Vast and fabled, the subcontinent of India usually seems infinitely remote and out of time, as if it floated in another galaxy. Recently, however, the place and its people have saturated our consciousness, as if the Indian spirit were trying to tell us something.
Some of the activity, of course, was calculated. The current "Festival of India," which will sprawl from the museums and greensward of the Mall to manifestations around the country this year, is one of those carefully planned cultural extravaganzas whose hidden and perfectly benign scenario is to make our people feel friendly toward their people. It was launched during the recent state visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who himself left an agreeable impression of gentle graciousness allied to steely independence.
More psychically compelling is a cluster of events too varied to be anything but a spontaneous signal from the Zeitgeist . They range from filmic fictions like "Gandhi," "A Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown," to tragic realities like the Sikh rebellion, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the catastrophic crash of an Air India jet in the North Atlantic.
If it all seems too coincidental to be meaningful, it is surely important to remember that Indian philosophy insists on the interconnectedness of all things. Two current exhibitions probe the point. "The Sculpture of India, 3000 BC-1300 AD" (at the East Building of the National Gallery to Sept. 2) is elegantly aristocratic. In contrast, "Aditi" (at the nearby National Museum of Natural History to July 28) is a populist hoot of epochal proportion.
"Aditi" has two subtitles, "The Living Arts of India" and "A Celebration of Life." Take your choice, since in either of those ways or in numerous others, the show is a landmark. For starters, it creates a jostling bazaar-like ambiance that seduced at least one visitor who generally gets claustrophobic in crowds and likes to contemplate his art in sepulchral calm.
It is extremely unusual to cheerfully mix courtly art of venerable prestige with endearing folk art made two minutes ago, but "Aditi" does it with celebratory abandon. The astonishing result is not only that the folk material often appears to have more juice than the serious stuff, but that its innocence is better than most art's sophistication. At one moment a stylized wood figure presents deliciously provocative links to the work of Africa's Dogon people. In the next, a group of goony, life-size papier-mache wedding celebrants makes it unnecessary to ever again look at a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet.
There is enough going on to keep the mind of an art lover churning happily for a week. Technically, however, this is not an art show, and most visitors are understandably more engaged by other exhibits that certainly rank as among the most unusual displays ever put on view in a museum.
The highlights of "Aditi" are living, breathing street performers who have come incredibly far from their homes to demonstrate skills with commendable humor and good grace. They represent a tradition of wandering folk performers that goes back to the Middle Ages.
In recent decades their way of life was nearly snuffed out by India's relative urbanization and by the coming of film and television. Luckily, they are a hardy and resilient bunch. They banded together in New Delhi and finally received some support from the government. Now members of this still-endangered human species delight the American folk. Kacchi ghori dancers in saffron turbans chant songs, pound drums and canter gracefully in life-size horse puppets, miming the pageantry of a wedding procession. Puppeteers have the world on a string, and one juggler, they say, juggles while frying an egg on top of her head.
There are also crafts people embroidering, and potters who do not confine their work to jugs and bowls. Among the more amazing
objects on view are ceramic horses big as real ponies. In a niche, an Indian woman in a sari bends over the hand of a punk-styled American girl, drawing an intricate mandala on her palm. You get the feeling the rapt girl will never wash the hand again.
In this exotic carnival atmosphere, anybody will be forgiven for not asking about Deep Meanings. But true to the rule of interconnectedness, they are there. One performer goes about with face half-covered by a shawl. Stooped and mumbling, he is, perhaps, a wise mendicant. Then a flick of the shawl, and he becomes a painted lady with swaying hips and one flirtatious, almond eye. It all plays perfectly well as a piece of burlesque, but the meaning runs profoundly back to
depictions of the god Shiva as Ardhanarishiva , wherein he embodies his dual nature, both as himself and the goddess Uma.
Fine. Thanks for the lesson in Universal Implications, but right now I, along with the rest of the crowd, am too enchanted to care. We are watching the kid performers. These pint-size brown moppets, of 4 years or 10, wear orange turbans and red gowns edged in green and silver. They whirl like dervishes to pipe and drum. They strut and sing with utter panache. When they smile, you are reincarnated as delight itself. No musty, philosophical truths here, I trust.
Sorry, but here lies the central issue. Indians virtually revere children and (by our puritanical standards) spoil them rotten until they are about 5. Children are a kind of metaphor of Shiva and his unconventional, spontaneous ways. Even more importantly, they are living symbols of the central place fertility holds, in general, in the Indian consciousness. They literally embody India, teeming with its 750 million souls.
If you wander from "Aditi" over to the National Gallery's hundred-work survey of Indian sculpture, get ready for a muffled shock. Your mind, still reeling happily with visions of mirrored embroidery and chaotic ripeness, is suddenly struck still. Galleries are neutral in tone, and visitors move with hushed attention amid figures in bronze, polished stone, warm ivory. Male figures stand with the graceful nonchalance of Greek youths. Animals have the heraldic resonance of Medieval Europe. Only the female figures, with their enormous sensuality, could be nothing but Indian.
According to the exhibition catalogue, our appreciation of Indian art only begins to take on sophistication as recently as the 1940s. Before that, as great a philosopher as Georg Hegel saw it as "the irrational forms of a fermenting fantasy," and John Ruskin pronounced it "the archetype of bad art of all the earth."
European taste only loved Indian art when it could find in it occasional resemblances to classic Greek objects. Presumably, we have come to appreciate it more on its own terms, but through some alchemical irony the National Gallery survey seems selected and presented to appeal to restrained European taste.
Our notions of temples writhing with erotic reliefs, Shiva dancing in rings of fire and bloodthirsty goddesses with 16 arms are here contradicted by the height of Western aesthetic refinement.
What kind? You name it. A bronze chariot made before 1500 BC has the mythic strangeness of a Giacometti. No Mesopotamian monarch was ever depicted with more absolute authority than a "Standing Ascetic" from the 2nd Century. The same period produced an "Emaciated Head of the Fasting Buddha" that the West would not equal until Donatello.
There are torsos as innocent as Greek kore , Buddhas as gentle as Jesus and lovers as lyric as those who dallied in the Petite Trianon. On and on.
One might take some umbrage here at a presumed, somewhat pristine distortion of the spirit of Indian art, or one might simply wonder at the fact that Indian art is so rich that it can perfectly easily come out marvelously, judged by any aesthetic measure we choose to put on it.
Finally, this should not surprise us. Art itself is supposed, at best, to possess an underlying grammar of forms whose proper employment is productive of excellence wherever it is practiced. It is not wrong to say that art, like the sacred Brahmans, provides the line that proves interconnectedness.
Mithu Ram in horse costume and Ramesh Tandon with tambour perform folk dance