Hegemony And Hindu Dharma In the West Indies – Part 8

Hegemony And Hindu Aesthetics  

It is not mere fortuity that almost every theorist in the Social Sciences has, at some point, put in her/his two cents worth on aesthetics. It has been asserted that the discourse on aesthetics takes center stage because in our increasingly atomized and technicized world, art and the aesthetic impulse still speak of the human and concrete. While this undoubtedly may be true, I would like to propose that they are de rigueur more so because they touch on so many of the core concerns that we share today: freedom and censorship, spontaneity, autonomy, self determination and so on. It is also because of these nexuses that aesthetics becomes a key mediator vehicle in the struggle for and against Hegemonisation in our society.

Aesthetics is more than music, dance, painting and feeling “good”. The hegemony recognized, more often than not, that it is the artist who pierces the miasma of their cultural prisons. He is the person who will not confirm to the “proper” standards; who will experiment with alternative lifestyles. He becomes a messenger of possibilities of change in all levels and phases of society, for they are all connected. The hegemony then, always, tries to control the art and aesthetics of the dominated. We have belabored the point that Creole culture was imposed on the African slaves and ex-slaves to subjugate them. It is because Creole culture still dominates and, in the main, still has its built in prejudices against other liberating world views – be they African, Bharatiya or Amerindian, that we must examine the roots of its art and aesthetics.


As we wrote earlier, the Colonial integral state introduced the cultural hegemony of Creole culture to inculcate the reflex of servility, acquiescence and docility by controlling, among other things, the habits, attitudes, feelings and affects of the dominated. In short, POWER WAS AESTHETICISED, and force transformed into authority. The house slave who imitated the conspicuous consumption habits of the master was “cultured”. Never mind that then, or later, this habit guaranteed his perpetual impoverishment since he never had slaves to do his work for him. In the historical period during which this process occurred, the growth of capitalism permitted, and in fact determined, co modification of the art.

Aesthetics and artistic expression were defined as free floating and ethereal, cut off from morality, ethics etc. The “cultured” Creole could agonize over the cruel fate of Spartacus let’s say, but mock the end of Cuffy. The only function of arts and aesthetic was to relieve the tensions, tedium and ennui in the lives of the rulers and their sycophants. This western/Creole was, and remains, embedded within the empiricist premises of Newtonian physics and Euclidian geometry. But more apposite, it was heavily influenced by the Absolutism of the era. The hegemony refused to concede control over even this one area – sensation – which the aesthetic regarded and contemplated. He decreed that while the aesthetic shared in his vaunted, “perfect” reason, it did so in a lesser manner, needing a different, inferior logic and discourse. Reason, after all, would deal with the greater heights of abstraction and “reality”… away from the particulars of aesthetics.

Hindu Aesthetic  

Hindu aesthetics, on the other hand, obviously had a different history. It was associated from the beginning with the quest to discover the underlying reality behind the veil of maya. It became one of the primary vehicles for transmitting the truths directly apprehended by the Rishis. Hindu aesthetics, then, has a different ontological premise from that of the West/Creole. It is predicated on the intuition of an order, which transcends and subsumes reason, Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics. Quantum Physics is beginning to suggest a glimpse of his view and it has percolated somewhat into some areas of Western art. Ossified Creole culture, however, appears to be completely oblivious to it. This transcendent order, which is simultaneously, if paradoxically immanent, is directly apprehended by individuals in yogic induced states of higher consciousness. The task of the artist is to convey to the senses and sensibilities of the observer (which is all most of us have) an intimation of this deeper reality. The artist does the best he can to evoke a feeling, an emotion, a mood or BHAVA, of this ultimate vision.

In Hindu aesthetics the world is not seen as perfect in its perceived “natural” state. It is man’s duty to reveal or uncover what I will define as the IMPLICATE ORDER in the cosmos, of which man must most pertinently include himself. His duty is “Krivanto Vishwam Aryam” (to make the world noble). In Hindu aesthetics, there is nothing ideal about “raw” nature either in its human or non- human aspects. Rather his art seeks to act as a prism, from which the light of his vision emerges, and we get a glimpse of its “true” colors. Hindu art portrays an idealized world, one that is heavily embellished to suggest the universality in the particulars. The West and Creole critics label it overdone, ornate and overwrought. We have no “naturalized” landscapes or “still-life” in classical Hindu art.

The Caribbean experience  

In the Caribbean the Anglo-Indian [Indo-Saxon if you rather] culture also imbibed the aesthetic values of the hegemony. For instance, in architecture there is not a single mandir in Guyana, which is built on the lines of Hindu aesthetics. The latter suggests that a mandir, in being a place for man to worship the Supreme, should either macrocosmically imitate his/her divine abode (like Mt. Kailash) or, microcosmically, represent the sheaths of the human persona, in the center of which is the “garba griha” – the abode of Brahman/atman. Many of our Guyanese structures even imitate Christian churches.

The Hindu fine art tradition was completely decapitated in Guyana – poetry, classical singing, theatre, sculpture etc. The multi-sensuous Hindu aesthetic experience, which transports one towards the real, is almost never presented in Guyana. Those aspects of Hindu aesthetics, which survived within the practices and customs of the folk tradition…even these are now in their death gasp. Notably, the present “Indian” singing is nothing more than a crass, commercial imitation of the already Westernized Indian film industry or its Creole variant. The Caribbean is certainly not creative existence.

The Hindu aesthetic sensibility peeks through, however, in often unconscious ways, the obsessive desire to own his own house, and his just as obsessive behaviour to transform his surroundings into a thing of beauty and order, is but an expression of the Hindu aesthetic stricture to bring out the best in nature. The Naipaulian detestation and fear of the encroaching “bush” and the compulsion of Mr. Biswas for a “House” springs from this strand of order vs. disorder. However, more often, the surviving expressions are bastardized forms – forms bereft of any symbolic content that is apparent to its practitioners.

We have belabored the point that the African successors to the British rulers retained the denigration of all things Hindu – including its aesthetic. They recognized that it is most often the artist who can pierce the form and so suggest alternate lifestyles. Once this journey begins, the hegemony knows that its days are numbered because no one consciously commits cultural suicide.

Of late there has been a recognition by some that the Caribbean aesthetic has to be re-examined. Last year I participated in the symposia component of Carifesta V. The title of the Symposia was “The Caribbean Drama: Towards a New Aesthetic.” As a Caribbean person I was heartened by even the cursory recognition of the aesthetic problem and a cognisance of the different aesthetic approaches taken by African and Bharatiya cultures. As a Caribbean person of Bharatiya descent, however, I was perturbed by the perpetuation of the peripheralization of the Hindu Aesthetic viewpoint. For example the T&T government decided to allocate the various events all over the country. Yet it ignored the (Hindu) Ram Lila folk presentations, held during Carifesta, which went back unbroken for over a hundred years in Trinidad. There were countless other examples – from the picture of Rudder which greeted me at the airport to the (now infamous) pictures which greeted me at the National Stadium. The danger is that in the re-examination of Creole culture, in which the white bias may be objectionable, an African bias may required to be substituted by those who now control the levers of cultural power. What is the place for Hindu in the aesthetic et al?

(To be continued….other parts of this series – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

About the Author

Ravi Dev
Shri Ravi Dev is the Sanghachalak of Hindu Swamyamsevak Sangh (Guyana). He has been a Hindu activist for the past 27 years in Guyana, after 21 years in New York where he was a corporate executive and a member of the New York Bar.