The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 19, 2000
'Art and Soul

Mountains & rivers without end
By B.N. Goswamy

"In a way a painting is not fully realized until several centuries of poems have been added to it."

YEARS ago, returning from the United States via the Pacific, I was on a flight from the Japanese city of Kyoto to Taipei. There was some anxiety in me, a feeling of uncertainty: I had no visa for Taiwan. Since no diplomatic relations existed between our countries; friends had cautioned me about some things in Hanging scroll: China, Jin Dynasty, 13th century.the country I was visiting. Our flight had had to be put off by a day because a severe hurricane had hit the island, and even now there was much turbulence in the air. As we hit yet another air pocket, I remember beginning to question my own judgement about taking that journey. In the next moment, however, all my doubts vanished, for a most magnificent sight swung into view, as I looked out of the window.

We were approaching Taipei, and our line of vision was completely covered with mountains, dark and brooding, stretching to wherever the eye could travel; and, between them — not quite reaching up to their peaks but aspiring towards them — hung still, unmoving banks of clouds, nuzzling their sides. One could hear the silence, feel the sensuous moisture in the air. Suddenly, all those wonderful Chinese landscapes that one had seen in painting but never experienced, came rushing to the mind, scattering in all directions and filling its crevices.

It is a sight I have never forgotten. What I saw at the National Palace Museum in Taipei only underscored that experience. And it all came back to me when I chanced, just the other day, upon the work of Gary Snyder, who teaches at the University of California at Davis. Gary Snyder is a much-honoured poet, having won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and many other distinctions. What struck me specially, however, was the fact that in 1996 he published an uncommonly long, book-length poem, Mountains and Rivers without End, which he had started writing as long back as forty years ago. The poem is wholly inspired by Chinese scrolls with landscape painting, and it opens, most sensitively, with his experience of viewing a painting:

  ... step back and gaze again at the land
it rises and subsides —
ravines and cliffs like waves of blowing leaves—/
stamp the foot, walk with it, clap! Turn,
the creeks come in, ah!
Strained through boulders,
mountains walking on the water,
water ripples every hill.
I walk out of the museum-
Low grey clouds over the lake-
chill March breeze.

Snyder’s love for Oriental art is intense, but he expresses it gently, often seeing things through the eyes of the painters who envisioned these quiet, mysterious landscapes. He speaks constantly of the act of painting, having, in his younger days, seen and sat at the feet of a master painter who specialised in sumi, that wonderful East Asian brush painting which is so unlike anything that Europe ever had. He recalls the master asking him to grind ink, and work with an array of brushes, himself using those "fierce, swift strokes that made pine needles, bamboo stalks, eucalyptus leaves, appear as if by magic on the white page." That is why lines like: "walk the path, sit the rains, / grind the ink, wet the brush, unroll the/broad white space" keep cropping up in his work. What he succeeds in doing is in making one aware, through his own constant awareness of painting and the act of painting, of the manner in which these landscapes need to be seen. One has to see them, Snyder seems to say, with the eyes of those little figures which are often dotted over the landscapes: ordinary men and sages, dwarfed by the mountains and rivers without end, but taking them in, their subtleties and their surprises, calmly, without the slightest sense of hurry. For when one is in conversation with nature, one needs to listen more than to speak: then alone can one experience "the energies of mist, white water, rock formations, air swirls: a chaotic universe where everything is in place."

Different spaces

The view that we take of space in India, and the manner in which it is handled by the Indian painter of the past, is entirely different from that reflected in East Asian art. But both have their own logic. Of the one seen in Chinese landscapes, Snyder writes with much feeling.

Walking on, walking
under foot
earth turns,
streams and mountains never stay the same.
The space goes on
but the wet black brush
tip drawn to a point,
lifts away...

This feature was published on March 12, 2000