Sunday, January 19, 2014

Emotional palettes: Vikram Chandra on mixed rasa in ancient literature and popular cinema

There are so many stimulating things in Vikram Chandra’s new book Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code that I won’t try listing them all – or doing a consolidated review – but one passage that struck a chord was a reference from the Mahabharata’s Stree Parva, the book about the women on the post-war battlefield. In the original text, Gandhari’s extraordinary monologue includes a description of the slain warrior Bhurishravas’s wives finding his severed arm, then holding and caressing it. The imagery haunted me for a long time when I first read it (in the Kamala Subramanian version, I think; the more literal and dreary Kisara Mohan Ganguli translation is on this page) and I was reminded of it when I read Mirrored Mind. Chandra quotes a rendition by the ninth century scholar Anandavardhana wherein one of the wives, gently stroking the gory limb she has placed on her lap, says:
“This is the hand that took off my girdle,
That fondled my full breasts,
That caressed my navel, my thighs, my loins,
And loosened my skirt.”**
Here is, as Chandra points out, an example (one of countless in the Mahabharata) of the mixing of rasas. “The stable emotion of grief is made sharper and more profound by the tasted memory of the erotic. And this provides, for the reader, the savouring of karuna-rasa, pathos.” In other words, the tone of an essentially tragic scene has been heightened by the introduction of a very different – some might even say inappropriate – mood.

Concepts like rasa (the aesthetic pleasure derived from tasting artificially induced emotions while watching a performance), dhvani (the resonance that poetry can create within a reader) and vyanjan (suggestion) have informed artistic expression in India for centuries, and Chandra writes about them at some length, drawing on the work of Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, and discussing the function of rasa and dhvani in old literature. But he also mentions a more modern medium.

The urge to savour is universal, but its expression is culturally shaped. 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.

According to Anandavardhana: “While it is well known that larger works contain a variety of rasas, a poet who seeks the excellence [of his works] will make just one of them predominant… [But there is] no obstruction to a single rasa by its being mixed with others…Readers with a ready sense of discrimination, who are attentive and intelligent, will rather take a higher degree of pleasure in such a work.”
Chandra continues:
A song in an Indian film is an interlude which exists outside of story-logic and story-time, but within the emotional palette of the film; its function is to provide subsidiary rasas that will strengthen the predominant rasa of the whole.

I had a nice session with Chandra the other day (two sessions actually, a private conversation followed by a public one), and part of our discussion was about the often-uninformed, kneejerk denigrating of works that are deemed “unrealistic” or “melodramatic”. When I interviewed him in 2006, he had said:
I feel very strongly about this notion of what is "too filmi" as opposed to what is realistic. In India, especially in the upper and middle class, we've had an education that's trained us to see reality in a specific way, which mostly comes from the tradition of psychological realism. So when we see the other kind of representation – of mainline cinema – we deny its reality. But the idea that the novelistic/psychological-realism form can transparently give us what is "real" is very naïve. It's a distressing aspect of critical talk, and given the history of colonialism, we should be more suspicious of this idea.
(Full interview here)

Related points are addressed in Mirrored Mind. In a chapter titled “Histories and Mythologies”, Chandra recounts how, as a young writer, he was divided between classical Indian forms of storytelling (with their episodic structures, logical discontinuities and narratives nestled within narratives) and the cool, minimalist “realism” of modern American writing (in creative-writing workshops in the US, the model to aspire to was the spare prose of Raymond Carver). And he writes very eloquently about “the cult of modernity”: how imperialism required that colonisers cast the colonised as primitive, childish, undeveloped, and sentiment-driven; how entire modes of artistic expression get labelled inferior and “premodern” as a result; and what effect that has had on how we continue to view our art and culture even in post-colonial times. Alluding to Joseph Conrad’s description of Africans making “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” in Heart of Darkness, he says:
The irony here is that apart from the African languages that Conrad reduces to “babble”, the frightening “throb of drums” that he refers to several times contains a sophisticated artificial language rich in metaphor and poetry. The drummers carried on conversations with each other, made announcements, broadcast messages. James Gleick tells us that this language of the drums metamorphosed tonal African languages into ‘tone and only tone. It was a language of a single pair of phonemes, a language composed entirely of pitch contours’ […]
These parts of Mirrored Mind particularly appealed to me because I can relate – to a degree – with Chandra’s ambivalence. My own informal “education” in cinema – taking the medium seriously, as something that could be analysed and written about – really began when I exited the world of Hindi films in my early teens, became obsessed with old American films, and began reading criticism by V F Perkins, Robin Wood and others; criticism that was very much rooted in the models of psychological realism, and in a limited worldview where an Indian director worthy of being held up as a major creative force would have to have the particular sensibility and method of a Satyajit Ray

It is only in the past few years that I have rediscovered the creative energies of the really good popular Hindi films, and attempted – as a viewer and writer – to understand their “language” and the assumptions underlying it. And so, even while I have written posts like this one in response to sweepingly condescending pieces about Indian cinema – or this one about Hindi-movie songs – there’s a tiny part of me that still feels a bit embarrassed about the tropes of our popular movies; still reluctant to fully embrace the best of them as art (as opposed to “enjoyable entertainment, but nothing more”). There is some irony here, because when it comes to old Hollywood, I have always found it easy to reject Pauline Kael’s simplistic Art vs Trash formulation. I have no trouble placing popular or genre films like Hawks’ Monkey Business in the same circle of artistic merit as more obviously serious-intentioned films. But it feels like a greater leap to put a popular Hindi movie – even one that is extremely well made and has a fully realised “emotional palette” – in that circle. It’s an aspect of my conditioning that I struggle with.


Like I said, there is much else of interest in Mirrored Mind, though it is a difficult book in places: an honest report of the reading experience might be “Stirred, then daunted, even stupefied, then stirred again”. It isn’t easy to get into it – if you know nothing about the world of code and computer programming, you might back gingerly away on seeing the first page with its List of Figures that goes “CIL for Hello, world! program in C#” and “Subtraction operator with inputs 4.2 and 2.2” and suchlike.

When I last encountered Chandra’s work, it was in the form of Sacred Games, that epic novel about cops and gangsters in Mumbai – a fast-paced, accessible thriller as well as a thoughtful look at human lives and destinies colliding in a dynamic city, with the reverberations of the distant past constantly running through those lives. So coming to Mirrored Mind, all this talk about algorithms and logic gates and computer programming was a bit scary. But a couple of things happened as I continued reading. First, Chandra’s writing made the world of code and software immediate and interesting. Second, the book morphed gradually into other things. It became a memoir of a reading life and a writing life – of Chandra’s coming of age as a writer, his parallel life in programming, and how the two pursuits have intersected, diverged, or complemented each other (“the stark determinisms of code were a welcome relief from the ambiguities of literary narrative”). And eventually, a wide-ranging history of Sanskrit grammar and theory.

That might seem a quirky range of topics for a single book, but they come together very well here, and there are all sorts of little ideas and revelations. For instance, it was news to me that good code can aspire not just to functionality but to elegance and beauty as well; that an ambitious programmer can be like a writer who wants to polish his sentences and express himself as well as possible, rather than simply relay information. At one point Chandra quotes Donald Knuth, author of The Art of Computer Programming, who was underwhelmed by a particular code: “It was plodding and excruciating to read, because it just didn’t possess any wit whatsoever. It got the job done, but its use of the computer was very disappointing.” 

Which almost suggests that a version of the form-and-content debate may exist even in this seemingly cold, mechanical world! Perhaps future editions of the Jaipur Literature Festival can have sessions with titles like “Visual Basic, C# and FORTRAN: three celebrated programming languages discuss what aesthetic transcendence means to them."


** The Stree Parva excerpt above is from Luther Obrock’s English translation of Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka


  1. Thought provoking piece.

    how imperialism required that colonisers cast the colonised as primitive, childish, undeveloped, and sentiment-driven; how entire modes of artistic expression get labelled inferior and “premodern” as a result; and what effect that has had on how we continue to view our art and culture even in post-colonial times

    To be honest, I doubt if the "colonisers" did any of those things. In fact it was during the British Raj the entire gamut of Sanskrit literature got rediscovered and translated into European languages and the whole discipline of Oriental studies got founded. Yes, there is the odd questionable remark by the likes of Macaulay that patronizes Oriental literature by comparing it unfavourably with European literature of the 18th/19th centuries. But I see nothing wrong in that. In fact there is a whole lot of truth in it.

    With all due respect, Kautilya compares very unfavourably with Adam Smith and Sankaracharya compares unfavourably with David Hume. And the Puranas (traditional Indian "history") is many many rungs below the historical writing of Hume and Gibbon or even James Mill. And I say this without qualification despite being a huge admirer of the likes of Sankara and Ramanuja.

    The British Raj did a lot to revive interest in classical Hinduism that lasts to this day. The damage to Indian literature/art forms happened during the previous colonization by dynasts of different shades (from 800 AD to 1800 AD) when the whole of North India completely lost touch with its Sanskritic past to the extent that there are more Sanskrit scholars today down south in Dravidian heartland than in Punjab (which is the birthplace of Sanskrit!).

    By the way, Imperialism did not "require" in my book any deliberate subversion of native cultures. I don't think British Imperialism had such a planned agenda. The Empire was the unconscious handiwork of traders, merchants, missionaries (and later the govt itself) - largely unplanned and evolving over a 100 years.

    Regarding the "cult of modernity" : I don't understand why men like Mr.Chandra talk disparagingly of the very cult that has made blogposts like these and men like him a reality!

  2. Also as both of us have discussed elsewhere, there is a very admirable and long tradition of melodrama in the West dating all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. And Melodrama was a veritable art form (not always pejoratively viewed) even during the Victorian era (that much reviled era of prudery to which nothing good is ever attributed).

    Yet, melodrama can be bad when its object is just to sensationalize and emote and titillate. As is the case with "Stree Parva" what with its wailing pricesses and queens. Mahabharata is no doubt a great work but it is perhaps fair to say that the "Stree Parva" hasn't dated all that well.

    So I think it is okay if we look down upon certain forms of excess melodrama in our tradition.

  3. Shrikanth: I thought you'd weigh in here, and I had an idea of what you were likely to say. Well-made points, though I don't agree with all of them. (Definitely not about the Stree Parva, which is much more than just "wailing princesses and queens".) But will try to reply at length later.

  4. Quick query: non-programmers are to stay away from this one?

  5. P.S. of course imperialism doesn't have to have a clearly planned, point-by-point agenda, and at the ground level of course it can happen in a haphazard way. But the process by its very nature is predicated on basic assumptions of civilisational "superiority". And once it has begun, the undermining of the colonised people's heritage and forms of communication follows naturally.

    Should also clarify here that Chandra shows his own ambivalence about these things - he isn't making any jingoistic statements about the old Indian way of doing things being superior. He usually lets questions and ideas hang in the air.

  6. Anon: hmm? This post has been written by a non-programmer, and hopefully I have provided a sense of the book's varied contents, including many things that should be of interest to people who know nothing about code or algorithms.

  7. Jai: Ofcourse I don't expect anyone to agree completely with all the points. I'd be glad if people atleast agree to disagree (instead of calling names and descending to abuse - which is what I've been receiving in many quarters for voicing these very views in no stronger language than this.

    Some of those labels include "Macaulayputra", "brown sahib" or even worse - "muslim-basher". Pretty sad. It's almost as though anyone who disagrees with any aspect of the Nehruvian consensus must be evil.

    I must qualify my remarks on "Stree Parva" by saying I haven't read it in full. The basic argument was that there is such a thing called "melodramatic excess" which needn't always be defended.

    Another tendency I notice especially among young people these days is to look very kindly upon the extremely "ancient" past because the lifestyle described in the books belonging to that very ancient past appeals to the liberals of today. For eg: The sexual prurience in parts of Mahabharata or the references to beef-eating in our epics. A colleague of mine was arguing that Valmiki Ramayana is a great book because it views Rama objectively while Tulasidas Ramayan is crap because it idealizes Ram and has a devotional element.

    Well, I am a bit ambivalent about this line of reasoning. The original Vedic epics date back to maybe as early as 1000 BC describing a fairly primitive way of life totally lost to us. The kernel of those stories has been idealized over the years in medieval works like Tulasidas' Ramayan. Such idealization is looked down upon by several "modernists". But to my mind, it is just the natural course of history. Tulasidas' Ramayan with its idealized Ram has probably inspired more people and has had a great practical utility as a religious work in the everyday lives of ordinary people - something denied to a secular work like Valmiki Ramayana.

    Sorry for the digression.

  8. But the process by its very nature is predicated on basic assumptions of civilisational "superiority". And once it has begun, the undermining of the colonised people's heritage and forms of communication follows naturally.

    My point is - when the great clash of civilizations happened in 18th century, it was very obvious to any onlooker that the civilization of the imperialist was a lot more advanced and complex than the civilization of the "colonized". All civilizations are not "equal" at all points in history. Nor can we say simplistically that civilizations are "just different" and we should never ever try to rank order them.

    I agree that in the process certain assumptions can be made which can unjustly undermine anything and everything associated with the defeated peoples. But I doubt if such a thing happened in the 19th cen. Yes, there were jingoists and "racists" among the imperialists. But that can't be helped. It's human nature. As Jack Lemmon's boyfriend says in Some Like it Hot - "Nobody's perfect".

  9. But the process by its very nature is predicated on basic assumptions of civilisational "superiority"

    One more thought. At the beginning of say 17th century when the British involvement in India was just about beginning, I don't think there was any "assumption" of civilizational superiority by the English. Because at that point England, though on its way up, was hardly a major power. In fact East India Company traders prostrated in front of Mr.Jehangir overawed by the superficial grandeur of Mughal India (masking the general material and intellectual poverty of the land). And Jehangir is on record ridiculing England as a small island of fishermen! Now I grant that England was not yet a major power in 1600. Yet, that island of fishermen in 1600 boasted of Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Hobbes, Walter Raleigh among others. And within the next 150 years, it would produce more geniuses like Isaac Newton, Daniel Defoe, David Hume, Jonathan Swift among others.

    And it's amazing that the dope addict ruling in Agra at the time had little clue of what was happening in that part of the world!

    So this whole ideology of "occidental superiority", "eugenics" and the like came about only very late in the Victorian period (late 19th cen/early 20th cen) by which time England was drunk on power and prestige for quite a while and started basking in intellectual complacency.

    Sadly this intellectual backwardness of Mughal India is never ever discussed anywhere. The moment you discuss it, you become a "muslim basher". Indians prefer to remember that this Jehangir chap as the handsome Yusuf Khan who stood up to his dad to win his courtesan love Madhubala :)

  10. Would highly recommend that Shrikanth and Jaiarjun read an old classic, Francis G. Hutchins, "The Illusion of Permanence" especially the chapter "The Right Sort of Conduct: India's Attraction for Victorian Englishmen". When religion was on the decline, "duty" became the raison d'etre of the Raj. I have my students read it in parallel with Sumit Sarkar on social history and extracts of Tagore's "Gora"


  11. Makes me feel good.. that Vikram Chandra and you think the way I do about myself. You see, I have a bachelor & masters in computer science, and way back in 1990 when I graduated and came to US of A, I met an author in one of the *reading* sessions in a public library. When he asked me what I did for living, I replied that I am an author.. but unlike you, my audience is made up of machines. He liked it!

    -- Alcoholic

  12. "...good code can aspire not just to functionality but to elegance and beauty as well..."

    A "for repeat loop" in the programming language C is a beautiful, beautiful thing. When IBM was looking for the first generation of career programmers, it actively recruited musicians as the skill sets were felt to be similar. Good code is like the best lyric: concise, without a word wasted.

  13. When religion was on the decline, "duty" became the raison d'etre of the Raj.

    That's correct. Infact this is where British Imperialism was so very different from say Belgian Imperialism or the Imperialism of Mongol / Turk tribes.

    While imperialists of 1200 like Bakhtiyar Khilji looted places like Nalanda, the civil servants of the 19th century like WW Hunter (who passed rigorous entrance exams to get Indian appointments) wrote copious histories of this alien land, conducted surveys, developed detailed maps among other things. Yes, you may argue that these "histories" were prejudiced, inaccurate and condescending in some respects. But one has to understand what went before and what a massive jump in scholarship these amateur European scholars represented at the time!

    Anyone can correct me if I am wrong. But before British Raj, to the best of my knowledge, there was little/no knowledge of say someone like Ashoka. In fact he is hardly mentioned in the Puranas. All the scholarship on these great kings of the past has happened over the past 300 years. Also I am not sure how big say someone like Kalidasa or Shudraka or Dandin was in the Indian intellectual consciousness in 1600. We can never be sure of these things as we do not have a time machine. But I suspect a lot of the discovery of these giants of the past has happened very recently (past 200-300 years).

  14. there’s a tiny part of me that still feels a bit embarrassed about the tropes of our popular movies; still reluctant to fully embrace the best of them as art (as opposed to “enjoyable entertainment, but nothing more”)
    Great post. I identify with this part completely. Further complications arise because having brought up on a abundant diet of Hindi movies, I have formed somewhat of an emotional connection with many of them. Later, when I came to know abt World Cinema, I could appreciate it on a different level. At the same time, I do not feel the need to dismiss B'wood just because of the song'n'dance routines. Question is - can we compare the two? Or it may make more sense to treat B'wood movies as a different (sub?) genre?

  15. it was news to me that good code can aspire not just to functionality but to elegance and beauty as well

    It is perhaps one of great tragedies that computer science (programming) and to some extent math are considered to be "dry". While it is true that programs are run on computers and mathematical proofs establish a mathematical statement (and hence devoid of any "art"), humans do have to read programs/proofs written by others. It is due to this reason that elegant code and proofs have a special place in the hearts of programmers and mathematicians. Paul Erdos, the most prolific mathematician ever, is said to have believed that there is a book that contains the most elegant proof of every mathematical statement (often referred as "THE BOOK").

    I have always enjoyed reading Chandra's book and am looking forward to checking this one out: thanks for this post!

  16. @Shrikanth - sorry was away for a bit. I wouldn't uncritically accept the benevolent nature of British rule. It was pretty violent to those it dubbed enemies - ask any Santhal, Munda, heck even any communist between 1920-1939. 15,000 Santhals were killed during their 19th century uprising. It's just that being forest peoples and/or peasants their casualty figures didn't often hit the headlines. A sense of "duty" would often justify the brutality to a Victorian Englishman quite as effectively as a religious sensibility. Anyway, why compare a nineteenth century empire to a medieval one? Can't really compare Khilji to Lord Lytton or Lord Dufferin except in the abstract.


  17. Anyway, why compare a nineteenth century empire to a medieval one? Can't really compare Khilji to Lord Lytton or Lord Dufferin except in the abstract.

    Okay. Then let's compare the 19th century imperialists with 18th/19th century muslim imperialists - Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan? The latter is notorious for his communal atrocities and genocidal activities. But yeah, today he has been canonized as this great "freedom fighter".

    Some links here -

    And I never said British rule was all "benevolent". No way. I believe the freedom movement was a good thing and 1947 was a desirable event. But just as we go out of our way to be kind to medieval Muslim imperialists by saying - "Oh...they were product of their times...oh they gave us the mughlai cuisine...oh they gave us salwar kameez", let us also make similar kind allowances while judging British rule!