Living in an age of light and used to contemporary narratives of power, progress and ‘enlightenment', we only see darkness as an absence. Here is why we urgently need to reimagine darkness in a new light, says Chitra Padmanabhan

The peanut masala seller was lustily announcing his presence outside my friend's house in Chennai, as he did every evening, when I left for the airport. I was returning home to Delhi.

The taxi driver was taciturn, loath to engage in conversation; one turned to the pursuit of a silent observer. The republic of perspiration as my friends liked to call their city had just started to emerge from the lassitude of yet another day trapped in a giant humid sigh. At a traffic signal, as a woman walked past, the jasmine flowers tucked in her hair threw out a fragrant lifeline; a signal perhaps for the city to be enveloped in the voluminous folds of twilight.

This pleasant reverie put me in a happy frame of mind. The instant the aircraft arched towards the sky, I peered out of the window, nose pressed against the glass. Maybe it is an instinct to affirm rootedness to terra firma at the very moment one denies it in an exhilarating rush. Below us, Chennai was aglitter like a mammoth circuit board of civilisation — silvery blue fluorescent interspersed with sodium's golden halo. Picking out lights at random I wondered what they signified — hearth or street sentinel, cosy conversation or furtive dalliance, heartbreak or rebelliousness, heady resolve or power play?

Come to think of it, electricity divided the world into those with power and those without in more senses than one. No wonder, blazing night skylines resembling the Milky Way on Earth emerged as 20th century's iconic image of development and desire — of behemoth engines of economic muscle and unparalleled consumption in history. One only had to picture the well-developed skylines of New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo or the ascending Shanghai and Mumbai skylines of ‘rising' powers China and India to grasp that.

Of human reach

The aesthetic of the human-made skylines was fascinating and revealing: the vertical design set off against the natural horizon was so reminiscent of the sharp contours of a stock market graph…

That a skyline lit up like a Christmas tree on a daily basis should come to mind unbidden as a symbol of the peak of civilisation and culture was not surprising. For decades, popular culture had canonised this image with a mythic and almost eternal status, through the ubiquitous mediums of cinema and television as well as that invention of the previous century — the picture postcard souvenir for tourists. (Prominent film company Miramax even boasted such a night skyline as their logo.)

While contemplating these images one had osmotically absorbed for a lifetime, the landscape below had changed. The enclaves of light had given way to a swathe of unrelieved darkness. The contrast from light to darkness was jarring. ‘Lack of electricity' was the immediate reaction: not surprising, considering in contemporary collective memory ‘lights' had become synonymous with the very faculty of seeing — both for those who have untrammelled access to sources of power and equally for those who exist outside its pale.

Having got so used to the non-flickering, ‘permanent truth' of electric lighting, which had banished darkness and shadows from our lives, had we perhaps lost the heart and imagination to deal with darkness — or even natural light? For, the design practice of maximum day-time lighting in most contemporary skyscraper institutions as a ‘global standard' begs a treatise on aspects of electricity as power lifestyle in the 20th century.

Aerial views have a way of obliterating superficialities and lending clarity to the mind's gaze. That is when the coin dropped and realisation dawned. These power-driven skylines exemplified an age in which an aesthetic of excess was seen as the mantra of progress. At the turn of the 20th century, the modernists only saw their world expanding endlessly on the planet; they found it completely ‘natural' to talk about monumental designs to enshrine the idea of limitless growth.

But the turn of the 21st century finds us in a chastened mood, facing a finiteness of resources on our planet and creating new conventions to observe that fact. Every year as cities and skylines across the world symbolically switch off electricity during Earth Hour, our brows darken with the heavy import of phrases like energy efficiency and thoughts such as time is running out (de-consuming is still a monstrous idea, though). The skylines which look like a rising stock market graph also, unfortunately, look like an ECG graph which shows that the dream lifestyle of eternal light is creating troublesome patterns for humanity. What is crystal clear is that the very idea of darkness makes us fidgety and irritable.

***

As the mind turned inwards, I lifted my gaze from the ground and was transfixed by the sight of an incandescent silver disc with blue swirls seemingly within arm's reach just outside my window. The full moon looked huge, almost like a child's oversized drawing unfettered by the idea of proportion, or like a batasa that all of humanity would not be able to finish in one go.

A sky bejewelled with a shimmering full moon is magical; it holds innumerable insights and possibilities in its dramatic dialogue with the earth, about darkness and light, as I was to discover shortly. Drinking in the moonlight, I peered below and saw a vivid spotlight racing on the ground, keeping pace with the plane. It was a luminous reflection of the moon showing up in myriad shapes in every water body, big or small, creating a new map of the land.

Now a sliver, now a jagged line; a crescent, a twig or boomerang; filigree leaf, round ball or a stream of burnished mercury, depending on the extent to which it was hidden by dense growth around, the moon's quicksilver reflection had taken on a life of its own. It snaked across water only to get swallowed up by the opaque ground — before it found its next pool or pond. Every disappearance was like an eclipse, like a script we have forgotten to decipher; every surfacing shape, a promise of new life. Perhaps this is how mythology comes into being.

The world below was totally unaware of this passionate drama being enacted by an ensemble cast, the draperies of night breaking up the play into several acts. Yet, each time the reflection vanished from sight on dark stretches of land, it did not seem like an epic battle between the forces of dark and light, more like an intimate lila, almost. No excess there, no replays afforded to the pampered sensibility of the consumer; just a moment, like a perfectly crafted jewel — you were fortunate if you caught the moment; if not, you would have to wait for it. That is how quests are born.

Curiously, one did not feel the same way when the aircraft left behind oases of lights in small cities and towns to fly over vast areas shrouded in darkness. For, in the logic of an age which acknowledges only the all-pervasive, non-flickering permanence of electric lighting, darkness could only be read as a stark absence.

These contradictory responses followed me out of the airport in Delhi as if demanding that they be dignified with comprehension. Unless one understood the qualitative difference underlining both experiences, the prospect of an extended Earth Hour ritual would forever herald a paralysing mindset of want and powerlessness. There had to be a way of re-imagining darkness which could help us conceptualise a life-affirming grid for a fast-changing reality.

Expected response

For several days I did nothing but ask a wide pool of acquaintances about their views on light and darkness. Those who came from a science background invariably, very precisely, defined darkness as the absence of light, ending the debate there and then. In an offhand manner, a scientist friend remarked, “It's a trivial thing. In physics there is nothing to talk about darkness as such; it is not a condition we need to describe in quantitative or qualitative terms. There is no such thing as an amount of darkness; when we talk about shades of darkness what we are saying is that there is some light. That is all.”

That did not help at all, though one understood where these responses were coming from. The inculcation begins around the ages of five and six when children learn their first lessons on light and dark (day and night); a reputed online teachers' resource site in the UK has named the lesson itself ‘Darkness is the absence of light'. In later years, the idea that ultimately each subject offers a window to an interconnected, layered reality often gets lost in the tunnels of specialisation. This rumination did not make me feel better; I was still clinically stuck in the heart of darkness, which was stated to be an absence.

***

Finally one day, a friend — journalist, teacher and stage light designer — who is fascinated by the idea of complementarity of disciplines as well as artistic practices put things in perspective.

Certainly a stage light designer needed to be aware of the science of the light source and the surfaces to be worked upon. But the underlying principle moulding his craft, he said, was based on the idea that darkness is not the absence of illumination but a throbbing presence, a creative space where new worlds can be born in an instant — a conceptualisation integral to various philosophical and aesthetic traditions in India. To him, lighting a set meant the art and craft of using light to create a quality of mysterious darkness through shadows which made the known unknown, thus making the viewer ‘see' with new eyes.

But of course, that precisely had been the forte of pre-eminent stage light designer Tapas Sen, an electrical engineer by training; in a career spanning over five decades from the 1950s, he became known the world over for converting an endemic lack of stage light equipment into opportunities for innovation, creating one magical spectacle after another on stage with elementary tools or everyday objects.

Even today people talk in awed tones about Sen's iconic effects in equally iconic stage plays: the speeding train about to plunge in “Setu”; the rising water levels in a coal mine and the drowning of miners in “Angaar”, the interior of a ship's boiler in “Kallol”… But he was able to do all that because of his firm grounding in conceptual clarity: “My starting point is the shadow,” he often said with the confidence born of a mastery over the symbiotic relationship between light and shadow.

Now that the mind's eye was seeing darkness in a new light, more examples came to mind, such as contemporary dark rooms where new worlds are born as photographs. In this spectrum of creative practice, light and dark are not polar opposites but part of a continuum of creative energies.

This coming together of darkness and light is exactly what one had experienced in the passion play of moonlight and darkness that night on the flight. Some days later I realised that cultural memory too acted as a trigger in that episode. A halt to buy flowers outside a local south Indian temple refreshed a familiar sight — the enveloping darkness of the garbha griha (the womb where the deity is installed) with an oil lamp flickering some distance away created the desired effect of a mysterious source of power and faith for the devout in the shadow play of light and dark.

It was an effect that could not be replicated in another no-frill temple close by where the oil lamp had made way for the uniform dispersal of fluorescent bulbs.

A society's ways of seeing hinge upon the cultural resources it brings to the inquiry. The same applies to an individual on a quest: memory becomes a sharp probe capable of reaching the deepest layer of stored information — in this case, a 15-year-old recollection of a brilliant essay by eminent filmmaker and theoretician Kumar Shahani which appeared as a preface to a book Painting and Cinema published by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Power of shadows

In his signature style, simultaneously powerful and delicate, Shahani sensuously evoked the experience of watching a painting change over time, and experiencing a transformation of the eye which gazes at the painting lovingly.

It was time to re-read the essay: “The slanting rays of dawn awaken touch, colour and movement. High noon gives the painting its matter and substance but robs it of its mystery, replaces nudity with nakedness…

The priests who close the doors of ancient Indian temples in the afternoon, telling you that the gods are sleeping, know this great truth. They know that in the harsh noon light, you will not see the image…you will only see the stone. The image needs sandhikal, the twilight zone of light and darkness, of the conscious and unconscious. The image appears, like a rainbow, when you have the sun behind you and the moist horizon before you. It is the covenant between the artist and his rasika, the loving eye.”

That is also the time when shadows start “casting their veils on parts of the painting, darkening, intensifying colours, saturating and desaturating them, sharpening the contours and blurring them…” The shadows make you experience colour like music, the filmmaker feels.

The vibrance of a culture lies in the extent to which it fashions aspects of its living reality into artistic practices, of which the classical dance drama of Kathakali remains a perfect example. Here again it is magical, flickering flame of the oil lamp which “creates the space for the cosmic forces to make and unmake time and space, here and now.”

***

Interestingly, other Asian societies like Japan too have traditionally accorded a centrality to the role of shadows in their aesthetics. Many decades ago, Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki elaborated on this subject in his masterpiece In praise of shadows. He stressed the fact that at any given time, aesthetics must evolve out of life: “The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends.”

So it came to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depended on a “variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows”. Temple, nobleman's mansion or commoner's dwelling, they comprised in essence a deep meditative harmony of shadows — shadows thrown by heavy roofs, extended eaves which set the stage for an indirect stream of light; and the secret of cutting off light from the empty space of alcoves to create a darkness where “… immutable tranquillity holds sway”.

Tanizaki's descriptions of an entire way of life attuned to inhabiting shadows finds a striking resonance in the Indian context as well. For instance, the fascination for gold had its practical uses too; in dark interiors the use of gold leaf or gold dust stemmed from its reflective properties, as a “source of illumination”. The same logic was applied to lacquerware ornamented in gold or fabric woven with gold threads. Unlike metals like silver, gold retained its brilliant sheen to cast a glow in darkness for a longer time.

Jarring dissonance

However, in an age of excessive lighting, an unthinking desire to have ‘continuity in tradition' often creates jarring distortions. A priest wearing gold embroidered robes in a powerfully lit congregation merely looks gaudy or “an aesthetic contradiction”, writes Tanizaki, whereas the same priest in shadows reflects “an aesthetic companionship”: the gold harmonising with the patina of the skin and the flickering flame of the lamp to create a solemn occasion.

If the colours of Kabuki theatre seem vulgar in the harsh glare of electric lighting, the transplantation of all-night Kathakali performances in temple precincts before the lamp's flickering flame to prosceniums and arc lights has dimmed the intense glow and potency of the oil lamp placed on one side.

Clearly, these distortions have not overly agitated collective perception in the public domain. The reasons for it are to be found in the dominant narrative of the past century — a narrative of power, progress and ‘enlightenment' expressed through excessive illumination.

In our times this ideology of consumption has come under attack from other quarters — for being ecologically profligate and for perpetuating vast chasms of inequities among nations. But there are few who mention possibly the biggest act of pollution we may have committed in our pursuit of excessive lighting. By surrendering the human eye's function of seeing to the glare of electricity we seem to have discarded the human ability to deal with darkness or conceptualise it creatively.

Ironically, this is the ability most needed at this juncture if token observances like Earth Hour are any indication of the road ahead. Keywords such as conservation of resources and sustainability, now perceived as integral to the survival of the planet and humanity thereof, will have little impact unless we relearn the most fundamental lesson of all — that it is time to mould our aesthetics to the realities of our time.

New harmonies

It is time for a new notion of beauty to arise from the skylines of our consciousness in a context of finite resources, which unfurls into an aesthetic rooted in the infinite resilience of cultural memory and resources. This is not a plea to return to the past, merely to reclaim the instinct to converse with darkness and create new, equitable harmonies of light and shadow once more.

Time, maybe, for another flight of imagination on a full moon night.

Chitra Padmanabhan is a cultural critic based in New Delhi.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012