Silences as seen in Indian Aesthetics
by Kala Ramesh
The Indian theory of anaahata baani (the un-struck sound) and rasa (the aesthetic essence) – still practised and kept alive in all Indian art forms – has aesthetic correlation to the interval in time and space or, in plain words, the silence used in haiku poetics. I call this dialogue the run of the umbilical cord because I strongly feel that all art forms are integrated into the same principles that seamlessly hold them together, and that one feeds into the other.
For long, I’ve also held the view that techniques are the banks that allow the spirit of creativity to flow. Without these banks, there would be devastation and the saddest thing is that the river would be lost. There are two sides to every coin. So if we consider this creative spirit as a river, then we need to keep it flowing – which demands the need to enquire, expand the banks and dig deeper – for we all know that stagnant waters stink.
In this essay I want to look deeper into what we mean by silence and how is it employed in haiku.
Observe the built-in silences in this poem:
on a bare branch
a crow has alighted . . .
(Basho Tr. by Makoto Ueda)
Buddha says in the Heart Sutra: Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.
(From The Buddha’s Heart Sutra Tr. by Edward Conze)
Since silence is frequently seen as a kind of space, I will now explore more extensively into what I mean by space.
Space is divided here into four categories:
1. Utilizing space
2. Creating space
3. Space that expands
4. Held breath, knowing those spaces within our body
1. Utilizing Space
I was seven years old. My sisters were giving their arangetram (debut performance) in Bharatanatyam, one of the eight classical dance forms of India. Their dance guru, my mother and my aunt were having a serious discussion. The auditorium chosen had a huge dais. How could these young girls be taught to ‘cover’ the stage? Reminiscing about it after so many years, I am amazed that the basic principal techniques in art have not changed at all. But then, why would they?
Let me come to this from a different angle, through word play. Let’s break up the word space:
An ace service in tennis is the ultimate dream of any tennis player. So an ace service means something that cannot be reached or returned: par excellence! Now, speed and placing is inbuilt in that ace. Let’s call it ‘the time factor’. So also, an excellent movement in music is captured in rhythm and taal (Indian beat cycles). In short, art is embedded in time and to go beyond time is what true art is all about. I would call this “utilizing space.”
Let us study this mantra of the Prajna Paramita in relation to what I have said above:
gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā
It is interesting to observe that this mighty Buddhist mantra from the Heart Sutra, recited all over the world, has a count of seventeen sounds.
Please also note: Indian classical music employs extensive use of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 rhythmic beat cycles. A student of Indian music spends years in training to master these rhythmic cycles.
In Sanskrit this mantra means: “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, ah!” (There are various translations for this mantra.)
The silences embedded in the repetition of the words in this mantra, hits a deeper truth each time.
gate – gone
gate – gone
pāragate – gone beyond
pārasamgate – gone completely beyond
bodhi svāhā – enlightened, so be it.
As a student of Hindustani vocal classical music, I have spent a lot of time pondering how to effectively use ‘space’ in music, which is very different from the way it is done in dance. In music, one way is to go up and down the octave showing both space and time. But it is equally important to accentuate the space between each note. These full, half or quarter pauses or silences between notes give a fillip to the emotional quotient when a melodic piece is performed. In truth, all art forms demand this fundamental requirement of utilizing space within a specific, given time.
This space mentioned above exists naturally between notes, dance movements, brush strokes or words. An artist only attempts to perfect this technique, to give the dramatic and aesthetic touch needed, to make it visible not only to a connoisseur, but also to a lay person.
almost autumn so many holes to another universe
2. Creating Space
There are effective ways to make space visibly present. I would like to call this “creating space.” This is so subtle that people do not pay much attention to it. So, I would like to give a visual example that makes it clear.
During a visit to London, I entered the art gallery in Trafalgar Square to see a group of visitors guided by a curator who was explaining a few selected paintings. We reached Caravaggio’s painting of Jesus Christ. The curator spoke about Christ’s smooth-shaven face. The special treatment of the fruit bowl that was slightly jutting out of the dining table and the non-believer’s arm extended towards us, were particularly striking. She spoke of the lateral space that Caravaggio has depicted so effectively in this painting. She said it tempts the viewer to quickly step forward and push the fruit bowl back before it falls off the table!
I was taken aback by her pointers. I’ve known paintings that show space by not cluttering the canvas, the stark use of white, negative spaces or by the different treatments in brush strokes, but I had not seen anyone talk of lateral space. This technique has remained deeply etched in my mind, ever since.
between the sky
and the spin of the earth
this falling leaf
3. Creating space to expand it
What I find most fascinating in all art forms is the contrapuntal use of ‘solid’ and ‘vacant’ spaces to create wholeness, the sense of balance and thereby a unity. Contrapuntal means having two or more independent but harmoniously related melodic parts sounding together.
This haiku is an example of using contrapuntal spaces:
in a dragonfly’s glide
Lines 1 and 2 state an image – but line 3 shows the dragonfly’s action as a shadow. So I look down and see the dragonfly’s dance and its pause. The solid spaces are in lines 1 and 2. The vacant spaces are all in line 3.
4. Held Breath: knowing those spaces within our body
Another very subtle but important aspect of silence is the held breath while singing or reciting a poem:
Words there be that cut the very heart-strings,
And words may lead to profound renunciation,
Words may work as soothing balm or may strike misery,
Some of them inspire hope and others engender helplessness.
If an uttered word could hold so much power and magic, can you imagine the power of an unspoken word or sound on the human psyche?
The difference in quality of a silence coming from a spent breath and one coming from a lung that is almost full is remarkably “felt” by the listener. One might wonder what the difference is. A silence coming from a spent breath is devoid of emotion because there is no vital life left in that breath. It is almost dead. Whereas silence, even if it is only a half pause, when it comes from a full lung, it is pregnant with emotions.
an autumn note . . .
my breath holds even
the song’s silences
What is a pacemaker? The online dictionary says:
1. A person or animal who sets the pace at the beginning of a race, sometimes in order to help a runner break a record.
2. A device for stimulating the heart muscle and regulating its contractions
We’re more aware of the second meaning isn’t it? It is a combination of both the meanings I’ve tried to bring into focus here. In this mad rush we call life, let us set a pace which is comfortable for us each day. Knowing the importance of silence, these essential pauses and breaks in our day-to-day living can never be over emphasised. It is an art as subtle as it can get to internalise the silences embedded in nature into our being – to observe and to understand these quiet moments and how to use this as an important tool in all our pursuits. The beauty of what it is to stand and stare and to help weave in a pause, a breather into our hectic lives!
Little drops of water make a mighty ocean... so also each step taken to understand how the mind receives and handles emotions, is a step taken towards understanding how the creative force of nature interweaves vigour, and vitality with silences.
And, we all create only in silence.
four hundred years
Kala Ramesh is an award-winning poet who has been instrumental in bringing school kids and college youth onto the haiku path. Neck deep in these Japanese poetry forms, her latest obsession is to paint city walls with haiku.
Indian thought has travelled far. . . For we know for sure that Dhyana (Dhyana yoga or meditative absorption) from which the Chinese "Cha'an" was derived, which when transported to Japan became "Zen". Dhyana yoga was taken by Bodhidharma from Kancheepuram, South India to China from where it penetrated into Japan.
Six hundred years ago Sant Kabir was born in India (in 1398 AD). He lived for 120 years and is said to have relinquished his body in 1518. The hallmark of Kabir's poetry is that he conveys in his couplets (Doha), what others may not be able to do in many pages.
—Boloji.com, Rajender Krishan.
almost autumn – Karen Cesar, Modern Haiku: 41.1, 2010
between the sky –Laryalee Fraser, Mainichi Daily News, 2006
the pause– Kala Ramesh, tinywords: May 2008
an autumn note– Kala Ramesh, Acorn: # 23, 2009
Basho's frog – Al Fogel, Paper Wasp:17:3, 2011
The Dance of Shiva – Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy
The Transformation of Nature in Art – Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy
The concept of Rasa – Jaideva Singh
Raga and Rasa – Govinda S. Tambe
The Bijak of Kabir – Translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh
Poems of Kabir – Translated by Rabindranath Tagore