception takes place. That exact moment when external signals are processed into knowledge. And this is precisely what can be read in the disturbances of this painting. If we refer to my previous piece on Alan de Button’s Art as Therapy, we can bring his idea of the role of art in creating emotional equilibrium to this painting. Cezanne’s construction of chaos makes the viewer use to neurological process of perception to understand the process of perception itself – which is an affair so fast that it reduces the reality to indiscernible representations. It is this understanding of the role of art that not only designated Cezanne as a father of modernism but also made his works an inspiration for future schools such as cubism. 

Ideogram of King Narmer: Pondering Upon the Conflict of Art Predates Language

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Palette of King Narmer (c. 3000 BCE)
This artwork is one of the earliest example of an ideogram; which refers to the representation of an idea through a symbol. The present context has created watertight demarcation between language and art. However, what such distinction fails to understand is the foundation of both of these modes of communication – the need of a living being to externalise an idea or thought by the phenomena of information.
In this clay tablet we see the King Narmer preparing to punish a deviant with a stone dagger. The relevance of this artwork in this context is not defined by the story it depicts but by the top-most panel which has a small inscription that tells us a lot about Egyptian language. The inscription is a pictorial/symbolic representation of a fish and a chisel. Fish translates as Nar and chisel translates as Mer in ancient Egyptian language, thus, giving us the name of this King Narmer. This practice blurs the distinction between art as representation and art as language. Even the artistic analysis of the tablet shows the King adorning symbols of both North and South Egypt showing a possible unification of the region. The fact that a single artwork can use representation as both art and language is extremely fascinating for those who like to question the structuralism and linearity of language and formalism of art.
However, the question that can be asked here is whether such hieroglyphic inscription is an example of something called ‘art’? There are responses in both favour and against of this hypothesis. Those in favour might argue that the entire inscription cannot be reduced to an example of language only for the symbols depicted in it do not merely work as language tools to make a certain word but also have meanings in themselves. For instance, the Scorpion Mace-head at the upper end of the tablet is not used as a phonetic alphabet to depict something else but is used as a symbol that represents Egyptian kings. On the other hand, those who argue against it bring up the very purpose or nature of an artwork that is to create some sense of emotional response to a piece which is not expected towards the normal activities of life. For instance, the depictions of fish and chisel are just the use of phonetics that make these depictions merely tools of a language and not representational art symbols in themselves.
Joaquin Torres Garcia in his ideogrammatic theory says that in ideograms, art becomes the metaphysics of the purity of classical symbols. It is metaphysical because it is made to testify the truth of timeless, unlocalisable and spaceless essence of universal pictorial depiction of humanity. He called this process Constructive Universalism for every depiction is an effort by a man to do abstraction of phenomena around him. Hence, he becomes an Abstract Man. To the contrary, J Marshall Unger in his Myth of Disembodied Meanings, where he responds to the Chinese pictogram language, he argues that no symbol or sign can express meaning independent of language because which cannot be communicated in a language is not a meaning – for it won’t create any communicative map between the sender and receiver of symbols.
Whatever side we take, it is impossible to deny the purpose that either language or art serve through this tablet – information communication. Every mental object or thought is broken down into conceptual chunks. These chunks are then externalised, that is put out in space beyond our own body, in forms of signals. These signals are in the forms of sounds, actions and sometimes even both. Therefore, both art and language become parts of this representational system of information. It is thus quite fascinating to see how a human urge to express itself is so profound that it not only breaks barriers of representational systems such as language but also keep on discovering new ones, such as art. This is precisely the reason why both language and art have witnessed this commonality that refers to their non-static and ever evolving nature.