Understanding nuances of world cinema through 10th century Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta

A new book that unravels the nuances of world cinema harkens back to the 10th century philosopher Abhinavagupta (924-1020), a highly revered Kashmiri Shaiva master, as it pays tribute to his commentary on the “Natyasastra” (an ancient treatise on dramaturgy) and the concepts of “Rasa Siddhanta” (theory of aesthetic experience) and “purusartha” (life-pursuits).

“Abhinavagupta was a great scholar who had meticulously developed Kashmir Shaivism school of non-dualistic philosophy dealing with epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics with an unbelievable coherence. Sadly, we have given up on understanding our heritage to western scholars who try to understand Tantra, Indian Epistemology, and complicated metaphysical aspects of Indian classical philosophy,” author Prachand Praveer, a B. Tech in Chemical Engineering from IIT-Delhi, told IANS in an interview of his book “Cinema Through Rasa – A Tryst with Masterpieces in the Light of Rasa Siddhanta” (DK Printworld).

“This book uses the Indian Classical Aesthetics framework for introducing the major cinematic works. Abhinavagupta in his commentary ‘Abhinavabharati’ links Purushartha (the cultural value system) to four basic sentiments. Now, the nature of sentiments and idea of transcendental pleasure of viewing an artwork should be understood carefully.

“The major cinematic works point out to the universal dilemma mankind encounters such as the idea of truth, freedom, value comprehension in some novel way. Since cinema is a recently developed art, we can comprehend artworks in the light of some philosophical system. Kashmir Shaivism is a highly developed philosophical system which is built on the great debate of Buddhism vs Sanatana, dualistic v/s non-dualistic traditions.

“Incidentally, Kashmir Shaivism is also a recent discovery for contemporary Indian philosophical contemplation in early 20th century as much of the texts were either lost or forgotten,” Praveer said of the book, which is an English translation of the Hindi original, “Abhinava Cinema”, an introduction to World Cinema as per the “Rasa” theory of Indian classical aesthetics, that was published in 2016. It has been translated by Geeta Mirji Narayan. Apart from “Abhinav Cinema” she has also edited three other published works of Praveer: “Bhootnath meets Bhairavi” (2017), “Uttarayana” (2019), and Dakshinayana” (2019). She has also edited many of his short stories and articles which have been published in Hindi e-magazines and web-magazines.

Praveer also lamented that Indians were “largely ignorant of our traditions as well as the achievements of many great scholars. Kashmir scholars such as Anandvardhan, was the founder of the dhvani school of poetics, great philosophers such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta, and other important scholars of poetics such as Kshemendra and Mammata are often quoted in philosophical and literary criticism discourses. Sadly, much of their scholarly work is only discussed in Sanskrit departments and not in the Hindi departments or any contemporary literature discourse”.

To this end, the book catalogues the world’s major cinematic works in the light of the “Abhinavabharati” and outlines the links between “purusartha”, the cultural value system of life pursuits in Indian tradition, and aesthetics while citing examples from the works of major directors such as Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Carl Dreyer, Charles Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Bresson, Satyajit Ray.

The meaning of the book is summarized by the verse — “na hi rasaad rite kashchid arthah pravartate” — the medium of cinema should be seen as resting in the power of “rasa” without which nothing makes any sense, its essence being that we should have an open mind and curious attitude to understand and relish beauty which is not mutually exclusive of reality.

“In a way, our comprehension is built on how we perceive knowledge, what we think of emotions, what we consider right and wrong and why we do so. Artworks, especially drama and now cinema, force us to reflect on important matters in a way that is classically called as endearing persuasion,” Praveer explained.

How did he come to be interested in this subject and how did this book come about?

When he started college, he realised that although he was equipped with the system-oriented curriculum, he did not have a very rounded or holistic education. There were a lot of people like him who knew much more than just History, Geography, Mathematics or Physics and he did have an affinity to films, but that was limited to Hindi films.

“Cinema is not taught in school; it has to be learnt by oneself. I owe this love for cinema or let me say world cinema to some of my friends and teachers in IIT. My journey to learn started with watching ‘Ladri di Biciclette’ (Bicycle Thieves), a masterpiece by Vittorio di Sica. Later, after watching many classics, I realised that there should be an introductory book for cinema studies.

“Typically, all introductions have some framework. I used the Indian classical framework for which I developed an interest in the philosophy courses I took during my undergraduate studies. Hence the book,” Praveer elaborated.

Considerable research went into the writing of the book.

“Primarily, much of the content including the choice of cinematic works and names of important directors has been guided by my teachers and friends at IIT Delhi. I took an interest in philosophy courses which dealt with difficult and classical cinematic works for examples works of Bresson and Tarkovsky. Even after college I have been in touch with knowledgeable scholars and with their guidance, I have explored the intricacies of Indian classical aesthetics and major works in world cinema,” Praveer explained.

What prompted him to write the book in Hindi?

“My mother tongue is Hindi. I also think that there is a large uninitiated and uninformed audience among the Hindi speaking people, surely much bigger than any English audience. My book is an introduction of World Cinema to those who have a background in Hindi Cinema and are largely familiar with key terms such as “Saundarya”, “Purushartha” etc. These technical terms spell our cultural legacy and have come to us from the great Indian tradition of knowledge pursuit which was primarily in Sanskrit for millennia. Hindi is one such indigenous language if someone wants to have true understanding of our cultural heritage.

“This book has been translated into English so as to reach readers who are incapable of reading good Hindi or have a step-brotherly attitude towards the language. Also, they are ill-equipped to deal with Indian classical philosophy and/or need support to look at things with a fresh mind,” Praveer said

He also hopes the book will change the way in which audiences look at cinema.

“When we were young, we used to crave for movies to be shown on TV. Later on, we craved for good movies with advent of satellite TV. Now when all the good movies are easily available thanks to internet, why do we watch inane soap operas and vulgar reality shows? This surprises me. I hear that people have an instant turn-off with silent, black & white movies.

“I sincerely hope that people will leave aside their biases and watch the great works, e.g. immortal classics of Charlie Chaplin or the dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or westerns of John Ford or thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock,” Praveer concluded.