Of words and tongues, silence and knowing

Words find you.

A re-reading of a book on yoga pointed me to Ananda Coomaraswamy and from then on it was a cascading into Indian culture and regional literature. I picked up books I had with me for a while and proceeded to get hold of a few more until I was swept away in the sheer volume and brilliance of thought and language. And these are translations in English. It made me want to listen to them in their original, so I found myself listening and watching related works in Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and Hindi. It’s something we take for granted in this country, being conversant in multiple languages. I had never really stopped to consider a proficiency in multiple tongues but that’s something I’ve started to rectify by including more of their flavours in my consumption.

There’s something about regional languages, at once a particular lineage of a family/community tongue as well as a transmission of collective memory of spaces, times, events and associations that come down the ages. A continuum of sounds, unbroken as generations of their vibrations spill from womb to womb until they reach the present individual. I’m reminded of a line from a movie I recently watched, “From the first human hand print on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous”. And as the species evolves, memories associated with words begin to fade away keeping time with the experience of living changes from one that used to be deeply rooted in the rhythm of the natural world to one where we rearrange time and space. Sangam literature, for example, is rich with descriptions of the landscapes of their action but many of the scenes that come alive in their verses are no longer quite the reference for our expressions of emotions and thoughts.

The need for information is greater than knowledge and so we tend to approach meaning directly when an oblique reaching out and patient receiving would perhaps reveal its meaning in a different, multi-dimensional way. I suppose darsanam that is spoken about is probably a result of something similar. It is something I have observed during time on the mat as I settle into shapes of the body and breath and let the mind expand without resisting. Things express themselves, connections make themselves apparent. The meditations on conjunctions in one of the Upanishads provide a valuable clue in how one might approach this way of knowing, a subjective, experiential one as opposed to an objective one. Over time, much of these intuitive sensations and experiences are validated through an objective exploration.

I’ve often wondered how it might be if we lived in a world without language. Our first expression is sound, the wailing as we enter a world of senses. The same Upanishad begins with a reminder about phonetics and progresses from there on. That’s how language begins for all of us- varna, swara, matraa, balam, saam, santaanah. It is through being washed in sound that we learn language. And silence is probably the most eloquent of all languages. It is in silence that we begin to hear, life pulsating within the body, the songs of the breeze as it moves through trees, bird sounds, the music of waves or the stunning quietude of mountains.

Perhaps, I have broken a magical spell by writing here but it felt like a moment to emerge from a cocoon and fly, if only for a day.

A smattering of current reads that decided to come along for a ride.

Cave of forgotten dreams

Saw a brilliant documentary today on the Chauvet Caves in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Discovered in 1994, these are over 32,000 years old and in pristine condition, as fresh as though they were drawn yesterday. They are the oldest known paintings in the world! And all that history lay undisturbed for so long. I was reminded of the time the youngling picked up burnt charcoal pieces from the ashes of the holi fire and sat down to sketch as a 10 year old. The need to create is a primal one, even the Gods are not spared according to myth.

The cave paintings are beautiful, firm of hand, steady, sure. The subject matter is mostly animal life, fauna that would have abounded in the region in that period. I wonder where did they practise to have such steadiness? Proportion, light and shadow, perspective, contours, motion – that takes keen observation, practice. Where did they hone their skill? The pictures are incredibly beautiful. How old or young were the artists? Did they learn from someone or was it spontaneous? What were the thoughts that led to the creation? Did they have a concept of a future far ahead? Did they/he/she think of it as something to be left behind? How did they experience the seeing and the recall of the animals that came to be sketched on the wall with charcoal and red ochre? How would it have been to create in that space? Would the dark and silence have heightened their senses? There are more questions than there can be answers.

Language is beautiful, powerful and elaborate. Yet when it comes to sheer awe, perhaps aural and visual art score a little more. Their eloquence is in their capacity to reach the senses where the immediate responses are less cerebral. Words seem extraneous to the experience of that state of being. And I wonder, what other art did those people indulge in? Did the artist/artists make music, hum in languages we will never know as they painted in those dark spaces? How much time did they spend looking at the walls before the images emerged? How much time did it take to complete? Did they identify themselves as creators of the art in some fashion?

And it makes me question what would our art tell someone 32,000 years from now? Would it inspire the same awe? Would there be a coherence like the ones these paintings seem to exude? In 2020, we are a Babel of art, leaping over a multiplicity of themes, crisscrossing boundaries.

The documentary has men and women from different disciplines, trained in the ways of science but they too sense something beyond the realm of pure science, something at a more primal level. Julien Monney, one of the team present during the movie talks about “A feeling of powerful things, deep things. A way to understand things which is not a direct way.” Clottes speaks about fluidity and permeability and brings in the ideas of transformation, transmigration and the communion between the spirit and the material world. Did those anonymous artists use art as an end or as a means?

There’s the recollection of an Aborigine’s point of view that comes towards the end. The man touches up a decaying painting and a western archaeologist asks him why is he painting over it? And he tells him that he is not painting. It is the hand spirit who is actually painting. And that thought there feels like an echo of what I experience when I write whatever I write. A sense that the words come through me but are not of me.

There are a couple of disjointed scenes like the random introduction of a perfumer and crocodiles which don’t add anything much. It almost feels like the trick question in class that a teacher poses just to see who is paying attention. Post the movie, I spent some time looking at the stunning images. You can find them here 

And couldn’t resist a few lines…

When the ice melts, who

hears its silence as it swells

in a water drop?