Notes on Art and Personality from the Sikh Viewpoint by Puran Singh
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First, life. Then, its expression. The plum and the peach, if they are alive, must burst into a white universe of flowers when spring comes. Out of every bud a stream of flowers flows and engulfs them entire. The living peach and plum are thus at that moment unconscious of any outer universe but of their own flowers. This spontaneous expression of the mystery of life, at once so metaphorical and symbolical, gives us a way to approach art. All alt activity is silent and intense in the depths of being. The moments of its expression are like the visits of angels few and far between, but its labour at the roots is continuous. And something happens, may be after centuries, after aeons, when all of a sudden, it bursts out into a rain of flowers. What is spring to trees, is inspiration to human race. And it is worth while to put up with a thousand winters for the sake of one day of blossoming as in spring. The highest and most perfect individual is he who brings this spring of inspiration to man. Being anything or any person below this perfection is of no abiding interest to art and the artist. Touched by His breath, the dead and the dying, the mean and the wretched, the sinful and the poor, spring into rage and become perfect and beautiful in a moment. This strange but oft repeated cosmic phenomenon of Nature is generally forgotten by us. The best literature, the best art, the most creative art-impulse of any race, at any time of human history, as to-day always rained and rains from Heaven on man, Greatness flows to him. And the creations of that wondrous period of his inspiration become the noble classics of the human race, in all aspects of its social life. Music, dancing, poetry, painting, sculpture, came out from happy and freed hearts, as the golden oranges bend with their profusion the delicate boughs of the orange tree. The golden harvests then ripen in such abundance that for centuries man reaps them and they still stand there waving in their original glory. For ever, a dream beautiful. This dream lasts for ever. The ideals pervade life. And life grows. There can be no democracy in the soul of Art. ‘Democratic Art’ is like the growth of grass in the meadows with a few tiny blue bells dancing. It may be pretty, but just pretty and nothing more. Art must agitate our souls. It must churn the blue ocean and, out of it bring a new sun and a new moon for the human race. Anything short of a cosmic upheaval of the soul-consciousness of man as a whole race, its uplift as a whole race even to a few inches higher from where it was, is imitation, not genuine art. Imitation has its uses in schools as forms of training but that constitutes no grand expression of the Divine Inspiration. Slaves alone appreciate microscopic drops on the lotus leaves, the freed men play with the sea and the sun and the moon. Till Beethoven gave his symphonies, all thought their music was perfect. One freed genius freed human thought to a new infinite perspective of the art of music. But Beethoven brought it out of his own soul. Beethoven starts a new epoch in himself. I do not think kingship of any kind is greater than this absolute despotism of an inspired man who opens a new subjective universe before us. Now, painters painting Beethoven’s symphonies in colour is criticism of art, not art. The bold and astonishing originality, as I have said, man-transmuting originality, is the first sign of the true artist. Mr. Okakura is rightly bitter against imitation when he says, “Imitation whether of Nature, of the old masters, or above all of self, is suicidal to the realization of the individuality, which rejoices always to play an original part, be it of tragedy or comedy in the grand drama of life, of man and of Nature.”
Rich kingship of soul flowers. The artistic consciousness is free, freedom follows. And in a great sense it is true that nothing can make man free but art.
Bhai Vir Singh &
Prof. Puran Singh
I quote Okakura again when he says so beautifully, “Fragments of nature in her decorative aspects, clouds black with sleeping thunder, the mighty silence of pine forests, the immovable serenity of the snow, the ethereal purity of the lotus rising out of darkened waters, the breath of starlike plum flowers, the stains of heroic blood on the robes of maidenhood, the tears that may be shed in his old age by the hero, the mingled terror and pathos of war, and the waning light of some great splendour—such are the moods and symbols into which the artistic consciousness sinks before it touches with revealing hands that mask under which the universe hides. Art thus becomes the moment’s repose of religion, or the instant when love stops half unconscious on her pilgrimage in search of the Infinite, lingering to gaze on the accomplished past and dimly seen future—a dream of suggestion, nothing more fixed—but a suggestion of the spirit, nothing less noble.” With this ideal of Art before you, you can now pass before your imagination’s eye, the glorious pageant of the Asiatic life that was inspired by the yellow-robed perfected humanity of Lord Buddha. The Buddhistic Art, that blossomed like the flower-floods of that Asiatic spring, is the symbolic and metaphoric expression of the inner sovereignty that was experienced by the poor and the rich alike. The Lotus Throne of Buddha, in fact, became the lotus throne for everyone. If it was democracy of men, each seated on his throne. Lord Buddha was not one of this democracy of the Spring. He was the hidden secret of the Breath of Spring, which made the blossoming of all with that miraculous suddenness possible. To Buddha raised every flower his crown and song in utter thankfulness and all submitted absolutely and unconditionally in joy of the Pure. And sister Nivedita thus sums up in her beautiful words the atmosphere that the, Buddha created by his personality. “To him (Okakura), it is not the ornamental or industrial features of his country’s art which really form its characteristic elements, but that great life of the ideal by which it is hardly known as yet in Europe. Not a few drawings of plum blossoms but the mighty conception of the Dragon, not birds and flowers but the worship of Death, not a trifling realism however beautiful but a grand interpretation of the grandest theme within the reach of human mind, the longing and desire of Buddha-hood to save others and not itself—these are the true burdens of the Japanese Art.”
So we see how birth of the Buddha in India agitated the soul of Asia. The life of the Asiatic races of China and Japan was inspired by the Buddha. So true Artistic expression of the soul-consciousness of a people is not so much in the nature of an acquired achievement as the spontaneous outflow of a spiritually rich self-realization.
The Gurus have altered our ideals of inner self-realization. “Know Thyself”, is only partially right. The true artistic consciousness or religious consciousness blossoms in its own inner beauty when the inner self of man and the outer self of nature unite. Both partake of Reality which is beyond both. This union is rare and is not an individualistic but a cosmic phenomenon of life. Those who sat in caves, and meditated and found God in their soul, the so-called Yogin idealist, the Zens of Japan, were not truly spiritual; they were still intellectual, the abstractionists, poor moralists who set themselves, in pride of intellectual abstraction, as gods. On the other hand, those who rejected the subjective realities and sought Truth only in the outer objects and their beauty as realized by the senses, the so-called Realists, also were intellectual Their art too, wholly intellectual, touches in its rare flights the spiritual. There is thus no difference between the Greek ideals of old and the Art-ideals of the East which are based on metaphysics. The Greek sculptor rejects human flesh and endeavours to realize his ideal man in Apollo through the imagined pure medium of marble, it is as intellectual a representation of reality as of those who carved the images of the ecstasy of Lord Buddha in the large statues of stone. In fact when artistic consciousness wishes to express itself that way, it assumes the intellectual expression only. It can get to no other, because, after all, it is the intellectual sympathy that the artistic expression wishes to create. Hence it is that the Gurus do not consider artistic expression which needs must be intellectual. They insist first on artistic life and most on artistic inside, on the flame of inspiration burning within at the centre. The rest must follow. According to the Is, the spiritual expression of personality can only come through feeling born and bred in the human flesh. Human flesh is the imperfect medium through which the Gurus wish to express the Perfect. Beauty is neither outside, within the reach of the realist, nor inside, within the reach of the idealist, as both are seeking an intellectual abstraction. It is beyond intellectual abstractions, in the actual subjective spiritual union of the spirit of man with that of the universe or Nature. This union takes place rarely as a cosmic phenomenon. And the whole life waits for its happening. And as planets revolve without haste, without rest, so we men have to go on waiting for that great spiritual fulfilment through all our pursuits of pain and pleasure, of vice and virtue, of intellectual realization and of emotional expressions of extraordinary moods of ourselves, till we meet Him—the Artist. Our True Spiritual Religion and Art start after meeting Him, for He is so beautiful that however we may will otherwise we cannot thenceforward forget Him. Near Him or away from Him, we live in aching remembrance of Him. This aching remembrance is our religion, we cannot but be religious after seeing Him. We are driven to be religious. Aching remembrance is spontaneous in the inspired ones when they are away from him. The moments of union are rare and so love, according to the Gurus, is but aching remembrance. It is very unlucky that, according to the Gurus, there can be no religion and no art for you till you have met Him. So, all the Gurus condemn ceremonial, theological routines. It is better to freshen the soil with a few furrows, than to go to a temple to pass through a routine which has no meaning for an unawakened soul. As the expression of the life of disciples can only be spiritual; so the art of the Guru is creation of the Divine Personality out of the Human Substance.
Human flesh that is radiant with life, vital, vitalising nectarian, immaculate, beautiful is the only medium for the artists of aching remembrance. And the chief aim is to make the human flesh worthy enough for enclaying God in it, all else is mere means.
I start all kinds of arts. From my eye, let Leonardo da Vinci remember the eyes of Christ. From my tresses let them remember the braids of Jesus. I not only ache with remembrance, but I produce the same aching pain in others. I am, as the Guru says, the legion. I refuse to be only one flower like the Brahman intellectual. I aspire to be the spring. My own salvation is not what I desire. Let all be saved. “Save them through whichever door of mercy thou mayst choose, O Lord!”
“My disciple is he who aches with love and makes others ache with love.”
O Sikh youth of the Punjab ! I hang my head in shame when I see you buying and selling ugly, obese, flesh-coloured smudges of ink blue and red and yellow, with no eyes, no head, no hands and feet, as the portraits of your Gurus who bestowed Buddhahood on many of their disciples. You read this in your history. No one ever, in the first 500 years or more after the Buddha, painted or sculptured Him. They only had a ladder with steps of the Buddha painted or sculptured on the rungs. This was all the portrait they made of their God. For five hundred years or more of Dhyani worship, they lived in silence about it, till they saw the Buddha in Dhyanum and with that divine aching remembrance becoming ecstatic they met Him. And now, however intellectual a phenomenon, how soothing it is to the soul to look at the ecstatic bliss of Dhyani Buddha; the appreciation of the Dhyani creations is fugitive.
When I stand before the pictures you call those of the Gurus, I feel as much disgusted as when I look at the ugly idols of Krishna of the Hindus in the temples of Vrindavan. You will be killed by this mean imitation of others’ passion. Because Christians have been lucky to illustrate the Bible by the paintings of Italian masters, you must also imitate them to make your religion popular. Woe unto that religious preaching which needs the support of such soul-less imitations. For goodness’ sake, burn all your canvases and throw your brushes away. You are not yet risen to the level of men and the craft of the artist is far above your reach. You are not yet able to grasp the essentials even of the intellectual appreciation of the Art of the Beautiful. You need yet learn how to wear a pearl necklace and how to adorn yourself. You must needs be decorated and beautiful to go and dare approach the Beautiful.
I have always thought that as there has risen no new Chaitanya in Bengal, the Bengal school of art is only a farce, an imitation. I feel spiritually happy when I look at the reproductions of the Ajanta cave frescoes, but I am disgusted with seeing the obliqueness of the paintings of the Bengal School, which is merely a mental concept. The imitation of such a specialised and delicate, almost spiritual, technique as of the Ajanta devotees, so apparent in the Bengal School, is sickening.
From the kind of pictures, however, you the Sikhs of the Punjab love, I feel that your soul of art is dead. You fail to show even the instincts of a spiritual aspirant. Pray, be silent, till life gathers in you and bursts out of itself. Till then it is better to cry than to go on rhyming ‘him’ with ‘dim’ and call it poetry of any kind. It is better to weep silent tears of prayer than to sing your hymns with the bass sound of the leathern harmonium. It is far more artistic to have a clean house, with pure, snow-white, lime-washed walls or even mud-washed as of the Janglis of the Punjab bars, than to hang up the headless Baba Deep Singh Shahid, as you say, with so much unregenerate flesh lumps with that label. Sickening! And you all stand and stare at your walls saying, “what a martyr!”
Let me tell you frankly, your outlook is much too dirty, dusty, weary, busy-bodied, to be anything near the sources of the creation of artistic forms or literature of any kind. All your monthlies are only fit for the dung-heap. Most of us calling ourselves literary lions are but dust-bins in which gathers the dirt of the worldly-wise. People who are spiritually or artistically rich in any way preserve themselves. They shudder at the idea of self-spending in worldly pursuits. They prefer death by starvation to living by deceiving people on a smaller or larger scale.
The philosopher seeks purity in the mineral, more than in the animal kingdom, little knowing, that perhaps what he calls sin in man is more precious a virtue than the dead glitter of gold. Of course, all organic things rot; man too, woman too. But rotting itself shows more life, when I see the oxen eating and eating straw, I look at them for long, since this act of gluttony, when they have such large bodies, is the highest spiritual act, compared with the non-eating of a huge boulder. Senses and their excitements and pleasures too, of animals, including the human animal, are, from this viewpoint, highly interesting spiritual acts. I think the bullock is a saint when eating and the cow when licking her calf. When one prefers the beauty of a snow peak to that of the white brow of a maiden, he shows inferior spiritual taste. Life interests the artist, and not the dead conceptions of it, however grand and sublime they may be, so to say, to look at. The face of the man, more than the sparkle of the diamond. To the artist, the goat that eats grass, gives birth to a kid, and suckles him, is more spiritual a phenomenon than the sunset or the sunrise or a hundred fleeting colours of the sky; the latter are no use, except to choose from, for the colours on his brush to paint a goat. For him nature is diffused, dim personalities in the making and man the spiritualised, sublimated image of it. And he flies, seeking the purity of the union of soul, both to man and to nature. His feelings are personal. And his art converts the universe into the deity of the temple of his heart. Well does Victor Hugo say, “Reduction of the whole universe to a single being and expansion of that single being to God is love.” Diamonds and rubies, pearls and gems, art-creations in marble and in colours, the flower and the fruit, are in the hands of artists just a beautiful alphabet which has its full meaning only when it spells the name of the Beloved, This is the great spiritual motif of the Guru’s Ideal of Art.
Puran Singh Collection
The Guru contemplates on feeling. “Feeling is all in all”. Man in conceived as feeling in flesh, as divine act in flesh, as God’s word in flesh. And while feeling creates its own new forms, imitation cannot. Imitation is like making dead statues of marble. It is of no interest to the artist of the Guru. Imitation is repetition that has no meaning. The way Potiphar’s wife falls in love with Joseph is beyond all repetition.
The Buddha coming between the doe and the hunter, is the final form of that feeling. Jesus saying to Mary “Go, woman, and sin no more,” and puffing the Pharisees to shame shall for ever remain above all following.
Mohammed’s weeping like a man on the grave of his slave, Sayid, is unique. Omar’s way of treating his slaves on an equal footing with himself is beyond all imitation. No one after them in the Moslem world can be capable, in that way, of divine democratic feeling.
Guru Nanak is glad to see feelings being sculptured like this in human history. But he is sick of men who wish to imitate and follow, and be but dead quotations of great things. To the Guru, the human history is the history of such feelings, the rest is of no consequence at all.
It is not quite true that beauty is all within me. Beauty is equally all outside me. But what is true is this, that it is vain to fly after the beauty outside me to possess it. I must receive the supersensation of beauty and absorb it into my blood. One who breathes beauty is an artist, according to the Guru. Man should be the most effective shock-absorber of the self-sensations of beauty. The Guru says, “Eat thrills, absorb joy and be more beautiful than all outside beauty.” Man perfected by devouring the lightning flashes of the whole cosmos scintillating with beauty, is invoked by Guru Nanak. His ideal artist is Christ, Buddha, and not the one who makes images of them in colour or stone. The latter is the representative appreciation of this spiritual artist as if by the people. It is the intellectual critic that expresses himself in marble or in colour; all so-called art below that is but purer form of mere criticism. The so-called art is the excitant of higher moods in which one is made capable of true appreciation.
Guru Nanak says, the truest self-restraint that transmutes corruptible flesh into immaculate flesh is born of glorious rapture of the Beautiful in nature and in man. Thus Simrin is more artistic than the so-called ‘ethical.’ Once the human flesh is made immaculate by Simrins, Guru Gobind Singh calls it ‘Kanchan si Kaya’– flesh as immaculate as gold. It is worshipful. It is the highest and the noblest art creation. From that standpoint, where flesh by the solution of God’s music in it has been transmuted, the Guru condemns both the contrition of saints at the sight of human flesh and their self-abandonment and flesh-mortification and their getting to God through penances; and he also condemns all the pleasures which result in self-putrefaction of human flesh. Hence His ideal of spontaneous self-restrains, effortless effort to chisel one’s flesh into the immaculate beauty of the divine. Such spontaneity of the life beautiful and magnetic, is freedom. According to these standards of the Guru, the flesh is made evanescent on the artistic creation of a perfected man, the Temple of God.
Nothing dies. The voice that I have heard, I shall hear again. The eyes that have looked alive once, shall gaze into my eyes again. That intense imagination which can bring before the vision’s eyes the face of the Beloved, as the regions of hell and heaven rolled before Dante’s eyes, it is intense imagination which is the essential quality of art. And such imagination is not speculative at all, it is the artistic carver of the myriad images of the Beloved.
To get rid of the nausea of visible physical putrefaction of human flesh that is the result of sensual pleasure as sought by the Romans and to get a cure for the sickness of the intellectual putrefaction in mental moralities, as sought for by the Aryan and Non-Aryan priests, it is certainly soothing to look at an ideal woman shaped in marble, almost made a goddess by the Greek sculptors. The woman in the street disgusted the intellect and the woman thus sculptured out of the imagination of the artist recreated the divine worship. It must needs be offered to the real woman. The meanest flower gains unsurpassable beauty when touched by this feeling of worship. A green leaf, touched by Mary Magdalene for her offering to Christ, becomes invaluable. All great art must be similar revelation of feeling, deep and mute and alive, as lightning asleep in the cloud. Then, it may lift a leaf or a flower or cast just a glance; it is the incessant creator of the Beautiful that it has seen.
Just as metaphysics was an intellectual attempt to soothe the ruffled intellect, so were the arts of sculpture and painting, the intellectual attempts of human genius to soothe the disgusted feeling. And a well-carved image of even a prostitute in marble soothes us, while the vileness of ,a prostitute in life may irritate us. Seeing the painting of a lovely woman, we may fall in love with her for a whole lifetime though if she be found in life it may be difficult to live with her for a day. Art, thus, is contemplation of the Beautiful by the artist as an unattached witness. This contemplation lifts us above ourselves, above body and mind, and elevate our consciousness; it beautifies our vision. Through art, we see beauty everywhere. A rain of beauty seems to drizzle. Everything grows beautiful. In this bliss of Nirvana, the body is not remembered by the buddha; his peace overflows and engulfs it entire. Now, an artist, who has to give us an image in stone of that self-realization, has to ignore the physical. It is wonderful that Dai Butsa of Kama Kura sends a thrill of a living awe of the great person of Lord Buddha, and one never knows that He had a body like us. I stood entranced before Dai Butsa at Kama Kura, and I only contemplated and contemplated with dosed eyes all open and with open eyes all closed and I saw nothing, and felt nothing physical but only inner peace. Only holiness. Only a strange life shining in the crest jewel that the Buddha’s great statue bore, on the glorious knot of his Nepal tresses. Surely both artistic contemplation as in art forms and metaphysical contemplation of man and nature as in mental abstractions are essentially intellectual appreciations only of the Divine that the Buddha realized. The Guru says, if one has that artistic attitude continuously with one, looking at all living things and dealing with all living things in that spiritual sense, then the true art becomes manifest. And who is the greater artist, one who looks at many living things and vibrates in sympathy with them, or one who, to start with, renounces them and then writes poems comparing the quivering of the petals of a rose to the trembling of the petaline lips of a bride that is waiting for her bridegroom? The Hindu Brahman seeker renounced his wife and children and sought their likeness in imagined gods, and in suns and stars and trees and rivers and birds, for, in spite of him, they all went with him wherever he went. And the Greek artist renounced his gods in flesh only to find them in marble. Renunciation in both cases was a meaningless vanity; neither got the peace of formlessness, for the one had a form and a frame himself and he could not jump out of his skin, and the other had not the peace of loneliness to contemplate perfection in marble, for, his creations still smiled even in death.
The Guru says, human flesh rots without ‘Naming Him.’ The state of spiritual immortality is of perpetual youth when man becomes a lyric of love. When one reaches the spiritual depths of the soul and lives attuned to that wondrous richness of the ecstatic life, no misery of whatsoever kind, no suffering how acute, no sorrows how gnawing, can dim the lustre of the smile of that great deep, musical life. It indicates poverty of the spiritual inner life, when the ideals of art or religion seem to incline towards the purity of the marble or the spotlessness of light, except as an intellectual excitement to the realization of the spiritual beauty of the flesh. The black stains of sin on the white apparel of the sinner have more of perfection, if the sinner be made more beautiful of soul thereby. The one diamond shines amidst numerous particles of sand. Saint Francis kisses the leper’s wounds, while a man, poor of soul, flies from the sickness to save his life from infection. The other day, when the influenza, epidemic raged, men and women were dying like flies, and some of my dearest friends were lying down with it and no one to look after them. I was down with the physical infirmity. I only wept. My tears called to the unknown St. Francis of the Sikh Punjab. “Puran, I will go and look after your friends!” Apparelled in a white silk gown, an old man beaming with the youthful joy of a new bridegroom of eighteen, goes. He goes and beats with his stick the influenza out of the bed of my dear ones. He sits with them, lies with them, the inner magnet of his attracts the disease out of them to himself and in himself burns a conflagration in which all bacilli die. Immaculate, he comes out and he saves a few lives. Unless this great flame burns within, a mere fatalist is stupid, for he idly courts death. The real victor defeats death and foils the ‘foes of the life-spark.’ Jesus heals the leper, St. Francis kisses him. There is difference in the inner potential. When one is rich within, of soul, of spiritual life, when one is the veritable King of Glory, one does not despise frail mortal forms to which life clings so tenaciously. The Buddha accepts the invitation of a courtesan, while lovers of God and soul that imagine such realities in an impersonal light fly from such ‘moral filths.’ He was attracted by the perfection of life that trembled on the lips of the courtesan, the lips that invited him. These distinctions of virtue and vice are unreal to the poet’s mind, who is looking at deeper levels of life where there is perennial beauty, music and love. The surface veils part like clouds that are torn asunder with such splendour by the rising sun, and the eye, enamoured of life’s mystery is red with wonder that sees but can never voice it forth!
Courtesy: Harinder Singh