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Transcultural Indian Aesthetics

Transcultural Indian Aesthetics

the aesthetic mode is an experience of the whole man and not a part of him. – Sneh Pandit

This week I delved a bit more into the philosophical and esoteric nature of aesthetics and the psycho-social rise of the individual. Pasztory, in Thinking with Things, focused on access to social capital and the role it plays in society to allow acquisition or loss of economic capital. What was interesting was the fact that

most cultures at most times have shied away from realism…. most viewers even in the European realistic tradition experience them as uncanny and frightening” (pasztory, 2005),

…and obviously the state and its apparatus of power plays on this due to the blurring of the line between the real and the crafted. With Chiefdom, there is a distinct separation between the sexes, and the spaces they occupy (even today as is very well illustrated by the lack of participation by women in roles seen as distinctly manly). The virtuosity element is very interesting, the word’s latin roots imply skill, manliness and excellence. A more refined and developed sense of aesthetics is also nurtured in this context which helps individuals display their rank and position within their society. In this sense, virtuosity and intricacy are aesthetics of power which are encouraged to developed (and therefore gained). This provides the fertile ground for other men of virtuo to seek power and prominence as Pazstory points out. And what do we lose? Access to equality!

Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. – Michel Foucault

Gigantic Monuments signaled the rise of states. And as such with the rise of the state, there is a sense of impersonality and the inevitable centralisation of power. This is best captured by “notions of strength, rootedness and even eternal existence” (Pasztory, 2005). State doesn’t have much to do with beauty aesthetics, but power. What is gained in the context of state, according to Michel Foucault, is Freedom.

Without the conscious free subject, there would be no need for the machinations of the state (Pasztory covers this briefly when she explains the possible dynamics between the workers and the monument building of the archaic states). Handmade in India, is an effort by the state to document the rich traditions of Indian Craftspeople from the different regions. But it also points out its importance through out the last few centuries not just to the economy of the country but those with “discerning taste” who could afford such exotic goods.

The government is trying to provide support to craftsmen who are losing ground to “machine made goods”.  The crafts people have skills which have been cultivated for many generations and this is reflected by the virtuosity of goods being produced. What is fascinating is how each piece is derived from local material that is available, but the craft has been refined by master-craftsmen/women who have also gained knowledge from other centres. An example of this the “Meenakari – Enamel Work”, where the skill was brought in to Rajasthan, by the five master enamellers from Lahore on the request of ruling family in 1590. There are many stages and intricacies involved from the design to final product. And the finished product’s quality is improved further by being worn, as the enamelled colours on the back of the necklace become more vibrant with wear. And of course the more you wear it, more people get to see the jeweled front of the necklace.

Going back to the Indian philosophy of Aesthetic (which Pandit, labels as uniquely Indian – which it is not), we are reminded by the fact that Aesthetic Experience is not “disinterested, impersonal or detached” (aren’t all these the domain of the state?) Now that we have moved on from the space traditional man used to occupy, there is (at least in myself) the need to escape to sacred time. In our modern day life, this is achieved in short moments of time, when aesthetics of an object, briefly transport us to another dimension. This is not so much a total loss of boundaries in the spiritual and divine sense, but the sense of being uplifted with something that resonates within us. A sensation that maybe over in a blink of an eye, however this brief encounter gives us a sense of connection with something larger than what we are, a sense of wonder and calm, it provides a connection to other real beings. As Pandit explains: “It is a manner of experiencing emotion without ego”.


  1. Pasztory, E. (2005). Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Chapters 7-8, pp. 60-73.
  2. Pandit, S. (1977).Nature of the Aesthetic Experience According to the Traditional Indian Approach. Indian Philosophical Quarterly: Journal Of The Department Of Philosophy -University Of Poona, 4319-326.
  3. Ranjan, A. and Ranjan M.P., Eds. (2005). Handmade in India. New Delhi: National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, Council of Handicraft Development Corporations (COHANDS), New Delhi Development Commissioner (Handicrafts), New Delhi, and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
  4. Foucault.

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