Recontextualized Concepts And Practice Of Innovation Cultural Studies Essay

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When one attempts to engage in a project, which seeks to relocate/recontextualize notions of progress or innovation to a non Euro-American context, the project does get framed by the politics of representation, and threatens to get caught up in the ‘Identity-Difference' questions. Though I do not wish to shy away from any engagement with the politics of representation, I definitely do not want to be caught up in the ‘Identity- Difference' questions. The only option left for me is to bypass the rhetoric of the Self and Other, and refuse any parochial fixity of my subject position. This project could also get entangled in the politics of comparison. In a certain sense this is unavoidable, the best that I can do is to clarify my intentions behind initiating the comparison and to spell out why ‘innovation' as a phenomenon is important enough to be stressed. The comparative value of ‘innovation' comes from the prestige it enjoys in post-industrial Capitalism, and it is through this that the location of this project is best understood.

For a long time, this project kept slipping back into the realm of cultural relativism, and this I dearly wanted to avoid. Seriously we have had enough of ‘Indian Art is this versus Western Art is that'. I am not afraid of being essentialist because post modernism has rendered essentialism unfashionable. Indeed Spivak and Radhakrishnan show us that strategic essentialism can be a useful tool for counter hegemonic representation. ‘Innovation' and progress as they are applied in the discipline of Art History are still rooted in Euro American notions of history as sequentially progressive, moving from point A to point B and attacking point C. Any tradition that does not follow this model seems comparatively stagnant and unmoving.

Over the last two hundred years or so, there has been a growing hegemonization of this notion of time/history/progress. This has played a major role in forming the ideology of Capitalism and strengthening the growth of neo-colonialism. Any attempt to rub this notion of progress ‘against the grain' is counter hegemonic.

A profound western Marxist critique of the modernist notion of history is already present in Walter Benjamin's ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History' , which opens up possibilities for counter hegemonic theorizations on progress. Post colonial critique of progress from various locations are essential to give momentum and add dimensions to the movement in order to challenge the domination of neo-colonialism and post industrial capitalism. My endeavor to do so from within the discipline of Art History in the context of pre-modern India is counter hegemonic and subaltern enough to theoretically allow myself to put forward an essentialist representation. However one can't ignore Spivak's advocacy of ‘double consciousness' while representing the subaltern . Exercising Spivakian double consciousness is not easy and I don't know how far I shall be successful. Nonetheless working within binaries and yet dismantling binaries is crucial if I have to avoid lapsing into a homogenous straitjacketing of India and ‘Indian innovation' in the cause of global heterogeneity.

There seems to be an already existing theorization about an allegedly ‘Indian understanding' of innovation. Prof. Ratan Parimoo in his class lectures and private discussions has been proposing that ‘improvisation' as it is allowed and practiced in the rendering of Hindustani Classical music, offers us a framework for understanding the practice of ‘innovation' in ‘pre modern India'. In his ‘Space and Time in Representation and Design', Thomas R. Metcalf uses Vishaka Desai's study of 18th century painters to theorize that through the act of copying and recopying an ‘artist' was encouraged to digest tradition and then rearticulate it in terms of contemporary taste . There has been (almost too much of) an easy understanding on this regard. As a new entrant into this concern I realized that the consensus regarding an Indian version of ‘innovation' was near commonsensical. It seemed that the only work possible was a substantiation of these floating but accepted articulations. My discomfort with the un-problematised pan Indianness (both vertical and horizontal) straitjacketing of Indian culture inherent in Metcalf and Ratan Parimoo's formulations has enabled this intervention.

For the moment let me suspend my interest in heterogeneity, and suppose that knowledge did circulate in ‘pre-modern India' in a particular way, which lead to innovation and progress being understood in a particular way. Surely no one will argue that this was racially or otherwise intrinsic. Thus the only option is to assume that such an idea of innovation was culturally constructed and hegemonized. This opens up possibilities of inquiring into various ideologies that might have played roles in the process. Thus the notion of progress/innovation must have been a site for contestation between the ‘dominant', ‘residual' and the ‘emergent' . Now we come to a juncture where it becomes logically impossible to leave heterogeneity in suspension. In fact by my preliminary observations, it does seem that the peculiar way in which texts like the Rig Veda or the Natyashastra attributed their authorship to divine interventions, played a key role in how the later authors were forced to justify the ‘newness' of their interventions by taking recourse to tradition. It must have been very difficult to claim a critical position towards, or reject a discourse that allegedly had divine origins. This is an extremely generalized preliminary observation but it does point towards an interesting possibility for exploring how the ‘residual' might have shaped the ‘dominant'.

When I cited that the ‘dominant', ‘residual' and the ‘emergent' make it theoretically impossible to suspend the question of heterogeneity, it is more of a polemical argument which may foreclose entries into greater complexities. However the historical location of India today, which is witnessing a right-wing straitjacketing of Indian culture by imposing a Hindu upper class/caste understanding of Indian culture down the throat of pluralism, forces me to highlight the question of heterogeneity in terms of how various strata of society understood and practiced ‘innovation'.

In this work I shall be inquiring into ‘Early Medieval Southern Indian Temples' through case studies of some royal monuments viz. Sangameswara, Virupaksha, Mallikarjuna at Pattatakal and Brihadeswara at Thanjavur.

Having decided that I will not be adhering to any model, which argues for a pan Indian construct of innovation, I was forced to approach my material without a pre existing framework. I realized that the sites chosen are, the ones considered to be ‘landmark' monuments, thus falling into the trap of looking for innovation in monuments on which the discipline had already passed a verdict of being ‘points of culmination'. Though, I am aware that unless one actually notices dissatisfaction, it is strategically safer to assume that every monument was a fulfillment in its own right- successfully articulating the socio-political, ritualistic, aesthetic and structural roles they were supposed to play- and that the best one can have is an ideological critique of their roles. On the other hand, I am so well entrenched in the modernist notion of ‘culmination' and ‘newness' that I constantly tend to forget my new understandings. In order to guard myself against such lapses, I began with a working understanding of ‘innovation' being - changes that fulfill needs arising out of shifts in the sociopolitical, ritualistic, aesthetic and structural requirements of temple spaces.

The temples under consideration in my dissertation were under the patronage of early Western Chalukyan and Chola dynasties which were ruling in present Deccan and Tamil Nadu at various points from 6th century to the 12th century AD. Art historians have traditionally used these temples as un-problematised examples of ‘High Dravida'. Traditionally the discipline has studied their lineages to ascertain stylistic evolutions- operating within various models of evolution (small temple to big temple or vice versa, simplicity to ornamentation or vice versa). In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the iconography and style of these temples as expressions of imperial powers. I contend that these approaches are too limiting, and do not do justice to the complexities that the material present. The first approach assumes that ‘style' has a life of its own and intrinsically follows certain patterns and the job of an art historian is to decode that pattern, especially to understand through what forces certain ‘grand styles' come into being. The second approach assumes that art is, but a reflection of the political requirements of the patrons, and royal monuments simply reflects the kings/queens political power articulations. This approach becomes near simplistic when it unproblematically polarizes the ruler versus the subject and treats them as near homogenous factions. The polarization will collapse if one introduces caste and governmental hierarchies and see the ruler as a subject and the ‘subject' as an actor within hegemony. Sociological works on Dravida temples have revealed complex ritualistic, political, economic and cultural functions these temples performed . Thus one needs to locate morphological and iconographical ‘innovations' as a response to these needs, taking care to locate the temple building activity within these factors, not as a phenomenon outside of these, but located within these, shaping them and getting shaped constantly. I see the temples of my case studies as sites of contestation and consolidation of power between Brahmin and the Kshatriya elite, and also between the upper three castes (viz. the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishyas) and the untouchable Shudras. The contestation is over religion, knowledge, and power, and the temples gradually become sites where these powers get concentrated.

The coming up of large royal temples is a defining stage in this direction, a ruling class enterprise to undermine the importance of the priestly class by creating powerful religious institutions over which they retained significant control. It is this concentration of power that would be focused

in chapter three. In this dissertation, I could have tried to study innovation in various ways (technological, stylistic) etc. However, my main interest has been towards situating innovation in sculpto-architectural religious projects patronized by the state in the name of the royalty, which can be seen as cultural forms used for the purpose of hegemony maintenance. The innovation, design and iconography which embody and perpetuate a new value system which the ‘dominant' seeks to preserve. (Chapter 3)

How am I trying to go beyond the ‘Identity-Difference' questions and locating the concept and practice of ‘innovation' by the three major agents involved in the royal temple, viz. the royalty, the Brahmins and the Shilpin? It is interesting that, Ratan Parimoo's and Metcalf's formulations seem applicable at a general level to the actual guild practices and are absolutely not reflected in the Shilpashastras (treatises on icon making and architecture). These texts were primarily authored by the Brahmins, and carry the claims of embodying ancient/semi divine formulations. The textual tradition is a static tradition when compared to the actual temple building tradition. The gap between the text and the actual practice is so vast, that in most cases if one follows the textual instructions while building a temple, the structure will simply not stand. The only way this gap can be explained is by viewing the textual tradition as an intervention by the priestly class in order to claim an arena of knowledge, which was outside their domain (Chapter 2). The modes of contestation become clearer when one sees that there has been consistent privileging of cerebral activities over physical activities in Brahmanical discourses . By the fifth century AD, all kinds of manual activities ranging from farming, cattle rearing to weaving, carving and masonry were declared occupations of the untouchables. Now entry into the temple spaces was absolutely forbidden to the untouchables. Thus, interesting plays of oppositions came about. The Shilpin guilds had control over an arena to which they were complete outsiders. How is it possible that people who were not even supposed to know them depicted religious mythologies? The establishment of the post of the Sthapati bypasses this problem. Guild heads were socially incorporated as Sthapatis and they had some access to religious texts. The Brahmins felt that it was absolutely necessary for them to claim that it was only through close reading of the Shilpashastras that it was possible for the Sthapati to guide his /her subordinates. My hypothesis is that the Shilpin guilds responded to the peculiar social condition by asserting maximum creative freedom. Of course, the possibilities of this creative freedom were restricted by the visual culture they operated under, the demands of the patrons, ritualistic and socio-political forces. Maybe that is why most of the new decorative motifs or sculpting styles first made their appearance on the margins- usually in small panels away from the center of the temple. Socially subordinate Shilpins could not possibly have subverted a space to which they were complete outsiders, which they had to vacate as soon as the construction work was over. Hence, it is possible that what appears to be an ‘Indian mode of innovation' that gets manifested in the way temples retain their basic form but changes appear just in terms of size ornamentation and iconography can be seen (in part) as being a manifestation of space negotiations between the untouchable artists and the priestly caste. This view seems to work when one looks at the monuments, but is difficult to critically sustain. Leading me to think that the debate on ‘agency' needs to be re engaged with, giving me the focus of the fourth chapter.

The relationship between the Shilpin-Sthapati and their patrons (i.e. the royalty) was more complex. On the one hand the royalty as Kshatriyas were privileged upper caste and were active participants in and reinforcers of the oppressive caste hierarchies. On the other hand, they were chief employers of the Shilpin-Sthapati, not only for building of temples but also for building- rebuilding of palaces, laying roads, bridges, digging canals, making forts etc. The Shilpin-Sthapati must have been of great service to the royalty. It is through this that in spite of being classified as untouchables by the Brahmins, the guild heads gained significant social prominence, and the knowledge they possessed became socially valuable. Realizing that their social mobility was based on their expertise, the Sthapatis must have been locked in a competitive battle with other guild heads, keen to participate in ambitious projects and to make their monuments ‘grander' (by the notions of grandness circulating in their contemporary visual culture). This could be the initiative, which resulted in the celebrated technological innovations, increase in morphological complexity, and quest towards more complex narrative panels/profuse use of decorative motifs.


Focussing on just two sites has restricted the possibilities of evolving a broader framework. Even these two sites are located in the southern half of the peninsula. Monuments like Khajuraho, Modhera and Konark have been left out because of my inability to deal with so many monuments and time-spaces within the scope of a dissertation.

The key methodological problem with this paper is that I have been forced to use gross generalizations. This stems from my failure to resolve the formulations at a theoretical level, which does justice to the complexity of my material. My criticism of the modernist notions of progress would have been easier to articulate if I could suspend my criticism of essentialist cultural relativism. However, the Indian right-wing has emerged as a strong ally of the forces of globalization. At the same time, it uses the ‘Identity-Difference' questions to propagate an orthodox upper caste/class history of India, using it to disallow difference and heterogeneity in our times. The incoherence in my paper in a certain sense is a reflection of my own location being caught between the devil and the sea.


Outside the scope of iconography, the discussions in the ‘Religious and Textual Sources' classes (including classes of ‘Translation of Shilpa Text') have been the most fruitful, or at least have given me a broader understanding of the pre modern art traditions, when we keep aside the Shilpashastras and engage with the other textual sources like the Puranas, the Kavyasatras etc. It is from this observation that I have begun my quest to view the Shilpasastas in the context of ‘textual sources' instead of the context of ‘commentaries on art'. This shift in framework I hope will help us to obtain a broad understanding of the manner, in which art was conceived, patronized, produced and viewed. This chapter essentially is a plea to place the Shilpa versus Shastras debate as a philosophical problem , and to somewhat explore the problem. In the last section I have tried to introduced caste and see what dynamics, it can unfold.

Indian art historical research has yet not reached a consensus view from which to assess its position in relation to the vast literary corpus of Indian literature, particularly the Shilpashastras. May be one need to go beyond seeking mirroring and theorizing on the absence of mirroring and begin a certain philosophical inquiry into the very nature of Shastras. The core or what can be called the mainstream of Indian Art History, remains the detailed study of archaeological evidence using a stylistic approach. I say this even though I acknowledge that few serious works today omit references to Sanskrit texts, or ignore inscriptions.

It must be admitted that many of the most exciting and communicative examples of Indian art, are far beyond the reach of seemingly precise Shastric formulations. The sheer creative force of the Parel Shiva, signal to us at once that this kind of inspired originality could not have been possibly dictated by a rulebook. Indian art can be considered to have progressed through ‘revolutionary' sculptures of this stature. Surely, no one will argue that the sculptors working in Kailashnath, Ellora actively called to mind the tenets of the Shastric traditions. It is through this legitimate consideration that art historians have by and large overruled the importance of the Shastras.

"If the texts have no apparent usefulness, why do they exist?" is the basic question I decided to start with. Through various classroom and other discussions with teachers and classmates, I have come to an understanding of the texts as monuments in themselves and expressions of a contestation over knowledge in a culture where religion and power were closely related.

How do I, a student of art history deal with this understanding and practice it in my work is turning out to be the next big question, which I am confronting. I guess it is but obvious that one cannot look for any direct help from the texts except for iconography. That is why I have chosen to put his split as a philosophical problem, a problem that by nature needs some imaginative endeavor to resolve.

May be the Shilpashastras are monuments in themselves. Monuments belonging to both the Shilpa, as well as the Shastra tradition. Whatever be it, my personal understanding is that it is no longer possible for the discipline of Art History to ignore the need to study the Shilpashastras for their own sake. If one tries to make palaces, following the prescriptions of Manasaullas, then in all possibilities the structure will not stand. However, that precisely may be our mistake and undoing. Our training is so Euro-centric that we historicize everything. We are trained to look beyond the literary rhetoric of the Shilpashastras and seek out the ‘mean' prescriptions. Can we take a step back and think that the heart of Shilpashastras might lie in their rhetoric? If we shift our framework thus, we may discover that we get a completely new cultural understanding of temples and sculptures.

After nearly a hundred years of serious art historical work, it is evident that the so-called classical mode of Art History scholarship in India is coming under strain. However, it is this school of scholarship that has done tremendous archival work, and through stylistic analysis ‘ordered' a vast body of artworks. Nonetheless, the main criticism against classical Art History in India has been that stylistic analysis very often fails to place works of art in their socio-cultural, political and ethnographic context. Is such a recontextualization possible in the Indian context, when ‘factual information' is at the best patchy and mostly nonexistent?

I contend that it may be not that impossible. To make it possible, one needs to move beyond the Euro-American modernist construct of ‘factual information'; may be we need to stop seeking it all together. Instead, one should turn to the broad corpus of Shastric literature and look beyond prescriptions, and try to imagine what they are trying to say.

The Shastric texts can at least be said to epitomize and consolidate the culture in which the Shilpins lived and worked, the patrons commissioned, and religious imagery operated. Can we begin by trying to imagine this process? All art forms are practical and symbolic expressions of cultural intelligence; the Shilpashastras seem to provide an ordered framework of didacticism. It is only through this didactic tension between theory and practice can one go beyond style and try an archaeological enterprise - archaeology of the mind.

The Markandeya of Vishnudharmottar III denies that a god carries weapons, saying that they are infact the elements of existence. The text goes on to explain that the holding of weapons is a demonstration of the god's control over existence in all its phases . These and similar comments appear to be original speculations on the part of Brahmin authors, which directly relate to their actual ritual attitudes in the enactment of their priestly functions in temples of their time-space. Art history has as much stake in how they were made.

The didactic tension between Shilpa and Shastra - theory and practice - which lets us explore the possibilities of the ‘archaeology of mind' is rendered more tactile if (semi) translated in terms of seeing ritual and making. The question as to what did constitute a cannon in Indian tradition needs to be forced into the open. Obviously, there is no ‘Panini' at any stage in the development of sculpture. At any rate, the practice of sculpturing is not reducible in the ‘paninian' manner. Artistic creation being a process, every work of art is to the artist a project abandoned along a path of continuous pursuit. In this sense all works of art are ‘incomplete', and hence inherently escape complete canonization. If this can be considered to be a defining feature of art practice (for our concern pre-modern Brahmanical-Indian), what then can possibly be the role of the Shastras?

Instead of seeing a direct relationship, one can view Shilpashastra as one element in the multi dimensional Brahmanical tradition, which plays its part in giving shape to the overall articulation of the cultural outline. Like other literary traditions, it contributes to and is itself shaped by the powerful urges of a hegemonic culture, to create a self-image, and like them it preserves parts of continuous transformation of perception and expression generated in the course of this pursuit. The commentaries of Brahman iconographers articulate these fragments. However, one must not forget the self-image of the authors of these texts. The self image is two fold - one that of the caste, the supremely knowledgeable having indisputable access to and control over any form of knowledge; - the other is of the self, the person who amongst this elite caste chooses to write about the principles of art making. The person naturally worked with a self-image of absolute authority.

The tone of Shilpashastras is that of a priestly declaration. Isn't it but obvious that the authors would never acknowledge their lack of technical know-how etc. Infact the very act of writing Shilpashastras is an act of pretence, an act of laying coins on a body of knowledge, which never belonged to the Brahman caste. It is also a statement of traditional authorities, as ritually involved spectators of art, and not of the artistically creative interpreters of the tradition.

As I have mentioned before, very often the instructions dictated by a putative ‘arseya' or even ‘daiva' authority are seen to be wildly inaccurate or even inadequate, when applied to a mass of ancient and medieval Indian art objects. The fact is that (may be) overall they simply were not used by the shilpins. This does not mean that art historians should abandon this literature. Instead, it can be treated as a literary category, to a certain extent divorced from realities of image making, and reflected the suppositions of the priestly class concerning the correct way of conceiving a deity.

The Brahman class did not concern itself directly with the practical business of hewing and carving stone, but rather with the inherited broader task of claiming and perpetuating the essential outlines of cultural tradition. They asserted the necessity of making images and established their importance. It was beyond the sense of celebralism within Brahmanism to make the images. In this sense, their Shastric injunctions have the effect of authorizing and intellectually appropriating the work of the Shilpin.

However in practice the role of the Sutradhar / Sthapati has to be concentrated upon. There has to be a reason as to why the office of the guild head was institutionalized in the peculiar manner. At one level, he was a bridge between the Shudra artisan and the elite Brahman. As someone, who was authorized to wear the sacred thread at the time of constructing the temple, and at the same time was never allowed inside the main temple premise, once the construction work was complete (till the time of renovation). At a more practical and working level, the Sthapatis embodied the entire tradition of building and sculpting.

It is R.N. Mishra, who has effectively introduced the caste dynamics into the study of dialogue between artists and the Shastric tradition. His article ‘Art and Religion' is a seminal work in this direction. The only complain I have against his work, is that his engagement is not Marxian enough. For although ‘power' and ‘contestation' as concepts are adequately emphasized in his analysis of archival material, his hunt for subversion is in the realm of philosophy. Personally, I would like to locate the caste and knowledge subversion by the artisan jatis, more in the realm of material culture. But that is another debate.

At the time when Brahmanical temple building and image activities flourished (say post Gupta period), the Sthapatis must have gained immense social prestige and the knowledge of carving, building and painting must have given the artisan jatis a tremendous cultural capital. This seems to have destabilized the equations of knowledge and power that maintained the social order.

The Brahmanical concept of Kali Yuga indeed talks about a destabilization of Dharma. It is in the epoch of Kali that all the Kalas are textually degraded. (Though by common conception this process happened in the 10th century plus period, a careful reading clearly spells out that the process had already set in by the 5th century). The practitioners of the Kalas must have been very important for the Kshatriya and Vaishya castes (using the categories loosely to denote the ruling and business class/caste as a power counterpoint to the priestly class). The Shilpins, must have been exceptional in this regard as their work was directly in the service of state and religion.

May be we can understand the Shastric interventions better if we read them in the context of a contestation over power through knowledge.

Fig 1 Concentration of Chalukyan sites

Fig 2

Fig 3 Durga Ground Plan with Gateway

Fig 4 Sangameshvara Elevation

Fig 5 Sangameshvara Ground Plan

Fig 6 Virupaksha Ground Plan

Fig 7 Mallikarjuna Ground Plan

Fig 8 Mahakuteshvara Elevation

Fig 9 Sangameshvara General View

Fig 10 Mallikarjuna General View

Fig 11 Virupaksha General View

Fig 12 Kailashnath, Kanjipuram General Views

Fig 13 Kanjipuram Kailashnath Ground Plan with iconographic details

Fig 14 Kanjipuram Kailashnath, Inner Boundary Wall and Shrine

Fig 15 Shore Temple General View

Fig 16 Shore Temple Ground Plan

Fig 17 Brihadeshvara through Gopuram

Fig 18 Brihadeshvara from Outside

Fig 19 Brihadeshvara from Southeast

Fig 20 Brihadeshvara Boundary Wall

Fig 21 Brihadeshvara Site Plan

Fig 22 Brihadeshvara

Fig 23 Brihadeshvara Stairway to Antarala Southeast

Fig 24 Brihadeshvara West Elevation

Fig 25 Brihadeshvara with Chandikeshvara Shrine

Fig 26 Brihadeshvara Upper Story Pradakshinapath

Fig 27 Brihadeshvara Ground Floor Plan with Iconographic Design

Fig 28 Brihadeshvara Painting, Rajaraja and his wives paying homage to Chidambaram Nataraja

Fig 29 Kailashnath Kanjipuram Nataraja and Trivikrama

Fig 30 Examples of the Flamboyant Dance Like Style from Pattadakkal

Fig 31 Gangai Konda Chola Puram with Chandikeshvara Shrine

Fig 32 Gangai Konda Chola Puram Ground Plan

Fig 33 Udaigiri Vraha Panel with detail of Ganga and Jamuna

Fig 34 Koranganath Swami Temple at Shrinivasanullur