An ode to the aesthetics of beauty
Celebrating and portraying shringara in human form or in sculpture, painting and the performing arts, is a multilayered process in the Indian ethos. It not only involves the material world but also touches on spirituality and divine ecsatasy. Alka Pande unravels its myriad shades

There are a myriad ways in which one can experience and appreciate beauty:

Beauty through participation is of the highest order, since this is beauty beyond utility. The creation and celebration of beauty through objects of beauty is an integral part of the Indian psyche. Whether it is adornment of the body or the dwelling, or making beautiful objects of daily use—there is a vibrant connection between the maker, the object itself and the users of these objects. From the Indian point of view, the very act of creating something new, integrating the beautiful in daily living, is an evocation of Vishvakarma, the Divine Architect.

An artist uses a peacock feather to decorate the nayika’s feet with henna
An artist uses a peacock feather to decorate the nayika’s feet with henna

Beauty through ritual establishes a correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm, between the world of humans and that of the gods, between chaos and order.

Beauty through narrative is where the narrator and the listener are bound together within 16 Shringara—the many faces of Indian beauty the magic of the story that unfolds through the geet and the patua (the song and the scroll) till it becomes a living theatre. The beauty in this instance is intertwined with the story itself, whether it is from the epics or the Puranas, folk legends, or the deeds of local heroes.

Beauty through shringara, or adornment, operates at more than one level. In Indian literature the sixteen traditional adornments of a woman do not merely enhance her beauty—they are also an arpana (offering) for her beloved. This is an important part of shringara rasa.

The performing arts are an important vehicle of beauty. Classical and popular music and dance, folk, religious and festive songs, are all part of this experience.

Left: Uma-Maheshwara, Pala sculpture, National Museum, New Delhi. The work depicts the slender body form of the Pala period sculpture
Left: Uma-Maheshwara, Pala sculpture, National Museum, New Delhi. The work depicts the slender body form of the Pala period sculpture

The human voice is the most ancient of musical instruments and the human body the most primal repository of beautiful forms. Together they convey an idea, narrate a story or communicate our deepest longings.

The non-verbal attributes of beauty are created through sensuality without language, form or structure. Music, dance, ranga (colour), rachna (texture), and arrangement can convey a whole gamut of emotions, create myriad sensations, and indicate harmony and order. While classical forms incorporate nonverbal features of beauty, it is in the folk arts, where the non-verbal element operates innately and intuitively.

An appreciation of beauty through the classical arts requires a strict adherence to the canons of art and aesthetics. These include rasa (emotive juice), rupa (form), vastu (architecture), tala (rhythm) and nada (sound). The true perception of the classical arts can only be obtained through pratyaksha (contemplative perception) and anumana (thoughtful inference).

The Indian ethos

Myths are the collective experiences of a society conveyed through the words of philosophers and saints. The tales, metaphors and symbols act as mirrors and interact with man on the archetypal level, reminding him that all life’s processes are nothing more than leela or ‘the divine play of the gods’. These ancient tales hold the key to the unconscious desires of people.

Kama is love, pleasure and sensual gratification. Kama is all desire that stirs the mind. It is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, sight, taste and smell, assisted by the mind together with the soul. The principal ingredient in kama is a peculiar contact between the organ of sense and its object, and the consciousness of pleasure which arises from that contact.

Talking of the Shaiva Siddhanta tradition, Alain Danielou in his book Gods of Love and Ecstasy says that ‘Woman is the image of nature (Prakriti), and man the image of being (Purusha). When they unite, they dissolve into divine unity.’

Excerpted with permission from Shringara: The many faces of Indian beauty by Alka Pande
Excerpted with permission from Shringara: The many faces of Indian beauty by Alka Pande, published by Rupa & Co, New Delhi. Pages 200. Rs 2,500

Ascetic and erotic

In Hindu ideology, the conflict between the ascetic and the erotic, passion and indifference, and birth and death is best expressed by the myth of the burning of Kama, the god of desire, by the ascetic god Shiva. Kama was called upon to distract Shiva, because the latter’s resolve to remain an ascetic was considered inimical to the continuity of life. A close parallel is found in Buddhism where Buddha’s ascetic powers posed a similar threat as he sat meditating beneath the Bodhi tree. Mara (Kama), the god of both desire and death, along with his bevy of beautiful apsaras, was sent by the gods to tempt the Buddha away from his meditation. The conflict was overcome by sublimating sensual pleasure into a higher state of transcendental pleasure, rather than by denying its importance or existence totally.

Myths and legends

Indian mythology is replete with stories of the gods enjoying intense amorous dalliances. However, shringara, the greatest of all rasas, is best depicted by the legend of Radha and Krishna. Their relationship embodies the highest and purest love, passion and devotion that unite both the sacred and the profane. The nayika or heroine, dressing herself in anticipation of her lover, has been a recurrent image in the illustrated texts elaborating on shringara rasa. The image symbolises the erotic, and the metaphor of divine love, through the human sexual act. Shringara bhava lends itself beautifully to the final goal of artistic expression, as well as of amorous love, that of union. And God becomes the Supreme lover and every devotee a nayika seeking union with Him.

Beauty’s many faces

Painters of the Kangra School of miniature painting symbolize the erotic very subtly and often used the ashtanayika listed by Keshavadas as symbols of the several stages of love. They are abhisarika who represents the aroused nayika; kalahantarika, the repentant one; khandita who symbolizes annoyance; proshitapathika who represents longing; swadheenapathika, the desired one; vasakasajika, the expectant lover; virahotkantita, who is separated from her lover and vipralabda, the disappointed one. The nayika who appears most frequently in Kangra art is abhisarika. ..

The artists of Kangra also poignantly portray the virahini nayikas, the lovelorn women, represented with their pets, such as blackbucks, parrots, moon-pheasants and pigeons. The male animals and birds are symbolic of the absent lover or husband.

Folk songs also express the pathos of the lonely wife separated from her husband. Nature sympathizes with her and as she weeps, mountains and rivers share her grief, and the trees shed their leaves. The mango blossoms and the love calls of the koels make her all the more miserable. Raginis, or the wives of ragas, are frequently portrayed as lovelorn heroines in the Ragamala paintings.

The evolution

Over the years the patterns of beauty (saundarya, shringara) have evolved in tune with the modern concepts of physical and spiritual standards. It is the eye of the patron and the demands of society that have shaped the notions of beauty over the years. The evolution of art has followed the path of patronage, first received from the temple and village, to the court (durbar), and finally the artist as an individual following the dictates of the market. The first patron of the arts was the temple. Beauty was worshipped in different forms—in dance performed to celebrate the gods and in rituals surrounding the daily routine of the deity.

Changing patterns

The newer patrons of decorative fine arts and performing arts brought a change in the production and consumption of art. This was seen with the coming of the Central Asians and later, the establishment of the Mughal Empire. The advent of Islam brought in a completely different insight of beauty, and shifted the focus from the idealized human figure to decorative symbols and forms. From the delicate jalis and jharokhas to the ornamented cloths studded with precious and semi-precious stones, the materials and forms started to undergo great change.

Beauty beyond the physical

In Rajasthani miniature paintings, the costume and attire of the heroine is always given an added flourish. The wearing of the sindoor is expressed in all its sensuality
In Rajasthani miniature paintings, the costume and attire of the heroine is always given an added flourish. The wearing of the sindoor is expressed in all its sensuality

We have experienced how shringara goes beyond the physical. This is evident from the 10.8 cm-long bronze statue of the dancing girl from Mohenjodaro. The dancing girl has been a favourite of historians for her impeccable features and soulful expression and, most importantly, the confidence in her pose. The Harappans believed in the cult of the mother goddess, and the roots of the relationship between god and beauty can be traced from here.

The Kandariya Mahadev Temple at Khajuraho is an outstanding example of the beauty of representation, veracity, ardour and shringara. The spire is based on the metaphor of Mount Meru, the holy abode of Lord Shiva, and the exquisitely sculpted wall panels depict Lord Shiva and the apsaras. This is the height of idealized beauty, on the basis of which rest the canons of artistic representation.

Although the evolutionary thought processes of Eastern and Western philosophers and aestheticians share certain parameters of beauty, its representation in the West has notions of the sublime, of bliss, harmony, geometry and balance. In the Indian tradition, however, the definition of beauty is more complex because it has myriad manifestations: beauty as truth, as desire, as shringara or saundarya or as the union of the atma (soul) and parmatma (god).