Thursday, July 16, 2009

The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings
By V. Geetha, Sirish Rao, and M.P. Dhakshna. Chennai: Tara Publishing, February 2009. Hardcover: ISBN 978-8186211274, $35. 96 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon
According to the Natyashastra, the authoritative text on Indian performance and aesthetics, a successful performance arouses an emotional response in the audience. Utilizing conventions discussed in this ancient text, most Indian art, from theater and dance to music and literature, has focused on eliciting this emotional response, known as rasa. The theory of rasa identifies nine key emotions or Navarasa that art may evoke in the audience. These emotions, which are universal and accessible to any culture, enable every individual to decipher and appreciate the aesthetics of an unfamiliar performance. Influenced by this theory, V. Geetha and Sirish Rao attempt their own performance in their new book The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings. Guided by the nine emotions, they use this theory as a conceptual framework to explore the art, development and correlating socio-political context of Indian cinema billboards, known as hoardings. This disappearing tradition is a complex art “where representation has as much to do with pleasure as with context and meaning” (77). In collaboration with a team of hoarding artists led by M.P. Dhakshna, the authors aspire to introduce this art form to a larger audience while honoring a tradition that is threatened by the emergence of new technology. The subsequent book comprised of two parts, visual depictions of the emotions and a collection of short essays, is a visually-striking endeavor that captures the essence of the art form while inspiring further investigation.
Hoarding art, which has existed in the cityscapes of South India since the 1940s, “is an expression of a public aesthetic that is deployed, both to advertise and persuade a sale as well as to provoke and sustain visual attention and pleasure” (86). Confined by the space of a billboard, artists rely on the nine emotions to engage the public. Without the aid of text, the public responds to the images and colors of these hoardings to construe the plot and tone of a film. In the first section of this book, the authors emulate this experience. Without a detailed introduction to hand-painted hoardings, the reader must work through a series of paintings that evoke each of the nine emotions. With just an excerpt from the Natyashastra that defines the emotion and select lyrics from film songs to enhance the rasa response, readers are transformed into individuals who might stumble upon the hoarding on the streets of Chennai. Readers are able to familiarize themselves with the art form and the system of symbols that represent the emotions. With this section, the authors move beyond the confines of the text to create a performance that demonstrates the tenets put forth by the Natyashastra and its validity to hoardings.
Following this exposure to the vivid images and brilliant colors that characterize the art form, readers enter the second section, which formally introduces the practice of hoarding through a series of four essays. In the first essay the authors continues to explore the nine emotions by briefly discussing each emotion’s “characteristic visual resonance and identifiable genealogy” (76) that creates a public language through which the artist and audience communicate. Additional, the theory of rasa is further explained by clarifying the difference between real world emotions and aesthetic rasa that is conveyed through art. The transformation of the emotion to rasa is a process consisting of “conventions and tropes, traditions of rendering and performance, as well as historical and contingent influences which frame and direct the process” (74). The second essay discusses the process of creating a hand-painted hoarding and issues of public engagement; it also provides a short chronicle of the art form’s evolution in connection to the development of Tamil cinema. The creation of a hoarding relies on the talent of a team of artists and carpenters. Aided by little more than a few film stills and a summary of the plot, these artists create paintings to capture the public’s imagination and “to bring [them] to the movies” (82). The reader will immediately respect the ingenious methods these artists use to create these enormous paintings. Additionally, this admiration will grow with the inclusion of quotes from hoarding artists that introduce the artists’ perspective on the process and the decline of the art form. The third essay examines the composition and additional elements that characterize hoarding art, and describes earlier types of art that influenced this unique style. The final essay introduces the socio-cultural elements affecting the audience’s gaze of the hoarding, particularly the changing conception of sexuality and the idea of darshan.
While the authors have succeeded in creating a book that engages the reader in an unconventional and memorable manner, the major criticism of this text is the dissipating importance of the nine emotions to this project. The nine emotions that the title suggests will drive the analysis of this subject dissipate in the final essays. Additionally, in an effort to simplify the theory of rasa, the authors present a convoluted account that may confuse the target audience, namely, readers unacquainted with Indian aesthetics. Further, the text lacks a formal conclusion that could have possibly resolved these issues. However, the book is still a sound piece of scholarship that accomplishes its task of introducing Indian aesthetic theory and Tamil hoardings. I did find myself craving to learn more about the artists’ perspective and how new technology is rapidly altering and endangering the art form, but I believe this book has succeeded in its ultimate goal: inspiring the reader to further inquiry.

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