Wednesday, 31 December 2014

dance beyond supernature

Speak to me about the making of images

Without a knowledge of the art of dancing
the rules of painting are very difficult to understand

Please speak to me about the rules of dancing

The practice of dancing is difficult to understand
by one who is not acquainted with music
Without music, dancing cannot exist at all.

So tell me first about music

Without singing music cannot be understood
He who knows the rules of singing
Knows everything properly.

At the beginning of the long period that the dancers have been attempting to come into my paintings, I was fascinated by South Indian Chola Bronzes (c.8th century) of Nataraja, the version of Shiva who is always portrayed dancing. At that point, I rejected the idea of working with images of Indian gods because it seemed to be too far a stretch in terms of the Anglophone/European context. By this I mean that as most people in this context didn't have any sense of the complexity of the cultural context of Indian gods and their images, using these images was going to take people's interpretive frames too far in what for me was the wrong direction.

I thought that my current dancers had appeared as a manifestation of ordinary, luscious life, which India has always celebrated in a variety of fulsome ways (contrary to many popular ideas, the Indian textual tradition fully accepts worldly engagement and encourages its full embrace, albeit in the right way and at the right time of life...).

Recently, however, I noticed that in the traditions of painting that I was studying the women were covered up, and yet all the women on the temples at Belur and Halebid (the research I did last year in Karnataka) had exposed breasts, and sometimes exposed whole bodies (though they're not naked, they're adorned/protected by heavy jewellery, more on this another time....). Eventually I remembered the tradition of the devadasi, women who were dedicated to the temple at a young age, whose purpose was to dance as an offering to the temple deity. This tradition was, like so many others, misinterpreted by the British and their disapproval eventually transformed the understanding of that tradition, both inside and outside of India.

So now I'm back in the temple compound, even though my dancers are quite clearly ordinary humans. And I am suddenly in the midst of what dance means in the larger Indian tradition as a whole. Not so much that Shiva danced, but the fact that as the creator and destroyer of the universe, the One, omnipresent God danced (don't trouble yourself with how Shiva can be the One, omnipresent God when you know about Krishna or Devi, just take my word for it. The 'Western' understanding of India's multiplicity of gods has suffered the same problems as the temple dancing tradition..).

I just came across a description of a series of temples in South India which relate to a Shiva legend.

'The Thyagarjar Temple as Tiruvarur is famous for the ajapa thanam (dance without chanting) that is executed by the deity itself. According to legend, a Chola king obtained a boon from Indra and wished to receive an image of the deity presiding in the temple. Indra tried to misguide the king and had six other images made, but the king chose the right image. The other six images are installed at six other temples.

All seven images are said to dance when taken in procession.'

(abridged from wikipedia)

Here are the dances which take place in the seven temples:

Dance without chanting, resembling the dance of Shiva

Dance of an intoxicated person

Dancing like the waves of the sea

Dancing like a cock

Dancing like a bee that hovers over a flower

Dance like a lotus that moves in the breeze

Dancing with the gait of a swan

Speak to me about the making of images

Without a knowledge of the art of dancing
the rules of painting are very difficult to understand

Please speak to me about the rules of dancing

The practice of dancing is difficult to understand
by one who is not acquainted with music
Without music, dancing cannot exist at all.

So tell me first about music

Without singing music cannot be understood
He who knows the rules of singing
Knows everything properly.

Selective translation of the opening verses of the Vishnudharmottaram, an Indian text on painting

If you sing, you can know music

If you know music, you can know dance

If you know dance, then you can paint


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Dancing with a brush

A lovely piece by my friend and colleague Karen Strang in the local paper this week...

Artists' Quarter

Dancing with a brush. 

I'm fortunate not only in having a studio at Marcelle House, Alloa, but that I share this hub of creativity with so many artists, all of whom have a unique style of expression. Every studio reveals a different imaginative space. For my first arts feature I'll focus on the work of fellow resident Tamsin Haggis. Tamsin grew up in Scotland and studied art at St Martins School of Art in London. A few days ago she was host to an inspiring talk by Karen Haggis on Nepalese textiles, and her room was adorned with a colourful display of woven nettle, embroidered cotton and silk. Not every painting studio could happily accommodate these beautiful exotic fabrics without them detracting from the wall works yet in this instance they complemented the original artworks. Anyone stepping into Tamsin's studio is immediately struck by the large colourful free form drawings that hang all around. Add to that a mix of eclectic surround sound and a floor area which entices dance and movement practice and you get the picture... or rather an all round myriad of material connected to all the senses which celebrate being alive.
It is  a dynamic environment, which reflects the Indian philosophy of life energy which Tamsin has studied, both in her degree in Indian Art and Philosophy, and as an Artist living and working in North India. Her recent return to South India to study temple sculptures reaffirmed for her the connection between dance and life energy, not only in her personal practice, but also in her subject matter. We see exuberant figures in her paintings, which represent symbolically the movement of energy within ourselves and in the wider sphere of the earth. In keeping with ancient traditions of Indian painting, Tamsin's dancers are deliberately not anatomically correct: arms and legs stretch beyond what is physically possible in order to express the inner sense of unbounded movement that dancing provides and which uplifts our spirits. In other words they are a joy just to look at. In order to produce these energetic characters Tamsin has to dance them onto the paper with her brush or charcoal. Creating art this very physical way means that her work extends into other connecting areas of expression.
Music is an important factor in enriching the visual work. As part of her practice she improvises on violin, viola, mandolin and piano, and she also works in collaboration with others. The airy Georgian drawing room at Marcelle House has been completely transformed into an exotic multi sensory space where anything might happen... The bright earthy warm hues that fill her studio contrast with the cool muted urban tones outside and from her window you can see the edge of the industrialized Forth and the glass works - a neat coincidence then that some of Tamsin’s work also utilises that fundamental material, sand.
Many of the abstract images on display in her studio evoke the patterns found in nature. Her sand paintings are actual records of the physical qualities of sand. You might just remember these patterns from your school days as Fibonacci's sequence. In my time the engineers to be, some of whom went on to work at United Glass, would have understood the applied mathematics behind these patterns, but for me, this is way more inspiring than my maths lesson ever was. In Tamsin's work the creative element adds to the natural mathematical principles, providing even more evolving patterns. The process of producing her sand paintings is fascinating to watch. Tamsin takes a large sheet of paper and scatters and runs sand onto the paper using various instruments. After creating an image, she then suddenly agitates the paper, in an instant destroying the beauty of the forms she has created. As she shakes the paper the sand shifts and creates various moving patterns, some of which she captures on camera. Finally she sweeps up the sand and everything is gone.  This process neatly illustrates the idea that everything in nature has an energy, even unliving objects such as paper and silica. We can all agree in that looking at a painting, which is an inanimate object, we can 'see' the movement the artist used in making the mark. Only in this case it is the process that Tamsin values at least as much as the finished product. She is making a philosophical point with this work about dynamic process of change, destruction and renewal. It is impossible not to experience a sense of vitality in Tamsin's studio and to take in the whole atmosphere. It is a unique creative space where East and West meet for a metaphorical cup of tea and it's here in Alloa!
Marcelle House artists can be visited by appointment, or on one of the regular open days and every first Sunday of the month 12-4 pm.

Alloa Advertiser, November, 2014

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Saturday, 8 November 2014

what is erotic?

I recently posted this image on my facebook painting page, and someone said that it was erotic. Erotic is a complicated notion in relation to the dancers, who are using my pen, but who are visiting from the Indian classical tradition.

The textual/classical Indian tradition had a completely different starting point to the Christian West when it came to the worldly  realities of wealth, possessions and pleasure. Although India has a reputation for being 'spiritual' and other-worldly, in reality it is perhaps one of the most grounded, material, body-celebrating cultures in the world.

William Dalrymple wrote a piece recently about different cultural attitudes to erotic portrayal of the body 'The Sacred and the Sensuous Indian Art' (reproduced below, sorry about the way the text has come out...).

Paintings and carvings in ancient Indian temples challenge Western ideas of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, says writer and historian William Dalrymple.
In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party, lost in the arid mountains of the Western Ghats, made a remarkable chance discovery.
Following a tiger into a remote and narrow river valley, the hunters stumbled onto what was soon recognised as one of the great wonders of India - the painted caves of Ajanta.
On the walls of a line of 31 caves dug into an amphitheatre of solid rock, lie the most ancient and beautiful paintings in Buddhist art, the oldest of which date from the 2nd Century BC—an otherwise lost golden age of Indian painting. Along with the frescoes of Pompeii, Ajanta represents the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world and the most comprehensive depiction of civilised classical life that we have.

The Ajanta murals tell the Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha in images of supreme elegance and grace. The artists produced images that subtly explore a wide variety of human situations, from ascetic renunciation through portraits of compassionate Bodhisattvas of otherworldly beauty swaying on the threshold of Enlightenment, through to more earthy scenes of courtly dalliance in long lost ancient Indian pleasure gardens.
Although the images were presumably intended for a monastic audience, the Buddha tends invariably to be shown not in his monastic milieu, after his Enlightenment, but in the courtly environment in which he grew up. Here among handsome princes and nobles, dark-skinned princesses languish love-lorn, while heavy-breasted dancing girls and courtesans are shown nude but for their jewels and girdles, draped temptingly amid palace gardens and court buildings. These women conform closely to the ideas of feminine beauty propagated by the great 5th Century playwright Kalidasa, who writes of men pining over portraits of their lovers, while straining to find the correct metaphors to describe them: "I recognise your body in liana; your expression in the eyes of a frightened gazelle; the beauty of your face in that of the moon, your tresses in the plumage of peacocks... alas! Timid friend- no one object compares to you." As the great Indian art historian Vidya Dehejia puts it, "the idea that such sensual images might generate irreverent thoughts did not seem to arise; rather the established associations appear to have been with accentuated growth, prosperity and auspiciousness." That is why the monasteries of Ajanta were filled with images of beautiful women - because in the eyes of the monks this was completely appropriate decoration.
Ajanta muralMurals in the temple at Ajanta
When I first saw these caves at the age of 18, it was this that gave me pause for thought. Why, I wondered, would a monastery built for celibate Buddhist monks be decorated with images of beautiful, bare-breasted palace women? Returning last week after a gap of 30 years, I was again struck by the same thought. In the Christian world, this was the middle of Lent, the season of self-discipline and self-deprivation, but here I was in the middle of a celibate monastic community which had voluntarily chosen to live the austere ascetic path in small rock-cut cells, and yet was making a deliberate decision to cover the walls of its religious buildings with images of attractively voluptuous women.

Start Quote

The figures of Gods and Goddesses are shown in such obscene Postures, that it would puzzle the Covent Garden nymphs to imitate them”
18th Century European traveller in India
I am hardly alone in being surprised by this. Westerners coming to India have always been baffled to encounter a very different set of attitudes to the sensuous and its relationship to the sacred. Here it is considered completely appropriate to cover the exterior walls of a religious building with graphically copulating couples.
Christianity, in contrast, has always seen the human body as essentially sinful, lustful and shameful, the tainted vehicle of the perishable soul, something which has to be tamed and disciplined - a fleshy obstacle to salvation. A decade ago I remember spending another Lent in the austere desert monasteries of Coptic Egypt. It was here, in the dying days of the Roman empire, that Christian doctrines about the inherent sinfulness of the human body were first formulated. In opposition to the classical Roman love of sensuality, the early Christian monks set out to mortify their bodies and fight off all the temptations of the flesh. It is only by defying your urges and casting off the body, the Coptic monks maintained, that you can attain perfection. We are dust and to dust we shall return. These attitudes have never entirely left the Western Christian tradition.
Ajanta cavesInside the caves of Ajanta
For the colonial British, Indian art's obsession with the sensual body always provided a block to the appreciation of Indian art. Indian sculpture was deemed immoral and contact with it was believed to infect the moral sensibility. As early as the 17th Century, European travellers were railing about temples filled with "much immodest, heathen-style fornication and other abominations…. [and] so full of lascivious figures of Monsters, that one cannot enter them without horror". Even in the libertine 18th Century one gentleman complained that "the figures of Gods and Goddesses are shown in such obscene Postures, that it would puzzle the Covent Garden nymphs to imitate them".
But to pre-colonial Indians there was no association of women with sin, and in all the voluminous Indian scriptures there is no Eve, taking the fall for the Fall. Women were associated not with temptation but instead with fertility, abundance and prosperity, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine. "In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without," states the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. "In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without."
For this reason throughout their long history, the arts of India - both visual and literary - have consistently celebrated the beauty of the human body. Indeed the whole tradition of yoga was aimed at perfecting and transforming the body, with a view, among the higher adepts, to making it transcendent, omniscient, even god-like. The body, in other words, is not some tainted appendage to be whipped into submission, but potentially the vehicle of divinity. In this tradition, the sensuous and the sacred are not opposed. They are one, and the sensuous is seen as an integral part of the sacred. The gods were always depicted as superhumanly beautiful, for if the image was not beautiful then the deities could not be persuaded to inhabit the statue.
This obsession with the beauty of the human body survived waves of invasions, and the arrival of Islam in South Asia. Indeed by the early 18th Century we see explicit images of the Emperor Muhammad Shah "Rangila" or Colourful, making love with his mistress. It was not, therefore, the Islamic period that brought the dramatic break with India's sensual traditions. Instead, that break happened during the colonial period, with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th Century. In reaction to British diatribes about "Hindoo immorality" a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to re-examine their own traditions. A movement arose urging Hindu women to cover themselves up, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.
Gay protester in Mumbai, December 2013A protester in Mumbai against the criminalisation of gay sex
Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about the role of erotic in pre-modern India. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian Aids crisis a few years ago, the then health minister proclaimed that India's native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms. More recently, last December, the Indian Supreme Court upheld a law which criminalised gay sex, maintaining, again, it was against Indian tradition. The minister and the judge had apparently never heard of the Kama Sutra or visited the erotic temples of Khajaraho - or indeed delved into the rich courtly tradition of Rajasthani lesbian love poetry.
To me this interesting clash of perceptions holds many lessons. We are all culturally programmed, perhaps especially so in matters of sex and sensuality. We assume that many of our values are universal when they are in fact highly subjective and personal.
It also shows how easily we reflect present day moral values onto the past. We assume Buddhist monks would disapprove of and avoid sensual images, but the blatant sensuality of the art of early Buddhism in Ajanta and other early Buddhist sites across India, is overwhelming. If history and art history have any value beyond entertainment and offering us lessons and examples from the past, it is perhaps, like travel, to free us from the tyranny of our own cultural values and make us aware of how contingent and bound by time, culture and geography so many of our preconceptions actually are.
A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

Friday, 31 October 2014

how do you dance?

I've not been consciously thinking about the way that the dancers have started to transform recently. I've been pleased to see them, and they seem to know what they're doing, and what they want. It was only when I got some feedback from someone that I began to consider the different ways in which they might be interpreted.

These dancers are not serious, painterly renditions that bow to the history of European/American/Greek traditions of realism. The want to stretch their bodies in all directions, to twist and turn and express that key principle of Indian Aesthetics, which is the movement of life through/in a body. 

'He who paints waves, flames, smoke and streamers fluttering in the air according to the movement of the wind should be considered a great painter. He knows painting... who represents the dead devoid of life movement and the sleeping possessed of it.'

Vishnudharmottaram, 3, 33: 1-39

I like the way that these dancers play with the Indian artist's lack of interest in realism, which is so different from the European/American/Greek tradition. Whereas the European artist was, and often still is, interested in accuracy of proportion, muscular exactitude, and attention to physical likeness, the Indian classical artist didn't care if the proportions were a little different from a real physical form, or if arms or toes or hands were doing things that arms and toes and hands couldn't actually do. They were interested in the breath. For me this takes the image into a different (not better, just different) philosophical realm, which is distinct from the interest in accuracy of form. It's a different metaphysics, and a different purpose for art. 

As an artist, I would get more ready strokes from people looking at my images if I concentrated on perfecting my capacity to realistically 'capture' muscle, bone and proportion. Fun as it is, now, to be starting to draw from life again, the Greek aesthetic doesn't really hold any appeal for me. There are many people already working with this aesthetic, and I don't see any need to add myself to their number.

Artists choose particular aspects of life to work with; the human form, social critique, emotional interplay, injustice, transience, death... I choose to focus on life itself; on the movement of life through people and the world.

In the face of social injustice, transience, death and futility, these dancers say 'Look! How extraordinary to be alive!' 'How extraordinary to have a body, to be able to respond to music!'. Perhaps they seem trivial compared to a mighty life drawing or a hard-hitting piece of conceptual art. But I think they know something that we need.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014


'...'Creation' in this Hindu view of things is designated by the word shrishti, literally, 'pouring forth' of the universe from its source. As a complex plant or tree grows, bursting forth and developing from a simple unitary seed... so is this whole and diverse universe poured forth... There is no god who stands apart from it and creates it... Everything is a manifestation that has poured forth from the living body of the whole.'

Diana Eck, India

'Everything is a manifestation that has poured forth from the living body of the whole.' 

The idea of the world as a living body, and of everything in the world as an emergence from a de-centred whole, is in line with contemporary theories in science of complexity and emergence. It's an ecological view, which sees everything in the world as connected, and perhaps even in some ways alive. The ecological cycle which creates rain has no components which we would say were literally alive, in the way that humans or cats or fungi or amoebas are alive, but the ecological processes that produce rain are dynamic and completely dependent upon each other.

There is a very ancient tradition in Hindu creation myths about 'the man'; the cosmic man who was sacrificed by the gods, to the gods, at the beginning of time. In Jain cosmology the giant man is holding the world in his hands, at the level of his belly:

The cosmic man is also inherent in the foundation plan of the Hindu temple:

The human is the world, the human contains the world... 

Rather than, the world is here for human dominion, to be plundered in whatever way humans feel inclined...