I’ve always asked myself this question: why is it that despite the richness of some of the Indian theories, they are rarely used in understanding any modern day phenomena like that of cinema? The reason, as I understand, lies in the difficulty of grappling with the enormous complexity and diversity of Indian theories. For example, among the major theories, occur the following orthodox schools which base themselves on the Vedas: (they often come in pairs and hence counted as one where the material base is provided by one and the philosophy by the other) Nyāya-Vaiśesika and its new incarnation Navya-Nyāya, Mīmāṁsā, Saṁkhya-Yoga, and Vedānta; these are challenged by the following heterodox schools which don’t accept the Vedas as their authority: the 4 schools of Buddhism, 2 schools of Jainism, and Cārvākaor the Lokāyata-darśana; finally, Kasmir Śaivism which needs to be placed somewhere in-between the two groups, since, even though it is based on the Agamas and not on the Vedas, yet it has a close affinity with Vedānta on the orthodox side and Buddhism on the other. The richness and complexity of understanding this huge spread of Indian thought arises from the fact that almost all of them continue to co-exist in India; while their intensities continued to vary from time to time, yet none of them ever went out of business fully in the course of Indian history. This enormous body of arguments and counter-arguments raises one legitimate question for an inquirer: in which school does he pitch his tent? The problem is further compounded by the fact that all these theories have more or less evolved together, their process being to bounce off ideas from one another by punching holes in each other’s theories, both within and outside their own groups, only to be filled up by subsequent theoreticians and so on. This resulted in the fact that, to a great extent, any one theory already contained the germs of almost all other theories. Thus, in India, there could be two ways of looking at these theories: as individual theories belonging to a particular group or as a ‘meta-theory’ where all the theories have made their varying contributions to build up a ‘larger theory’. In modern times, if we adopt the first approach, we would be forced to be confined to any one of the theories to the exclusion of all the others which is likely to impoverish our understanding of Indian thought. A better approach would, thus, be to adopt the second approach where the best solutions provided by particular schools to particular problems would be accepted as the valid one. On the face of it, it appears to be a far cry from being a satisfactory solution and, yet, this process seems to have been sanctioned by the Indian theories themselves. For example, whenever a particular school has come up with a powerful idea, it has ultimately been accepted by all the other schools on both sides of the divide. As for instance, the Buddhist idea of non-qualified perception as a prelude to a qualified perception eventually came to be accepted by all; the Jaina idea of truth being conditional to one’s point of view had a huge impact on all Indian thought; Nyāya’s preeminence in analyzing the cognitive processes of perception and inference set a new bench-mark for all subsequent theoreticians; Mīmāṁsā’sability in explaining verbal cognition assumed an authoritative status in time; Saṁkhya’s classification of basic mental states as sattwik, rajasic and tamasic formed an underlying assumption for almost all Indian theories in the course of time; Kasmir Śaivism’s aesthetic considerations ultimately acquired an almost unchallenged status in India; and so on.
Indian Theories of Cognition
A striking unity achieved among all Indian theorists is their starting point: they all start with cognition where the meaning of ‘cognition’ stretches from a mere state of awareness to a full understanding that arises out of one’s conscious ways of experiencing something. While Indian theories widely differed among themselves regarding the validity of different cognitive modes, when all of them are put together, they yield the following six possible modes of cognition: perception, inference, word, comparison, presumption andnon-apprehension or absence.
Ex: A display of the Indian modes of cognition
Whatever one can possibly think of or be aware of in this world, whether in the course of an ordinary experience or that of an art experience, it should be covered by one or the other of these cognitive modes, either singly or in various combinations there of. However, we can note here, there doesn’t seem to be a place in the above cognitive list to account for feelings or emotions. It appears that up to a point in Indian thought emotions were seen as a bi-product of thoughts or situations. This position started changing when it was slowly realized that, unlike the conventional modes of cognition where a knowledge, like what a person is seeing or inferring, etc, could be communicated to another person, either verbally or through sign systems, emotions couldn’t be so communicated; it could only be experienced personally. The problem was: how could emotions be conveyed then? The solution given by the Indians were nothing sort of revolutionary. We will examine this aspect as we go along in Bharata’s theory of Naṭyaśāstra, Ānandavardhana’s theory of suggestions and Abhinavagupta’s theory of emotions & memory. The result was that not only emotions came to be treated at par with thought, but eventually came to claim a predominant position in Indian theories of art. However, this change didn’t take away from the fact that all the Indian schools considered perceptual cognition to be an essential precondition to any experience whatsoever. We will then start with the innovative Nyāya and its extremely important reincarnation Navya– Nyāya theory of perception and see how relevant it is today for a modern art-form like cinema.
Navya-Nyāya Theory of Perception
A special characteristic of Indian modes of cognition is that they make a cognizer move from uncertainty of meaning to thecertainty of knowledge by taking her through certain well-defined steps. What this implied is that a cognitive mode has a structure which the Indians thought they could isolate and analyze. According to Navya-Nyāya, the structure of perception is a Qualifier-qualified-relationship where an undefined ‘this’ is qualified by a known ‘that’ through a connecting relationship to make it a ‘this is that’, like ‘this is a table’, etc. What Navya-Nyāya further holds in this connection is that mind is ‘intensional’ in the sense that one always tends to perceive a thing only as a known something. In other words, all our seeing actually tends to be a seeing as which arises only when the minimum unit of perception viz. the structure of qualifier-qualified-relationship is satisfied. Thus, when stimuli from an unknown two-dimensional surface strike us, it would only occur as an unqualified ‘this’ which would carry no perceptual meaning for us whatsoever. However, based on this clue, our mind then races back to find a match from our memory. When the most likely match occurs, the unqualified ‘this’ becomes qualified as a definite ‘that’, generating the meaning ‘this is a table’ for us. As an interesting off-shoot, since for Navya-Nyāya, the minimum structural unit of perception is a qualifier-qualified-relationship where the qualifier is a ‘table’ here, the viewer would actually ‘see’ a 3-dimensional table in front of him rather than only its 2-dimensional surface. In terms of cinema, the novelty of this Navya-Nyāya view lies in the fact that it is not only in our imagination that we construct a 3-dimentional view as is normally thought, but actually ‘see’ it! In the next stage, the ‘table’ then becomes the new unit of perception to be further qualified by another property, say the ‘red’ colour. The table then becomes ‘this is a red table’. The red table can now be further qualified by the ‘flower-vase’ kept on it, making it ‘this is a red table with a flower-vase’, and so on. [Actually the notion of relationship between a qualifier and the qualified is both important and variable in Nyāya; for instance, in the above example, three different kinds of relationship prevail: qualifying it as the table is a self-linking-relationship (svarūp-sambandha), qualifying it as red is one of inherence (samavāya), and qualifying it further by a flower-vase is one of contact (saṃyoga) respectively. A fourth relation is also possible where an absolute identity prevails between the qualifier and the qualified, called the relation of identity or non-difference (tadātmaya or abheda)]. This ever expanding process can be represented by ‘x qualified by y qualified by z’ and so on. It is due to the Navya-Nyāya belief that mind is atomic and hence it can only pay attention to one object at a time. In the context of cinema, this would mean that one cannot possibly pay equal attention to all aspects of a scene simultaneously; a viewer’s perception would only move dyadically to eventually cover the whole scene. As to the route the viewer’s attention would take within the scene would depend on factors like his education, his skill, his mental attitude, etc. In the case of art, for instance, how much one is able to take out of a work would depend on how much he had been exposed to artworks in the past.
An even more important factor in the context of cinema is the fact that Navya-Nyāya permits limitless forging of new meanings by relating almost any qualifier with anything, irrespective of the fact whether they are concrete or imaginary, continuous or discontinuous, etc. Let’s put this Navya-Nyāya theory of perception to test now. In the celebrated montage experiment conducted by the soviet filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov, in the early 1920s, when the expressionless face of the Russian actor, Ivan Mouszhoukhin, was juxtaposed with a bowl of soup, the viewers read its meaning as ‘Mouszhoukhinis hungry’. When the same expressionless face was further juxtaposed with a child playing with a balloon and then with a dead child in the coffin, the viewers read them as ‘Mouszhoukhin is happy’ and ‘Mouszhoukhin is sad’ respectively. While Western thought attributed it to the mind’s power of synthesis, Navya-Nyāya offers a different solution. On the basis of its theory of qualifier-qualified-relationship being the minimum unit of perception, when Mouszhoukhin’s face is qualified by a bowl of soup, the unity which the mind forges between the two would normally generate the meaning‘Mouszhoukhin is hungry’, and so on in the other two cases.
More importantly, however, Navya-Nyāya holds that the meaning of a scene would alter if the qualifier and the qualified exchange their places. This can happen when the mode of presentation is changed. Thus, whether we get the meaning ‘cat is on the mat’ or ‘mat is under the cat’ would depend on the way the scene is presented to us. An example from cinema would be that when the physical point of view alternates in a shot-counter-shot situation, according to Navya-Nyāya, the meaning of the shots would differ even though their objective content remains the same. This leads us to the important conclusion that the physical point of view, which, in cinema, includes the direction of looking, the position and the angle of camera, etc – in short, the very mode of presentation – would now form an integral part of the meaning of the scene as such (Matilal, 1968, 31 -3). Its further implication is that the position of the observer is now fully integrated into the meaning of the scene: the way we are looking at the objective content of a scene would determine its meaning for us!
Ex: Film & Television Institute of India, Pune’s film ‘Understanding Cinema’
Meaning of the objective content of we seeing = “Madhuri is studying”
Madhuri sitting at her study table with a no. of
books stacked in front of her
Normal View from Camera which shows Madhuri = “Madhuri is studying well”
and the stack of books being at par with each other or
“Madhuri is in control of her
Low Angle View from Camera which shows books = “Madhuri is overwhelmed by
being stacked high in front of Madhuri her studies”
This very modern-looking Navya-Nyāya theory of perception can be said to have been summed up by the 18th centuryNavya-Nyāya linguist, Gadadhar Bhattacharya in his ‘two-component theory of meaning’ as follows:
Meaning = Reference + Mode of Presentation
(Objective Content of what we ‘see’) (How we ‘see’ that Content)
Bharata’s theory of dominant emotion or rasa
We have already mentioned that it slowly came to be realized that emotion is personal and that it couldn’t be conveyed to a viewer; this is in contrast to the conventional cognitive modes where knowledge could be conveyed to others either verbally or through some other means of demonstration. In the context of emotions, then, the following specific questions arose:
1. If emotion could only be personally experienced, how then could it be conveyed to
2. Like there is a minimum structural unit of perception in the form of a qualifier-qualified-relationship, is there a minimum structural unit of emotion?
In reply to the first question, Bharata, in his Naṭyaśāstra, holds that certain dominant emotions or sentiments are the legacy of human beings which permanently reside in them. Even though Bharata didn’t speculate on their origin, yet, on the basis of Indian schools of thought, one can speculate that these emotions arise out of the basic instincts of human beings, which according to Indian theories are generally three: the survival instinct, the reproductive or sexual instinct and the acquisitive instinct. Whenever these instincts are furthered or thwarted, certain basic emotions arise. Over time, and by undergoing numerous no. of similar experiences, these emotions have been deposited in human beings as a legacy of their history of existence. Thus, whenever we witness a particular emotion-laden situation, it would be experienced by all of us. This aspect of Bharata’s theory was further developed by Abhinavagupta later on.
As far as the second question is concerned, Bharata gave us a magic formula of a structure which invokes dominant emotions in us. He held that, only when a situation, which is the determinant (vibhāvas) of a dominant emotion, together with all its consequents in the form of the usual external expressions of that emotion (anubhāvas) as well as its minor off-shoots like the transitory emotions (vyabhicāribhāvas), are played out by the characters in front of the audiences, neither the dominant emotion nor any transitory emotions could arise in them. Once such a dominant emotion arises, it, in conjunction with the determinants, consequents and the transitory consequents, would generate rasa in the audience. This is then the minimum unit of emotion given by Bharata which is particularly applicable to artworks. His classic formula for rasa or the dominant emotion is as follows:
Determinants + Consequents + Transitory Consequents ┼ Dominant Emotion = Rasa
(Vibhāvas) (Anubhāvas) (Vyabhicāribhāvas) of the Scene
(Situation) (Expression of (Expression of (Sthāyibhāva)
Dominant Emotion) Transitory Emotions)
Even if, in a particular work, some elements of this formula remain invisible to us, it has to be understood as being played out in the viewer’s mind through his imagination and sensitivity on the basis of its earlier associations in his memory.
Ānandavardhana’s Theory of Suggestion
If, for the moment, we keep the emotional aspect of our experience aside, then, in Indian thought, verbal cognition remains extremely important in the sense that, according to Bhartṛhari, one understands anything at all only on verbalization, while the other Indian schools, even when not going so far, tacitly hold that some form of verbalization invariably follows the basic modes of cognition. While these other Indian theories do not hold a one-to-one correspondence between the verbal and what is being experienced through a particular cognitive mode, some kind of verbal convertibility of a major portion of what one is cognizing is implicit in their theory. In time, this led to the idea that the verbal mode can be used as a model for analyzing the other cognitive modes. It is in this area that Ānandavardhana, a 9th century theoretician from Kashmir, made his seminal contribution.
Let’s see how the model of word contributes to a greater understanding of the cognitive processes as such (Like, in the case of perception, Navya-Nyāya was taken as our authority, similarly, in the case of word, the authority of Mīmāṁsāwas more or less accepted by all Indian schools. The Bhaṭṭa mīmāṁsā school postulates the following function of words:
Primary meaning (abhidhā) – It gives the conventional meaning of words
Secondary meaning (lakṣaṇā) – It gives an indicative meaning in case the primary
meaning is obstructed.
Ex: ‘The village is on the Ganges’ (Gangayam gosaḥ)
Since the primary meaning is obstructed here i.e.
the village can’t be on the river water itself, the
secondary meaning is invoked here viz.
‘The village is on the banks of the Ganges’
Intentional meaning (tātparya) – It gives the meaning which the author had originally
intended in case the above two prove inadequate
Ex: “Fire!” or “Door! Door!”
It has been said by the Bhaṭṭa mīmāṁsā school
that it is the authorial intention which ultimately
binds isolated words into a unified meaningful
What Ānandavardhana does is to postulate a fourth function of the word as follows:
Suggestive meaning (vyanjañā) – What he means by this is the suggestions that arise in
our mind from the sentence as a whole due to our
Ex: In the sentence ‘The village is on the Ganges’, the
suggestion that arises in the mind of the reader is
that of ‘holiness’, ‘serenity’, etc.
However, the important point is that this is a non-paraphrasable suggestion in the sense that it cannot be imputed to any one of the elements in the sentence in an isolated manner. For example, ‘The village is holy’ doesn’t make sense, neither does the Ganges in the sentence ‘There are crocodiles in the Ganges’ has anything holy about it! The suggestion of ‘holiness’ or ‘serenity’ is, therefore, a peculiar entity which literally hangs in the air. Even though, the associations, from which such suggestions are born, is clearly of a cultural nature here, there can equally be suggestions of a personal, psychological, etc, nature or various combinations thereof.
Ānandavardhana, however, takes a big leap forward when he says that it is not only the ‘meaningful’ entities that can generate suggestions, but also the ‘non-meaningful’ entities, like music, etc, do so. For example, according toĀnandavardhana, it is not only a single ‘meaningful’ word which could generate a suggestion, but even a ‘non-meaningful’ phoneme can be suggestive because of its sonorous quality and its emotional associations in the reader’s mind. What these Ānandavardhana ideas do is to enormously broaden the meaning of ‘meaning’ in Indian thought: in contrast to all other cognitive modes which were so far geared towards narrowing down the scope of ‘meaning’ by making a cognizer move from uncertainty to certainty of meaning, Ānandavardhana broadens its scope enormously by taking it into unknown domains.
Henceforth both ‘meaningful’ and ‘non-meaningful’ experiences, including that of emotions, would become part of a larger meaning, with emotions now being placed on the same pedestal as conventional meanings. In other words, something which is quantifiable, like one’s understanding from a scene that ‘X is studying’, and something which cannot be so quantified, like the emotions the scene evokes in a mother, would both qualify for being partners in the formation of meaning of the scene. Ānandavardhana calls it “dhvani” which means resonance where not only the sound source but also its echo becomes part of the meaning. More importantly, a prior conventional understanding of what is happening is not even now necessary for an emotional ‘meaning’ to arise, it being as valid a meaning forĀnandavardhana as any of the other conventional meanings.
To the question, then, what is art, Ānandavardhana’s reply is unequivocal: a work which is predominantly suggestive, with emotive suggestions being pre-eminent among them, is art; in contrast, a work, which has no suggestions to offer in thee sense of its entire meaning being concentrated in the surface only, isn’t art.
This theory of suggestion is enormously important in the context of cinema. While the objective content of a scene continues to be important, there are a huge no. of other elements in a scene which keeps affecting us, like the particular way lighting has been done, the way a particular colour has been used, the use of a particular camera angle, the use of a particular sound or music and so on. While Navya-Nyāya, in its theory of perception, did integrate all these elements as part of the meaning, it failed to account for the suggestive elements that arise from there. These suggestions, which, in cinema, far exceeds any authorial intentions or control because of the plethora of sensations it keeps throwing up, is what is Ānandavardhana’s forte: the meaning of even the objective contents of a scene would ultimately be guided by its suggestive content, including and more prominently its emotional content!
In this context, Ānandavardhana lays down the following hierarchy of suggestions in his theory:
- Vāstu-dhvani – It deals with suggestions of ideas or states of affairs (vāstu)
that predominate a scene.
Despite there being absolutely no obstruction to the primary meaning of a sentence or a scene, if there still occur the suggestion of an idea or a particular state of affairs which overpowers the conventional meaning, then it is a case of vāstu-dhvani.
Ex: Satyajit Ray’s ‘Jalasaghar’ (1958)
When Biswambhar Roy asks his servant in the very first shot of the film
“Eta kon mas re Ananta?”, the primary meaning of the sentence or the scene remains clear. And yet a landed gentry forgetting the name of the month together with the whole melancholic (‘bisannata’) mise-en-scène strongly reeks of the suggestion that time has now come to a stand still for the Zamindar.
- Alaṃkāra-dhvani – It deals with suggestions arising out of the formal aspects of
an artwork which predominate a scene. In Indian thought,
these formal aspects are called the deviant ‘figures’ or forms,
alaṃkāras, and their deviant expressions vakrokti.
Ex: Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Ajantrik’ (1958)
In its station sequence, the extremely unbalanced compositions, the skewed camera angles, etc, together with the fact that the lady who leaves in the train has nowhere to go, her communication with Bimalremaining incomplete and unheard, generates a strong suggestion of unstable characters, the penniless departure of refugees from their homeland, etc.
Ex: Sam Mendese’s ‘Road to Perdition’ (2007)
The gunfight between Tom Hanks and Paul Newman’s gang occurs in slow motion and in complete silence. Naturally, the way we see the scene tells us something much more that what its objective content signifies. The whole mise-en-scène, coloured in blue, suggests extreme destructiveness with the foreboding of an inevitable tragedy. This suggestion is much more overpowering than the mere content of the scene.
Ex: Moinak Biswas & Arjun Gaurisaria’s ‘Sthaniya Sambad’ (2010)
The bulldozing of a slum, which occurs in complete silence, has similarly
powerful suggestions which overpower the mere meaning of the event.
- Rasa-dhvani – It deals with the suggestion of rasa or the dominant emotion i.e.
sentiment which predominates a scene.
Ex: Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘The Mirror’ (1974)
The wooden-fence scene suggests the dominant feeling of desire and
loneliness. The very mise-en-scène, consisting of the colour, the music, the
vast empty field in front, the lonely woman (Margarita Terekhova) sitting
motionless on the wooden fence, the voice-over, then her brief moments of
happiness together with the man (Oleg Yankovsky) who seeks directions,
his departure, and the longing look of woman motionless again, all of these
reek of the highly suggestive sentiment of viraha.
One of Ānandavardhana’s primary achievements has been to transcend the centuries old dichotomy between ‘rational’ thought and ‘irrational’ emotions by bringing them both at par. So far, emotions had primarily been considered as happening only after one has understood a situation i.e. it occurred as a bi-product of thought, with only music being treated as a special case where emotions arose directly. With Ānandavardhana, there was no clear hierarchy between thought and emotions whatsoeverem.
Abhinavagupta’s Theory of Emotions and Memory
Contribution of Abhinavagupta, a 10th century practitioner of Kashmir Śaivism, to Indian aesthetics is perhaps second only to Bharata and Ānandavardhana, on both of whose works he had written elaborate commentaries. However, he cannot simply be taken as a mere commentator since he not only helped establish both their theories on firm footings, but also made a no. of revolutionary innovations in the process. While his innovations are both bold and striking, his contributions, as far as cinema is considered, can be summed up in the following three points:
- The concept of sādhāraṇīkarana or the ‘generalized consciousness’ –
Starting from the question why so many people remain so deeply immersed in artworks despite knowing fully well that they are false, Abhinava agrees with his teacher, Bhaṭṭatauta, and his predecessor theoretician, Bhaṭṭanāyaka, that while experiencing an artwork, the experiential state of the audiences and the players belong to a common fund of experiences that is the legacy of all human beings. These generalized experiences are stored as vāsanās or the incipient capacity of the human beings to be able to love or hate, etc. This ‘general consciousness’ gets invoked when one watches a character go through similar experiences in an artwork which unfolds within a generalized sense of space or time common to the entire audience. In fact, Abhinava goes so far as to say that the entire audience forms ‘an unity of viewing experience’ which makes us immediately aware of and feel disturbed by somebody who is breaking this unity by not paying attention to the play! This generalized experience is different from one’s personal experiences of loving or hating which always unfolds in a concrete space and time peculiar to the individual concerned and to which nobody else has access to.
This bifurcation between personal experience and art experience is a seminal contribution of Abhinava and his predecessors in the field of art: it helps us to answer many perplexing questions like why we feel pleasure even while watching a tragedy!
- The aim of all artworks is to arouse rasa or a ‘generalized emotional
All theories prior to Abhinava, except perhaps that of Ānandavardhana, had thought that play is the cause and rasa or the dominant emotion is its consequence or effect. Abhinava turns this theory completely on its head. He held that the dominant emotions or rasa already exists in the viewers as permanent emotional dispositions or sentiments; an artwork is only there to arouse it. Thus, an artwork, like cinema for instance, is then only a vehicle for the spectator to manifest his emotional proclivity which he has brought to the cinema with him and which he will also take back with him intact, these emotional dispositions being the very ground of his sentimental life. This completely changed the way artworks were viewed and analyzed so far in India. In contrast to the Aristotelian katharsis where emotions were specific products of a particular plot structure, for Abhinava, rasa was already within us which was only needed to be aroused by a particular structure of the play. The problem of this theory was that, an artwork was now seen as a wholly adventitious and entirely external tool to arouse the rasa, with rasa, by no means, being an integral part of the play as such (Gerow, 1977, 264-8).
- Bleeding of emotions into situations, characters or objects in a play –
The most revolutionary innovation of Abhinavagupta, however, lies in the fact that he believed a situation or an object isn’t memorized in isolation but is memorized along with its associated emotional state. Abhinava holds that, in time, the specific situations with concrete individuals and objects in it, might be lost to memory while its emotional content might remain in tact. He quotes with approval a Kalidasa verse which talks about we feeling emotional on seeing a landscape or hearing a particular strain of music without exactly knowing why. His theory then takes us to the possibility that these stored up emotions, whose source can no more be recalled, then bleeds into a new situation whose contours somehow seem familiar to us. Modern research has shown that a memory usually has two components: its representative aspect and its emotional aspect. These researches have also revealed that, over the years, the representational memory can become blurred or even lost altogether, while its emotional memory remains intact. For example, in a recent experiment in the US, it has been seen that a partially brain-damaged person, who didn’t have any memory beyond the date of his accident, recoiled in pain when a Nurse, who had given him a particularly painful injection the previous day, revisited him again the next day (Hogan, 2003, 156 – 8, 181 – 4)!
We thus see that, starting with Bharata, the emotional dimensions of an artwork eventually came to dominate our theories of art. Asking the same question of Abhinavagupta that we had asked Ānandavardhana, what is art, his answer would apparently be as follows:
A work, which is of a predominantly suggestive nature, with emotive suggestions
being pre-eminent among them, and which is capable of invoking a general
emotional consciousness (rasa) among sensitive viewers that is relished by them,
- Gerow, E. (1977). Indian poetics in J. Gonda (Ed.). A history of Indian literature.
Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
- Hogan, P. C. (2003). Cognitive science, literature, and the arts: A guide for humanists. New York: Routledge.
- Matilal, B. M. (1968). The Navya-Nyāya doctrine of negation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.