Throughout history the peoples of Asia have been known for their mobility and interactions. The notion of territorially defined nations is historically recent. There was a continuing dialogue between Asian cultures which functioned at both the spatial and the temporal level, propelled by the movement of the great religions of Asia across continents via trading communities, clergies, Buddhist and Sufi scholars and communities of artisans.
The present volume explores the aesthetic theories underlying many genres of the Asian arts. These characterize the dialogue between and amongst different Asian regions. The same Asian notions of space and time are manifested in architectural form as also in a wide variety of visual arts. The contributors in this volume identify the multi-layered discourse comprising the nature of monuments, as also the movement of motifs and symbols through sculptured and picturised representation. Some essays focus on fundamental notions such as Sunyata as common to the Indian, Korean and other Asian countries. Also, the papers bear testimony to the phenomena of dialogue and distinctiveness, continuity and change. This is evident in architectural structures, sculptural forms, particularly in iconography, and of course in the performing arts.
The IIC-Asia Project in its second phase has, with purpose, traced the trajectory of transmission systems in Asian civilization in different domains and at different levels, be it the vertical transmission from generation to generation in education, or the artistic transmission and diffusion through the arts. It is hoped that this volume will add to the meager literature that exists on the subject and will stimulate further research and study.
The notion of a territorially defined India is historically very recent, whereas peoples of Asia have interacted throughout history with groups and communities both within the region and across continents. We are aware that Asia as a broad sweep of civilization and culture is visibly manifest in a variety of ways: the juxtaposition of contrasting physical landmasses such as deserts and mountains, marshlands and seas provides it a uniqueness so different from Europe, where there is far less contrast both in the physical environment as also in climate. Mountains and seas do not define boundaries or delimit territories; instead in Asia they facilitate movements and provide continuities. This mobility dates to the prehistoric period and has contributed in no small way to the distinctiveness of the cultures of Asia. Religions spread across the Asian continent through trading communities, religious clergy, Sufis, scholars and communities of artisans and there were no insulated or isolated religious cults.
It is keeping in mind this Asian milieu of our culture that the India International Centre's Asia Project was launched in April 1997 under the chairmanship of Dr. Karan Singh. It was felt that Asian relations had not received the attention they deserve, as nearly all the Asian countries, having experienced Western colonial domination, tended to be academically and intellectually closer to the West than to each other.
In the first phase of the Project, the focus was on the historical, cultural, and intellectual undercurrents, which influence (and which have influenced in the past) socio-economic developments and political policies in the Asian countries. The manner in which social and civilizational impulses had influenced the value systems and attitudes of countries in the region in their relations with each other were also explored. For thousands of years, Asian countries had enjoyed extremely creative inter-linkages, which saw the efflorescence of the arts, architecture, sciences, engineering, medicine, philosophy and religion. Internal disunities, invasions, wars, colonialism and various disruptive factors brought in a decline in this dynamic exchange. Many of these themes were discussed in seminars and conferences, which resulted in publications such as Culture, Society and Politics in Central Asia and India (1999), Culture, Democracy and Development in South Asia (2001), India and East Asia: Culture and Society (2002), History, Culture and Society in India and West Asia (2003), etc.
In its second phase the Asia Project (2003-08) endeavours to explore the texture of this dynamic exchange in the past and identify 'areas' and dimensions of inter-cultural dialogue which bind the diverse cultures of the region. These include the systems of transmissions of knowledge, the continuing cross-border dialogues, the continuity of skills and techniques, which have 'stitched' lives and civilizations together, the common religious and architectural heritage, and the singular homogeneity of the arts in all their different manifestations. The first of these attempts was a two-day seminar organized in India International Centre (IIC) on 'India and Asia: The Aesthetic Discourse' on 26-7 April 2004. This event was jointly sponsored by Centre for Studies in Civilizations, New Delhi, Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi and the IIC-Asia Project, India International Centre.
Preliminary deliberations on the theme resulted in a consensus that not adequate attention has been paid to the study of Asian cultures in India, notwithstanding several initiatives that are already in place. The specific suggestion that emerged from the discussions was to accentuate the multi-layered aesthetic discourse that evolved in Asia in the particular context of art and sacred architecture. In Europe the Enlightenment enterprise of organizing knowledge resulted in the separation of the fine arts, viz., Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Poetry and Music from other human activities. At the same time the History of Art acquired the status of a science and within this framework, Greek art was seen as the most evolved, whereas Oriental art, i.e. Egyptian and Persian art, it was assumed, had remained moribund.
Aesthetics thus came to signify a discourse and was termed both a science and philosophy of art. In contrast to the European intellectual tradition, the distinction between arts (kala) and crafts (silpa) was non-existent in India and the sixty-four kala included weaving, making garlands, decorations and so on. It is significant that architectural treatises or Vastusastras are more in the nature of a guide and leave to architects the right to originality in the practise of their art. How then are aesthetic discourses in Asia to be formulated and studied?
A meaningful approach would then involve presentations on varied Asian notions of aesthetics, such as Sanskritic, Persian/Arabic and Chinese perceptions based not only on textual treatises but more so on the structural form and local and regional architectural traditions. This included architectural ramifications of power and authority as evident in imperial appropriation of religious architecture at one level, nurtured further by evolving concepts of political thought. The form, symbolism and language of this manifestation drew from the contemporary cultural and philosophical discourse, as well as from a variety of metaphysical systems. These however could not be understood in terms of linear time; instead cultural memory formed an important aspect of the histories of sacred sites.
A follow-up on this was a second meeting held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla from 25 to 27 October 2004 and three broad themes were identified for discussion. These included Theories of Aesthetics in Asia; Dialogues in Literature and the Arts; and Interpreting Ancient Monuments. Wide-ranging discussions covered a variety of themes including the somewhat difficult definition of the idea of Asia and Asian civilization. Another was the Asian preoccupation with sunya best defined as, space, negative space, which becomes positive space, no space and silence and consciousness. This could not be expanded further, but at the level of applicability, one knows and one sees it in literature, one sees this in architecture, one sees this in what is known as Far Eastern painting by art historians and one sees this in poetry.
The creative expression of consciousness in the form or rupa draws in a multi-layered rich discussion on signifiers, symbols, but also artisans and lineages of craftspeople. Again the findings were that the contrived dichotomy of art and craft has to be eschewed. There was the Visvakarman - he was the constant in the making up of the universe, he was the one who the truck driver of Banaras does puja to, as we know - a whole street in Banaras is full of mechanics, etc., or Visvakarman of the potters. But Visvakarman is also the progenitor of the scribes and artisans revered in inscriptions as the creators of architectural splendours.
The present volume draws from discussions and presentations at the two earlier conferences and focuses particularly on visual representations of Asian concepts and sensibilities, such as notions of space and their manifestation in architectural form. The monument, whenever it comes up also has a life of its own, which is sustained and fostered by the community. And what is that life? We need to go into it and that is why it becomes a live monument and not a dead monument. Another important point is that we cannot draw any linear trajectories and progressive paths in this and that we have to look at the systems of concurrency.
This opens a second fascinating perspective on motifs and their inherent ability to transform and adapt across societies in Asia. Avalokitesvara, for example, in its mutli-directional journeys not only takes on different attributes and changes form, but also adopts the feminine figure and qualities. This is also true of a range of other motifs, such as Nagas or Yaksis.
Another aspect of the icon is its manifestation in visual narration and this is particularly evident in depictions of stories be these Jataka stories or those from the Pancatantra on religious structures. Thus the Jataka depictions represent a visual biography of the Buddha's lives, which is distinct from the textual biography and should be analysed differently within the context of the monument. Finally it is the Ramayana that has the inherent ability to acquire new meanings as it gets told and retold over time and space.
Himanshu Prabha Ray of the Jawaharlal Nehru University was a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Shimla conference along with other colleagues from HAS. Subsequently she took the initiative to approach several researchers, some of whom had participated in the meetings mentioned above, while others showed interest in contributing to the volume. It is as a result of her efforts that this volume brings together papers by established, as well as by younger scholars on the multi-layered discourse of religious architecture in Asia. In transforming these papers into a published volume, Bela Butalia of the IIC helped coordinate the publication and iron out the rough edges.
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