The Art of Living
In March of 1550, a minor Florentine painter called Giorgio Vasari published a book called Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a' tempi nostri which is nowadays translated as ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times’. The book was a collection of biographies of artists. In more ways than one, it was a unique intervention in the history of letters and the arts. This came about at a time when there was no formal literary form called a ‘biography’. There were troubadors who sang about gallant knights and heart-broken ladies-in-waiting at courts, poets who etched out detailed characters in epic and minor poems – but the lives of common folk were rarely seen to possess wholesomeness, far less the potential to inspire book-length narrative. Artists, particularly those at the bottom of the social totem pole, were rarely subject to sustained interest. So, when Le Vite was published, suspicion arose that there was more to it than meets the eye. That Le Vite was printed by the ducal printer Lorenzo Torrentino’s offices suggests there was a certain amount of tacit consent by the governing elite that this volume served their non-artistic interests. Faithful to his times, Vasari dedicated the book to Cosimo I de’ Medici, the eponymous ruling dynast, in whose court Vasari had never served till then. (By 1554, however, Vasari was appointed as ‘court painter’ partly, no doubt, on account of the success of Le Vite.) In the centuries to come, Le Vite would be hailed for jumpstarting the field of ‘art history’, for articulating explicitly the idea of the Renaissance and most importantly, for revealing that a great biography can make Prometheus out of mere men.
Five hundred years later the New Yorker’s cultural critic Joan Acocella published a set of biographical essays and titled her collection ‘Twenty Eight Artists and Two Saints‘. It wasn’t merely a nod-and-wink to those who know of Vasari’s influence, but more an effort to dovetail her efforts within a long textual tradition that chronicled lives, provided context, added psychological depth and aided the artists’ own fight against the inevitable obscurity bestowed by time. In a way, however, Vasari himself wasn’t breaking new grounds in so far as the literary-form was concerned. Be it Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or Pliny the Elder’s biographies, or Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, the life-tales of great men had interested the Romans for over 1500 years before Vasari. Le Vite broke new ground, however, by recognizing a special class of individuals it portrayed: the artist. Thanks to the weight of centuries, thanks to Vasari, those popular tales had firmed in popular consciousness as ‘true’ about da Vinci, Titian and most importantly Michelangelo Buonarotti. Consider, in the meanwhile, the relative obscurity that the Ottoman architectural genius Sinan languishes in absence of a formal chronicler. During its time Le Vite was also seen as a shrewd bit of intellectual elbowing by the Florentines to re-appropriate Florence’s greatest son, Michelangelo, as one of its own. (It opens with the lines: “ The benign ruler of heaven ... chose to give to Michelangelo as a homeland Florence, most dignified of cities, so that one of her own citizens might bring to absolute perfection the achievements for which Florence was already justly renowned.”) In the politically fractious Italian Peninsula of the medieval times, Michelangelo had chosen to be the citizen of the papal-state of Rome, created many of his great works there and eventually become a citizen. More importantly, he hadn’t lived in Florence for over 20 years (which coincided with the reign of Cosimo I). If that weren’t enough, Michelangelo had left the Medici Chapel in Florence incompletely done and most emphatically declared in a letter “I shall not come back here again”. ‘Here’ was Florence.
Predictably, when the Florentines began a campaign to claim Michelangelo as one of theirs, disquiet began in earnest. In response to the publication of Le Vite, in July 1553 a Roman acolyte of Michelangelo called Ascanio Condivi published another biography of the great artist titled more plaintively as La Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarotti. In it Condivi claimed authenticity by virtue of having enjoyed the great man’s “love, conversation and close familiarity” none of which Vasari enjoy; and more importantly that Condivi’s biography sought to correct many mistakes made by the Vasari version. By 1564, after the death of Michelangelo, various small accounts of the artists’ lives were published including one called Esequie del Divin Michelagnolo Buonarotti that announced to the world that after twenty-five days of death Michelangelo’s corpse neither smelt nor did his limbs decayed. Such phenomena, announces this tract, “filled everyone with amazement”. Given the extant fever for Michelangelo amongst the reading class, in 1568 Vasari culled pages from his own original book and published an extracted version (what the scholar Lisa Pon says might be the “first example of an offprint”) titled: Vita del gran Michelagnolo. In all of this - from political gamesmanship to sweet smelling corpses - what is in fact amazing is that till 1550, a ‘biography’ of an artist in Europe was non-existent. But by 1552, the literary form went from a rarity to something fashionable that the literary poseurs and pedants read keenly to come up to speed on a particular artist. The biography of an artist, like those of princes and priests, as a form had found intellectual legitimacy. But more so, to the surprise of authors and printers, it found unexpectedly wide popular success.
A consequence of Vasari’s works was the crystallization of the idea that the ‘artist’ is an individual and more specifically, in popular mind, Le Vite aggrandized imagination as the privileged state of being in human affairs. From there on began in earnest the willful cultivation of the artist’s image as an extraordinary individual who prods, investigates, struggles and perhaps breaks free of conventions. Like in case of most intellectual and aesthetic matters in medieval Italy, the precursor to Vasari’s biographies was Dante’s Divine Comedy. In its Purgatorio book we, the reading ‘everyman’, comes across the painter-architect Giotto who is, we are led to believe, as glorious with paint and stone as obviously Dante was with his epic-poetry. With a certain irony, one notes that the elevation of all arts, artistry and artistic leaps as modes for greater self-reflection on the Sublime emerges from the poetries of Dante situated in the bowels of sin. In La Vite, Vasari writes about da Vinci’s quest for perfection in his art (particularly, The Last Supper) and Michelangelo’s efforts to create Judgement Day as immaculately as possible. After incredible tale after tale of artists, it is hard to for a reader to escape the omnipresence of the suggestion that the efforts of these artists wasn’t solely for any art’s sake, but that their canvases and stones were means to seize the elusive finger of God. Artists, like knights headed to Jerusalem, became the emblems of the mythic capacity for creation that all humans contain, but only few are able to realize and sustain. As Vasari’s biography as a narrative form burst into the open, the slow accretion of this sensibility that began with Dante and found its apogee in Michelangelo. If artists like Beethoven, Mozart, Picasso, Callas or Michael Jackson find acceptability in the Western popular culture as singular geniuses, as tortured impresarios, as iconoclasts of an Homeric elan - the long textual tradition following Vasari has conditioned the Western aristocratic patron and bourgeois consumer of the arts to think just as much. Biographies became the acceptable and agreeable way to seize and comprehend this transfiguration of human psyche - via artistic creativity - from the mundane to nearly metaphysical.
Right around the time Vasari published his biographies, the first book (that we know of) was published on Indian soil in 1556. By 1577, writes the scholar A. R. Venkatachalapathy, the first book in Indic script (in Tamil) was published. But biographies of Indian artists were still a long while away. In fact, per the colonial missionary James Long - who went out and bought every book published in Bengal during April 1857 and April 1858, collected data on book industry along the Hubli River and even ventured to estimate the sum total of publications made - his conclusion was stark: India had no meaningful book culture. Per his calculations, the total number of Bengali books published before 1820 was 38, between 1822 and 1826 around 28 books came out. In 1852, possibly the annus mirablis of Indian publishing till date, an unexpectedly large number of 52 books were published. In the year 1857 during the first War of Independence (the ‘Sepoy’ Mutiny), there were 46 presses running in Kolkata alone who published a total of 322 different kinds of printed texts. We learn from the scholar Robert Darnton that by 1869, in the then Northwestern Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal), around 180 newly published books were classified into five genres - “religion, education, poetical, professional, and miscellaneous”. The miscellaneous included “almanacs, astrology, love poetry, and romances” and even an “immoral publication” called Dilbahlan! On 26th August 1875, the Home Department requested the 10 provinces of India to collect data on book publishing in fifteen categories that included a section called “biography”. Strikingly, it was only in 1890, that the the Government of India deemed it necessary to add a 16th category called the “arts”. From Darnton’s research, which compared data between 1878 and 1898, one learns that the total biographies published rose from 0.5% (19 books) to 1% (72 books) of total published. From all of this, it is tempting to conclude that writing biographies, particularly about artists, weren’t a Indian speciality; and the new books that we see in the market these days - be it on the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, on the singer Gauhar Jaan, on the Bharata Natyam dancer V. P. Dhananjayan, a collection of biographies on the lives of Carnatic musicians bythe author V.Sriram, on the Hindustani musician Kumar Gandharva - are all a relatively new interventions in constructing India’s knowledge about itself. One would think these are the ways for a nation in search of modernity to construct its own canons of self-image.
In a limited sense, this may be true and these books merely reflect the larger point the historian Ramachandra Guha made a while back when talking about the challenges of contemporary history: “...it is not just the lives of politicians that historians need to research and write about. Often the history of a society can be illuminated by taking, as one’s entry point, a middle-ranking figure, whose life and work touched both the top and the bottom, the decision-making elite as well as the humble farmer and laborer.” And indeed we are likely to learn about the Partition and sexual violence then from Anis Kidwai’s autobiographical ‘Azadi Ki Chaon Mein’ (In Freedom’s Shadow) just as much, or more so, than police records of the times. No doubt this surfeit of biographies (and some autobiographies) that have made into the English-language publishing market over the past twenty odd years is a reflection of a country that has begun to write of itself, albeit from and for an Anglophiliac economy of knowledge-production. And if modernity is understood to include self-aware criticality, the new generation of biographies make a case for a composite narrative about Indian art-history that saves it from overdeterministic readings. These biographies help escape the tedium of wading through pages on behalf of impersonal aggregates (‘caste’, ‘class struggle‘ etc) or the lures of cultural nationalisms (see Ananda Coomaraswamy). In a sense this emphasis on the individual bodes well for the liberal traditions espoused in the Indian Constitution that holds the individual as the bedrock of society. But this focus on the individual, Guha warns us in another collection called ‘An Anthropologist Among the Marxists’ can lead to what the historian E.H. Carr called ‘the good queen Bess and the bad king Jack theory of history’: an overwhelming reliances on personalities to reduce the more complex linkages and negotiations into manageable bites for the lay audience. This ‘Bollywood’ style history-of-art makes for good press and better receipts but it is hard to tell if the telling of history is served by this approach. No doubt, this reliance on biographically inflected historiography has to do with the opaque accesses to the archives, pressures of the publishing industry and the chaotic state of private papers. And moreover, the dominant narrative of our times has little patience or the zeal to hack away at complications. The ostensible need to arrive at a subsuming unitary narrative has never been higher. Thus, many present-day authors inescapably shadow individuals to cast light on phenomena with complicated origins and uncertain causalities. Thus, in a way, the unspoken rationale goes that if you read Dhananjay Keer’s ‘Ambedkar’, you are likely to understand caste. Or Vasanthi Srinivasan’s biography of Rajaji, you are likely to comprehend a certain kind of ‘conservative’ movements.
Irrespective of such problems these biographies contain, it has long been fashionable to suggest Indians had a weak sense of history. A noted philosophy textbook from 1975 states: “For Hindus, history does not really exist, being maya (enchantment and illusion) and asat (non-eternal and unreal); it is therefore unworthy of much attention when compared with the timeless reality.” And, per this thesis, the early stirrings of modernity was solely due to colonialism and began to take shape in the Bengal Renaissance. Many of such claims are based on identifying modes of self-description that we would recognize as modern in instinct, if not in practice.
But, even this idea of ‘modernity’ that is tied to Indians writing about themselves has a past. And inescapably, this is tied to older iterates of Indian self-awareness. Like the turtle that supports another turtle to prop up the universe - the history of historical consciousness (via biographical narratives) has its own past that contains complications, misreadings and parsing through modes of narration that we no longer recognize as ‘modern’. This past of historical awareness is obscured by time and our inability to interpret accurately. Biographies, particularly the histories of artistic lives, are fraught with fundamental issues of what India has typically considered as ‘history’, ‘fact’, ‘past’ and most importantly what kind of ‘authority’ must one call onto. For most modern historians, claims of transcendence, of knowledge through what the Jainas called ‘kevalin‘ (omniscience) et al are mere anthropological curiosums. They have no standing when the archaeology of knowledge production is underway in the Academy. Many of the narratives about artists have come down in forms that wouldn’t make the cut of what is considered ‘biography’, far less ‘history’, by mainstream Indian publishers and reviewers today. This is not to suggest that that Indians didn’t have a narrative sense of a verifiable past (as the colonials claim to have introduced) but rather, there is a strong case to be made that Indians were capable of juggling a multiplicity of narrative genres about times gone than they are today.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the case of the medieval era where - as the scholars Sanjay Subrahmanyam, David Shulman and Velcheru Narayana Rao show in an insightful book called ‘Textures of Time’. In the Vijayanagara empire, there arose a new class of mid level bureaucrats called the ‘karanams’, who had one foot in the premodern genres of history telling and the other in a factual, here-and-now world of numbers, names, experiences, chronology and causality of events. Much like the great Uruguayan historian-narrator Eduardo Galeano, the karanams didn’t really see “facts” as in opposition to mythical retellings. Even within the world of ‘veritable myths’ are methods of chronicling lives that aren’t factual but often are held as true. It is in this ecology of narrative styles that Indic intuitions about ‘biographies’ lived. The most prominent of these forms of narration, leavened by biographies are the following. The term ‘itihasa’ or what is most commonly translated as ‘history’ is deconstructed by Sanskritists as “thus (iti) indeed (ha) it was (asa)”. That the ancients often classified epics such as the Mahabharata as a itihasa highlights the capaciousness of this genre. There is the ‘aitihya’ which is a compendium of tales that is often originary in instinct, legendary in how its disseminated and local in the domain it seeks to explain. An example of this is the Aitihyamala that chronicles the lives, foolishness and wisdom of Namboodiris of Kerala - where witches, exorcists, the Sun God and real kings of Travancore and Cochin co-exist. There are the ‘puranas’ which often have been pre-medieval stories that have served as imprimaturs for medieval narration. More intimately linked to the land amongst the puranas are the innumerable sthalapurana (in Sanskrit) or talapuranam (in Tamil) that situate the history of medieval temples, biographies of devotees and pilgrimage sites within a metaphysical universe with its own laws of cause and effect. The quest to grant authenticity to a narratives often lead the medievals to rely on older and unimpeachable sources of authority. The ‘kavya’ tradition has also included the poetic retelling of lives lived. The most famous of them is the Kashmiri chronicle of kings called ‘Rajatarangini’. And lesser known, but arguably influential in the Carnatic tradition, is ‘Sri Krishna Lila Tarangini’ by Narayana Teertha who was the father of Thyagaraja’s music teacher. Within the ‘Dravidian’ canon, there are ‘meyykeerthi’, laudatory poems about the persons concerned that are often epistolary in nature. In the Tamil country there is the tradition of ‘pillai tamil’ - poetry that takes the form of mother describing her child, who is described as an ‘extraordinary’ being who traverses through the history of the land. The subjects of the ‘pillai tamil’ span from Chola kings to, more recently, baby Jesus! Spread across central and southern India is the tradition of ‘prabandha’, a collation of tales. This was popular amongst the ‘atheist’ Jains in Gujarat who had a prose collection called Prabhandacintamani; as well among the early-medieval Vaishnavites in the Kaveri delta who worshipped and sang the 4000 Tamil verses called Naalaayira Divya Prabhandham. And finally, closest to our modern understanding of a biography is the mode called ‘caritram’ which is a retelling of a life or an episode. On one end, per Rao et al, the 7th century Sanskrit text Harsha-carita, the Life of Harshavardhana of Kannauj, is the closest ancestor to a modern idea of a biography; while on the other end is another kind of matter-of-fact verse form by Thyagaraja called ‘Nauka Charitram‘ - an episode of Krishna and the gopis in a boat on the Yamuna (an imagery that is, arguably, borrowed from Bengali or Braj into the south Indian canon).
Many such narrative genres coalesce into a ‘modern’ biography’ where the underlying imperatives of narrating a life must straddle many worlds. Artists who drew or sang bhajans or kirtans had to fit within a historical need of the hour - be it as bhakti-laden composers who sang against the defeatism after the early colonial encounter, or in their later iterates as Hindu, caste icons who were of use in the nationalist struggle or community-based identity formations. Nowhere do we see more vividly these transformations than in the successive iterates of how the life-story of Thyagaraja, the most influential Carnatic music composer, was told over the centuries. The earliest of the two biographies of Thyagaraja were by a father and son pair, Venkataramana and Krishnaswami Bhagavathar, some time after the death of the musician in 1847. Over and beyond ‘modern’ details like dates, ancestors and places; non-factual incidents like the ‘fact’ that baby Thyagaraja stopped suckling his mother whensoever music played or that the musician was possibly an incarnate of Siva, Narada and/or Valmiki are taken for granted. By 1904, a musician Subbarama Diksitar put together a compendium of compositions and brief biographies called Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. In it, further stories about Thyagaraja’s life meld into folk themes and narratives from times before ThyagarajaBy the late 19th century, when the Harikatha tradition begins to prefigure in public consciousness, the lives of Thyagaraja assimilate more stories. In a book called Sadguru Thyagarajaswami Kirtanalu by the Narasimha Bhagavathar, from 1908, Thyagaraja has theopanic visions of the Lord Sri Venketaswara of Tirupati, revives the dead by singing songs, lights lamps by singing the Raga Jyotiswaroopini and so on. The quiet but willful introduction of factually indiscernible but, to many, self-evident truths slowly begin to make the great Smartha Brahmin composer of Telugu origins in Tamil country into a near saint who now decorates the chambers of every Carnatic music sabha. By 1941, when a Sanskrit biography of Thyagaraja is written - the composer’s life (undoubtedly marked by an extraordinary devotion to Sri Rama) is seen as a natural sequel to the Ramayana itself. By the 1980s, in the Doordarshan’s retelling of Thyagaraja’s life - the State’s television wing dutifully portrayed his life as matter-of-fact incidents that only further attest to the halo around the divinity of the composer. In the 2000s, when popular Harikatha performers like Visakha Hari (an all-India rank-holder in chartered accounting) sing and narrate the lives of Thyagaraja - where the exact boundaries of an actual lived life, where folk memory, where collective intuitions about the sacerdotal, where the individual’s longing for the transcendent seep in are hard to say. What however is clear is that such extraordinary lives - ones filled with ideas of purity and Transcendence - become templates into which modern artists of classical music and dance (and their biographers) genuflect to, reconcile with and sometimes mimic.
It is in wake of such incredible coming together of individual talents, social phenomena and ocean-sized reservoir of cultural memory that modern day biographers of Indian artists have to narrate the tales of their subjects. Unlike Western biographers of the arts, the Indian biographer needs to actively engage on their own terms to cull, to critique, to redact traditional narratives that inform the arts.
Is one merely a custodian of received techniques and self-images? What does being innovative mean? How has tradition itself evolved over time? Has the individual fossilized under the pressures of social expectations or has he struggled to unconceal a certain kind of artistic truth that defies description and history but can only experienced by intuition and emotion? A biographer who merely is chronicler of life-facts, gossip and prosaic challenges of being alive may end up writing a bestseller, but ultimately tells us little about the person behind the persona. And by writing, without a relentless critical but a compassionate eye, a biographer traduced into a glorified stenographer of received wisdom and popular mania. The great Martin Heidegger writes about two kinds of properties that ancient Greeks thought mark any object. One called to hupokeimenon, that which is contained at the core, the essence of a phenomena or person without which it ceases to exist. The other called ta sumbebekota which are characteristics that accrete along the way, which make it recognizable to others. A good biographer, in a way, is not just one who begins to outline the characteristics or context but guides the reader, holds hands, pauses, like a good guide distracts with a story or two, all in hope of getting to the essence of the subject. To do so however, as a cultural product that is also critically engaged, we have to abandon our sense of awe towards a guru, our love for a great artist and fondness for the human being we see - and instead press on to recreate a life that is ultimately complex, contradictory, carnal and creative. A good biography, then, has only one dharma: to reclaim the human.