Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime might be the most popular book in a Western language ever to deal with Indian aesthetic theory. The book’s official subject is the aesthetics of computer science. Though I am getting a degree in computer science myself, I found myself more interested in Chandra’s lucid comments about the medieval Indian philosophers Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta and their theory of rasa, the emotional “tastes” that an artistic audience can savour.
What is important about Chandra’s work is that he applies the rasa theory. He draws from the best English-language works I know of on Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta: the writings of Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson and M.V. Patwardhan, especially their translation of Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka with Abhinavagupta’s locana commentary. But Chandra does what Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan do not: he asks how the theories of Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta could apply to us.
That “us” is one that Chandra rightly puts into question. When an “us” is spoken of in contemporary works of philosophical application it is often glossed with “a modern Western audience”. Chandra’s audience is certainly modern, as he is, but he, and his audience, are not only Western. He grew up in India and divides his time between India and the US. And in the rasa theorists he found a way of expressing how his aesthetic preferences differ from those he was taught in the West – a way that I found spoke to me as well.
To me the most striking passage in the book is on pages 147-9, where Chandra applies the classical rasa thinkers to an art medium they never knew: film. Chandra points out: “Indian movies mix emotions and formal devices in a manner quite foreign to Western filmgoers; Indian tragedies accommodate comedic scenes, and soldiers in gritty war movies can break into song.” He juxtaposes this with Ānandavardhana’s claim that there is “no obstruction to a single rasa [emotional ‘taste’] by its being mixed with others…” and Abhinavagupta’s comment that the predominant rasa of a story can be strengthened by the presence of different ones. Abhinavagupta draws an example from that quintessential Indian artistic work, the Mahābhārata. There a wife sees her dead husband’s severed arm and recalls its caresses on her; her erotic and romantic memories bring the grief into sharper focus by contrast. And Chandra says: “This is why the Aristotelian unities of British and American films seemed so alien to me when I watched them as a child.”
I don’t know enough about Indian films or English-language film theory to know whether Chandra’s application in that context is right. Yet what he says in this passage nevertheless struck a chord with me. It suggests that what I had previously described as an unphilosophical post, about my own autobiography and relation to India, may have its philosophical significance after all. Returning from my Indian wedding, I had written about how modern India had come to appeal to me, above all through its love for bright colours. Which I described at the time as an aesthetic, but with no connection to any sort of philosophical aesthetics.
After reading Chandra I can’t help but see a connection between the aesthetics of the medieval Indian theorists and the ones I see on the modern Indian street. (I say all this with some caution because I do not know these theorists at all well, and Chandra himself does not claim to be an expert on them.) Above all, what I am seeing here is a rejection of moderation in aesthetics, something that I think might be implicit in Chandra’s mention of Aristotle. Aristotle famously described virtue as a mean between vices, comparing it to an archer hitting the target, and I have tended to agree with him. But while I am overall satisfied with this characterization in ethics, I am not satisfied with it in aesthetics.
In her Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic, Ingalls’s student Wendy Doniger characterized Indian mythology as a “pendulum of extremes”, explicitly avoiding moderation. I think there is something to be said for this characterization of Indian aesthetics in general, as immoderate. I’ve elsewhere mentioned the Indian approach to smell: India just smells so much more strongly than the West does, for bad and for good. Walking around India one can’t help but notice how little control is exercised over odours of the sewer and pollution – but also how much more often one smells sandalwood and other fragrant perfumes, not to mention street food. I think my grad-school colleague James McHugh was right to identify smell in Indian culture with sandalwood and carrion.
This point in turn leads back into an aesthetic point I had myself made with its primary reference to the West: the critics of kitsch are wrong to tell us we should avoid making a fantasy world more beautiful or pleasurable than the real one. Rather, we should remain aware that such a world isn’t the real one, remain all too aware of the badness of the world: enjoy Thomas Kinkade as long as you also appreciate Hieronymus Bosch. I’d rather look at either Bosch or Dalì on one hand, or Indian poster art on the other, than at what has always struck me as the muted blandness of a Monet. This has been my aesthetic sensibility for a long time, and Chandra makes me realize that it might well be an Indian one – and may even have philosophical roots in thinkers like Abhinavagupta and Ānandavardhana.