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Home > Contents > Article: A P Ashwin Kumar
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Realism and the Disenfranchised Community
The Predicament of Art Cinema in India
A P Ashwin Kumar
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There has been a general dissatisfaction among critics over the achievements of Indian art cinema and one of the issues brought up is that of ‘realism’ or the representational/mimetic mode, whether art cinema, with a few exceptions, measures up to world cinema. This ambitious and well-argued essay looks at the quandaries in which art cinema is placed in India since ‘representational art’ developed in circumstances specific to the West. Cinema, because it works with mechanical imprints of reality, is ideally suited to mimesis/ representation, but the arts in India have proceeded according to different precepts. Is there a mismatch between the conceptual categories promoted by tradition in India and those that art cinema is required to answer to? The essay, which raises issues about Indian cinema not enquired into hitherto, itself further provokes several questions which are articulated separately at the end.


Realism depends upon a specific structure of experience for its intelligibility. That horizon is the metaphysical picture of the individual, with beliefs underlying his/her actions. What is the relationship between art which works through predominantly representational/mimetic forms (the novel, cinema and so on) and an experience which is structured on other metaphysical models? Taking the case of Indian cinema as an example, this essay argues that Indian cinema attempts to capture the essential predicament of modern Indian experience, the predicament of community disenfranchisement, using tools and resources which are not meant for this purpose. In order to understand the complex dynamics of this situation, it is important to develop a heuristic to 'provincialize' realism and representational forms of art. This paper argues that representational art and realism presupposes a particular conception of experience. This conception is one which privileges the propositional content of experience, a formulation which is also a cryptic description of the West as a culture. Representational art, therefore, is rooted in a metaphysics which has shaped that culture. Finding an alternative language to talk about non-western art forms will require us to explore alternatives to this metaphysics.

Our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.
This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Nobel Lecture, 8 December, 1982

Case 1: Hollywood: A James Bond film
Our precarious world is built on certain values viz., democracy, rationalism, individuality and above all freedom (and laissez-faire trade, if you want to add another element to the assortment). Forces which attempt to thwart these values exist both inside and outside our world. They promote values which are diametrically opposite to ours. The greatest (and perhaps also sexiest) men of our civilization have a common calling: to re-establish the sanctity and strength of our values. Sometimes the demons are outside: like class conflict, Communists, the Al Qaeda and the ISIL, maverick arms dealers and drug cartels. Sometimes, they are inside: bipolar schizophrenia, existential angst, childhood abuse, moral dilemmas, the fear of failure and the Oedipus complex. Products of mixing the elements will include James Bond, Quentin Tarantino, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. Straightforward versions of this combination will give you contemporary American television – Homeland, One Tree Hill, Breaking Bad.

Case 2: An Indian film, say the Kannada film Chandavalliya Thota (1964)
A community has lived for generations in this village. Our forefathers established our ways of going about the world. Against wind and rain, death and decay, we have prevailed, sticking to our ancient gods and rituals. Slowly, all this is breaking down. Farmers are against each other, brother is against brother. Land is being fragmented, and as if to rub salt into the wound, its yield has dwindled and the rains have deceived us yet again. The lure of the city leaves the villages devastated or deserted. Our elders are no more the trustworthy bastions of moral good that they were. Our individual desires overrun the ways of our community life. Festivals and stories have all lost their social meaning. We no longer have the resources to contain our own conflicts, let alone resolve them. Inevitably, the impersonal bureaucracy intervenes at every juncture. Our gods have deserted us and our rituals sound hollow. Products of mixing the elements will include Chandavalliya Thota, Mother India and Ma Bhoomi. Other kinds of mixing will give you Pather Panchali and Taayi Saheba. Of course, keeping it simple will give you the best in Indian television: Malgudi Days, Mahabharat, Wagle Ki Duniya.

Introduction: The Predicament of Indian Cinema
What is the most striking feature of these contrasting scenarios? It seems like the deepest problems that animate western cinema are those of individuals with beliefs and reason guiding their actions. They pursue rational goals and are guided by a stable vision of the world. Crisis strikes when any one of these elements disintegrates: the integrity of the person, the constancy of the vision or the reasonability of their goals. In contrast, the Indian story seems to be narrating an antediluvian tale of people stuck to their old and customary ways of going about their world. More important than the rationality of their pursuits and the presence of a stable vision, the point seems to be one of a community and its space of settled actions. No wonder then that Fredric Jameson saw in this the message that third world literatures (and cinema, by extension) are national allegories (Jameson 1986). Jameson’s point would roughly imply the following: while western art is defined by deep metaphysical quests of individuals, non-western art is defined by the story of communities negotiating their incomplete entry into modernity as a people.

Much water has flowed under the bridge after Jameson’s comment. He has been vindicated and chastised in turn by some leading intellectuals on both sides of the racial and colonial divide. It may be inane to open that controversy all over again. But something in Jameson’s point cut us fellow-postcolonials to the quick. With the privilege of hindsight, we could ask if there was a deeper point, probably unknown to the author himself lurking in all that. Did the western critic sense a fundamental difference in the way art functioned in two cultures but did not have a framework to articulate adequately? I think that is indeed the case. But to appreciate the difference, we need to go much deeper into the recesses of western history and culture and reconstruct some fundamental issues.

In the two scenarios I began this paper with I deliberately desisted from keeping good cinema apart from bad cinema, art-house cinema apart from commercial cinema. Some may also question the scope of my coverage: ‘Indian cinema without Guru Dutt or Amitabh or Adoor?’; ‘Western cinema without Hitchcock or Chaplin or Woody Allen?’ Yet others may point to contrary examples within each of these cinematic traditions. The point, however, is not to show the different shades within Indian cinema or within Western cinema. The point is to identify typical differences between Western art and Indian art using the example of cinema. Some of my examples are kitsch: like the Bond series on the Western side and Chandavalliya Thota on the Indian side. And some are arguably the finest from cinematic art: The Seventh Seal on the Western side and Taayi Saheba on the Indian side. But all these judgments are subject to severe scrutiny, criticism and reversal; at any rate immaterial to the point of this paper. What matters is that, underlying all this is an essential predicament of modern Indian experience which Indian cinema has attempted to capture using tools and resources which are not meant for this purpose. In the process, Indian cinema distorts realism even as realism distorts Indian cinema.

Modern Indian Art and the Problem of Representation:
With this backdrop, we are now prepared to raise our primary question: What is the relationship between art which works through predominantly representational/mimetic forms (novel, cinema and so on) and an experience which is structured predominantly on reflective models? The examples I cited at the very beginning of this essay should make sense by now. The problem with Chandavalliya Thota or Taayi Saheba is not that they are deviant varieties of normative western genres. The problem is that they are dealing with a community which experiences a crisis in the ways of going about the world, which is intractable through realist forms. The crisis does not entail contending narratives; the individuals is not necessarily the primary site where such a crisis unfolds; it is perfectly possible that individuals in these communities have no realisation that such a crisis is haunting them; neither is it the case that they are pawns in an elaborate conspiracy. There are no straightforward epistemic contestations involved in this case (for example, the contest cannot be seen as one between individualism and communitarianism, or between rationalists and intuitionists; the values at stake are not of pragmatism versus idealism and so on) and above all there are no heroes and villains in this our story.
This is almost like asking the filmmaker to shoot a movie without actors, characters, storylines and plots. It is almost like inviting the movie makers to stand up, take a microphone and lecture to an audience of moviegoers. This is the essential predicament of Indian cinema. Indian cinema meets a culture which is disenfranchised and this story of disenfranchisement is the very staple of Indian cinema. However, the nature of disenfranchisement is such that realist / representational forms fail to bear witness to this fundamental state of affairs. Mainstream cinema somehow tries to recast this intractable crisis into standard mythopoeic forms by turning a blind eye to the demands of narrative realism: good son cop versus bad son drug dealer, cruel husband versus submissive wife, corrupt politician versus duty-conscious officer, and greedy moneylender versus struggling farmer and so on. It is important that all these ‘unrealistic’ and mythopoeic forms employed by Indian mainstream cinema are attempts to capture the disenfranchisement of Indian communities and their collective experience.1 It is equally important that alternative cinema in India is a struggle to make sense of this disenfranchisement within the strictures of realistic narrative. It is the mythopoesis of mainstream cinema that alternative cinema is up against. But, the attempts of alternative cinema increasingly appear like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Contemporary India and Community Disenfranchisement
Standard postcolonial narratives talk about varieties of disenfranchisement suffered by Indian communities. However, most of them tend to talk about this disenfranchisement in the language and resources offered by liberal political theory. So, in talking about the effects of colonisation we have narratives of disenfranchisement which talk about inadequate representation in the political realm, the unequal distribution of wealth, the oppressive regimes of Indian society and statecraft, hegemonic formations of particular caste groups and religions, the slow eradication of the marginalised from the political concerns of emergent India and so on. But differently from all this, is a form of disenfranchisement which has only been fleetingly paid attention to. This is the disenfranchisement of the experiential concepts of Indian communities. In contemporary India, the easiest and most intuitive way to bring this predicament into relief is to reflect on the chasm that separates the concepts with which we constitute our everyday experiences and the concepts through which we describe them. Communities practice various forms of actions, distinguishing between different kinds of objects, people and places and the proper comportment of each to the other in this triad. In this, the experience is constituted by using concepts like shudda (ritual-purity) and ashuddha (ritual impurity). But we describe it by using concepts like discrimination and caste hierarchy. Our social world is constituted by obligations and dependencies of various kinds. In this, the experience is constituted by concepts like dakshina (thanksgiving) and kaanike (offering). But we describe it using concepts like corruption and public service. We can develop this list endlessly. But the important point is that the first set of concepts (the experience-constituting) is never used to describe our experience and the second set of concepts (the experience-describing) is seldom part of the constitution of our experience.2 In effect, we seem to be witnessing a peculiar situation where our common experiences are themselves disenfranchised. This is a veritable loss of concepts which we experience everyday but can only articulate through a series of proxies. The language of rights, the language of oppression and hegemony are all such proxies for what is an even fundamental disenfranchisement of communities: the loss of concepts.3 Indian cinema verily perceives this problem. However, it fails to constitute it into a genuine experience.

Let me discuss a few examples to illustrate this point: In Ghatashraddha (1977), the viewer, through the point of view of the protagonist, formulates an evaluative judgment of a small-town Brahmin community. The criticism in rough-and-ready form is that this community has a wicked practice of ostracising young widows, especially if she has a child out of wedlock. We know the standard social reform diatribe against such practices and we need not dwell on that here. However, there is another important angle to the problem which has hardly been discussed. The problem is this: is the criticism about a specific action of the community? Or is it about the entire repertoire of actions which defines the community’s social world.4 The difference would be this: is widow ostracisation a wrong action, a crime which the community does not have the resources to deal with (much like drug abuse is a crime which contemporary society has no resources to deal with)? Or is it a symptom of a social ill that defines the very existence of the community. That is, are such evils non-trivially related to the continuation of the community? Does this community depend on the perpetration of such acts for its survival (much like the exploitation of labour is non-trivially necessary for the hegemony of the capitalist class)? 

Here is the double bind that defines modern reformist responses to Indian cultural practices. The former response (that of seeing widow ostracization as a crime) under-determines the criticism. It is inappropriate under normal conditions of reasonableness to indict an entire community for a crime. The criticism can only be of an immoral action, and with even a basic consideration of moral psychology, the criticism can only appear intelligible to members of the community if and only if they share the same moral framework as the critic. As a criticism of an immoral action, there is nothing radical about the entire tale. After all, human beings are capable of moral evaluation and here is one such instance. Note, however, that this trajectory precludes criticism of the entire repertoire of actions of a community.

The latter response (seeing widow-ostracisation as a systemic flaw in the sustenance of the community itself) over-determines the criticism. If the entire community is to be criticised not for a specific crime but for its ways of going about the world, then, logically, the members of such a community would be opaque to such criticism. In fact it would be quite puzzling in itself that a member coming from the same community would even be able to form such a criticism of an entire repertoire of actions which would have constituted him as an individual. It is possible to be a member of a community (that is, share the same concept space with a community) and criticise specific actions within a community. It is, however, impossible to be a member of a community (that is, share the concept space of a community) and criticise its entire repertoire of actions. That is, the criticism can be formulated only when the practices of the community are re-described using concepts which are at variance with the concepts which constituted the experience in the first place. At the heart of the contemporary problem of social reform and social evaluation of Indian culture is such a representational problem. The film Ghatashraddha resolves it by the only means available: it inserts its dilemma into the protagonist himself5

Another example is from the film Dweepa (2002). A couple fight out an entire night by a raging reservoir which threatens to submerge their dwelling. If the reservoir rages beyond the hazard limits, the family will sink despite its fate and hope. If that is not the case, the hopes and fate of the family are immaterial in deciding their destiny. Either this is an indictment of the developmental agenda of the modern state or it is a portrayal of the primeval conflict between man and nature. The former description compromises on the complexity of the cinematic narrative. The latter description compromises on the importance of the theme. At any rate, this is not the same as Old Man and the Sea, Riders to the Sea or even And Quite Flows the Don. In all these works, the battle is between a mute and merciless nature and the indomitable human spirit which tries to tame it. The theme of conflict between man and nature has a moral shape in the western experience. It does not have that shape in Indian experience and without such a moral shape to the conflict, the Indian experience is rendered trivial.6  

Lest the reader were to see this as a criticism of particular films, here is a point. It is not the case that this or that Indian film fails to perform a particular representational function. The point is much deeper: it is that modern Indian art works against the limits of representation which do not accommodate the problem of Indian experiences and their disenfranchisement. This results in a peculiar form of inarticulateness in modern artistic works. To show the fundamental problematics7 of Indian culture, these narratives are forced to adopt realist forms. However, adopting realist forms results in a distortion of these very problematics.  This problem of inarticulateness, for Jameson, appeared as one of a normative expectation from art, as exemplified in the metaphysical quest of western art, and its distorted variant: the non-western national allegory. But instead of making the western experience of art into the normative pole, we could try and examine the difference between these two experiences of art as constituting one axis of difference between Western and Indian cultures. We could thus probably make better sense of Jameson’s insight. In order to do that, however, we need a broad conceptual story which can locate western art in the backdrop of Western culture.

Representational Art as a Paradigm
The entire history of western art can be seen as an attempt to bridge the representational gap. In effect it amounts to the following position: there is a reality, anterior to human experience. Human experience is the apperception of that reality through various conceptual forms. However, given the very nature of ‘anteriority’, there is a residue, an excess, which gets left out in the process of apperception. The result is that artistic representation is constantly running behind the receding horizon of reality. In academic jargon this variety of running is called realism.8

The critique of realism has tried to show how the realist demand is in fact abortive. How, for example, it is impossible to bridge the representational gap and therefore one has to abandon the realist project. How, for example, realism only touches the tip of the iceberg and that there is a vast domain of reality which is lurking at a greater depth away from the typical social and linguistic forms with which we try to grasp it. So, the story goes, if we need to reach anywhere deeper than where conventional realist narratives reach, then we need forms which try not to bridge the representational gap but probably try to break it altogether: dreams, subconscious symbolism, parapraxes, myths, Joycean epiphanies and Marquezian magic. And if you are talking cinema, then Godardean surrealism and Tarkovsky’s Christian symbolism; Bergman’s forays into the depths of human intentions and Kieslowsky’s unforgiving dissection of the myth of social choice. In all this point and counter point, the nature of the artistic project has not changed. Art is representational and the task is to somehow bridge the representational gap. If realism is not our best bet, then something else is. If surrealism is not helping, then digital media and hyper-real technology-aided prosthetics should help. If sublime art cannot do the deal then psychedelic rock must. However, the powerful idea that art is representational remains and the critique of realism, if successful, has to liquidate this representational character of art itself. The many moralising problems we have with respect to art and the iconoclastic oppositions to it: about whether art should change the world or record it dispassionately, whether an artist is the conscience of a race or a free spirit beyond the limits of immediate history, and whether art is for beauty or art is for higher aims; all emerge only within the force field of this representational gap.

Not many seem to have stopped to ask if there is another moral to this tale. What if the problem is not about how to bridge the representational gap but about why is it that one culture consistently and significantly views the task of art as that of bridging the representational gap in the first place. Under what conditions does this story make sense?

My argument in what follows will be this: the idea of art as representation requires a particular conception of experience. This conception is one which privileges the propositional content of experience. One of the most important aspects of a culture is that it conserves the continuity of experience for members of that culture across generations. Western culture conserves experience by conserving the propositional content of experience. Put simply, in the West, conserving experience is tantamount to conserving specific narratives about the world. In common parlance we could call them worldviews.9 In preserving the propositional content of experience (or the worldview) the focus invariably is on belief-states. That is, if an experience has to make sense across generations and to individuals in each generation, one has to have reasons to believe the particular worldview that that experience embodies. Failure to believe in the worldview or failure of our reasons in securing a stable worldview will necessarily appear as an epistemic crisis in such a culture.

This implies that western culture privileges belief as an aspect of conserving experience. Beliefs can only be attributed to sentient beings (specifically, human individuals). This implies that human beings can embody beliefs by demonstrating their belief in specific propositions or worldviews. As belief-states can only be attributes of individual agents, the focus on human individuals (and the entire mythology surrounding the individual: rights, sovereignty, subjectivity) enter in. In a culture where the task of preserving the propositional content of such experiences is salient, domains like art (along with politics, nation-states and religions) take on a representational role. It is through these domains that the structures which are necessary for passing on a common propositional content of experience are maintained. That is, domains like art, irrespective of their content, also function as experience-conserving entities. They do so by transmitting not only specific experiential truths about the world but also by transmitting the meta-learning that art represents such truths about the world. The suggestion is not that western readers and spectators are naïve-realists. That is, I do not mean to suggest that they believe the story to be true. What I mean to suggest, however, is that, in such a culture, the strength of a story is evaluated asa function of its believability. That is, the most significant question about a representation is its verisimilitude. This is not merely an aesthetic judgment about how realistic is a narrative. It is almost an epistemic judgment about how valuable is the narrative.

One condition of emergence of realism, as argued in the preceding paragraph, is a culture where experience is structured as propositional beliefs. As beliefs about the world are never isolated facts or factoids but necessarily a network of reinforcing ideas, it is important that some supra-individual structure has to ensure the resilience of such beliefs. No single individual holds the full spectrum of facts that he or she holds with adequate reasons to believe in them. Each theory (or fact, belief, proposition) is held in dependence with many background theories (or facts, beliefs, propositions). This means that some higher order entity is necessary to secure our beliefs in the full spectrum of facts and theories we hold. The institutional practices of specific disciplines, professions, communities and vocations are such higher order entities that secure the full spectrum of our beliefs. Of course, Marxist scholars noticed this phenomenon. But they failed to appreciate fully the importance of this observation. While Marxist scholars tried to unearth the untested background theories and the institutions that secure our belief in such theories, they failed to understand that such an institutional framework is a necessary condition for belief; and what is more, for any meaningful action in our social world. What the Marxist failed to see, and what is most crucial in this story is that realism depends on specific social institutions that reinforce it, in a non-trivial way. Every time the institutional structures that define the worldview of a generation enter a crisis, realism and realist assumptions enter a coterminous crisis too.10

In a culture where experience is preserved through propositional content, when particular structures of experience break down, it is reflected not on the forms of life which bear these structures; it is reflected necessarily as a crisis in understanding reality. An example should help: when the Christian worldview started to disintegrate in the western world with the advent of Darwinian and Newtonian theories, the crisis was experienced not primarily as an attack on a form of life, that of Christianity, catholic or otherwise. It was experienced as a crisis in our understanding of the world. It was essentially seen as a conflict between two narratives; not necessarily as a conflict between two forms of going about the world (Although, this latter form of conflict remains as a sub-dominant narrative). Now contrast this with the arrival of modernity in India. It is primarily talked of, even to this day, as a conflict between two life-styles or two ways of going about the world. Hardly has anybody posited this conflict as a conflict between two contending narratives, or as a crisis in our understanding of reality with the advent of the new narrative of modernity. Realism, as a form (and by extension, western art as a persuasion) has traditionally been put to work in order to understand the problem of experience expressed as a conflict between two contending narratives.

Of course, there is nothing inherent in art (or politics, for that matter) to become necessarily representational. After all, as Indians, we are privy to a very long and variegated tradition of art which is not representational. It is that the dominant form of structuring experience in a culture imprints its forms on aspects of that culture. Herein lies the Trojan horse of modern Indian art, be it literature, cinema or any such representational art form.

Realism and Cultural Difference
The crisis of modern Indian culture is such that it cannot be articulated as a conflict between two worldviews. Scholars may be hard pressed to find such contending worldviews when modernity, Christianity or colonialism meets Indian culture. In effect, then, we may not even know who or what are the bearers of this culture? With a culture which privileges the propositional content of experience, one can assume that individuals and their belief states are the carriers of cultural structures. But what about a culture where experience is preserved not as propositional content but as action dispositions? Who or what would be the carriers of such structures of experience? Scholars of Indian culture point to ritual for an answer. It is ritual that preserves the structures of experience in India. We cannot enter the complex domain of debates about how exactly does ritual do this within the confines of this paper.11 What we can do however is to show the difference between ritual and proposition for the human individual who participates in both. Ritual is visible to an observer primarily as the competence of an individual to perform specific actions; whereas a proposition is visible to the observer primarily as a belief held by an individual about specific states-of-affairs in the world.

How does the experience of Indian communities get represented in art? The question itself seems to be paradoxical. The demand is that art represent the experiences of Indian communities. But the claim is that as representational forms, art cannot represent the experiences of Indian communities. Providing a prescriptive answer to this question is impossible as such answers are part of the practice of art itself and cannot be predicted beforehand. What however can be done is to see how modern Indian art has worked around this problem. My suggestion would be look at the presence of non-representational aspects in modern Indian art. All these days we have lamented the existence of the non-representational aspects in modern realist art (song, ornament, melodrama, kitsch, formula story and so on), and have been embarrassed at best in their presence. But the time may have come to look at those elements in Indian art (Indian cinema especially) as forms working around the realist bind.

Ritual Art as a Paradigm
Here I would like to propose the skeletal structure of an alternative understanding of art: art not as representational but art as ritual. The precise demarcation of the two may not be possible until such time that we develop a greater acquaintance with this contrast. However, for starters, we can say that ritual art seems to occupy a different role and perform a different function than art in the representational paradigm. A few thumbnail points about ritual: rituals are in some sense of the term meta-actions. If action is our primary relationship to our surrounding world (as Staal argues it to be) then ritual is our understanding12 of action. It is ‘ideal activity’. As such, ritual shears action of all extrinsic determinants like desires, threats, circumstances and so on. An individual’s relationship to ritual is visible as competence. It has no symbolic content (or, at least, the symbolic content does not exhaust the scope of the ritual) and definitely no normative prescription. That is, outside of the ritual, there is no other norm because of which a particular rule has to take a particular shape. Ritual, and this is the most important aspect for us, also conserves the continuity of experience for members of a culture. It conserves the continuity of experience not by conserving the propositional content of experience but by conserving the continuity of action-dispositions of members in a culture. Whereas representational forms work through belief-states, ritual forms work through action-dispositions. These action-dispositions are the units through which experience is constituted. The continuity of experience for members of such a culture is provided by handing down the action dispositions in the form of ritual. Rituals, to take the analogy further, are syntactical units. The experience of semantics, after all, is the experience of syntax. Similarly, the experience of the world is primarily the experience of action.
My claim is the art in Indian culture has to be seen as continuous with ritual and not with representation.13 If that is true, then, one can ask, ‘what is the role played by traditional forms of art in constituting experience in Indian culture?’ and further ask about what is the battle that a predominantly representational art like cinema is up against, in a culture like India. It is important to remember that for the purposes of this paper, cinema does not represent a genre as much as a form which has taken the imprint of a representational culture.

I have tried to show that cinema and modern art forms in general, face a particular crisis when it comes to articulating the disenfranchisement of Indian communities. This crisis according to western critics has to do with the condition of third-world (and postcolonial) cultures where the sociological conditions do not allow for the emergence of the individual in all his/her metaphysical weight. However, I argue that the problem may lie elsewhere. It may lie in the quandary of representational art itself. I therefore, treat representational art as a paradigm and try to account for the conditions of its emergence and its intelligibility. I have tried to show that a different conception of art is possible, art as ritual, and I have consequently put forth a few tentative hypotheses about what such a paradigm would look like. I also suggest that in India art is continuous with ritual and not with representation.

Regardless of how the cinema of the future might look like in India, for after all, that is not the task of any theory of art, we need to ask what this new aesthetic will tell us. We are far away from thinking about culture and how it structures experience. But going even downstream, my attempt could be seen as an invitation to delineate a cultural theory of art in general which tries to understand how exactly a culture configures domains like art. Rather than begin with art as an autonomous domain, this approach begins with culture, specific cultures, as experientially significant units, and tries to look at art as occupying a place within that structure. If the preceding discussion is anything to go by, we can see how we relate to our films differently. Equally, importantly, we could know how our films relate to us.

Phalanx SpacerPhalanx Spacer Notes/references:
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Contemporary scholarship on Indian cinema has developed very sophisticated arguments to understand the mythopoesis of Indian cinema. In all these attempts, however, the emphasis is on accounting for the manner in which a realist, representational form is deployed in Indian social and political contexts. An early articulation of such a nexus between Indian cinema and politics is to be found in (Prasad 1999). Important aspects of the connection between cinema and modern Indian political culture can be seen in (Rajadhyaksha 2009; Prasad 1998 and Srinivas 2009).

I am indebted to Dr B Narahari Rao for introducing me to this distinction between object-descriptive speech and object-constitutive speech. In Dr. Rao’s scheme, this distinction replaces other dualist positions like perspectival dualism and object-dualism. Its chief merit being that it takes human actions as the starting point for our knowledge.

Cora Diamond, the American moral philosopher, made a poignant case for the loss of concepts in the western cultural life (Diamond 1988). Her attempt is to delineate among other things an answer to the question ‘what kind of loss it is to lose concepts?’

I borrow this distinction between criticizing actions and criticizing the repertoire of action from Elizabeth Thomas (forthcoming).

U R Ananthamurthy, the author of Ghatashraddha is said to have commented that in the original story, the boy spits at the Agrahara just before leaving it finally and fully, thus dramatizing the defection from one concept space to another (i.e., from the experience-constitutive to the experience-descriptive, which here are mutually at variance). The film, however, shows the boy in a moment of reflective dilemma. Although this says a lot about the visual and narrative restraint exercised by the film maker, the real point for me is that such an ambivalent resolution is only to be expected. It is an indication of the disjunction between the two concept spaces. It is a result of the impossibility of formulating a critique of an entire repertoire of actions as a member who is formed by that very repertoire.

Many scholars have worked on the theme of how the conflict between man and nature emerges as a moral conflict in the western experience through the course of early modernity. It is a story which encompasses the strands of early capitalism, maritime and industrial expansion and also the growth of various modern technologies of self (Dupré 1993; Collingwood 1976). A fine philosophical statement about the relationship between value and nature across cultures and contexts is that of (Bilgrami 2009). Cervantes’ celebrated work Don Quixote can be seen as an early parody of one such modern technology of self: the adventures of machismo and anachronistic knight-errantry. Young readers through the better part of the twentieth century were equally enchanted with another such example by the self-styled philosopher Ayn Rand and her own tight-lipped and phlegmatic version of a modern Quixote in her Fountainhead. The German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, immortalized such a modern technology of self, together with its poignancy and irony, in his brilliant masterpiece Fitzcarraldo(1982). In contrast, the theme of man and nature that occurs in folktales, legends and myths of many Eurasian cultures lack such a moral dimension to the conflict between man and nature.

By a problematic I mean the delineation of the emergence and constitution of a new set of questions, frames and problems for political, cultural and intellectual investment.

The most ambitious book ever written on this topic still remains that of Eric Auerbach (Auerbach 2013). While Auerbach treats mimesis or the representation of reality as the defining horizon of western art, my attempt here is to situate that horizon in relation to the culture that the West is.

S N Balagangadhara has shown the connection between worldview, religion and the western culture. His claim about cultures as configuration of learning has informed my discussion about how experiential continuity is conserved in the western culture. (Balagangadhara 1994).

Pope Francis in a recent interview in America: The National Catholic Review made a very significant observation about the relationship between belief and the institution of the Church (Casarella 2013). Although the point made by the Holy Father was in direct relation to Christian dogma and Biblical hermeneutics, it can also be taken to mean how one of the most ancient practices of interpretation and scholarly activity understands the importance of such institutional, canonical and disciplinary practices in the constitution of truth. Shorn of its theological specifics, one can easily see the underlying theoretical point I am trying to make about the relationship between holding a belief and the institutional work that goes into it. I think this is by far an intellectually sophisticated position compared to the Marxist and power-knowledge theorists of our own generation and therefore deserves to be quoted in length:

“The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships...“The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together...We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

For a highly sophisticated discussion about ritual and its role in Indian culture see (Staal 1979). Staal sees in ritual a fundamental feature that has defined Indian religions and cultures. One aspect of ritual is that there are no propositional aspects to ritualistic differences.

Understanding here does not refer to perceiving the meaning of linguistic propositions. It refers to the more general competence of being able to make a distinction in a specific domain and act in the light of that distinction; it refers to the skill of action.

In fact, this claim, mutatis mutandis, must also hold for Greek art, especially its epic and theatre traditions. Not only were the Greek theatrical productions part of an elaborate ritual, they also embodied the ritual principle in their structure. In our scheme of things, we are so used to treating Greek art as representational devices that we completely circumvent the most outstanding feature of that art: its heavily archetypal form. In fact, as representational devices Greek art would boil down to just one or two lines of obscure human psychology: Know thyself and Revere the Gods. But as ritual devices, they display a panoply of action states. To show the difference more starkly, the question in Greek theatre is always “what is the right action?” and never “what is the subjective precipitate of the world on our consciousness?” Needless to say, this latter question captures a central feature of representational art. Although it is clearly beyond the scope of this paper, it may be a possible direction of enquiry to examine what is the meaning of mimetic art in Aristotle. Western criticism has consistently read this point as implying that art represents reality. But a careful reading of the concept ‘mimesis’ should tell us that the primary semantic force of mimesis is “the learning of an activity” and not “the activity of representing”. If this semantic distinction is valid, then, what Aristotle suggests about art can be read in line with my suggestion about ritual art because, after all, ritual is the quintessential mimetic activity.


Auerbach, Erich. 2013. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Balagangadhara, S. N. 1994. “The Heathen in His Blindness”--: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion. Studies in the History of Religions v. 64. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill.

Bilgrami, Akeel. 2009. “Gandhi, Newton, and the Enlightenment.” In Values and Violence, 15–29. Springer.

Casarella, Peter J. 2013. “‘A Big Heart Open to God’--Conversation with NPR About Pope Francis’ Interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ.”

Collingwood, R. G. 1976. The Idea of Nature. Oxford University Press.

Diamond, Cora. 1988. “Losing Your Concepts.” Ethics 98 (2): 255–277.

Dupré, Louis K. 1993. Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1986. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text (15): 65. doi:10.2307/466493.

Prasad, M. Madhava. 1998. Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. Oxford University Press New Delhi.

———. 1999. “Cine Politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India.” Journal of the Moving Image 1 (Autumn): 37–52.

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. 2009. Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency. Indiana University Press.

Srinivas, S. V. 2009. Megastar: Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema After NT Rama Rao. Oxford University Press, USA.

Staal, Frits. 1979. “The Meaninglessness of Ritual.” Numen 26 (1) (June 1): 2–22. doi:10.2307/3269623.

A P Ashwin Kumar teaches in Tumkur University where he also edits the research journal 'Pragmata'. He has published on nationalism and community experience in India. He is a bilingual writer and translator working in Kannada and English.

The essay is persuasive with regard to representation/ mimesis being only one mode and traces it to a particular conception of experience. But the following are some of the questions it leads one to ask:

  1. The essay opposes Western art/cinema to Indian art/cinema without examining whether there are other cultures (e.g. Japanese) which are not Western but have still followed a model understandable as mimetic/representational. It cites Frederic Jameson on ‘Third World’ texts but there are other such ‘Third World’ cultures. There is also little to suggest that traditional cinemas outside of the West are not being ‘true to themselves’ when they are ‘representational’. This leads one to wonder if there are there specific aspects to the arts in India which leaves India unique.  Is it not necessary to ask why and how Indian culture developed in such a way as to mark out its cinema as separate even today? 

  2. The notion of ‘ritual art’ is hazy; would it not be necessary for the theorizing to also develop a model which would assist in judging Indian cinema – if it were to be allowed a paradigm of its own? ‘Ritual competence’ is a nebulous term while judging art; how is this competence to be determined?

  3. The examination of Ghatashraddha is particularly rewarding but can we not argue that ‘western’ principles like egalitarianism, freedom, gender parity have ‘triumphed morally’ over the ritualistic way even within our subliminal selves, in the modern age? The film is set in modern times and not in medieval India and if the incursion of the modern into everyday life is not especially acknowledged, is such emphasis necessary? Could not the boy have imbibed ‘western’ values without being conscious of them as ‘western’?

  4. Would the representational mode not make art/cinema more valuable as social critique?

  5. While it must be acknowledged that any system develops due to local necessities and is therefore only among many, with the growing incursions of local cultures into each other’s spaces, there could be a natural selection with those less ‘fit’ to survive being eliminated. If such a scenario is admitted, is there any merit in a paradigm for ritual art – over the representational kind? Does not the triumph of one system over another in the latter’s spaces imply its innate superiority as a model?

  6. Does not argument itself (as has been offered in the essay) point to the privileging of ‘the propositional context of experience’?


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