Monday, July 27, 2009

Random Thoughts on 'Art and Technology': A Decade after that Humanities Course

To mention Art and Technology in same breath requires a shift in perspective, for these two streams of human creativity, appear to be quite distinct. A decade ago, as an undergraduate in Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, I opted for a humanities course, titled Art and Technology, taught by Prof. V. Sanil. A decade after the course, I am still fascinated by the aspects of art and technology that we discussed and discovered during a semester of music, movies, paintings, and handouts. Once we realize that the story and beauty of literature, painting, poetry, architecture and dance is coupled to the technological evolution, we begin to see how truth and beauty are manifested through both art and technology. When we look at a Mercedes Benz or I-phone or the image of splash of a drop of milk or a special effect in say a 007 or superman movie, a Disney or Pixar cartoon, we are marveling at confluence of these two streams. As an engineer, I spent the last decade in universities, studying polymer dynamics, iridescent beetles, chaos and chaotic mixing, pattern formation, and dynamics of complex fluids. I have continued to evolve as a poet and a writer, and my first collection of poems in English will be appear this year. My growth as a human being, my personality, has sipped from the cup of both art and technology. In this piece, I recall how a single course introduced me to themes that I find impossible to ignore now. When I met Prof. Sanil on my recent India trip, I began to rave out this course, how we talk about it all the time. Like a good professor is wont to do, he smiled, and assigned me an essay on "Art and Technology: A decade after that Humanities course".

As a nineteen year old, I had watched many movies, read a few books, attended rock concerts in and around Delhi, and I had studied at least as much science as one needs to get into IIT. The courses in humanities were required courses, and most of us picked those based on recommendations by seniors, or because our friends (or real or imaginary boyfriends/girlfriends) preferred one. I guess I was in Art and Technology course for similar reasons, helped by presence of three of my closest friends, and by the fact that we had enjoyed Prof. Sanil's course on Moral Literacy and Moral Choices. The course on ethics had introduced us to work of Aristotle, to utilitarianism and Hume, existentialism and Sartre, to Kant, to Amartya Sen's theories, and through the inevitable discussions on moral choices, it introduced us to our own perceptions and preferences. Through the course, we learned to examine our own points of view and choices. It was as if, we became philosophers through a semester of handouts. In the last decade, I have found this knowledge handy in discussions of all kinds: social, political, cultural and technological. So in the next semester, when the professor first talked about things to be covered in Art and Technology, we wondered why we wanted to take a course that involved two weeks of watching movies, and listening to lectures about paintings or music. Art, it seemed to us, was a realm of fantasy, of senses, where taste and talent determine the appreciation and presentation of sights and sounds. We were determined to leave laws of physics outside the room when we entered a movie hall: Bollywood movies expect that from us anyway.

We use our ears (and invisible mind) to discern noise from music. When I first came to IIT, I found Rock music to be unbearable. It was nonsense and noise to me. Hindi movies had introduced me to songs based on Indian classical music, but my appreciation of Western Classical music was limited to associating it with the background score of Tom and Jerry and other cartoon series. My hostel room was next door to a friend's room whose 1000 W system blasted Metallica, U2, Guns and Roses, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin at every imaginable odd hour of the day. Another friend, who smoked anything and everything, (and was sometimes seen carrying a 'hukka' around the campus) swore by the names of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Due to valiant attempts by these two and other friends, I developed a respect and taste for both forms of Western music. Yet, I never sat down to think why the Eastern and Western music was so different. So when Prof. Sanil asked us this question in class, we started saying a lot of things, hoping to hit the right answer somehow: this is a talent every engineer learns, and every manager excels in. I still remember the discussion about role of harmony in Western music and predominance of melody in Indian classical, about differences in frequencies of basic notes in Indian and Western classical music, about the meanings of words 'raaga', 'symphony' and so on. I recall a handout that talked about how an Indian flute maker is typically an illiterate man, who goes to the jungle during a ritualized season, dries selected bamboo shoots, and pokes holes into the reed to make small or large flutes, that work marvelously. On the other hand, in United States, a specialized company uses the most sophisticated machinery to design flutes made out of special alloys, and maintains precision in frequency, size and surface finish of holes, and sells one flute at a price that will be more than the price of all flutes an Indian flute maker sells in a lifetime. I learned about how Western musicians require "engineers" to tune their pianos, whereas just before a performance a tabla player tunes his table by hitting hammer and tightening few ropes, while a sitar player strums each chord and decides on the right one. The beauty of music, it turns out, can be recorded in terms of beauties of the notes that can be expressed a frequencies. Many physical laws are best understood by thinking of them in terms of harmonic motion, in terms of frequencies, and no wonder, CV Raman was fascinated by the physics of tabla and other musical instrumnets, for his own knowledge of "frequencies of electromagnetic waves" was crucial in his discovery of Raman effect. Next time you think about noise as an electrical engineer, or of vibrations as civil or mechanical engineer, remember a heart beat, a tap on tabla, the earthquake, and a note of Sitar are all vibrations of some kind.

In discussing about music, we started talking about Rock music, about the origin of this form, why drums and guitars played a central role in evolution of sound. In past decade, I have had occasion to revisit these discussions. I visited Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and a museum dedicate to Bob Dylan and Hendrix in Seattle. I have read more and more about how certain musicians adopted technological advances to expand their repertoire of sounds. Dylan was heavily criticized for using an electric guitar, Pink Floyd for using light and sound for making eerie concerts and records, and Madonna for thinking the most about videos that could play on MTV. When we begin to think about instruments, we begin to see that instruments exist in a culture; the instruments are made by artisans or technicians; instruments use wood, metal, alloy or plastic, invented by a certain age. When we begin to see the hand that shaped the tabla, when we discern that the pitch and frequency of a note we find aesthetically pleasing can be analyzed mathematically, do we loose our appreciation of melody, of sound, or music? Or do we begin to hear more than what a mere monkey would hear? How do we hear things? Isn't the sensation of music itself produced first by the banal strumming of cords (aha! from notes of a vibrating string) or from blowing air (through windpipes, creating disturbances with certain frequency and amplitude) and later isn't the appreciation itself through the chemical and electrical signals that are transported and analyzed in human auditory response system? What are senses, and why do we sense things as beautiful, aesthetically pleasing? We began from very simple questions, and in the course, we soon reached the seemingly abstract questions: what is truth, and what is beauty? Are these abstractions? Prof. Sanil gave us another handout, this one from Chandrasekhar, the Nobel prize winning scientist most famous for his work on black holes and other 'physicsy' things. I have read several scientific texts and papers by Chandrasekhar, all written with exception clarity of concepts and dealing with challenging mathematics. Curiously enough, was interested in this question of truth and beauty, and talked about how these show up in both art and technology. Chandrasekhar is not an exception in seeking answers to these questions: as we read works by great scientists, poets and writers, we find this quest is an eternal quest. The faithful have shaped their Gods as an answer to this quest or as the means of pursuing the answer; the rational have framed theories and explanations and the creative have forged works of art that seek and show 'truth' and 'beauty'.

The quest for beauty in painting has a better documented history. It begins with the sketches made by the ancients in their caves. It evolves through the art that existed in temples and places of worship, in palaces, in folk designs. The Renaissance began when the man began to explore the possibilities of perspective, of attention to detail, of form and function. Leonardo da Vinci was like the procrastinators who abound in our midst: his paintings were incomplete, and his science was incomplete: yet what he sought was important enough, his methods were scientific enough for his time and his unfinished work was masterful enough, to survive as an inspiration to artists and scientists alike. While I believe a handout from Prof. Sanil would delve of such things later, it seems strange to me that before we actually began discussing paintings in this course, my appreciation of artistry was limited by my ignorance. When the cave man looked at the sky, he saw bright objects; when Ancient Greeks and Indians saw them they found divinities, Ptolemy saw earth at the center of universe, Aryabhatta though of earth revolving around the sun, and we all know that Galileo and thereafter, the scientists used telescopes and other devices to learn more. It is the same sky, same objects, but the story of what we ‘see’ is also the story of human progress. In this case, technology changed how we perceived them. Yet, in his own way, Van Gogh, though a single painting on Starry Night, provided us with an image that we cannot forget. "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are" is quite a simple nursery rhyme but for a scientist and an artist, it carries connotations that require lifetimes worth of work. ‘Seeing is believing’, and yet what we really see is determined by the manifest forms of art and technology. For example, a two dimensional image, a photo, gives us a map of human face. A video provides sound and mobility. Three-dimensional objectification comes next: both in art and science, the leap in imagination from two to three to four dimensions, represents a giant leap in our understanding of life, universe and everything. Coming back to paintings, if you look back at the history of art and science, the question of perspective, symmetry, curvature, patterns are questions that led us to new vistas of knowledge, both of scientific and aesthetic nature (both pleasures might co-exist, without our knowing so). Through the course, we discovered the impressionists, Van Gogh and Manet, the modernists, Picasso and Dali, the medieval giants: Rapheal, Leornardo da Vinci, Micheal Angelo. In years that followed, I have slaked my thirst for their work by visiting museums in Amsterdam and New York, by reading books like Moon and Sixpence by WS Maugham, through movies.

Of late, I have figured that we need more understanding of our own, i.e. Indian art and technology, for unless we do that, we cannot understand who we are. Argumentative Indian, a book of essays by Amartya Sen, provides contexts and examples for this understanding of Indian culture, language, technology, and music, and the role of this understanding in determining our identity. Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red retraces the history of Islamic art, where the artists in Istanbul make attempts to copy the old master of Herat, who were in turn influenced by Chinese miniature artists, and yet the Islamic artists establish a love-hate relationship with sixteenth century art of Europeans. As Salman Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence acknowledges, Eastern art was a work of a team, any sculpture, any painting, was attributed to a team: in Western world, individuals got the honor. In the course, we had explored questions about how our knowledge of the artist influences our perception of his work, and if should be so. The questions of what is art and what is not, what is communal and what is personal, of who is an artist, and ‘art for arts sake’, of what is taboo and what is revolutionary, resonated in the class. These questions were asked in the same vein as questions about what is a fact, what is truth as opposed to perceived truth, what is knowledge? Be it Pamuk's novel or Einstein's biography, we find these questions intact.

The seeming distance between art and technology disappears when you read great works of literature. The description of architecture, and its history in The Hunchback of Notradame by Victor Hugo, the details about whale hunt and whale industry in Moby Dick by Melville, the thesis on art and science of paper making in Lost Illusions by Balzac, or description of vogue scientific knowledge in War and Peace by Tolstoy, is apt as scientific and artistic writing. The great German poet, Goethe wrote a treatise on color science, while Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) collected and cataloged butterflies all his life. Even with nineteenth century equipment, a maestro scientists like Rayleigh and Plateau perceived laws of physics hardly perceptible to human eye. Robert Hooke's Micrographia shows the level of his skill as a sketcher: after several buildings in London burned down, he provided sketches for builders, based on his own memory. The mathematician Lewis Carol created a wonderland for Alice, a doctor Chekhov turned in on good story after another to feed himself, while treating poor patients for free. The influence of art on technology and vice versa, is apparent in naming of things: to call an allotrope of carbon as buckminsterfullerene acknowledges contribution of Buckminster Fuller to the designing of geodesic dome. High speed photography, including splashing droplets or images of sportsmen in action, required innovations from Harold Edgerton in MIT: a professor ended up transforming how everything that happens in a fraction of second is captured, observed and understood. His images are hung in galleries and museums and are printed in journals and textbooks of science. Cinema is a grand medium for simultaneously showcasing the latest innovations in art and technology: in the class, when we watched Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane or Pather Panchali or Pyscho, we discussed some aspects of cinema that have ever reverberated in my thinking. What is a long shot, a close-up, the interplay of color and shadows, of what is captured in a frame and what is left out: if my love for cinema is like that of a protagonist from Cinema Paradiso, this course introduced me to a different level of appreciation. The questions we asked while looking at a painting, or while hearing a song, or while discussing relation of "art" and "audience" are all uncorked simultaneously before us in cinema. Perhaps the mixing of several arts and technologies, limits our appreciation of each individual ingredient, but when we pay little more attention, the mind picks out sight, sound, poetry, story, and emotion separately; and then as one.

The curious aspect of thinking about art and technology in the same room or together is that soon the spectrum of colors that fill our world, seems to come from a single streak of light. It becomes increasingly obvious that it is a drop of human intellect or mind or sensibility, that acts as the prism, which creates an explosion of colors. Or maybe not, maybe the rainbow exists, even if we don't know why it does? Why do we need to know how the rainbow forms, and why are we attracted to it? Are we seeing the same rainbow that our forefathers saw? But each rainbow we see is different from any rainbow that anyone else sees. But rainbow represents something. Is the rose a rose a rose? Eco's Name of the Rose leads us through labyrinths of such questions. Meanwhile the Hindi or Sanskrit word for rainbow is Indradhanush: again a bow, but of Rain God (rather than the English rain bow, we have rain god's bow in Hindi), whereas French call it arc-enciel, or the colored arc and Slovene word is mavrica, meaning a multicolored arch of color. In Slovene, mavrica is a feminine word as opposed to masculine Indradhanush. Most poets write about the blue sky, but humanity waited till late nineteenth century to find out why the sky is blue! While Lord Rayleigh was quite right about role of scattering in making the sky blue, he got the explanation for the color of sea wrong, and while Raman found the answer to this question, we know now that sky is not blue for all organisms, for perception of color itself depends upon biological optics. It is, as if, what we see is not enough; there is more to it then we first notice. The Upanishads proclaim that sensory perception is lowest form of perception, and a yogi transcends this sensory perception, and of course, Gods transcend all knowledge and need for perception. We go through levels of perception, using sense (indri), reason (vivek), mind (buddhi) and aatam. So be it, the questions of what constitute truth and beauty, lead us to science, arts and religion, and the seeking makes us human beings who exist in a particular space-time. How do we become aware of our "space time", how do we become better beings, design better machines, create better art, and what does ‘better’ mean anyway?

Vivek Sharma graduated from IIT Delhi in 2001, and is currently a postdoctoral research associate in Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Vivek writes in both Hindi and English, and his collection, “Saga of a Crumpled Piece of Paper” (63 poems, English) will be published by Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta.


Vivek Sharma said...

Comments from

July 28, 2009
09:00 PM


you selected a large canvas peppered with dazzling names and thoughts...enjoyed reading...digression: your western learning is/was so evident!

the two questions that seemingly casually popped up have intrigued great minds for centuries

what is truth and beauty?

...and the can we become better human beings?

emerson addressed the former two in an address at dartmouth that resonated with a young man in college and left impressions that lasts to this day...let me find it

July 28, 2009
09:19 PM

here is the emerson excerpt
(posted at )

Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Oration delivered before the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, July 24, 1838
Emerson's full address is eloquent, thought provoking and inspiring,. Here is an excerpt ~~t

You will hear every day the maxims of a low prudence. You will hear, that the first duty is to get land and money, place and name. 'What is this Truth you seek? what is this Beauty?' men will ask, with derision. If, nevertheless, God have called any of you to explore truth and beauty, be bold, be firm, be true. When you shall say, 'As others do, so will I: I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early visions; I must eat the good of the land, and let learning and romantic expectations go, until a more convenient season;' — then dies the man in you; then once more perish the buds of art, and poetry, and science, as they have died already in a thousand thousand men. The hour of that choice is the crisis of your history; and see that you hold yourself fast by the intellect. It is this domineering temper of the sensual world, that creates the extreme need of the priests of science; and it is the office and right of the intellect to make and not take its estimate. Bend to the persuasion which is flowing to you from every object in nature, to be its tongue to the heart of man, and to show the besotted world how passing fair is wisdom. Forewarned that the vice of the times and the country is an excessive pretension, let us seek the shade, and find wisdom in neglect. Be content with a little light, so it be your own. Explore, and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatize, nor accept another's dogmatism. Why should you renounce your right to traverse the star-lit deserts of truth, for the premature comforts of an acre, house, and barn? Truth also has its roof, and bed, and board. Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread, and if not store of it, yet such as shall not takeaway your property in all men's possessions, in all men's affections, in art, in nature, and in hope.

Vivek Sharma said...

More from

Vivek Sharma
July 29, 2009
11:55 AM

The write-up is to be used as the first hand-out in the Humanities course on Art and Technology in IIT Delhi. I selected things I remembered from the course, and added a few things I have thought about over the years.

Our education as Indians is quite lopsided, so we get exposed to Western influences more than the Eastern ones. Yet, after a considerable reading, one is led to Upanishads by Eliot, to scriptures and Hindu philosophy by Max Mueller, and so on. I have made conscious effort in past two three years to read literature and essays set in India, and I find it equally rewarding.

Truth and beauty are major themes of this course on art and technology (as well as any discussion about art and technology). I wanted to put in ideas as appetizers for students: hopefully the readers will be nudged on looking at some of the aspects touched upon here, in their free time.

Enjoyed writing this piece:)

July 29, 2009
12:08 PM

That's great news, Vivek, thanks for sharing this on Desicritics. You should invite Prof. Sanil to write for us, or perhaps interview him.

July 29, 2009
02:04 PM

(continuing from 1 and 3)

the conclusion drawn from here:

Our education as Indians is quite lopsided, so we get exposed to Western influences more than the Eastern ones.


I have made conscious effort in past two three years to read literature and essays set in India, and I find it equally rewarding.

is the one i had hinted at earlier.

scholars need to examine with an open mind

in the western inquiries they often overlook the contirbutions of indians, arabs and chinese down the centuries...seemingly this travesty, if not calculated bias, by default is inherited by us

your attempts to learn the indian contribution is commendable...

continue to learn about the chinese and arab contributions to our civilisation and add it to your paper

Vivek Sharma said...

more from

Vivek Sharma
July 29, 2009
06:15 PM

Amartya Sen's essays, Salman Rushdie's novel Enchantress of Florence, Eco's The Name of the Rose & Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red specifically talk about the contributions of Indians, Arabs and Chinese to arts and sciences. I hope that readers will approach these themes across societies with an open mind... While the focus of my piece was not on looking at Eastern or Western contributions, I figure that I rambled through both.

Yes temporal, I agree that we need to be aware of contributions that emerged from the East :), but we can avoid the jingoist fervor, and perhaps we can learn much from an exploration of evolution of art or technology in any one nation. We need to be selective and perceptive about giving credit to a particular culture, and yet when we talk of art or technology, the past few centuries show Europe as the arena of choice. Perhaps as we get more learned about things, we tend to discover the nature and extent of contributions for ourselves. Perhaps it is wise for us to let students make that discovery on their own. (Though I choose these books that will definitely tempt them for making such a discovery).

Thanks Aaman: I'll pass on your note to Prof. Sanil. Maybe I'll interview him someday about his course on Cinema and Philosophy. That should make for a good reading.

July 30, 2009
05:19 PM


what a treat!!! not that you need any encouragement to "keep up the good work"...please do continue to share your pieces here on DC...pardon the cliche, but a breath of fresh air!

Shubhodeep said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shubhodeep said...

I read your piece on Prof Lal recently. Your conversation with him was fascinating.

I was fortunate enough to have my first collection of poetry published by him earlier this year. However, I haven't had the privilege of meeting him yet. I hope I'm able to do that soon.

If you wish to read some of my writings you can find them at my blog.

Hope to see you around. And congratulations on the publication(albeit, future) of your book.