Wanderings and History

Last week, a friend from the U.K. visited me and my friends here at Bangkok. It gave me the opportunity to explore areas within and outwith Bangkok that I had not managed in the past 3 months. I made some photographs during these visits. Unfortunately, I do not have my DSLR with me, so I had to resort to the mobile phone camera, which worked surprisingly well in many cases.

Wat Pho:

It is famously called the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. More historical facts can be found here and here. [Yes, that is a Wikipedia link. I assure you, the researcher in me is rather disturbed by it, but sometimes Wikipedia is surprisingly very useful]

Wat Pho #1, Bangkok

The architecture was magnificent and intricate. What fascinated me about this temple and the surrounding monasteries were the opulence that was almost an analogy to the larger-than-life structures. As a tourist, I was struck by the simultaneity of tourist indulgence and active use of these temples as sacred spaces for Buddhists. I suppose that is representative of Bangkok itself – with a large expat community, language and food are so indigenous that it is a juxtaposition of an interesting and intriguing contradiction. There was also a part of me (that part connected to doing historical/postcolonial research) that felt as if I am intruding a sacred space of the natives by being there (I will explain this in a moment), making photographs, etc. For instance, in one of the monasteries/temples, there was an evening session of Buddhist monks chanting sacred texts in front of the Buddha’s idol. The other half of the hall was occupied by (mostly) tourists who were taking photographs of the monks chanting. It felt oddly intrusive to me.

Wat Pho #2, Bangkok

The hall with the Reclining Buddha was under renovation. But the visitors were allowed in. In addition to the magnificent statue of the Buddha, the entire hall was covered with murals that were depicting mythological stories.

Wat Pho #3 (mural), Bangkok

We then went to the historical city of Ayutthaya, which is now a Unesco World Heritage Centre. More on the city here. The best way to get to Ayutthaya is to take a train from Bangkok, which takes about 2 hours to reach. Then, there are numerous shops to hire bicycles. These shops also provide maps of the city, and then, one can go around on their own.

Here again, what struck me was the larger-than-life structures, both of the temples and the Buddha idols.


Ayutthaya ruins #1

Most of the temples dotted around the city are in complete ruins – as in, literally they are held together using scaffolding. There was something really surreal and earthy to walk through these ruins, looking at how large these temples were. One of my favourite “exercise” is to imagine people, from centuries ago when the temples were built, walking around these temples. And wondering whether they would have ever imagined how things would look like hundreds of years later. Perhaps not. But this exercise helps me experience these kinds of historical spaces as embodied ones that were part of human history, rather than disembodied, disconnected historical objects.

Ayutthaya ruins #2

Yet, amidst all these ruins were the signs of civilisation, which was very interesting to see being juxtaposed that way.

Ayutthaya ruins and a cellphone tower #3

The one thing that perhaps struck to me as the most interesting aspect of these ruins was this. Both at Wat Pho (which is in Bangkok city) and at Ayutthaya, there were series of the idols of the Buddha lined up along the inner walls of the temples. Both places have a long history. Yet, the opulence of the former and the bareness of the latter was rather striking, which I tried to capture in the following images:

The Buddhas, Wat Pho
The Buddhas, Ayutthaya

I hope to be able to return to Ayutthaya with a good camera and more photos.




What is Creativity? Some (Random) Thoughts on Process and Form

Recently, I have been having some interesting conversations with my brother-in-law about artistic expression, forms and creative process. I have known him for years before he became my brother-in-law and have known that he used to write poetry. But I never had a chance to read them. In the recent conversations, we have been discussing his poetry, his photography-a sample of which I tweeted, etc. Now having been exposed to his artistic expression, I think he is an exceptionally creative person (which he bashfully disagrees with, of course!). I cannot write poems and my feeble attempts at photography are well documented on this blog.

As regular readers of this blog would know (I’ll assume that you are a regular reader; if not, what is taking you so long…! 😉 ) I have been exploring the source of my creativity, what form this may take and when; this, I have been doing, in the process of looking for other forms of creative expression, having taken a break from music. I have explored this in detail here.

Whilst discussing what form creativity takes, it seemed to me that there are two (or perhaps more) fundamental ways in which creativity works: a) for some, it is their artistic expression within a given set of parameters; b) whilst for others, it is a boundary-less, abstract expressions of creativity. Let me give an example: the difference between the two is the difference between abstract paintings and paintings of patterns. Arguably, abstract paintings have their own patterns- however, I am referring to those artists who need those boundaries (broadly defined) within which they can express their creativity and those who don’t.

It seems to me that whilst both can be seen as different kinds of creativity, when we say ‘art’, the second kind is valued more than the first, because it is seen as being ‘postmodern’ and going beyond the boundaries. Of course, this kind of creativity is liberating, you are working beyond the boundary. Thus, if an artist makes a photography and another artist makes a painting of the same photograph, the image and its creator tend to be valued more than the painter. The value I am referring to here is not a Bourdieuian sense of cultural capital- of high art and low art. Rather, there is a fetishisation (not in the Marxist sense) of what creativity is, the answer to which is tied closely to the question of originality and hierarchy of time-when was the art created. Several philosophers, from Michel Foucault to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, have explored these issues.

How must one understand art, then? Surely, it is a subjective expression of the creativity of the artist. Or must how we understand (and evaluate) creativity be tied closely to what form does that creativity take and what purpose does that form have? I realise that most artists grapple with these questions. Answering these questions are difficult to those who are attempting to find alternate ways of expressing themselves. There is, of course, subjectivity involved in both artistic expressions and their interpretations. May be art must approached as a form of self-expression without creativity (or ‘lack thereof…!’) of the creator being the primary focus; in other words, art must be seen as a self-expression and not a self-expression of one’s creativity.

Recording: Of Attachment and Alienation

Although it is problematic to distinguish between the text and the tune of a song and in fact, on many occasions I have argued against it, I connect to a composition based on what the tune it is set to does to me. In other words, the text of the song is less important to me. Of course, that does not mean that I enjoy songs that are sexist (and there are plenty in Indian films!) etc. Rather, I enjoy a song even if the lyric does not mean anything profound. For example, this song is a parody of Tamil film songs in general; the entire song is made up of words that have no meaning in any language, which often feature in many Tamil film songs. But I find the tune deeply evocative and the male singer is the well-known Hariharan, in my opinion, a great singer, whose music I grew up with.

Which aspect of music I find evocative is very important to how I (re)engage with it. One particular type of music that I enjoyed singing was bhajans. They are significantly different from Karnatic Music compositions with regard to the structure. They are shorter, performed in a space and set-up very different to that of Karnatic Music. The parameters laid down, which I see as rigidity, to perform Karnatic Music is not present for bhajans. They serve primarily as communal prayers and singers are not expected to possess any expertise in music. Greater emphasis is placed on the personal relationship to the divine and bhajans as a tool for articulation of such personal spirituality (however that is defined). There is less focus on how listeners would evaluate the music being performed. As someone who performed a lot whilst growing up but did not particularly enjoy it, I find bhajans rather liberating and more evocative than typical Karnatic Music compositions.

I created a page on this blog called Recordings to post recordings of my singing. The following is a bhajan I learned in high school. It is on the Hindu deity Krishna. This tune has been in my mind for a while now. I find this tune very evocative- to me, it is a tune of attachment and alienation, simultaneously (even though the lyrics is not about these emotions; the bhajan extols Krishna); it is also partially inspired by an image a friend made that is currently the desktop background on my laptop. In other words, I ‘heard’ this particular bhajan when I looked at the image. I cannot reproduce the image here because I do not have the permission to do so.

As a disclaimer I should add that I did not compose or write this bhajan. I also do not wish to profit from it commercially.

Myths and Superpowers: “Metaphysical” Superheroes?

My blog post on the Critical Religion Association website on the language of “myths”, “mythology” and “religion” posted yesterday.

The Critical Religion Association

This blog post is primarily about the language surrounding “mythology” “myths” and along the lines of the thinking behind the Critical Religion Association, “religion”. I look at these terms as tools for categorization using stories of superheroes.

In 80s and 90s India, most available comics available were stories taken from “Hindu mythology” such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or stories based on these works in books such as Amar Chitra Katha. Also popular were the Jataka Tales, a collection of Buddhist moral stories. On the television front, we had two state-run television channels and programs on South Indian channels were dubbed versions of Hindi programs produced mostly in Delhi, the capital city of India. Dramatized adaptations of Ramayana (produced by Ramanand Sagar) and Mahabharata (produced by B. R. Chopra) were televised during these two decades. The personification of Hindu deities and demons, the grandeur of the production and film-sets…

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Agency (in/and) Artistic Performance

I have ignored this blog for a few months now due to several reasons including semester getting in the way, etc. However, this particular blog post has been sitting in my draft since February as I have been hesitant to broach this subject because a) I was not ready; and b) it is about a process that is very personal. Ironically, I started this blog to do precisely that: to record the process through which I am attempting to re-engage with music, in particular and arts, in general. I must confess that this exercise is a partially arrogant one: because I learned music for more than two decades, I am almost certain that there is some creativity in me that I can tap into whilst going through this process (I say ‘almost’ because sometimes I question my assumption). If I may add a line here in defense of such arrogance, I also believe that every person possesses creativity- rather naive one might say, but it keeps my world going! My other reason is that I strongly believe that arts is necessary for us to make sense of the crazy world that we construct and live in.

In the previous blog posts and my PhD thesis, I have explored my relationship to music, specifically the tradition I was trained in, i.e., Karnatic Music. As discussed in those blog posts, I have had a complex relationship with Karnatic Music. I learned and performed it reluctantly and yet, music came to my aid at different points in my life. And in this blog post, I explored the subjectivity in experiencing any art form. There have been times when I wanted to reject music completely but was unable to do so because: one of the epiphanic moments was when I realised that, to me music is a language; and I learned it simultaneously whilst learning Tamil (my first language) and English (the medium of instruction). Therefore, to shut music out was to stop using a language that I am familiar with. Moreover, as an embodied being (as we all are), language is our primary tool in understanding the world around us. Music was an evocative (and to a certain extent, non-verbal) way of understanding my context, embodiment and identity.

I am currently following several wonderful artists on Twitter, most of whom are photographers. I know nothing about photography (except to say ‘oh, that’s a nice image’). But what interests me most about the works of these photographers is the process through which they arrive at making a particular image. The process involves not only what that particular image means to them but also how they articulate what they want to, through the image. The articulation is not always successful, of course. But, it shows both the photographer’s relationship to the image and more importantly (to me at least), the limitations of language, specifically verbal communication, that can be overcome through the image. It made me realise that all along I have been asking the wrong question pertaining to music. Instead of asking ‘what does music do to me?’ I should be asking, ‘what is music to me?’ There is subjectivity of experience involved in both. There are differences though. Whilst the former assumes that music as an ontological entity, the latter approaches music as a construction. Following that argument, the primary distinction between the two questions, is the question of agency. The latter allows for music to be constructed the way one wants and therefore, experience it the way one wants. There is room for agency here. And thus comes my ephiphanic moment described above. It is the realisation that music acts as a language to me. I relate to people through music; they do not need to be musicians or any kind of artists. It also gives me the agency to construct and re-construct music the way it suits me best. It is also one of the many reasons why I could not engage with Karnatic Music within the framework of the tradition- i.e., kutcheri format, etc. If the following up question then is, whether all sounds are music, I don’t know the answer to that nor will I attempt to answer that. My aim here is not to make any universalising statements about experience that I see as fundamentally subjective. Rather, I am pointing to my personal journey or process in understanding this subjectivity and finding the agency within it. This is a work in progress for me. I am only beginning to understand these issues. And having been raised within the strict Karnatic Music tradition, I know that these questions do not come up on a daily basis within the tradition, except to approach them as metaphysics.

I am still not entirely on a comfortable ground. But I see this as a process and for the process to keep going, to enable self-discovery, to be on an uncomfortable ground is to some extent necessary. My mentor once gave the analogy of being in a row boat on a river- we move with the water. This process is a perfect representation of that analogy.

Subjective Artistic Experience

For a while now, I have been pondering about re-engaging with music, and speaking with some friends about it. A brief context here would help: I began learning/singing Karnatic Music from the age of 4 (of course, at that age, whatever noise I made could not be called ‘singing’ but my mother and sister were/are singers and I would always ‘sing’ along). Music represented various things to me then: performing was cathartic; it was also an identity-marker in various contexts. Since moving abroad and a couple of years leading up to the move, I have not been singing owing to practical reasons such as relocation, etc. I, then, started my PhD on music in India (to include film and folk music- the categories are unstable but I won’t go into that issue here) and narrowed it down, in my first year of doctoral study, to Karnatic Music, a tradition that (I thought) I knew best.

Doing a PhD thesis on Karnatic Music has been a very interesting journey. I began the study thinking that I knew what Karnatic Music was, what the music, the tradition and the community meant to me. During the PhD, my pre-conceived understandings were challenged to a point were I felt that my understandings were being ‘disproved.’ It felt like some kind of existential crisis, but PhD being a kind of self-reflective exercise, does involve such experiences. (My supervisor once suggested that I blog about it whilst going through these crises, but I didn’t. Well, at least now I’m doing it…!) The crisis was due a specific reason: learning music from the age of 4 meant that I learned music as a language, alongside English and Tamil! Post-PhD, I have a completely different (and sometimes unclear) understanding of what Karnatic Music means to me. (I visualize these transformations in understanding almost like a sine curve in mathematics).

There are several arguments that need to be considered here. Firstly, of course, arguably it was my understanding that was ‘disproved’. However, my understanding, at that time at least, was what I had picked up (from the age of 4) from the community I grew up in. The cathartic, yogic, identity-marker that music was to me at that time, was a product of the social structures within which the Karnatic Music community existed. Therefore, I’d argue there that my understandings reflected the structures (by structures, I mean, the contexts within which the art was performed or experienced and the resulting social structures) put in place by and within the community. Secondly, the PhD enabled me to critically analyze the problematic structures of Karnatic Music (not a very popular argument… let the criticisms begin to pour…), patriarchy being one. Therefore, to engage with music as I used to seemed and seems problematic on multiple levels. I felt as if the PhD had rendered my language of music unstable and personally, not dependable.

Whilst attempting to understand these questions, I have a) tried singing, again; b) considered learning a musical instrument in a different tradition; c) habitually listened to music in the hope that it’ll give me an epiphany as to why I should continue singing; d) I even visited a childhood friend, a singer herself, in the hope that she would guide me to that epiphanic moment. No such moment arrived, obviously, because I am writing this blog. But these issues point to two other issues: a) the argument that any established music tradition (or art, in general) has such (may not be similar) problematic structures; b) also, isn’t interpretation of (any) art, by its very nature, subjective? Both arguments are interrelated, in that, can we, then, ignore the structures put in place that defines the art (as such) and focus on our subjective experiences of the art? Even if certain social structures (such as patriarchy) are something that we critique on a daily basis? Would such art still remain meaningful to us because we are choosing those aspects (contexts) of the art that are important to us? In other words, are we not decontexualizing the art by ignoring certain problematic issues of the social structure? On a personal level, what other art could I engage with, instead of music? Finally, what ‘art for art’s sake’ means in this context?

These questions are central to my understanding and my attempts to re-engage with Karnatic Music. I have been introduced to and following works of some artists (musicians, photographers, etc) and I constantly wonder how they negotiate these issues. Thus, to provide some clarity, I am pondering over the issues of interpretation of an art- not in the sense of whether or not the audiences would understand and interpret a particular performance or an exhibit as intended by the author/photographer/performer. Rather, my question is if the artistic experience is informed by the contexts within which it is being performed, exhibited and experienced, what is this ‘experience’ we talk about and what tools do we use to have such an experience and understanding it?

One might say, ‘why these questions? Just pick something that you would like to do!’ Therein lies the issue I am writing about. Embodiment is central to creativity and when we embody what we perform, these issues (amongst others!) come into focus and need to be negotiated. Much as we, as a society, constantly attempt to frame our lives into oversimplified narratives, there is an inherent ‘messiness’ in these issues that we negotiate constantly. Hence, what if the art is about personal salvation rather than social justice? What if it reinforces patriarchal norms or class/caste norms? Can I ignore these aspects and focus on the cathartic value it has in my life? The overarching question then is: what is the role of an(y) art in the society? How does one negotiate the subjective artistic experience, the contexts of the art and the idealized notion of art that we hold?

Perhaps I could take up painting or photography (not that I can do any of it!). A close friend gave me some art supplies recently in the hope that I would get in touch with my creative side (assuming I have not exhausted it on the PhD). It, again, made me wonder about the distinction (if there are any) between performance arts and visual arts. I notice that these are rather unstable categories. But there is a normative understanding to these categories: performance arts are, for instance, music and dance, whilst visual arts are painting, photography, etc (as if one watches a dance performance with their eyes closed! Those Karnatic musicians don’t wear expensive saris and jewellery at performances for nothing). For now, if we stay with these categories and their understandings, would artistic experience, from the perspective I have discussed above, be different between performance arts and visual arts, for the artistes and the audience?

Perhaps a page with paintings and photographs will appear on this blog as I explore these issues further.