The Financial Express

Of arts' permanence: Myths and realities

| Updated: October 04, 2021 21:48:27

Of arts' permanence: Myths and realities

In spite of the proverb's repetition for ages, humans tend to forget it again and again. It's an old saying: permanence is a myth. Nothing lasts in the world finally. In fact, it's transience that remains being true to mankind in different times. Humans discover the relevance of the time-tested words with the wearing out of many a seemingly immortal man-made work. They could be a thousand-year-old magnificent palace, a spectacular monument, works of art and printed books. Prior to machine-produced books, hundreds and thousands of hand written flat plant leaves, barks, parched pieces of leather etc have disappeared through the passage of time. Specimens of few such books could be found today in only renowned museums. Those not visiting the museums can read about them in books on these ancient manuscripts.

Nothing is permanent in this world. Ironically, like humans and other living beings, inanimate objects are also destined to extinction. Works of authors and painters acclaimed as immortal fall victim to wear and tear in course of time. The Renaissance art works 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Last Supper' (Leonardo Da Vinci) and the later 'Sistine Chapel' (Michelangelo) were done 600 to 500 years ago. Had not the internationally famed museums taken charge of these three world heritage works, they would have long vanished. Half a thousand years have already elapsed. Their future becomes increasingly vulnerable. After all, they are more prone to the assaults of the elements than sculptures chiseled out of stone chunks.

As part of this universal rule of crumbling down and, finally, disappearance of lots of other immortal paintings are in the process. Humans could not stop the fading away of the many contemporary works of the Altamira cave paintings or the pre-historic marvels preserved inside hills in the deep forests of ancient lands. They are gone, except the photographs of a few contained in books by art historians.

A sad aspect of the impermanence of the arts is none can remain free of its assault. Not even the modern greats like Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse or Van Gogh. In the 20th century, painting preservation methods have undergone a series of revolution. Moreover, restoration of damaged parts of artworks has adopted many a modern techniques. A generation of 'art-piece correctors' has cropped up in the developed countries. Notwithstanding this and other developments, art critics remain alert to the nature-induced damages feared to be done to the canvases. Few can assertively say exactly how long Picasso's 'Guernica' or Matisse's 'Blue Nudes' will survive in the days to come.

The written word-based books are far more vulnerable than the visual arts. Being based on paper pages in the post-medieval and relatively modern times, books are regarded as a weak format containing the messages of aesthetics and knowledge. In the days of the Egyptian civilisation, the medium was the one of papyrus leaf. The ancient China invented paper and used it for writing. Poets in the early India used palm leaves and those of many now-extinct trees for writing poetry and religious texts. Specimens of such leaves bound together are on display in museums, along with papyrus pages. The palm leaves finally disappeared from the public life, especially with the advent of the relatively user-friendly 'paper' during the Mughal and the later British period. Both the hand-made indigenous coarse paper and the refined one produced in machine were once in popular use simultaneously in India. The colonial British ruler began printing books on paper brought from Britain.

A grim aspect of the episode is it didn't take long for paper-books to emerge as quite vulnerable. None of the early editions of famous books of the time were available in the later years. The paper used in the books turned too weak to touch and turn over. The middle threads which bound the pages together in the form of books began loosening, and came off with a merely soft touch.

Ironically, the similar condition of books prevailed in the later periods, proving the inherent vulnerability of books. The state of books' physical look sparked the cogent issue of how long can a well produced book survive. After a series of research carried out by experts of finished books it was found that a superbly 'strong book' can manage longevities for 150 to 200 years --- at the most. The average books today hardly cross 80 years of survival. This is depressing news for writers. Hundreds of authors have thus got lost in the abyss of time, the chief reason being the books' authors couldn't manage the printing of new editions of their books. Critics also failed to take notice of them. Few could be a more unfortunate ending of a potential writer. This scenario is not unique to the Sub-continent. This is a universal phenomenon. Bankimchandra,Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda Das may come out of the merciless test of remaining in favour of the readers, critics and publishers. What about the hundreds of others --- many of them being in the class of major authors? The world of the arts, in one sense, is cruel. Unless one is under readers' or admirers' constant focus, he or she risks being forgotten as days pass by. Being present before readers and critics with publications is a prerequisite to remaining alive among readers. Unfortunately, many otherwise literary geniuses are deprived of this opportunity. It results in their being eventually wiped out from the history of a country's literature.

In the digital age, book preservation experts advocate keeping all kinds of writing on online sites. Unless the local, regional and international servers get entangled in large-scale wars or sabotages by terrorist earthlings or the so-called 'aliens', those materials run little risks of being vanished. Of late uploading literary pieces, research works, documents, photographs, and even full-length movies, has become a common practice around the world. Like paper books, movies are also vulnerable to getting erased from celluloid and, thus, from people's memories. The world has lost hundreds of remarkable silent-era movies, as well as those classics made in the 1930s and 40s shot on now-discarded celluloid tapes. Many of the films could be retrieved from dilapidated audio-visual footage. New prints were made after patches of corrections. Movie reels were attacked by layers of dust and fungi, some lay in humid and damp conditions for decades. They were beyond renovations. As a corollary, making movies online became a dominant trend. Like digital books, the younger generations are increasingly turning to online movie watching. Films made in this format can be seen on desktops, laptops etc.

Many viewers watch full-length feature films on their smartphones. If movies can be seen online, there couldn't be much inconvenience in watching movies, hearing favourite music and songs on the digital media. Thus, thanks to science, the professional arts practitioners may have found an easy and handy way to immortalise their creations. Against a technologically upbeat backdrop, the worries about the permanence of the works of arts created by the modern man have apparently disappeared to a great extent. Rabindranath Tagore profusely bled in his subconscious over the puzzling issue of the permanence of his poetry and other works. Similar thoughts may have gnawed at Satyajit Ray. Almost all creative people remain plagued by this disquieting thought.


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