The art and architecture of domination
Indrajit meets Ravana, folio from the Yuddha Kanda of the Ramayana, by Sahib Din, Udaipur, c 1650-1655 (Courtesy: British Library)
There are many ways to begin, of course, but—how does one begin from the centre? The first half of the statement is mine, the second half my nephew’s. Responses that dislodge the statements of adults come naturally to nine-year-olds. I’ve been entrusted with the task of teaching him how to write essays—I had to begin from somewhere after all.
“How do I begin?” he asks.
I offer him possibilities as if he was at a fair, but eventually return lazily to an adult’s cliché—there are many ways to begin …
“How does one begin from the centre?”
“Like one does on a football field at the start of a game—from the centre of the field,” I say. I can’t really say how this comes to me, and whether I’ll be able to pull off the analogy.
Days pass, but the thought doesn’t. A few actually. Would the game of football have been different had it not started from the centre of the field? Can the beginning really be the centre of something? Where does this come from—this instinct or conditioning for centrality?
I’m reading the Kama Sutra (translated by AND Haksar).
Vatsyayana, while recording the moment of an older tradition of writing on sutra” and “shastra”, rules, theories, and treatise, one that provides him with a framework to write about pleasure, mentions Dharma and Artha. “Dharma is action and abstention in accordance with the rules”; “Artha is the acquisition of knowledge, land, cattle, gold, grain, household goods, friends and so forth; and the enhancement of what has been acquired”; “Kama is the mind’s inclination towards objects which a person’s senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell find congenial.”
Dharma, Artha, Kama—which of these may be considered central if one were forced to make a choice? I could paraphrase the question in this manner as well—which one would you choose among Manava Dharma Shastra, Artha Shastra and Kama Sutra? Vatsayana challenges the idea of ‘importance’ and centrality that is hidden in this question when he says, “Considered together, Dharma is more important than Artha, and Artha more than Kama. But Artha can be more important for the king, and also for the courtesan, as it is the basis of worldly life.” This fluidity of choice, depending on the person making it, also taking into account that the self seeks or needs different things at different times or stages in one’s life, without there being a compulsion imposed by a state or social structures, reminds us of a natural habitat in the resistance to centrality that was the blood of many non-Western cultures. Even those who use the rhetoric of a lost “golden age” of Indian culture fail to see this and adopt the European coloniser’s centralising narrative when imposing restrictions on Indian citizens today. They who worship Krishna and his cow forget that there are many Krishnas, that he can be child and advisor at different times, that to be an Indian citizen is to not be restricted by a central defining expectation of a model adult.
Another day, and we are folding paper, my nephew, my two-year-old niece, and I. The folds on the pieces of paper could be our birth certificates—they give away our age. Mine are bureaucratic, the creases clerical, almost perfect; my nephew’s playful and even absent-minded, eager to get to the end; my niece’s crumpled, without any awareness of straight lines and the folds they demand. We are practicing origami—we want to make a bird; or birds.
To make a bird, I must fold a square piece of paper and fold it diagonally a couple of times. All of this is to discover, through folds, the secret—and invisible—centre of the piece of paper. This centre, now marked out through folds, will control all subsequent folds. My nephew doesn’t quite get the centre right. His folds are untidy, his hands unsteady. In the end, I produce a bird, my nephew something that is bird-like, my niece has crumpled and uncreased her piece of paper all along.
What we find in Abhimanyu’s tale is punishment not only for the incomplete, as it has been interpreted for millennia, but also an indictment of centrality which derives from such a system of thought. For—where is the centre in Abhimanyu’s journey?
Now is the time for flight. I push my nameless paper bird into the air, towards the sky. My nephew gives his bird a name—kak, the Bangla word for crow—as if that would give the paper more energy. Our birds don’t fly. They land not far from our feet. Angry, my nephew grabs the crumpled piece of paper from his sister and flings it away, in no specific direction. It lands near the edge of the balcony. My nephew makes a face and mimics me, “Centre, centre, get the centre right, otherwise your bird won’t fly …” And then he returns to his voice: “Bunu didn’t pay any attention to the centre. She doesn’t even know what a centre is. But her paper flew better than yours and mine.”
I would have made notes if I’d completely understood the import of the little boy’s words.
IN RAGHAVANKA’s The Life of Harishchandra (translated by Vanamala Viswanatha), when the king refuses to marry the lower caste holatis to protect caste purity, the anamika women say this:
The ears that enjoyed every note of our music are not defiled;
the eyes that feasted on our shapely form are not defiled;
the mouth that acclaimed our art is not defiled;
the nose that smelled the fragrance of our bodies
wafted by the gentle wind is not defiled.
How is it that only our touch is defiling?
How is it that, among the five
one is superior and the other four inferior?
This is a 13th century Kannada epic, and, much before Indian jurisprudence would make untouchability illegal, the poet Raghavanka had pointed out its fallacy. What we see in the words of the anamika women is a biting intellectual critique of untouchability—one could listen to their music, admire their beauty with one’s eyes, smell the fragrance of their bodies, and praise with their mouths, but touching them would make one impure? In “How is it that, among the five composite senses, one is superior and the other four inferior?” lies a critique of centrality, the centrality of touch and its relationship with ideas of purity and morality over the other senses.
THE SPINNING GLOBE that was bought for my nephew when he was three years old lies broken now. It’s now a hand-me-down toy for his sister. He found delight in spinning it—the names of places we asked him to look for brought him far less joy than his watching it speed to the command of his fingers. Now there is no lever on which it can run.
I remember the disappointment when he was introduced to the flattened world map in school. His idea of the world had, until then, been of something that moved, and moved almost without ever intending to stop. The paper map was too static and boring. What bothered him most was that Europe stood like a statue in the middle of the map. When the globe stopped spinning, there was no certainty about where it would come to rest—my nephew and my father shot guesses and turned it into a game.
It was time to introduce him to politics, I thought to myself. “Do you know what this means—that Europe is at the centre of the map?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t know, but lets me know what he thinks of Europe. “It’s the hardest continent to spell. Look at our Asia. So easy … But Europe—it should begin with ‘U’ …”
“It means that the person who drew this map with Europe at its centre must be a European,” I say.
“Oh,” he replies, “So?”
One can get away saying these cliches in a university classroom, but not to children. “If you were to draw the map today, wouldn’t you put your town Siliguri at the centre?”
“No, why would I? I’d put a ceiling fan at the centre.”
“Why?” I ask, completely baffled.
“So that the paper map itself flies away.” Still not sure about whether he’s got the punchline, he adds, “And before that, all the countries and continents at the centre—they will also fly away …”
I remember wondering why dust always hides in corners of rooms, not in their centre.
SEVEN CENTURIES after the Kannada epic, the French thinker Michel Serres wrote about touch and the other senses in The Five Senses. Steven Connor, in linking Serres’s thoughts about the senses with the idea of genre, reminds us that the idea of a genre implies the heightening of one or another sense at the neglect of the rest. This idea of giving centrality to one sense over the rest is artificial since all the senses act simultaneously in us. That is also why the idea of genre is artificial. The centrality given to genres in how we think of the arts and literature makes us captive to readymade expectations of the genre, to their behaviour—a thriller must excite, a lullaby calm, a novel must have a climax, a story be of a certain length, and so on. This turns artists into employees of the genre and curbs experiments.
To be free of genre, both as writer and reader, might make us free and whole—like a return to a life of all the senses does, a feeling we recognise urgently now, after Covid.
THEY ARE PLAYING ‘Doctor Doctor’. My niece treats the plastic stethoscope like a necklace. Her brother is angry—he wants to be the doctor. Soon I am turned into a patient. I show my tongue and breathe heavily, I complain of headaches and stomach aches, I pretend to faint.
I hear whispers of “Covid Covid” coming from the older one. The word has become an echo in their lives.
“Are you alive?” the little boy asks.
I say yes, suddenly aware that I’ve never been asked this question before.
“Where is life?” he asks, angry that I am alive and that the toys in his doctor’s set have become useless.
He takes the stethoscope to various parts of my body—the forehead at first, then nose, then chest, arms, hands, fingers, stomach, knees … For each part he asks, “Here? Is life here?”
I think I say “yes” every time, disappointing him.
After the two little doctors leave, I continue to lie on the bed. Life is everywhere, in all parts of my body, not centralised. A little later the same thought returns, well almost—death, too, is everywhere, in every part, it is not centrally located.
IN The Notion of Totality in Indian Thought, Christian Godin writes: “The unfinished and the remainder, two modes of non-totality, are at the origin of problems that open onto tragedy. The Mahabharata recounts how the destiny of Abhimanyu was sealed when he was five months old, still inside his mother, Subhadra. One evening, Subhadra and her husband Arjuna discussed the future of their son. Arjuna, who foresees his son’s destiny as a great warrior, reveals to Subhadra a strategic secret that he alone knows the way to penetrate a chakravyuha, a military formation in a spiral raised to an infinite power, which allows one to encircle the enemy while cutting him off from any possibility of retreat. The child listens within his mother’s womb, but falls asleep in the course of the tale. Many years later, Abhimanyu will know how to penetrate the circle but will never have learned the way to get out of it, and it is this ignorance that will cause his death on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.”
Architecturally, and notionally, the idea of a centre—and centrality—is possible only when we are in the field of the complete. How can a line or a circle have a centre if it continues to be incomplete, in flux, growing or shrinking? What we find in Abhimanyu’s tale is punishment not only for the incomplete, as it has been interpreted for millennia, but also an indictment of centrality which derives from such a system of thought. For—where is the centre in Abhimanyu’s journey?
THE CHILDREN are trying to blow a balloon. There is only one hole through which this can be done. Foo foo foo—they try to force their lungs into the tiny hole. I wait, almost nervously, for my nephew to ask whether the hole is the centre of the balloon, but he doesn’t. They give up after some time and come to me. My air fills the balloons, two of them, and their mouths are tied with string urgently, as if that were part of a surgical process. Their balloons look almost exactly the same, even their distended stomachs of air.
And then they burst, at first the little girl’s, then her brother’s. My niece begins crying, my nephew runs to check.
Carrying back the corpses of the balloons, he tells me, “They’ve burst at different places. Why?”
I try to think of a way in which I could explain this, but, like all little boys, his answers follow his questions with restless urgency. “They look similar, but they have different centres,” he explains.
I shake my head, but no attention is paid to me.
“Just as my sister and I are both children but have different centres.”
“Yes. If you tickle me in my armpits, I jump away from you. But my sister kicks you …”
A few months later, on Holi, we fill a few balloons with coloured water. Some of them begin leaking—a hole here, a piercing there. Water erupts in sprinkles, the balloons become temporary fountains—of water and joy.
My nephew, always more invested in the next moment than in the present, runs to check the “points” from where the water has erupted. They are at different “centres” in the burst balloons.
The centrality given to genres in how we think of the arts and literature makes us captive to readymade expectations of the genre, to their behaviour—a thriller must excite, a lullaby calm, a novel must have a climax, a story be of a certain length, and so on. This turns artists into employees of the genre and curbs experiments
MANI KAUL, in arguing for the idea of filmmaking as “temporal” and not “spatio-visual”, was challenging the readymade idea of centrality, a concept that derives largely from space. “I am inspired by the form of Indian classical music and have used this form in my films. Hindustani music is spontaneous,” Kaul says in an interview. The use of the word “spontaneous” is not casual—anything that is spontaneous cannot be marked by the urge for centrality. That also explains his belief in the rich harvest of accidents: “Accidents are always better than what was planned.” (How can something unplanned have a centre?) One of the ways in which Kaul identifies the subversion of centrality—“spread out” is the phrase he uses—is by choosing the epic form over the mainstream dramatic form. In discussing Ritwik Ghatak’s Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, he says, “The epic form is just the opposite (of the dramatic), which means that the narrative is usually very thin, very spread out and at every stage that it develops, it tries to have wider perspectives. Not just concerning the characters but also about nature, history or ideas. These are not just a description of society, but visions of epochs that have gone by. So it cannot be just a simple movement, a narrative moving forward, but as the story is narrated, it must also embrace and spread out.”
THE HIMALAYAS come closer to the plains during the monsoon. From Siliguri, where I live, one can see how that comes to be. The clouds become palanquin bearers ferrying the hills to us. From windows and terraces, and sometimes on walks and drives, someone points to a moving cloud. There is always amazement, that these things, gigantic and whimsical, can move. Wherever their leash might be, it is invisible. It probably has no centre, and, its actions, by extension, become like itself—when it dies into rain, the raindrops too fall without obedience to any centre. If human bureaucracy could control the rains, it wouldn’t rain on the heads of queens and presidents but most certainly on their attendants. That kind of decentring would also become a kind of centring then?
This essay has no centre. I wanted to say that, but can’t. That statement will give it a centre.
My nephew has been drawing the rains. Page after page of his drawing notebook is filled with rainwater. His parents are annoyed with him. Will he ever draw anything else?
MY NEPHEW will not draw “anything else” on the page, nothing except the broken lines of rain, most of them haphazard and colliding like Brownian particles. His parents and grandparents want to see where the rain falls—they have imagined that to be the centre. Denied that by the nine-year-old boy, they scold and bribe him.
Those who fail to supply our need for centrality are often bullied or punished.
I THINK OF those who have challenged the centrality of centrality: artists (the Japanese and Chinese and the patuas and scroll artists, of course, but also exceptions from the West such as David Hockney or the Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman; Nandalal in Bengal and the Pahari painters in the mountains, who moved humans away from the centre of the canvas, giving space to the elements, revolting against the anthropocentric biases of Western art; Sahib Din’s Ravana in the 1650 Jagat Singh Ramayana where each of Ravana’s ten faces have a different expression and ‘point of view’); writers (Amit Chaudhuri, for instance, who, in giving advice to writers, wrote “Give nothing centrality”); the thinkers of the Upanishads who knew that the centre was unfixed and moving, that it wasn’t in the crown on a king’s head, that the idea of king was itself unstable (“Do not talk to me about him. I worship him as the topmost, the head and king of all beings. Whoever worships him as much becomes the topmost, the head and king of all beings”); Bharat Muni, who refused to give centrality to any one emotion in formulating a theory of the rasas in The Natyasastra; the Buddhist thinkers who recognised anitya—impermanence—to be the characteristic of life, and therefore knew that to give anything centrality was futile and inevitably led to suffering; the Bhakti poets who dislocated the centrality of the head, of a knowledge system rooted in scholarship, of learning and an inheritance of texts that made their carriers, mostly Brahmins, powerful, who dispersed the centre by making the body and the mind as important an archive as the brain and its archive of scholarship.
I think of others: the forest, which has no centre; a river; a week, a year (what are their centres—Sunday or Thursday; June?); a house; a human body; rain; a poem; the alphabet; traffic lights (red, orange, or green?); and, of course, of plant life, of grass … Where is their centre?
IT IS QUITE obvious that those who want freedom from the grip of centrality (‘Centre’) would be those who are not at the centre. Half a century of the centre-margin rhetoric, couriered to various parts of the world from France, might have enabled us to see this through identity politics, but what about freedom from its continual dominance in art, literature, cinema, and their philosophy? What does it say about us if we only want to see the pendant in a necklace?