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What the genius from Kashmir gave to Indian philosophy and thought

December 30, 2016

Described as saakshaatdakshinaamurthi and kantheshaavataarah, Abhinavagupta, the towering Kashmiri genius and great acharya of Saiva darshan, whose contribution to Indian philosophy and thought in the areas of theatre, music, dance, and tantra is immeasurable, was a scholar with immense range. Like Shiva combining in himself the ascetic and the erotic, or to quote renowned scholar Navjivan Rastogi the prajna –purusa embodying features of Saraswati and Nataraja fused into one, Abhinavagupta’s intellectual capacities encompassed a diversity of disciplines from Tantra and renunciatory religious philosophy and metaphysics to aesthetics, not excluding historiography, literature and what have you. The three day seminar at IGNCA in this the thousandth year of Abhinavagupta, with reputed scholars and younger enthusiasts contributing papers, was an attempt to look at the totality of this encyclopaedic mind - the first in-depth analysis of this intellectual giant being the path breaking work in 1935 of Dr. K.C. Pandey (a scholar from Lucknow, joined later by K. C. Iyer). But for Abhinavagupta’s commentary Abhinava Bharati, deciphering Bharata’s Natya Sastra Karanas in depth would have been impossible. The seminar featured several papers on the acharya as the interpreter of the Trika system with his versicular commentary Malinivijaya Vartika on the Malinivijayottaratantra and his works like Paratrisika Vivarna, and his vision of non-dualism where “fullness, harmony and integrality” are but connotations of a changing universe built on one unified essence.

In his work Locana on the Dhvanyaloka, he deals with dhwani and the immediacy of the art experience, his comments revealing not just his philosophical depth but along with it, his deep concerns for the nature of the word and language. The world of ideas, of literature, of practices are all organized into a systematic framework and methodology, with the touchstone of spirituality or bhakti making this into an offering to the Divine. Tantraloka, along with Malinivijaya Vartika, and Paratrimsikhavivarana form a totality to be studied together. As Navjivan Rastogi affirms in his paper “Rasa experience is a cognitive mode of self-discovery through word”. Dating his own works precisely, giving valuable information about ancestral and preceptorial linkages in tradition, Abhinavagupta shows not only his fine sense of history but also of integrity in acknowledging credit, whatever the source. Scholars judged his works as ‘autobiographical’ confiding in the reader about his problems - his mind open enough to seek missing links in cognate texts and allied disciplines when material in source texts proved scanty or missing. And few can beat him in critical analysis. To sum up again with Navjivan Rastogi, “He is the only thinker of his kind who applies his philosophical thesis to the realms of art –experience, dramatic presentation, tantric praxis, yogic transcendental realization of the self and mundane sensual ecstasy specially marking the sex-experience, viewing them all as the various expressions of the self-experience, their mutual difference caused by the specifics of the medium or the instrument played.” Thus the experiential, the spiritual, the existential, the worldly and the trans-worldly are all brought under one system of aesthetic rehearsal of spiritual self-recognition.

Reiterating in a passionate overview of deep conviction, the same aspect of inclusivity rather than segregation as the primary nature of Sastras and Abhinavagupta’s philosophy, scholar Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi mentioned how while being very alert to the continuity of a discipline preserving its identity (sthiti), this savant was also very aware of change amidst gati or movement through time (the Natya Sastra was deemed as Prayoga Sastra). Touching on the performative dimension in theatre, during the first half of the 11th century, Tripathy, through the example of a short passage of the Mangalacharan in Abhinava Bharati (natyaveda / Natya Sastra / vivrti) touched on the methodology of delving into concepts in detail, knowing the Ekvakyata of text understanding the etymology of a word and its grammatical derivation along with Vaktavya or statement of the author - all considered of prime importance. In theatre (which is not anukriti but anukeertanam -- a re-narration of bhava), the performer has to cleanse performance space, offering salutations to Shiva with prayers to Earth, Air, Water and Space (that final quality of energy of creation being supreme, independence or sovereignty swatantryasakhi) - the exegesis of aesthetic consciousness (Svaprakasanandamaya-samvidvisranti) is to help evoke the energies one is praying to. So potent is this creative aesthetic consciousness that it fetches to one the energies one seeks, instead of having to go looking for them. Pratibha, that consciousness of “poetic creative imagination which shines with ever new scintillation” was for Abhinavagupta the true creator. This ‘pratibha’ dwells in both creative poet and appreciative reader.

R. Nagaswamy gave a sweeping power point presentation on Saiva sidhhanta of Tamilnadu, which has its earliest references in Sangam literature of the first century B.C. and how the Tamil Saiva saints Appar, Sambandar, Sundarar, Manikkavachakar and apart from Thirumular expressed their devotion through soul stirring songs and poetry, their philosophy expressed in the Agamas closer to the Vedas. This literature which had a profound effect on dance and music performed in the temples was also reflected in the sculpture on temple walls. Though a contemporary of Rajaraja Chola whose great temple has the Natya Sastra Karanas sculpted with verse inscriptions on its walls, the influence of Abhinavagupta’s Kashmir Saivism was not felt in the south till about 300 years later, when his influence was seen in Sarvardarsana Sangraha by Sayana Madhava.

Rasa Aesthetics of Abhinavagupta had several references in the seminar. Radhavallabh Tripathi gave interesting references from Abhinavagupta’s works mentioning the changes in theatre showing his constant awareness of tradition and change. He talks of 18 types of Natya Mandapa, most of them not in use during his time. He referred to Dombis, who were considered a low caste group and their performances, mentioning one Choodamani Dombi. He even quotes from gathas quoted from the scripts of Dombi performances. He also mentions several playwrights and their works like Pushpabhooti Prakarana - all lost to history. Abhinavagupta makes pertinently critical observations about Yashovarman’s play – about Rama’s portrayal and whether the character is dheerodatta. He also mentions that even amidst raudra rasa characters it is the odd mix of karuna rasa moments that bring out the integrated character.

Manasvini M.Yogi strongly contested Abhinavagupta’s introducing a ninth shanta rasa as the summum bonum of all rasas, with her view that what was regarded as ni-rasa did not rouse any emotion at all and hence was uninteresting for the rasika. The truth is that to evoke any state-of-being and get it across to the audience requires equal artistic ability. One wondered if there was a mixing up of bhava and rasa.

Talking about the principle of ‘sadharanikarana’ where emotions are universalised so as not to be associated with a person as a felt experience by the actor while enacting an assumed character, Rekha Navneet’s paper compared this with concept of disinterestedness as initiated by Kant and the notion of empathy (sahrdaya) propagated by Hume of the western tradition. She wondered if aesthetic delight could be felt by an actor distancing oneself from the character. Again Rastogi’s Re-Accessing Abhinavagupta summed this aspect up in one sentence: “The actor by identifying himself with the focus of dramatic situation, even though enacting an assumed character experiences the aesthetic relish due to intuitive self-realisation resulting from the process of universalisation (sadharanikarana).”

Superbly presented and ideally suited to the purpose and context of the seminar and its theme was the short recital of Padma Subrahmanyam and her students of Nrithyodaya. Starting with a sloka in praise of Abhinavagupta, she and her students presented as a Lakshnageeta, the Natya Sastra Karanas 1-49,(Talapushpaputam, Vartitam, Valitorukam, Apaviddham in order as mentioned in NS and deciphered through the Abhinava Bharati commentary of Abhinavagupta) up to Parshvanikunttitam all set to ragamalika music by Padma. Then came the various moods – all built round the character of Rama succinct and neat, with dancers in twos and threes appearing and dispersing smoothly with all the evoked moods rendered to music in Malayamarutam. Concluding with prayer to Bhairava, which Padma presented solo – in total shanta rasa, here was a performance totally fitting the occasion.



Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.














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