The word “vulgar” evokes disapproval that may border on disgust; and it commonly runs top-down from the perspective of a beholder of self-proclaimed “finer” sensibility, casting judgment on objects and acts deemed “lowly”, “common” or “abject”. Since the advent of “classicism”, post-Enlightenment, which the Merriam-Webster defines as “adherence to traditional standards (as of simplicity, restraint, and proportion) that are universally and enduringly valid”, this perspective gains a renewed-validity and results in the imposition of a variety of corrective-measures. Measures, which aim to temper, reign-in and literalize the fluidity of lived traditions by adhering them to the “correctness” of an original text to reinstate past-glory; thereby driving the divide between the “classical” and the “common” even deeper, where the commoner is not only to be kept at an arm’s length but even held suspect and therefore to be controlled as his untamed and vulgar proclivities may well pose a threat to the project of (re)instating glory.
The use of the word “vulgar” along with its corollaries such as obscene, cheap, low-life, crude, tasteless, crass, indecent, indelicate, excessive, shameless, obnoxious, uncouth, etc. is not only subjective but also relative. It operates, rather effectively, as a gesture of distancing between the “refined” and the “crude” and conventionally remains the prerogative of the former. But what is of note here is that it may mean or imply quite differently from the perspectives of the “that which distances” and the “distanced”. As much as it tells us something about the identity of the object for which it is adjectively employed, it also gives us a glimpse into the mind-set of the user. Through the prism of the word, both parties, the user and the receiver, become momentarily privy to attributes of the other; though, historically, only one perspective has been permitted and privileged, that of the caster of the word, the sophisticate. The word then comes to resemble a coin with equally valid flip-sides, except that in this case, the currency of the two sides might be unequal and they in turn may each foster a different set of corollaries.
Historically, the haves, the sophisticates, or the classicists have invented systems and created constructs that serve to continually undermine, devalue, marginalize, and even police the vantage point of the “lowly-other” along with all those who may seem different or idiosyncratic. Almost all Indian Reformers, in their earnest bid to reclaim lost civilizational and cultural “glory” made arbitrary distinctions between what they deemed “correct” and “incorrect” in Indian practices. This they did by adhering to the practices of “lost-but-now-found” Shastras, plus tediously ridding them of influences that they considered aberrations caused due to “lower-instincts” of the commoners. The devadasi and the Hatha yogi in particular were direct casualties of such cleansing attempts to make Indian life “ideal” and “profound” once again.
What is important for us to register here is that this dream of the reformists was nothing new; it echoed the underlying drive of all “constructionists” who have through the ages been occupied in devising constructs to delineate and enforce the “ideal” upon the lived-life. The preoccupation of these constructionists, apart from the inculcation of “higher” and “refined” values has also been the “cultivation of innocence” and conformity among the common people, for the sake of their edification and upliftment out of the morass of their “lower instincts”.
Our ancient texts on aesthetics list things that may not be “shown” in literature or performance, the Sahitya Darpana, a 14th-century text by Vishvanatha Kaviraja lists a number of them, namely, battle, marriage, eating, cursing, death, amorous play, lying down, kissing, bathing, anointing to name a few. In nineteenth century, the Victorians in a bid to enforce stringent morality went as far as forming a décor-aesthetic, which was to drape the legs of chairs and tables. What is being controlled by such constructs are not the limbs of furniture but the suggestiveness of nakedness for fear of it exciting the lower instincts and triggering immoral thoughts and acts. So, it is a “suggestion” that is to be controlled; making both opacity and restraint the hallmarks of high or classical art and literature, and even interior design as we see in this example. Both of these, opacity and restraint, become woven into the pedagogy of the “classical” to stem out even the suggestion of that which might lead to the generation of ideas, images, mannerisms, and words considered unsavoury and immoral; and simultaneously to distance and police the other, i.e. the commoner, by attaching to them the derogatory “labels” of vulgar, low-life, common, cheap, even commercial and so on.
Chandraloka, a sixteenth-century text by Jaideva Piyushavarsha of Orissa, subdivides the term ashlila, i.e. vulgar, into three categories; these being vreeda, implying erotic acts that would embarrass or discomfit the modesty of the well-bred viewer or reader, jugupsa or disgust evoked by objects or acts considered abject and untouchable, and finally amangala, or things considered inauspicious such as death.
Rukmini Devi, the prime re-constructionist of Bharatanatyam dance categorically valorised bhakti, i.e. devotion over sringara, the amorous/erotic sentiment, both in her pedagogy and artistic works. For instance, freezing the movement of the hip, as it may suggest lasciviousness, became the hallmark of her style of Bharatanatyam taught at her institute, Kalakshetra. She painstakingly edited out the explicit verses of the traditional songs as well as the erotic gestures that were part of the devadasis’ repertoire as she considered them both vulgar and inappropriate for the use of the well-bred middle-classes; likewise, she rejected the devadasi-convention of biting the lower lip to depict the intensity of painful-pleasure; in the Mahabharata scene when Bhima slays Dushasana by tearing open his belly and pulling out his entrails, she did not subscribe to the Kathakali convention of pulling out a stream of red-dyed gauze hidden underneath the performer’s belt to enhance dramatic effect, as it seemed both excessive and violent to her; and in her choreography of the battle scene between Rama and Ravana in her epic-creation of the Ramayana, she chose not to depict the battle on the stage but had the dancing kinnaris or heavenly damsels describe the scene of blood and gore transpiring on the earth below from the skies above. I would say that she was not only following the dictate of the Shastras in making these decisions, but these were also her personal aesthetic choices informed by her taste, which to my mind remains unparalleled in refinement, her abhorrence for violence, as well as her idea of morality. I would also like to point to the fact that her aesthetic choices stay consistently shy of intense emotion and showing acts or mannerisms considered improper or abject.