Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Elemental Place

The Elemental Place

Some reflections of an Indian
artist traveling between continents.

It was quite a culture shock. I had flown directly from Bangalore’s newly constructed
International Airport, to Berlin via Frankfurt. I had come to attend an artist’s “Pleine air “ to commemorate the 750th anniversary of a Cistercian monastery at a place called Chorin, an hour’s drive from the city centre of Berlin, in the direction of the Polish border. This was a centre of the ancient principality of Brandenburg. Here the Ascasian Margraves of Brandenburg, had their burial place. Earlier, this area, known as the ‘Marches of Brandenburg’, had been settled by Slavonic tribes. When the Cistercian monks came to develop this part of the land, there had already existed an older Church and castle near to the small lake called Amts See. The new monastic foundation was established in 1258. The Monastery probably rose up on the earlier ruins created by tribal conflicts between Arcanians, Pomeranians, and Danes at the turn of the 12th Century.

Passing through the villages and neighboring town of Eberswalde one has a sense that here was one of the frontiers of a Christian culture reaching towards the North, about a thousand years ago. Those were unsettled times when wandering tribes off the steppes of Russia were moving South towards Europe, and the warmer climes of the Mediterranean. The process was one of transformation of nature, being humanized by culture

Here, in the northern reaches of Europe, the landscape had changed as the ice melted. These gently undulating planes, with pockets of water left over from the ice age, form an inter linking pattern of inland lakes, around which were thick forests. A new energy of light and warmth was already in the process of changing nature into a biosphere fed by waters that now offered a hospitable environment for vegetation and animal habitation. The waters of the melting ice had over centuries broken down primordial rock formations, creating a rich loam of clay and water. Deposits of sand, gravel and lime also provided the basic natural ingredients for building new settlements, constructed in clearings made by nomadic tribes in the primeval forest. But for this to be possible, yet another elemental energy had also to be harnessed—the transforming power of fire

Fire is an ambivalent source of life, being both creative and also destructive. One third of the ancient hymns of the Vedas are dedicated to the Lord of Fire, the god known as Agni. It is with the help of fire that clearings in the forest could be made by early settlers. But not only did fire work to create a space for human habitation, it also gave the technology for transforming the earth. A Bronze Age gave place to an iron culture that now had the technological skills to smelt iron from the bedrock, and so forge implements that could be used both for agriculture, and war. Weapons could be manufactured which seemed to have an almost magical power, and it is this technology that feeds myths about heroes who were men at arms

It is this culture of conflict with the dark forces of the forest that gives rise to a rich symbolic world that the early monks built into the very structure of their new places of worship. We find images of the struggle against mysterious monsters of the primeval vegetation, in the form of dragons. Nature is not only seen as something to fight against, as indicated by the intricate patterns of leaf forms that are carefully observed, and brackets that support stem like pillars which remind us of the shape of a chalice, with knotted interlacing patterns that are thought to represent eternity

Myth and the landscape.

As an artist I have been interested in the way that myths have arisen out of a particular landscape. About 25 years ago, I began to make a particular study of folk and tribal myths in India. I found that these myths spoke to my imagination, and opened up a whole inner world of my own psyche.1 I have been particularly fascinated by the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung, who suggested that myths, which form the basis for religious symbols across the world, are in fact profoundly human. In that sense myths are universal, or what he termed archetypal, because people all over the world use the imagination to understand reality. The way they make meaning out of their geographic and political reality follows patterns that are common to all human beings. So, even though myths express very local concerns, and memories, they also reach out to speak a universal language that can be meaningful in very different human conditions

The work I did on the tribal myths of Chotanagpur, for example, seemed to have a wider application than could be explained simply by understanding how these legends had arisen out of a particular community, rooted in a very specific locality. One of the reasons, I felt, for this was the way in which myths articulate the relationship between culture and nature, between human life styles, and the materials that are readily available in the local landscape. The elemental materials with which human cultures work, are local realities, but also universal in that they provide the basis for all cultures. This interplay between the local and the universal is an age-old question that applies to the diversity not only that we find in nature, but also in cultures.
Every culture is unique, and yet every culture interacts with other cultures, and is enriched by the cultures of people who live far away.

I was surprised to note the way that art forms, and the mythic world view that underlie all cultures in India, have aroused a deep interest among artists in Europe. Reversibly, Indian artists have also been inspired by western movements in art. I myself have, since the time when I studied art in London, been fascinated by the way that ‘expressionist’ artists in Europe used symbols and myths to explore the inner
world of the psyche. The very fact that I had traveled so far to participate in this workshop with artists in a distant part of Europe, showed that art can be a form of communication, of learning and also sharing what shapes the inner world of the imagination in every human being.

Ruins and the Landscape as Memory.

Out of the ruins of an earlier age, the monks were able to found a new synthesis of subconscious myth, and knowledge as to how nature could be transformed into a fruitful culture. The monastic garden contained healing herbs that the monks
gathered from the rich diversity of the local vegetation, representing these herbs in the decoration of the Church to symbolize the healing power of the Mother Mary to whom every Cistercian monastery is dedicated

The ready availability of a plentiful supply of wood, which was cut down to enable agriculture to be established, fueled fires in which not only metal was extracted fromthe stone. Furnaces also burnt the clay bricks, providing a building material that the local basalt rock could not provide, being difficult to shape. Cistercian architecture had developed in France, where sand-stones were readily available, allowing craftspeople to make the light traceries which could both soar to great heights, but also allow light into the interior space of the Church nave. But here in the northern part of Germany, the monks had to rely on another material---brick. And so a distinctive style of early Gothic architecture can be found here which is made from carefully molded, and cut brickwork.

The monastic impulse converts not only nature, but also the concept of the warlike hero into another type of brave conflict—now no longer directed against an outer enemy, but inwards as a form of asceticism. Human nature is molded and transformed, as much as the materials that are found outside in the landscape.

This process of internalizing a cultural process was also very important in India, where Kshatriya clans evolved the concept of the ‘renouncer’ or Sanyassi, who represented a new form of heroic ideal. Buddha, for example, came from the same fighter clans who used outer weapons to establish their political power. But in the figure of the sage or monk, an outer mission was now turned inwards, to achieve a new kind of consciousness through yogic meditation. The Cistercian understanding of the ancient monastic motto “Ora et Labora” (Work as Prayer) was understood as a commitment to manual labour in the fields combined with intellectual effort in the scriptorium where manuscripts were copied, and a new form of learning brought to the unlettered populace.

The Myth of theIron Smelters.

The ancient myth of the Iron Smelters, or Lohar Kahani, probably goes back to the Axial age, when Buddha wandered in the forests near to the Damodar river, where ancient tribes also practiced iron smelting. Some ancient sites where iron works have been found, seem to belong to around the fourth to second centuries before our common era. According to legend, the peoples who developed this form of technology, were also responsible for the mysterious steel column that we have near Kuthubh Minar in Delhi. Some even suggest that the chariot wheels and weapons used by warring tribes as described in the Indian Epic of the Mahabharatha, were fashioned by the same tribes of the Indo-Gangetic planes that become expert in iron technology. It is in this same region of what is now called “Jharkhand”, that the Tata Iron and Steel Company began large scale modern iron industries.

Exploring this mythic world of ancient “Adivasi” communities, I was very much struck by the symbols that I found in this myth, which I felt related to the role of the Iron Smith that we find in many cultures. This figure of the Smith is closely associated with a Shamanistic tradition, where the primal technology of obtaining metal from elemental rock, was seen as an alchemical process, that could be also understood in psychic terms. In the Arthurian legends we hear of magical weapons that are found by the hero embedded in rock, from which it is the task of the chosen knight to draw a magic sword. This act of releasing the steel weapon from its rock case, becomes a metaphor for an inner process of finding the psychic power to change natural
substance into a cultural tool.

In the series of paintings that I worked on in the late eighties I tried to interpret the pre-historic myth in the light of an emerging concern about what industry was doing to the natural environment, and how this could be interpreted today as referring to ecological issues. Of course when these myths about the iron age (kali-yuga in Indian mythic terminology) people did not know about ecology. But essentially what the myth addresses is the relation between human work and industry to the rhythms of nature. In many cultures all around the world, iron is considered to be a dangerous or in-auspicious metal. Those who work with iron, creating not only the tools that were to play a vital part in agriculture, but also the weapons that were used to fell trees, and fight wars, were both regarded with fear as magicians, and dismay as the harbingers of a new dark age.

Work: Technology and the Creative Arts.

One could perhaps trace back the link between this work of transforming natural resources to create a whole civilization, to the kind work that early monastic foundations accomplished in the late middle ages. Perhaps one could find a connection between what became an important stride in the founding of our modern world, and a spiritual or psychological search for the transformation of nature into culture. What has been called the Axial Age, was also the age in which the different Metacosmic belief systems crystallized, whether in Greece, the middle East, the Indian subcontinent, or China. One could, perhaps trace a cultural trajectory that at first saw nature and its primal forces as manifestations of a Divine Presence in the elemental world that we perceive with our senses, to a later belief that the Creator exists beyond creation.

When the monks settled in Chorin, they wanted to follow the new artistic and architectural principles that were proposed by their founder-monks in Citeaux—particularly the ideas formulated by Bernard of Clairvaux. The new cultural awakening in Europe, which was heralded by the mystical and practical vision of thinkers like St. Bernard, was able to bring together various spiritual impulses coming both from the East and the West. What were the monks trying to do? The spiritual vision behind the dictum “ora et labora” (human physical labour can be a form of prayer), was that manual work which has the capacity to transform the natural environment, can also inform a deep spiritual awakening. This was also an insight that Gandhi believed in: work is not just something degrading, being a purely physical activity, but is also a way of initiating a deep spiritual transformation. “Ora” understood as “prayer” could be related to the Indian concept of “Sadhana”. Work is a spiritual path, if it is undertaken not out of personal egotistical greed, or desire to conquer either human beings, or nature, but is a way of working with creatures, towards a common goal. This was the approach to “karma” or action that we find outlined as a Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. It is this approach to art as hand-work, and not only intellectual or conceptual imagining, that has been the basis for an Indian approach to the various crafts and performing arts, like dance, music or

In a way the making of an artifact is like a process of alchemy. In his book on “Sadhana”, Tagore describes a work that goes beyond human effort, and is in harmony with the cosmic work of creation. This was his way of seeing the artist as a Vishwa Karmi, or one who continues the work of the Divine Craftsperson, the architect of the whole universe.

The Cistercian monks who settled down at Chorin were faced with many practical tasks Bernard of Clairvaux had wanted his monks not to live on hilltops, but rather in valleys. They should be close to water, and should work with the energy that lies latent in flowing water. Here in this region, the rocks that are found scattered on the ground are lumps of granite, broken up by the receding ice cap that had come from the north across Sweden and Denmark. These rocks could be used for foundations, but were not suitable for the fine intricate structures that now characterized Gothic architecture. For this a ore malleable material had to be obtained. So the peculiar nature of this northern early Gothic building work is that it is made from fired bricks. The monks made the bricks themselves from the local clay that they formed in special
wooden moulds. Then, as wood was plentiful in this forested country, kilns were constructed in the fields to fire the bricks.

The construction of the bricks for building involved all four elements. Water mixed with the clay of earth would be dried in the open air, and then fired. Fire transforms the earth into a new compound, which is now water resistant—a vessel that can contain water and air. But ultimately the inner spiritual purpose of the building is to act as a vessel for light. The outer form embodies this inner light. This is the essential mystery that the vessel of the Church is meant to incorporate.

Work with clay and the process of forming a place in which light can be enshrined is the essential purpose of culture. The built form is not understood only in terms of walls, but rather in relation to the spaces that the walls contain.2 The Gothic form of architecture is characterized by its use of windows, but also niches that help to lighten the structure of the wall, and allow for openings where light can give life to matter. The niche is used as a place where a lamp can be placed, and is in this sense an extension of the lamp itself, offering a protective holder for the flame.3 It has the character of a hearth, which is the oldest feature of the inhabited human dwelling place. At night a few of us went into the vast empty space of the uninhabited nave of the ruined Church. There we sat in the darkness and allowed the luminous stillness of the night sky to penetrate the dark interior of the empty nave, through the tall windows. Then a small candle was lit and placed in a niche. The shadows that this small flame cast in the rib-like cage of the dark flutedcolumns of the Gothic building, gave a new perspective to its massive form. We realized that the built structure was enlivened not only by the light, but by the shadows cast by its many surfaces.

The construction of such a work represents, I believe the creation of a social and individual sense of self-identity. What is being built is not just a place to live, and pray, but an experience of the Presence: individual, communal and also cosmic. The Self finds its being by embodying the Being of a Divine Presence in the natural environment. The building becomes a living form in which to be, and communicate with a spiritual reality incarnated and sacramentalized in this geo-political and historical context.

As an artist coming from the Indian context, and also involved in the creation of ceramic works, I was particularly interested to understand the significance of this brick constructed early Gothic style, in which ceramic work has played a defining role.

Creation myths and the elemental

All over the world we find myths that relate how the first human beings were made out of clay. Adam was created by God out of the red clay, and when Cain murdered Abel, it was the earth that received the body of the slain brother, and cried out for justice. In the tribal traditions of Chotanagpur, we also hear of the human couple formed out of clay and left to dry in the sun. But in this myth, we are told that to begin with the horse of the Creator, called Hamsraj Pankraj, trampled over the first clay creatures, destroying them with its hooves. The horse, or Aswa, has been related to the wild, and often fierce forces of the cosmos, Viswa. The taming of the horse,
and later the tradition of horse sacrifices, seems to relate at a psychic level, to the harnessing of these elemental energies, by human culture.

The work of art helps human beings to come to terms with those elemental forces that lie hidden in the psyche. We are very conscious of the destructive forms in nature. There are floods, storms, and earthquakes that destroy life. But these very manifestations of change in nature, also determine the way in which the landscape has been shaped by shifting structures of the earth’s body. Climatic changes are not only seasonal, but effect the way we are conscious of our environment, linking the individual to great cycles of time which have formed our landscape, like the ice age. It has been pointed out that these great forces of transformation that have changed the very chemistry of our planet earth, have also given us the raw materials on which culture depends. It is these cycles that have created deposits of fossil fuels, have brought about concentrations of metallic elements in the rocks, which have influenced our technologies. Movements on the earth’s surface have crushed together materials giving rise to the very clay, sand, and soil that is the basis for agriculture, providing also our building materials. Without these cosmic changes, culture could never have even begun.

Jyoti Sahi. Art Ashram, Dec. 2008

Cf: “The Child and the Serpent: Reflections on Popular Indian Symbols” by Jyoti Sahi. 198

Cf The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu:

Clay is molded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies. Cut out doors and windows to make a room, but it is in the spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies. (11 or 55)

Cf The Sura of Light in the Holy Koran:

God is the light of the heavens nd the earth. The likeness of His Light is a niche werein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is like a brilliant star lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost give light though no fire touched it. Light upon

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