The Concrete and the Abstract in Art

Among our youth and children, more than the study and research of ‘literature,’ it is the learning of music and dance that is considered as a symbol of culture. Literature is seen by many as a heap of information or a tool for enjoyment. It is not without reason that music, dance, painting and sculpture are categorized as ‘fine arts’ among the arts. In these forms of art, the aspect of ‘information’ is secondary and it is only the play of vibhāvas (causes) and anubhāvas (effects) of rasa and the subsequent aesthetic experience that takes predominance. In fact, in pure nṛtta and classical music that is restricted to ālāpana-tāna-svarakalpana[1], there is absolutely no ‘information.’ Such creations which are full of dhvani (suggestion) that results from vakrata (oblique expression) manifests itself as bliss in the hearts of its connoisseurs. In these, we find no disturbances of an ‘instructive message’ or information. In applied musical forms like sugama-saṅgītā (light music), bhajans (songs with a mythological or devotional theme), devotional songs, deśa-bhakti-gītās (patriotic songs), and so forth, where the lyric takes prominence, we can see an attempt to spread their chosen social message or motivations through the medium of music. But even here, the attraction of the musical part is overwhelming. Moreover, many connoisseurs, though oblivious to or uninterested in the ‘message,’ lend their ears to such music, just to enjoy its melody. In dance, even though not to the same level, there is sufficient value for going beyond offering a message. Even when it is based on information in the form of words, due to the ingredients present for evoking emotions and the resulting emotional experience, it provides higher value for reaching the hearts of the connoisseurs. It is because of this, that in our classical music and dance, the verbal aspect of words and lyrics has not been accorded a higher value than the fine arts.[2] Further, it has not been affected by linguistic chauvinism. Consequently, we can see, on the same stage, how devaranāmas (poetry in praise of various deities by the haridāsas) and vacanas (poems composed by the śivaśaraṇas in the 12th century) in Kannada, kṛti-saṅkīrtanas (a popular musical form) in Telugu, pada-jāvaḻis (musical forms that have śṛṅgāra as the predominant theme and can be delineated through abhinaya) in Tamil, bhajans and dohas (rhythmic couplets) in Hindi, abhangs (devotional poetry composed by the Varkari poets during the 13th to 17th century) in Marathi, prabandhams in Malayalam, and ślokas and aṣṭapadis in Sanskrit, have been entertaining their fans through the medium of music and dance. The uproar of the politically fanatical and language chauvinistic Tamil-isai movement from Tamil Nadu did not succeed in whetting the appetite of connoisseurs. It is notable that the ‘classicality’ of dance and music inevitably decreases in cases where ‘words’ become more prominent. It is for this reason the ‘traditionalists’ do not endorse dance-drama, light music, and ballets. However, a point to note: ‘words’—however dry and inartistic—provide sheen to the discerning aspect of any song and dance as long as they are not ‘advice-oriented’ and remain true to context. Therefore, we don’t have to encourage traditionalists who do not understand aesthetics. Even then, when we look at the commotion created by the recent ‘realists,’ public ‘do-gooders,’ and so-called ‘artists’ who employ fine arts for ‘practical’ purposes, it is easy to sympathise with the extreme stand of the ‘traditionalists.’ In summary, among the traditional quarters of music and dance, these being revered and studied as flagships of our culture, it appears most people look beyond mere information and have grasped the aesthetic enjoyment in its essence in the fine arts, even though they might not be conscious of it. This is as it should be. As applied arts have their roots in the world and it is quite possible that they tend to become more and more gross (and less suggestive), thus reducing the aesthetic relish. Hence the art moves away from its true purpose and value.

When we turn our attention to literature, and continue this line of logic, it appears we face some obstacles. This is because among song-dance-theatre-sculpture, abhidā-vṛtti (the explicitly stated aspect) is almost non-existent.  Even when it exists, its importance increases in the same order as above – viz., more in dance than in song, more in painting than in dance and more in sculpture than in painting. The main reason is that bauddhārtha (substance for intellectual analysis) is comparatively minimal in song than in others.  The padārtha (substance, literal meaning / meaning of words) is almost non-existent. What remains is only Absolute ‘Sound.’ And this Sound is inevitably linked to its meaning. Therefore, what always remains in music is the Absolute Unison of word and its meaning.

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Everything here relates to supremacy of the vyañjanā-vṛtti (suggestive meaning). Further, since the lakṣaṇā-vṛtti (implied meaning) is a shadow of abhidā-vṛtti (the literal meaning), it becomes negligible. It is worth remembering the grammarian’s saying “Abhidhāyāḥ pucchabhūta-lakṣaṇā” – ‘the implied meaning follows the literal meaning.’ Moreover, since we do not accept any random worldly sounds as ‘music’ in fine arts, if the words are non-contextual, i.e. in the absence of bauddhārtha and padārtha there is no trace of vastu-dhvani (suggestion of an idea) in the vyañjanā-vṛtti. It is because of this, the prevalence of alaṅkāra-dhvani (suggestion of a figure of speech) is meagre as well. In any case, alaṅkāra in music takes the form of svara-laya-vinyāsa (note-rhythm-expansion) Hence rasa-dhvani (suggestion of a rasa – an impersonal emotion) reigns supreme and gets the highest position. Unlike the typical rasas of śṛṅgāra-vīra-karuṇa (love-valour-sorrow), the experience is here is the untainted and Absolute Rasa. Even the ‘essence’ consists only of druti-dīpti-vikāsa (gentleness-brilliance-expansiveness), the typical elements that are natural and are the embodiment of bliss. Even though this kind of pure and typical aestheticism is experienced in basic classical arts like dance, painting, and sculpture, it is difficult to continue to reside in this state.  The main cause is their priority to the sense organs of the sight. It is a well-known fact that visual arts are more concrete than the auditory ones, which is why the eye is more ‘realistic’ than the ear. Oblique expression in a particular form of art is, therefore, a function of the sense organ it caters to. Therefore, it becomes imperative to retain much of padārtha even if bauddhārtha is lacking in one of these arts. Using the terminology of classical Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika darśanas, śabda (sound) is a property (guṇa) of ākāśa. Even when ākāśa is pañcīkṛta (is composed of equal proportions of the other four elements), the abstractness of the auditory medium is still intact because ākāśa remains untainted. However, visual media such as dance, sculpture and painting are concrete due to the presence of the tejas tattva and they remain so, even when tejas is pañcīkṛta. Lack of this discrimination has led to the challenge of introducing music’s abstract personality into dance-theatre-sculpture and has resulted in the over-zealous propping up of ‘modernity’ – a fiasco filled with pretentious voices, perplexities, monstrosities, and devoid of all meaning. These forms are art are turned into riddles the modernists, in the name of suggestion (dhvani).

There is another important question. ‘Literature’ too has developed, like music, from ‘word’ that has origins in the same fundamental element, space. Even then, why is it more concrete and realistic than dance-theatre-sculpture? We will see the relevance and irrelevance of this in a later essay.

This is an English translation of a Kannada essay titled ‘Kalegaḻa Mūrtāmūrtategaḻa Bagege’ by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh from his fascinating anthology of essays on language and linguistics, Bhāṣābhṛṅgada Benneri. Translated by Prof. Vedavyas M G from the original Kannada. Thanks to Arjun Bharadwaj for his careful review and detailed feedback. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.


[1] These are technical terms of South Indian classical music; ālāpana refers to free-style improvisation in a given rāga, tāna is an extension of that improvisation but with the introduction of rhythmic pulses; svara-kalpanā refers to improvisation that is carried out strictly adhering to a rhythmic cycle.

[2] The dhātu has taken precedence over mātu.

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh the concrete and the abstract in art The Concrete and the Abstract in Art r ganesh

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh

Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.
Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh the concrete and the abstract in art The Concrete and the Abstract in Art r ganesh