Recognising Her Work & Legacy
American pioneering art historian Stella Kramrisch (May 29, 1896 – August 31, 1993) had arrived in India in 1922 at the invitation of great Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941). Later, she taught at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan for two years, and at Calcutta University for 26 years. In those years, Kramrisch, in a way, introduced and explained Indian Art and Culture to the Western World, and also how to look at Hinduism. Although organisations that are based out of India have started taking initiatives to mark the centenary of Kramrisch’s arrival in the South Asian country, the majority of Indians have seemingly forgotten her.
In an article, Sukumari Bhattacharya mentioned two incidents… while the Talibans destroyed the statues of Lord Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of central Afghanistan in March 2001, the liberal Hindus destroyed the Babri Mosque in India in December 1992. According to Bhattacharya, although the Talibans destroyed the non-Islamic sculptures in order to stamp the authority of Islamic rule, the reason behind the demolition of Babri Mosque was to take revenge. However, Indian Culture does not encourage disrespect and violence.
In Mahābhārata (one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa), one can find Bhishma saying to Pandava King Yudhishthira that one could take revenge when he fails to follow the path of truth or to show restraint, but such a move could not help him become a religious person. According to Sociologist Mysore Narsimhacharya Srinivas, the main characteristics of Hindu Civilisation are tolerance and diversity. Unfortunately, the majority of Indians forget them. It seems that the people of India have forgotten the essence of Hinduism because of poverty, corruption and the growing social inequality.
As the excellence of human beings is manifested in works of art, destruction of such works means returning to an uncivilised era. It should be the duty of conscious people to condemn the act. Hence, awareness is so important. While the Indians prefer the term spirituality instead of awareness, Kramrisch stressed on clear concepts about art and culture in her writings. She was of the opinion that only art and spirituality can help one feel the depth and generosity of religion. She used to believe that art is a medium of self-realisation. In her publication ‘The Presence of Siva‘, Kramrisch mentioned that what Lord Shiva means by Hinduism is not merely a chronicle of history of art, but a recourse to self-development that encourages one to enjoy life.
Adi Shankaracharya (or First Shankara, 8th Century CE), an Indian Vedic scholar and teacher, had stated that Lord Shiva was the form of knowledge and joy. Kramrisch’s analysis of art made the view of Adi Shankaracharya more accessible to the common people. In ‘The Presence of Siva‘, she mentioned that Lord Shiva – the Supreme Hindu God who creates, protects and transforms the universe – is an integrated concept, and an omnipresent expression of civilisation, culture and tradition. He is a benefactor, as well as a destroyer. Usually, the Hindus believe that God is handsome and compassionate. However, Kramrisch portrayed Lord Shiva as a trouble-shooter and also a trouble-maker (because of his anger). According to the Austria-born art historian, if every sacrifice is made for human welfare, then only the final manifestation of Lord Shiva shall take place.
Kramrisch analysed the works of art of different era… from Harappan Civilisation to Pashupatinath (Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal). In the Harappan seals, a human being, with a lightning-hard body, is seen meditating, as he is surrounded by wild animals, like hippos, tigers, elephants and rhinos. As per Kramrisch’s interpretation, Pashupati is the Supreme Being and the Absolute Ascetic (yogi) form of Lord Shiva. Only Pashupati can keep his mind under complete control.
‘The Presence of Siva’ made an attempt to establish the fact that there is no discrimination in the eyes of Lord Shiva. In other words, the Supreme Hindu God does not believe in gender inequality. Kramrisch described Lord Shiva as a symbol of Androgyne, but not of Bisexuality. As Lord Shiva is extremely masculine and attractive, his wife Parvati (the Hindu Goddess of power, nourishment, harmony, love, marriage, beauty, devotion and motherhood) remains worried. Such doubt or insecurity drags modern marriage to the point of separation. However, he becomes Ardhanarishvara in order to reassure Parvati. It may be noted that Ardhanarishvara is a combination of three Sanskrit words Ardha, Nari and Ishwara, means half, woman and supreme lord, respectively, which when combined means the lord whose half is a woman. Ardhanarishvara is a form of Lord Shiva combined with his consort Parvati, and it is depicted as half-male and half-female, equally split down the middle. The right half is usually the male Shiva, illustrating his traditional attributes.
As per this philosophy, the universe is bound with (social) ethics and the ideal of equality. Lord Shiva acknowledged the paternity of Binayak Ganesha out of infinite respect for women, and helped Parvati in bringing up her son. The ancient Hindu Philosophy projected femininity as nature in the deepest sense, and Lord Shiva protected nature. It can be described as the uniqueness of Hinduism.
According to Kramrisch, Lord Shiva is the reliever of poverty (of the spirit). Crimes take place on the Earth when some deprive, disrespect or ignore others to serve their own vested interests, and crimes give birth to poverty. Here, poverty not only means financial insecurity or dependency, but also the conflict between human dignity and social morality. Hence, Lord Shiva is an abstract, but complete concept in Indian culture that symbolises poverty alleviation, as well as the end of misery. In her publication, Kramrisch highlighted the liberal aspects of Indian culture.
The works of this Austria-born leading specialist on Indian art of the 20th Century, if understood properly, could save liberal India from the danger of today’s Ultra-Hindu Nationalism. The only issue is whether the Indians have lost the ability to accept her narration.
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