The Guide | Critical Essay by Balbir Singh

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of The Guide.
This section contains 3,705 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Balbir Singh

SOURCE: "Theme of Art and Immortality in R. K. Narayan's The Guide," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXV, No. 2, 1990, pp. 36-46.

In the following essay, Singh analyzes the place of art and immortality in Narayan's The Guide.

The desire for immortality which in Jungian terms is a "primordial affirmation" in human beings and which has its "origin in a peculiar feeling of extension in space and time" is realised to the highest degree by a perfect identification and expression of what Jung calls the "collective unconscious." This "collective unconscious," in turn, is realised in its full dimension by its approximation to what F. A. Wilson describes as "the qualitative aspect of the creativity of the universe … the transcendental universe programmed to become aware of itself". Now this becoming of the Universe completely aware of itself is presented in Indian thought as Shiva or Vishnu as representative of "Absolute Consciousness." Indian Vedanta also expresses a similar view. According to this philosophy "the Real self is called Atman. As an infinite conscious reality (Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam) the self for a man is identical with the self of all beings and, therefore, with God…." Jung's "Collective unconscious" which is almost the same thing as "servabhutam" becomes a reflection of the "absolute consciousness."

Art as a representative of life, reflects a co-ordination between man's inner urges and the evolutionary tendency in man and nature. While reflecting on these phenomena an artist perceives the self of all beings in his own being and becomes an image of absolute consciousness. The process develops in him a humanising tendency, and since he deals with an hyperasthetic situation, he becomes a great inspirational source for the excessively beautiful aspect of life. This way he becomes one of the most effective and significant means for the survival of mankind. In giving an aesthetic expression to the creativity of the universe, an artist's self becomes identical with that of God and partakes of God's immortality with the only difference that the material in the hands of God for manipulation is supposed to be the whole of the universe while in the hands of an artist, as is pointed out by James Joyce, it is only "the daily bread of experience which he transmutes into the radiant body of ever living life". Such a transmutation can be brought about only by a mind capable of giving expression to consciousness in its entirety. D. H. Lawrence says that "any creative act occupies the whole consciousness of man". Using Coleridge's term 'androgynous mind' to imply the 'whole consciousness', Virginia Woolf says that it is this which enables an artist to "pass from outer to inner (sic) and inhabit eternity".

Like every art, dance is an act of creation. It recreates a new situation and arouses in the dancer new and higher personality. Like yoga, dance induces realisation of one's own secret nature through the concentration of psychic energies and gives expression to the meaning of existence in its uninterrupted sequence. In Hindu mythology Shiva, the arch yogi, is also Nataraja, "King of Dancers". His dance represents the cosmic drama and symbolises nature's aesthetic principle. His graceful dancing gestures "precipitate the cosmic illusion; (and) produce … the continuous creation—destruction of the universe". So Shiva is Maha Kala, "The Black One", "Eternity". The Indian classical dances show a preoccupation with eternity "with the dancer constantly trying to achieve the perfect pose to convey a sense of timelessness". The artist is naturally filled with the desire to achieve this "timelessness" or eternity in his own being.

R. K. Narayan's greatness lies in the fact that he weaves the theme of art and immortality into the very texture of his novel The Guide. All the three major characters of the novel represent one or the other aspect of art. Rosie represents art. Her name signifies art in its inception, for when her art is perfected she becomes a "gorge rose". The dancing aspect of Lord Shiva gets manifested in her when she gets an urge to dance at the sight of a cobra, an emblem of Lord Shiva. As the cobra sways its hood from side to side, she makes a dance-like motion of her body in imitation of it just for a second, and that reveals her to be "the greatest dancer of the century." This act of Rosie is symbolic of the casting off of the first slough on art. When Rosie perfects her art, it induces in her the realisation of her own secret nature, "the divine essence". In her last performance before Raju, she performs the snake dance and becomes like one who resides "in the ever-radiant home of the gods in Kailas", and the songs she sings becomes "the song that elevated the serpent and brought out its mystic quality". At this time she becomes a perfect identity of Lord Shiva and of "Eternity".

Rosie, thus, represents the spirit of art that enkindles every heart to some degree and which, in India, had become stifled during the centuries of foreign rule. As a result, the Indian society during this period had become taboo-ridden and spiritually dead. Under such circumstances the art of dancing especially suffered suppression and became restricted to a few families and the devadasis (temple girls). Rosie's mother is such a devadasi. Rosie tells Raju, "I belong to a family traditionally dedicated to the temples as dancers; my mother, grandmother, and before her, her mother … We are viewed as public women". Rosie, thus belongs to a family which has, through countless generations, helped in preserving the cult of the art of dancing in India and has formed a link between the ancient glory of this art and its modern counterpart. Referring to the artistic achievements of courtesans and temple girls in ancient times Moti Chandra in his preface to The World of Courtesons says that "in spite of their perfidies … (they) gave an impetus to art". Again quoting I. W. Hauer he refers to "the ascetic element of yoga" in Pamshchali, "a sacred prostitute" in the vedic period. Now the ancient artistic talent and "the ascetic element of Yoga" lie dormant in Rosie. She gets a constant urge to develop this art in her, and works with a fully concentrated effort to do so when she gets an opportunity.

But, as we see, during the whole period of foreign rule there was no encouragement, no incentive, no schools of art to carry forward the tradition of dancing. There was no organisation to interpret, to preserve or to communicate to the people the rich inheritance of art we had received from the past. The sculptural art and the paintings in fresco, wherever they existed, were left to the foreigners to discover and interpret them for us. The western critics were, no doubt, enthusiastic about discovering the sources of art and culture in India but were little interested in developing the potential for art that was in India. Marco, Rosie's husband, represents such an attitude in the novel and, with his ability to give wide publicity to anything, seems to possess the power to grant immortality to art. Since the spirit of art is for ever wedded to immortality, Rosie is wedded to Marco, the western-looking, the western-oriented art critic. With his analytical aesthetics, he is concerned with only the tangible manifestation of art and not with the spirit that lies behind art. Narayan gives him the name of foreign adventurer because he seems very alien to the spirit of India. Raju himself represents that spirit to the extent it survived under the long foreign rule; and the absence of any patronage for developing the vast potential for art that was in India, the burden naturally fell on amateurish men like him. So in the novel he represents forces which groom art; while Marco, even though alien to the spirit of India, represents forces that lead to the preservation of art.

In this context the reference to the 'Peak House' is significant. The caves are located near the Peak House and contain art at its peak. Marco, who is interested in art at its peak, feels at home here, and can work with dedication to study and reinterpret the history of the place. In the hotel down the hill, Rosie is unwilling to go to the Peak House with Marco because she has not gone up even a single step in her art and cannot think of ascending to the peak in a single effort; but with Raju, who can guide her, direct her to achieve the heights in her art, she willingly agrees to go. On the top Rosie, though herself aspiring to be an artist, finds the paintings in fresco beyond her comprehension. It is at the Peak House that Rosie is filled with the utmost passion to achieve the heights through her art, and feels no scruples in enticing Raju to see that she has a great potential for art. But, for a coalescence of these two forces, symbolized in the two characters, both Raju and Rosie must come down hill where they can find their starting point. Rosie, on some pretext, comes down hill with him, and when they come to the hotel, Raju takes control of her and, as he says, "with her, lock[s] the door on the world".

Here Raju's comment is very significant in moulding the future events of the novel. Undeveloped art can be kept hidden from the world as it has been kept during the centuries of foreign rule, but the question arises whether it is possible to confine fully developed art to oneself. Can a healthy seed buried underground remain hidden from the world for long? It is bound to sprout sooner or later. By perfecting her art Rosie is bound to open her door to the world, and any attempt on the part of Raju to keep her confined to himself is bound to meet with failure and perhaps with some sort of punishment too.

At the Peak House Rosie's imperfections look stark naked to an expert eye, and any attempt on the part of imperfect art to expect recognition and patronage from an art critic is bound to meet with rebuff. When Marco comes to know that Rosie has flirted with a "fervid art lover" like Raju and has pitted his scholarship and experience against Raju's naive appreciation, he cannot but be prompted to sever all relations with her. He deserts her, and she has to come to Raju for shelter and to be groomed by him. At this juncture when Gaffur asks them if he should drive them to the Peak House, Rosie becomes very alert and says, "No, no … I have had enough of it". She is scared of going to the Peak House, not because there is any Marco there now, but because now she becomes too conscious of the fact that she is far from the heights of her art. It is only perfect art, maybe in the form of wall paintings in the caves, which can stay on the Peak. Referring to Marco she says, "we were not meant to be in each other's Company" for at this stage her inhert art could have no hope of getting recognition from an experienced art critic.

At this stage Narayan presents a conflict between the traditional attitude to art and the awakening that came with the independence of India. The traditional attitude to art is represented by Raju's mother and his "uncle-in-law" (sic) while the new awakenings shows itself in Rosie and Raju. A point comes where the two attitudes come into direct conflict. Neither yields the ground for sometimes for being too sure of itself. Ultimately Raju's mother leaves the house to stay with her brother in the village.

Raju does everything in his power to see that Rosie blossoms into a full rose and that she shines as an artist. For Rosie, Raju's "Guidance [is] enough. She [accepts] it in absolutely unquestioning faith" and very soon perfects her art.

Though Raju makes love to her constantly, she does not feel interested in the love aspect of their relationship thus belying Freudian psychological dictum that sexual immaturity or repression is the sole cause generating the creative urge. The creative urge in Rosie is instigated by her desire to present the universal and timeless fascination felt in art to be able to transcend time which is the main objective of nature and art. Very soon she gets tired of the all absorbing love which Raju can give her, and after a few months of training asks him about his plans: "I have now had good practice. I can manage a show of four hours". Now she is no longer 'Rosie signifying art in its inception'. She is now a mature artist and requires to be given a new name "which could have significance, poetry and university".

With Raju's help she soars "rocket like" and becomes famous all over the place. She gets so many engagements that Raju has a great difficulty in preparing her itinerary. Other artists come to see her. She likes their company. In no way she considers herself to be superior to them. She tells Raju that "they are good people" and have the "blessings of Goddess Saraswati" and that they serve the purpose of art. As an artist she is interested only in achieving perfection in art through regular practice and an exchange of views with other artists and scholars. "At one corner of the room she would always keep a bronze figure of Nataraj, the god of dancers", whose dance represents the ultimate art in nature. Rosie feels keen to develop such perfection in her art as is represented in the dance of Shiva. She enjoys the company of other "art folk". The urge in her at the sub-conscious level is to develop an art which would, through its aesthetising influence, bring about a transformation in society so that it breaks itself free of all the shackles that have bound it so long. We can "educate the public taste" by exposing society to art. But to reduce dancing to "mechanical actions day in and day out" would be to destroy the creative aspect in art. Creative art enables an artist to reach the gates of eternity. Every artist aspires to achieve this end and so does Rosie.

When Rosie rises so high in the world of art, Raju's function as a force grooming art ends there. In the company of others artists he begins to look like an "Inter-loper". Though a great impresario, he refuses to grow into a force which can lead to the preservation of art and lend it immortality, for the only model before him of such a force is Marco, whom he hates so much. So he develops a perverted philosophy of earning money through Rosie. He says, "My philosophy was that while it lasted the maximum money had to be squeezed out". Such an approach again puts great constraints on the development of art. Rosie begins to feel troubled and very much ill at ease. Raju's perversion prevents him from understanding what exactly she suffers from. He tries to laugh it off but in vain. The urge in Rosie to transcend all limitations on art is too strong to be put aside. Then comes another turning point in her life. One day in The Illustrated Weekly of Bombay she reads about Marco's book The Cultural History of South India with the comment that it was an 'epoch-making discovery in Indian cultural history.' It stirs up her whole "unconscious personality" or excites what Ram Dial calls "her inner cravings". Raju again fails to understand her mood: "I felt bewildered and unhappy. I didn't understand her sudden affection for her husband. What was this sudden mood that was coming over her?" Now that her art is at its peak Marco is the man who can win her immortality symbolized in his acceptance of her art and in his ability to eternize it by publishing about it. She is filled with the desire to go back to him. To Raju's query if he would take her back she says, "He may not admit me over the threshold, in which event it is far better to end one's life on his door steps".

Art as a replication of the Nature's purpose develops its inherent capacity to transcend time and with this breaks all the constraints on it. In the last dance she performs before Raju she becomes an abstraction, a vision like the snake "that resides on the locks of Shiva himself … and in the ever radiant home of the gods in Kailas", and with this dance the final slough on art is cast off. The highest art does not require forces grooming art or the forces preserving art. It has its own sustaining power. So says Raju, "Neither Marco nor I had any place in her life, which had its own sustaining vitality and which she herself had underestimated all alone".

Now the question arises as to why Narayan turns his chief exponent into a yogi. Raju's development from a "fervid" lover of art to a yogi is not an unrelated phenomenon. The difference between an art lover, an artist and a yogi is only of degree and not of kind. The art lover and the artist have a similar sort of creative involvement. While the artist literally expresses this involvement, the art lover only 'empathises with the work of art and seeks an aesthetic experience through it". Art, as is suggested by James Joyce, enables the artist "to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of the race". Yoga achieves the same end in an indirect way. Yoga, as Zimmer says, enables the yogin "to gain control over the forces of one's own being … chiefly to attain union with … the Universal Spirit". A union with the Universal Spirit, in turn, leads to a complete identification with the whole mankind, and, thus, enables the yogin to create in his soul "the uncreated conscience of the race." This way both art and yoga go to reconcile a highly emotionalised mind to a world too often devoid of all emotional meaning, and both aid in the transformation of that world to meet the human requirement, one through its aesthetising influence, and the other through a strict spiritual discipline. Art and yoga are so closely related that the Hindu view, as Ananda Coomaraswami says, "treats the practice of art as a form of yoga". To support his point he quotes Shankaracharya:

Let the imager establish images in temples by meditation on the deities who are the objects of his devotion. For the successful achievement of this yoga, the lineaments of the image are described in books to be dwelt upon in detail. In no other way, not even by direct and immediate vision of actual object, is it possible to be so absorbed in contemplation, as thus in the making of images.

So Raju's conversion from an art lover to a yogi forms a natural process of development. Conforming to such a view P. S. Sundram writes: "It is a curious evolution … but one thing grows naturally out of another, and there is not a single false not anywhere".

Velan and the villagers in the novel represent "the traditional India" and are made of the stuff "disciples are made of". Narayan here emphasizes their great need for spiritual guidance. After centuries of spiritual slumber they have become incapacitated to respond to the aesthetising influence of art. At first Raju tries to indoctrinate them into the art of yoga: "Well, that is why I say reflect, recollect … I want all of you to think independently, of your own accord, and not allow yourself to be led about by nose as if you were cattle". But when he fails in his initial attempts, he exhibits to them through his personal example, at first hesitantly and then very decisively, the spiritual force they can generate through the exercise of yoga. It is through this spiritualizing force of yoga that society can be transformed so that it becomes a society in which spiritual reawakening becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon. In such a society art will for ever prosper.

In Hindu mythology Shiva, "the all containing omniscient supra-consciousness", is also Niskala Shiva, "the unchanging sterile Absolute, devoid of every urge or energy towards procreation and cosmogenic transmutation". Shiva is also Natraja, the god of dancers. Referring to this R. K. Narayan says that he is "the god whose primal dance created the vibrations that set the world in motion." Shiva's dance, thus symbolises the cosmic drama with its creative, destructive and evolutionary forces at work trying to achieve the state of "super-consciousness." That is what F. A. Wilson means when he says that the universe is "programmed to become aware of itself." Art thus represents the aesthetic urge to achieve the state of complete consciousness, the state of eternity, which is also the state of yoga (yoga is the concentration which restricts the fluctuations of mind stuff.) The artist thus embodies in himself the niskala state (potential art or energy) which becoming animated and efflorescent, grows into the skala state (the creative state of art).

As we have already seen, the facets of art referred to already are beautifully manifested in the novel in the figures of Rosie and Raju personifying art and consciousness respectively. The latter had been seen reduced to the niskala state during the centuries of foreign rule, but are now shown to work their way up gradually to the resplendence of the skala state.

Just as the beholder is not under any compelling necessity to go in quest for the Absolute in and by itself, for the energy of the Absolute pervades us, so we are not led by any overt necessity to search for the ultimate in art; the seeds of the creative art are there in us. We need only to perceive and develop it. The novel, therefore, is a powerful plea for the revival of Indian classical arts, so that the beholder stands elevated in the process of the perception of it through participation in it which makes him partake of immortality.

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