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CULTURAL EXPRESSION IN

FINE ARTS AND MUSIC

(Written prior to the creation of Pakistan)

Author: Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla

Culture is not synonymous with education or book learning.  This has never been more true than today.  Given the necessary mental equipment, book learning or education can be acquired in a comparatively short period.  Culture is an innate growth in the community or in the nation or in the race.  Especially in the race.  But the term "race" must be understood in its broadest sense.  As Max Muller used it when speaking of Aryans: "Aryans are those who speak Aryan languages, whatever their colour, whatever their blood".

Cultural expression is therefore the spontaneous  expression of that set of general ideas and conceptions that are essential constituents and necessary products of the evolving group-mind, taken as a whole.  Thus culture implies not only mental training and discipline but, beyond these, it implies refinement in expression.

The more refined the expression of the whole inner man the higher the form of culture.  The expression itself may be in general behaviour or in some specialised form of activity.  It may take centuries for true cultural expression to mature, but when it does attain to maturity it is something permanent, though intangible.

Very often changing modes in education and in scientific thought detract from true cultural expression.  That is not difficult to understand because education and scientific thought are based on analysis while cultural expression is the synthesis of the accumulated experience of centuries, if not ages.  As such cultural expression, on the whole, has its mainspring in the sub-conscious and therefore cannot be spontaneous.

The fine arts are the especial vehicle of cultural expression.  The more ethereal and intangible the art, the more real is the cultural expression within a given art-form.  Painting confined to two dimensions is more ethereal than sculpture having three dimensions.  But in both of these the temptation is always there to imitate what the sense of sight perceives as objective fact.  The revolt of the modernists and the ultra-modernists in Europe is nothing new.  In the medieval East the limitations of these arts, especially of painting, were full recognised.  No medieval Indian, Chinese, or Persian painting is a mere replica of the human figure or of the objective world around us.  Laws of perspective so beloved of nineteenth century and earlier European artists are more broken than adhered to by Eastern painters in the attempt to depict an ideal in the form of a known object.

In modern India, among others, the paintings of Abdur Rehman Chughtai are striking examples of this striving after the expression of the ideal in terms of the actual.  In his foreword to the Paintings of Chughtai (Muraqqa-e-Chughtai) illustrating  themes from the poet Ghalib, the late Sir Muhammad Iqbal explains the import of this tendency.  "To permit the visible to shape the invisible", says Dr. Iqbal, "to seek what is scientifically called adjustment with Nature is to recognise her mastery over the spirit of man.  Power comes from resisting her stimuli, and not from exposing ourselves to their action.  Resistance of what is with a view to create what ought to be, is health and life. All else is decay and death".  Earlier, Dr. Iqbal opines that "the inspiration of a single decadent, if his art can lure his fellows to his song or picture, may prove more ruinous to a people than whole battalions of an Attila or a Changez".

Not truer words were ever uttered.  The significance of this standpoint cannot be over-estimated today when "the modern age seeks inspiration from Nature.  But Nature simply 'is' and her function is mainly to obstruct our search for 'Ought' which the artist must discover  within the deeps of his own being".

Dr Iqbal goes further and says: "Both God and man live by perpetual creation.  The artist who is a blessing to mankind defies life.  He is an associate of God and feels the contact of Time and Eternity in his soul".  In the words of Ficht, he 'sees all Nature full, large, and abundant as opposed to him who sees all things thinner, smaller, and emptier than they actually are'".

But it is when we come to the arts that do not depend on copying anything from our surroundings that cultural expression shakes off the trammels of our impressions of the objective facts in Nature.  Among these may be mentioned calligraphy and architecture, poetry and music.

Different forms of Islamic calligraphy are outstanding examples of the development cultural expression in the race, in the sense of Max Muller.  Generally Arabic was the language used in calligraphy or, in other cases, Turkish or Persian primarily based on Arabic script.  The fountainhead of inspiration in every case was Islamic teaching as embodied in the verses of the Quran.  At a later period the works of poets were also utilised.  And yet none can mistake Turkish calligraphy for Persian, or Arabic calligraphy of Asia for the Arabic calligraphy of Moorish Spain.  Though all these may be styled as forms of Islamic calligraphy, the distinctive features of each are the result of the modified racial traditions of the various groups who embraced Islam.

Poetry is dependent on expression in language.  But the mode of expression of each group is distinctive and shows the cultural heritage of that group.  Architecture has been well-called "frozen music".  The Taj at Agra is an outstanding example. 

It is when we come to music that we reach the form of cultural expression which does not depend on any dimension in space.  And when we come to abstract music - the so called "classical music" - even poetry ceases to be the hand maiden of this most intangible of all arts.

Music  is intangible; for that very reason what it expresses, at its best, is most highly refined and idealised and therefore real, in the truest sense of the term.  Music is an art of Time and not of Space.  Time, as pure Duration, is Eternity itself.  It is what the Quran calls "the First and the Last".  Serial time, on the other hand, is merely an intellectual concept whereby we break up Duration into fragmentary "instants" in order to bring the appreciation of Time within the ken of the discursive reason.  The ancient sages in the East have known this all along.  The modern savants in the West are just beginning to reach the same conclusion with the aid of their scientific method.  Thus, it is abstract music which makes articulate, without words, the ultimate aspirations of humanity.  Music, rightly understood, is our most precious cultural heritage.

It is a truism that a composer is born and not made.  A Beethoven, a Wagner, a Tansen, a Sadarang, each expresses the quintessence of the culture of centuries that go to give birth to a master-composer.  That is also true of the masters of higher poetry.

There is this in common between higher poetry and abstract music: the message of both is permanent and ever fresh.  When one listens to the poetry of Rumi or Milton, or when one listens to the compositions of Beethoven or Tansen, the sense of serial time is lost.  It is as if one's own heart is speaking and expressing to the conscious mind what lay buried in the sub-conscious and in the racial memory.

Scholars have done much to bring the East and the West together in almost all domains of cultural expression - except in music.  If a German poet can try to naturalise the Persian ghazal in German, if even the oft incorrectly translated quatrains of Omar Khayyam can send a European reader into raptures, if Milton and Shelley can appeal to the eastern man of culture, it seems rather a queer freak of fortune that Beethoven should go over the head of the otherwise cultured Indian musician and the compositions of Tansen should seem trash to a cultured European musician.

All this argues that we have not tried to go deep enough in the understanding of allied cultural expression in music.  We are still hide-bound by our conventional "scientific" standards, forgetting the fact that genius for synthesis and not analysis is required for the appreciation of art.  Very few seem to recollect today that the entire Indo-European group of humanity was originally one and therefore has a common racial memory.  Cultural inter course between the various sub-groups in the East and the West has been constant from the most ancient times.

All music was originally melodic, though based on laws of natural harmony.  It was comparatively recently that these natural laws were deliberately overthrown in Europe to gain some facility in execution on keyboard instruments.  The structure of "vertical harmony" of Europe is grand indeed.  Unfortunately it is based on such a flimsy foundation that so far no European savant has been able to justify it scientifically, though there have been many apologists.  This is obviously not the place to go into details.  And yet every European scholar is pleased to call the systems of Asia "primitive" on the grounds that these are ancient.

Everything that is ancient to us is not necessarily "primitive".  We do not yet know the beginnings of history and, as an esteemed scholar puts it, "the world is growing older at both ends".  Archeological research in the region which is recognised as the cradle of Aryan civilization goes to show that even five thousand years ago cultural standards were already set.  Some notation that has been deciphered on ancient Babylonian Tablets shows that the melodies are very much akin to certain well-known Indian melody-types.  Chinese travellers who came to India in the pre-Christian era, recognised melodies of North India as their own. In medieval times Persian and Arab music utilised  the theory of ancient Greek music and yet these systems could combine with the ancient Hindu system and give rise to the system of modern Hindustan.  The theory of Greek music itself bears a remarkable resemblance to the theory of Indian music.  The resemblance is much too exact to be a mere coincidence.

In this "scientific" age of commercialisation the founts of inspiration seem to have run dry both in the East and in the West.  The reason seems to be  that both the East and the West have neglected their common heritage - ancient Aryan music.  If all pre-conceptions and prejudices are set aside and researches are carried out in the true spirit of enquiry it seems well nigh certain that much will be found in the Eastern systems of music which can re-vivify modern European music and place it on a surer footing.  Similarly present day demoralised systems of the East can learn much from European music and also from their own ancient systems.

All this is possible because the East and the West possess a common racial and cultural heritage.  That is a point  which must never be forgotten at the present day when all ideas and ideals are being reevaluated.

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