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Who is Afraid of Mimesis?: Contesting the Common Sense of Indian Aesthetics through the Theory of ‘Mimesis’ or Anukaraņa Vâda

Parul Dave-Mukherji


A talk by Parul Dave-Mukherji, Professor, Department of Visual Studies, School of the Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  The event is hosted by the Institute for South Asia Studies at U.C. Berkeley.

The study of Indian aesthetics has long suffered from the twin burden of colonial and nationalist definitions of aesthetics, steeped in a binary opposition between the West and India. This double legacy has led to a cultural myopia concerning a vibrant discourse around “mimesis” or anukrti preserved in Abhinavabharati on the account of its presumed affinity with the Western mimesis. Anukŗti, - a term cognate to mimesis- similar but not quite the same, constituted one of the central concerns of aesthetics and poetics from the time of the Natyasastra, the ur text on dramaturgy by Bharata of around the first century CE, until 11th century CE when Abhinavagupta formulated a resounding demolition of this theory or Anukarana-vada in his commentary on the same text. Critiquing Indian historiography’s dismissal of this theory, my talk will bring into focus this overlooked discourse by staging a conversation between the supporters and the critics of Anukarana vada and reflect on its relevance for the comparable mimetic terminology that appears in the Silpasastras.

The talk will consists of 3 sections, the first two will relate with problems of engaging with Anukarana vada today through critical historiography and the problematic of translation while the last will attempt to revisit the debates and discourse surrounding this theory in the Abhinavabharati through the lens of comparative aesthetics and contemporary theory.

Parul Dave-Mukherji is a professor and former dean (2006-2013) at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She holds a PhD in Indology from Oxford University where she worked on a critical edition of The Citrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana (Motital Banarsidass, New Delhi, 2002). Earlier, she taught at the Department of Art History and Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University in Baroda. From 2002, she became the co-convener of the Forum on Contemporary Theory and co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary Thought. As a recipient of the British Academy award, 2011, she was affiliated with Goldsmiths College, London to conduct research on globalization and Art Theory.

She is on the executive committee of International Association of Aesthetics (2002-2010); editorial board of Journal of World Art (East Anglia University); Journal of Contemporary Thought (India); and International Journal of Visual Culture (USA).

Her publications include Towards A New Art History: Studies in Indian Art (co-edited), New Delhi, 2003; “Putting the World in a Book: How Global Can Art History Be Today,” in Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence, ed. J Anderson, Melbourne, 2009. Her recent publications include “The Making of Sakuntala: The Erotica and the Paradox of Representation” in Revisiting Abhijananasakuntalam: Love, Lineage and Language in Kalidasa’s Nataka, eds. Saswati Sengupta and Deepika Tandon, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2011; “Popular Festivals, Populist Visual Culture and Modi Masks” in Democratic culture: historical and philosophical essays, ed. Akeel Bilgrami, New Delhi: Routledge, 2011; InFlux- Contemporary Art in Asia, (co-edited) New Delhi, Sage, 2013; “Art History and Its Discontents in Global Times” in Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, eds. Jill H Cassid and Aruna D’Souza, Massachusetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2014.

Her forthcoming publications include an ASA volume Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalizing World, co-edited with Ramindar Kaur, London: Bloomsbury, 2014; 20th Century Indian Art, coedited with Partha Mitter and Rakhee Balaram, Skira, 2015; “Entangled Temporality: Contemporary Indian Artists and Their Retakes on the “Golden” Age in In the Shadow of the Golden Age: Art and Identity in Asia from Gandhara to the Modern Age, ed. Julia Hegewald, Berlin: E B Verlag. As a recipient of the Clark fellowship (September-Decmeber 2014), she will work on Anukrtivada or theory of performative mimesis found in a 10th century CE Sanskrit commentary, Abhinavabharati by Abhinavagupta , which was overlooked by nationalist art historians for its alleged affinity with Greek theory of mimesis.